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Julia “Judy” Norrell has a lilting Arkansan accent and a steady cadence, and when she talks about her formidable collection of folk art, painting, sculpture, and photography, she speaks in well-crafted paragraphs dense with names, places, and dates. Norrell lives with two Jack Russell terriers in a modest, four-story town house where she has filled every wall, landing, and shelf, and her two bedrooms, the dining room, the kitchen, and four bathrooms with art. She is a collector in the purest sense. Norrell buys exactly what she wants — and usually damn the price — and has an exacting vision of what she wants her collection to be. Norrell was raised in Washington, D.C., where both her parents were members of Congress, and in Monticello, Ark., which her father and mother represented as part of the old 6th Congressional District for 24 years. Like Thomas Boggs Jr., whose parents also were in Congress, Norrell has been a lobbyist all her professional life. Her collection — one of the best in Washington, says Phillips Collection Senior Curator Elizabeth Turner — is focused on the South: its heightened sense of history, its historic racial strife, its myth making, its memory. “I think the South is more universal,” says Norrell as she walks two guests through her house on a recent Saturday afternoon. “They think more about who they are and where they are in the aftermath of the Civil War.” (“This is the guest room,” she adds later, “which has been returned to some sanity, which means you can see the bed.”) Much of her collection is touring — 102 photographs, 270 pieces in all — in an exhibit first organized in 1999 by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. It comes home early next year. “I anguished over my South as if it were my bastard child,” Norrell wrote in the exhibition catalogue. “I loved the South and I hated it too.” Norrell’s collection combines the intimacy and community of small-town Southern life in the 1940s and 1950s with its harsher truths of racial discrimination and intolerance. She has been collecting photography about 15 years, since around the time she opened her own lobby shop, Julia J. Norrell & Associates. One of the city’s earliest women lobbyists, Norrell has been a staff lobbyist for an eclectic assortment of special interests, including the League of Women Voters, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the National Association of Home Builders, the Business Roundtable, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Now at 67, she works on her own, mostly for insurance clients like the Chubb Corp., the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., and the UNUM Provident Corp., so she can continue to buy her art. Lately, she has been branching out beyond the South, and there is much in her collection now from New Mexico and New York. “The South I know, the South I am part of, the South I love and will die loving, is also the New York of Walker Evans and Helen Levitt,” Norrell wrote in the McKissick catalogue. “The churches and graves of New Mexico are also the churches and graves of Hale County, Alabama and New Orleans.” She is a huge fan of Walker Evans, one of the pioneers of 20th century American photography, and her traveling collection has nearly a dozen Evans photos. One vintage Evans photo, “The Star Pressing Club” from 1936, is perhaps her most valuable. “It is totally unique. There’s only one copy, and the Met owns the negative,” says Norrell, referring to NewYork’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Norrell does not buy for the name, nor does she covet many of the most famous images of the dozens of photographers she collects. Norrell appears to collect whenever she sees anything by anybody that strikes her interest — from unknown folk artists to obscure African-American photographers to esoteric modern masters. Her latest photographer, Shomei Tomatsu, is from Japan. “He’s totally new to me. I have no knowledge of him. I saw the photograph, walked in, and bought it. It’s just been hung in the last week,” she says, describing a black and white shot of cemetery headstones near Hiroshima. “I’m not a technical person. I buy an image for what it means to me. I’ll buy a nonvintage if it’s a better print,” she adds, referring to a less-valuable print made well after a photograph is first shot and processed. Nonetheless, she does own work by many of the country’s most famous photographers: Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Shelby Lee Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Ester Bubley, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Roy DeCarava, William Eggleston, Elliott Erwitt, Laura Gilpin, John Gutmann, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Debra Luster, Ralph Meatyard, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Eugene Smith, Jack Spencer, James Van der Zee, Eudora Welty, Edward Weston, and Marion Post Wolcott. William Klein, the great street photographer of the 1950s and 1960s, is missing — conspicuously so — but that’s because “I haven’t seen the right image,” she says. Some of Norrell’s pictures pull no punches. There is a very large Sally Mann wet collodion print over her mantelpiece of the precise spot where the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River in 1955. Others are more melodious. There are three Helen Levitts on the wall opposite the Mann that Norrell has placed one above the other to create her own story line: “The first is a confirmation, a young boy and girl in white. The second, two women in front of a brownstone, a baby in one of their arms. The third, a black woman crossing the street in large sunglasses in Harlem. I think they make a narrative of youth and commitment. I made it into a narrative in my own mind, if no one else’s.” Norrell’s father, William Norrell, was first elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1939 when Judy was 4 years old. He died in office in 1961, and his wife, Catherine, was elected to fill his vacant seat. Norrell was at George Washington University Law School by then, and she managed her mother’s campaign. Earlier, after having graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, Norrell spent two years in India on a Fulbright scholarship. There, she carried her Leica and three lenses and thought about becoming a professional photographer. But she grew tired of how taking a picture can overwhelm the pleasure of seeing an image. “I reached the point where the photograph was more important than anything I was photographing,” she remembers. “You’ll be tripping over your feet before the most beautiful thing you ever saw, and you’re wondering, ‘Do I need a 90 degree lens?’ “ At first she collected books, a first edition of William Faulkner, for example. “But people will take them off the shelf,” she notes, “and you don’t want to find a Coke or a Scotch sitting on a dust jacket. The dust jacket alone could be worth $5,000.” She bought her first painting, a Cuban abstract by Luis Pedro, while she was in law school. “I actually bought the painting and then I said to my father, ‘I need $500, I bought a painting.’ And he said: ‘Honey, I don’t mind paying for your tuition, your books, your apartment, your car, or your allowance. But I’m not paying for art. “I took my first job, at the Library of Congress, to pay for that,” she recalls. “It never entered my head that I wouldn’t buy it. It’s a terrible failing.” Her collection has long since spilled out of her town house and fills up her 100-acre farm in Lunenburg County, Va., and her office on Pennsylvania Avenue. She rotates her artwork frequently, and unlike many collectors, refuses to keep any of it in drawers. “I don’t own a drawer,” she notes. Because her collecting is so intensely personal and each piece so carefully chosen, each image is stored in her head, even if she’s not sure whether it’s at the farm, in the exhibit, or at her home. “There are pieces that you miss, and pieces that become part of you. Some of these things you’ve had for years.” Norrell’s first show was at the Phillips in 1997. The McKissick is her second major show, and she anticipates a third somewhere else, perhaps at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. If it sounds glamorous, she says, it isn’t. “Like being a lobbyist sounds glamorous. No one realizes our arches have all caved in by the time we’re 30.” Her collection, however, is gaining more and more attention, both in Washington and nationally. “I guess I’ve come into my own,” she admits. “People are fascinated with my collection. There’s great interest now in both my living — and dying.”

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