On July 15, Arthur Nusbaum will set out from his home in Burns Park to walk all four Ann Arbor art fairs. He’ll eye every booth but will always return to certain favorites, where he’ll be greeted warmly and often find something to buy.

Hundreds of thousands of people will come through this year’s fairs. Some will simply let the images wash over them. Others will see an artwork that speaks to them, stop, and engage with it. And a lucky few, like Nusbaum, will add to their collections of work by artists they’ve followed for years.

Artists cherish people who appreciate and can pay for their work. Who doesn’t? But art fair collectors are an elusive species. It takes more than a knowing eye to build a relationship with an artist who spends just four days a year in town. It takes a certain desire for connection, as well as a certain financial well-to-do-ness.

Art fairs are far removed from the name-branded, price-inflated world of New York galleries. Rather than an investment or a display of wealth, an art fair purchase is more often an act of love–for both the work and its creator. For fair collectors, the payoff comes not only from living surrounded by art they chose themselves but in friendships that can last a lifetime.

Nusbaum came to Ann Arbor for college in the mid-1970s from the Detroit suburbs (his dad, Irving, owned New York Carpet World). He stayed to build a small real estate empire, which he recently sold.

At first, he says, he “was only dimly aware” of the art fairs. But he started going, then buying, and “slowly but surely I acquired a houseful of art fair art.”

He’s not exaggerating–after each fair, designer Dan Hamburg has to rearrange Nusbaum’s collection to make room for his latest finds. Nusbaum has half a dozen of what he calls Florida potter William Kidd’s “alien vegetables” and five of Arizona painter Charles Gatewood’s somber oils, all purchased at the Ann Arbor fairs. And he thinks he has the largest collection anywhere of former Ann Arborite Ralph Davis’s precisely rendered paintings, which often blend elements of nature and geometry. “When you own ten of Ralph Davis, you might as well own twenty,” says Nusbaum–who owns fifty. (Since moving to Portland, Oregon, Davis no longer comes to the art fair, but Nusbaum eventually hopes to open a gallery that will include his work.)

Nusbaum’s explanation of how he became a collector is disarmingly simple: “I’m here. The art fairs are here. For the last few decades, they’ve been right here, literally out my door.” Last July, I joined him as he spent a morning walking two of the four fairs.

Ann Arbor’s South University Art Fair is the closest to his home, and his first stop there was at the booth of Berry Davis and Collette Fortin. The couple make small, vividly colored glass sculptures in their home studio, Neptune Hot Glass, in Celina, Ohio.

This year they’ve bought more visibility with a more expensive booth at the corner of South U and Church. But “Arthur found us [at their previous booth] on Church St.,” Berry says, soon after they started coming to Ann Arbor in 1999. “He comes every year.”

Davis lived and dived in the Caribbean for ten years, and his popular “lagoon” series features spectacularly vivid aquatic scenes. But Nusbaum always wants to know what’s new, so Davis showed him a small, somewhat inscrutable piece that he described as a rhinoceros. Nusbaum, who likes to see artists branching out, asked Davis to hold it for him.

Davis told me later that Nusbaum isn’t their only regular buyer. He put me in touch with Nancy Vangieson of Sterling Heights, who filled me in on Neptune’s backstory. Vangieson first bought pieces from Berry’s brother, Scott, at a street fair in Chicago. She later recognized the work at another fair, but this time, Berry was running the booth–Scott had died of a sudden heart attack. Berry, heartbroken, was thinking about quitting the business.

Fast forward one summer, and Berry was back–now teamed with Fortin, who’d previously been a fashion designer and is still a jeweler. The couple have been collaborating ever since. Vangieson now has several dozen of their pieces, including eleven “lagoons.”

West Bloomfield attorney Adam Bloomenstein also loves the lagoons. “I had just started scuba diving” when he first saw them, he explains, and was drawn to Davis’s “glass depictions” of the underwater world. Like Vangieson, he was moved to see how Davis and Fortin “merged their lives and their art.”

Bloomenstein and his wife, Julie, also collect paintings by Niki Gulley, wood by Gregg Palm and Bob Daily, ceramics by Brad Patterson, and “a host of jewelers.” Like Nusbaum, Bloomenstein likes new things–but unlike Nusbaum, he passed on the experimental rhinoceros. “I told him I wanted him to get better [at making it] first,” xADBloomenstein recalls.

Nusbaum led me through the rest of the South U fair, checking out booths and name-checking artists, both here and at other fairs. He praised the “exquisite etchings” of Marina Terauds, who sells in the Guild of Artists and Artisans fair. He called another Guild artist, Laura Barnhardt-Corle, a “heroic figure” for continuing to paint her quiet, photo-realistic watercolors of rural scenes despite multiple sclerosis.

We headed across the Diag to the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original. Nusbaum follows it especially closely and served on its board for many years. He owns the Paul Jackson watercolor of a wooden mannequin riding a dragonfly that was featured on the Street Art Fair’s poster twenty years ago. He also owns a piece by fiber artist Renee Harris, who did the 2005 poster, and several of Frank Relle’s haunting images of New Orleans (bought before the photographer “became famous” and dropped off the art fair circuit).

One artist he’s still collecting is potter Robert Hessler. He figures he has “half a dozen” of Hessler’s wheel-thrown, cylindrical forms, which are long and smooth and sometimes have exotic glazes. “He’s a nice guy, too,” Nusbaum added.

