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Katja & Mark Oxman showcase art in their Amherst home 

  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Mark Oxman stands with one of the countless works of art around his house and property in South Amherst Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • This samovar is a nod to Katja Oxman's Russian heritage. Her father was a "White" Russian who battled the Bolsheviks.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Kati Oxman with her printing press at her home in South Amherst. <br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • Views from inside the Oxman's home in South Amherst on Thursday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

From the moment you walk through the front door of this South Amherst house you know you are in the home of people who love art. The wall separating the kitchen from the foyer displays beautiful paintings and prints — many of them created by the owners’ friends.

In fact, Katja and Mark Oxman are artists themselves — Katja Oxman is a printmaker and Mark Oxman is a sculptor. Katja Oxman’s still-life print collages bring vibrant color to the space above the living room mantelpiece while her husband’s unique plastic statues of people, life-like, though abstract, grace the corners of the room.

The two-story redwood-sided contemporary house, which nestles into a slope, wasn’t built for the artists, however. Designed by local architect Bill Gillen and constructed by Howard Main, an area contractor who used to live just down the street, it was built in 1975 for Sylvia and Allen Torrey as a retirement home for the long-time Amherst town manager.

“I would get up in the morning and stand at the window and look out on those hills and be so glad we lived here,” recalled Sylvia Torrey last week. The back of the house faces the Pelham Hills while the front offers glimpses of the Holyoke Range.

The Oxmans bought the house five years ago. “When we first saw it in January it was 4 degrees outside but we agreed this feels like it could be home,” Katja Oxman said.

The couple had been living in Silver Spring, Md., for 30 years since Mark Oxman was head of the art department at American University in Washington, D.C. He had taught at Amherst College in the early 1970s and they wanted to retire to an area that wasn’t “a one-company town” like government-oriented Washington, Katja Oxman said.

Reshaping the space

“We did a lot of renovating between January and June when we moved in,” she said. They hired Construct Associates of Northampton to create studio space on the ground floor as well as put in a new kitchen, hardwood floors where there had been wall-to-wall carpeting and reconfigure the master bedroom suite.

They kept the open design of the living spaces with the kitchen between the living room and the dining room. The old sink and robin’s-egg-blue laminate cabinets were reinstalled in the basement, which had already been plumbed and wired for an auxiliary kitchen, and now are used by Katja for her printmaking. They put in black granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. “I like things as simple as possible,” she said, adding that they prefer walls to be understated in order to display art well.

Oxman says she is grateful for her stove which has a gas cook top, fueled by a small propane tank, and an electric oven. “When you lose power you can still boil water for coffee,” she said.

The living room has two comfortable sofas arranged to cluster around the raised hearth fireplace. Mark Oxman designed and crafted the frames, which are hard plastic, like his sculptures. They had velvety-beige cushions custom-made in Silver Spring which contrast nicely with the dark brown plastic frames. Mark said he had hoped to establish a furniture line with the plastic frames, “but what I found was that people don’t want hard sofas.”

A long table in the south-facing window holds a collection of house plants, especially orchids, which Katja uses in her prints. Printmaking is a time-consuming process and she loves orchids “because they last so long.”

In the north corner, back-lit by the sliding doors to the terrace, is one of Mark’s larger statues, made of dark plastic with golden mottling. “When the sun shines on it, you can see right through,” he said.

Off the living room is a guest area with bathroom. A pocket door provides privacy. Bookcases line the walls and the bed is covered with a bold, red blanket. Although they prefer white walls for the general living spaces, Katja said someday she hopes to paint the guest room walls red. They added a shower stall to a former half bath and Construct Associates laid dark gray slate floors. Throughout the house are large armoires of different woods. One in the basement almost scrapes the ceiling and was a devil to get into place, Mark said.

On the opposite side of the kitchen is a dining room with access to a deck facing the Holyoke Range. On the sideboard is a brass samovar, a gift from her mother that reflect’s the family’s Russian heritage: Katja’s father was a “White” Russian who fought against the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Oriental rugs of all sizes and colors are evident throughout the house.

The master bedroom suite is beyond the dining room. Originally one large bedroom, they had it divided into a smaller sleeping area and a study space where Katja’s creates the designs for her prints.

“We like little bedrooms,” she explained.

One wall displays pottery and other artifacts and there are bright folk pillows and a bold, red Oriental rug on the bed, so the room doesn’t feel small.

A drafting table is set up in the window in the study.

“I do the drawing upstairs because of the light,” Katja explained. Currently she is composing a print design with a bird’s nest and a small yellow phalaenopsis orchid.

The master bathroom is painted terra cotta red, a perfect foil for old drawings and prints.

Downstairs studios

Downstairs are the couple’s studios and a small sitting area with a sleep sofa for extra guests. A collection of Japanese prints of samurai warriors lines one wall. They are destined for their grown son, Jake, who has long studied kung fu.

Dominating Katja’s studio is her printer, designed in the 1970s by the then-head of printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. It weighs literally a ton. In fact, the Oxmans added onto their Silver Spring house several times, partly because it was cheaper to renovate than move because of the cost of moving the printer.

Hanging in front of the window are her cloths for wiping the printing plates clean. They look like a piece of modern art, in blue, red and yellow. She said they are made of tarlatan, a cheesecloth-like textile with sizing. Unfortunately the cloth is hard to find although the manufacturer manages to make some just for printmakers every few years, she said.

On a shelf in her studio is a row of dark plaster busts of a pianist friend Elizabeth Joy Roe, created by Mark.

“They were all done from photographs,” he said. Another bust in white plaster is of John Bariano, a Mount Holyoke College art historian. Mark said it was particularly hard to craft because Bariano wears glasses, an accessory extremely difficult to create in plaster.

The final room on the ground level is Mark’s studio where he is currently working on a plaster figure of a man.

“It’s hollow,” he said. Eventually it will be cast in plastic — once he finds a foundry that deals with plastic in this area. “It was going to be the Three Graces for the garden, until I learned the price of casting three pieces,” he said.

Two years ago Mark completed a series of busts of his friend Richard Fink, an Amherst College chemistry professor. Each one was different, some good, some not so good, he said. Fink’s daughters chose two of the nearly 20 busts and they had planned to have a plaster-smashing party in the garden to destroy the remainder to celebrate Fink’s retirement. However, Peter Lobdell, head of the theater department at Amherst College, proposed a performance piece instead. So one night the busts were placed on pedestals onstage and three actors in black robes systematically smashed the busts, one by one. At the end two were left standing — the gifts for Fink’s daughters. Mark said some people were outraged at the destruction of “art”; others applauded the unusual method disposing failed artistic attempts.

The Oxmans said they love living in Amherst where there are so many cultural opportunities — music and theater and art exhibitions.

“Twenty years ago we might have wanted to be farther out in the country, but now we are glad to be near town,” Katja said. Watching the snow fall through the many windows and looking out on the hills is a delight to the Oxmans as it was to the Torreys for 33 years.

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