Hessler has been on the art fair merry-go-round for fifteen years. He told me later that he spends six months making pieces at his pottery in Kingston, New York, then six months on the road selling them. He’ll circle through fairs in Denver and Madison before returning to Ann Arbor this month. Sales go up and down, he says, but on average he grosses about $50,000 to $60,000 a year. But “I have about $35,000 in expenses–it’s a lot of supplies, a lot of chemistry, a lot of gasoline and driving.”

Hessler told me, with almost boyish enthusiasm, about a couple, Dick and Rosanne, who bring “amazing cookies” to their favorite artists at the Ann Arbor fair. At the 2014 fair, Dick showed Hessler a glass orb they had bought from another artist–“When you looked into it, it was like you could see into infinity.” He told the couple how much he liked it, and “Dick came back later that day with a smaller one and gave it to me. They are lovely people.”

Nusbaum figured he’d bought pieces from Hessler for the last four or five years. But last year, he seemed overwhelmed by the possibilities. “Leave it to you,” he said after looking around a bit. “You didn’t make it easy. Unbelievable.”

Hessler’s the opposite of a high-pressure salesperson. “It’s also good to walk away sometimes,” he replied. He was understated, yet engaged. Nusbaum clearly likes him.

“Of course,” said Nusbaum, “then you risk that half of it will be gone.”

He spotted one he loved. Hessler approved. “That’s one of my favorites,” he said.

“And that and that and that?” Nusbaum joked.

“I’m curious to see what you pick out,” said Hessler.

“Yeah, well, hopefully you’ll find out later today,” said Nusbaum.

And with that, we headed back to Nusbaum’s house. “Isn’t he great?” Nusbaum asked as we left Hessler’s booth.

“Do you get anxious that maybe the piece you wanted will be gone when you get back?” I asked.

“Oh, always,” said Nusbaum. “I’m always second-guessing myself, and there’s a lot of that. Definitely. Not only that. There’s much of the other art fairs I haven’t yet seen.

“It’s like panning for gold. If I’ve impulsively bought everything, or committed to everything, I might see something later that I like better.”

Back at the South U fair, we stopped again at Neptune Hot Glass. “God,” said Nusbaum, “I’m thinking back on the days when I took in the whole fair in one day. I don’t know why I ever did that.”

By now, the booth was packed. “We were here when it barely started,” said Nusbaum. “Now it’s very noisy, crowded.”

That was a good thing for the artists, but not so pleasant for the collector. But he felt better when Fortin greeted him warmly and reminded Davis, “He wants the rhinoceros.”

“I brought the king,” said Nusbaum. “you know, cash. Cash is king.”

“Well, we’ll take fifty right off,” said Davis. “What do you think?”

“That’s more than generous,” said Nusbaum. “That’s more than good. Are you sure?”

“Okay, $475 for Arthur,” said Davis to Fortin.

“That’s very generous of you,” said Nusbaum.

“That’s kind of the least we can do,” said Fortin.

Davis swaddled the rhinoceros in bubble wrap, but it stuck out of the box he put it in. “I’m going to put it in one of those blue bags to protect it,” he said. “This piece is so new we haven’t even worked out our packaging.” He put the piece in a handle bag.

“Good, good,” said Nusbaum.

“Are you spending the rest of the day walking the fairs?” asked Davis, “or are you headed home?”

“For a break,” said Nusbaum,” I’m going home. But I shall return.”

The Judge’s Spider

“It’s a little unusual,” says former Washtenaw County circuit court judge Don Shelton. I’d called to ask how he started collecting Thomas Yano’s sculptures.

“Twelve years ago,” Shelton explains, he and his wife, Marjorie, “bought a home, which had been built by the former mayor of Saline, George Anderson.” “He passed away, his widow passed away.

“I’m telling you this because George had met an artist at the art fair in the early 1980s, when he was having the house built. He loved this artist and his work, so he worked with the artist and had him install this piece on the front porch. It’s a copper sculpture of a giant spider web, with a spider in it and a dragonfly.” Shelton guesses it’s about twenty feet long and twelve feet high.

“And that drew them to the house?” I thought (but didn’t say).

“We moved in and went to see the artist,” Shelton continues. “He was still at the fair.”

The Sheltons decided to meet Yano to get more history about the sculpture they’d inherited. “We looked him up, went out to his booth [in the South U fair], and fell in love with some of his other sculptures,” Shelton says.

They bought another piece, called The Pianist, that year. They stayed in touch over the years and bought another sculpture, of a girl reading, because it reminded them of their granddaughters. The Reader now sits inside their front door, and the Sheltons place things that their grandchildren leave behind on her open book so they’ll remember to take them home.

“We felt a connection with [Yano] and how he creates out of his own commitment to art,” Shelton says. “He does a lot of musical figures. We were really close to buying The Flutist because my wife plays the flute.” (She also plays the piano and piccolo. Don sings.)

Shelton thinks he’s done buying large pieces of art, but Yano’s sculptures, he says, continue to bring him and his kids and six grandkids pleasure. And hundreds of other kids as well, one night every year.

“Halloween is a big event at our house,” says Shelton. “We get about 300 kids” to trick or treat. After they moved in, they learned that the Andersons always gave out full-size candy bars, and they have continued that tradition.

“But to make the whole experience more fun,” Shelton adds, “we backlight the spider web so that it leaves a huge shadow on the house.”

A built-in Halloween decoration probably wasn’t what Yano had in mind, but it works for Shelton and three generations of family.

“We have an eclectic art collection,” Shelton says.