These walls do talk
BEFORE Bernard and Shirley Kinsey remodeled their cliff-side home in Pacific Palisades, they often climbed up on the roof of the original two-bedroom midcentury tract house to take in the magnificent view of Santa Monica Bay.

When guests visit, "people want to see the view. That's what we do first," Bernard Kinsey says.

But the couple had more on their mind when they called architect Doug Breidenbach. The house also had to provide a suitable showcase for their extensive collection of African American paintings, sculptures, artifacts, antique papers and ephemera.

They depended on their friend Breidenbach, who had worked with them on four houses. "He knew our artwork," Shirley Kinsey says.

The result: a tri-level, five-bedroom Modernist house that refuses to play favorites between the views and the art. The home lovingly embraces the works with broad expanses of wall space, niches and alcoves while accommodating the ocean view with wrap-around decks.

Step through the glass-front entry past an Artis Lane portrait of the couple, a sculpture of a black female also by Lane, an Inuit soapstone polar bear and a turquoise abstract by painter Matthew Thomas.

Continue past two Ed Dwight sculptures of an elegant Masai woman and several pipers, a display of African masks and into the living room, which is dominated by four bold abstracts by Bill Dallas, and a large, lush violet landscape by Richard Mayhew.

There is so much more — a Tina Allen bust of Frederick Douglass; a painting of Southern black life by Jonathan Green; Aboriginal abstracts by Australian Colin Byrd — and this is just on the neutral ivory walls of the main floor.

Though not exclusively black, the couple's documents, artifacts, paintings and sculptures trace the introduction of Africans in the Americas through slavery and Reconstruction and on to their evolution as painters, from celebrated 19th century landscapes to contemporary abstracts.

"The collection is just so much a part of the home. It's everywhere in the home. I find that to be really special and significant. Its letters, broadsides, ephemera, sculptures, paintings," says Steve Turner, collector and dealer of things African American, who owns a gallery in Beverly Hills. "You know collectors, but sometimes you don't see the things. They're put away. They live with things on a day-to-day basis. It's always fun to go see what's new."

But the Kinseys' latest acquisition, a bold yellow abstract diptych by Sam Gilliam, is currently hanging in a retrospective on the artist at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Bernard, 62, likes to say that life has many chapters. The couple's collection reflects their travels to more than 75 countries, family, memories, professional work, scholarship and a history well beyond the two of them.

"All of these pieces are part of telling a story of how the African American people became who they are. It is in the two-dimensional art, [and] the sculptures. It's in the historical documents," Bernard says. The Kinseys have one of the most important African American collections in the West, according to Atlanta art dealer, educator and attorney Jerry Thomas Jr.

For a photograph of black Sen. Hiram Rhodes Revels, who represented Mississippi during Reconstruction, Kinsey outbid the Smithsonian, which has an extensive collection of black art and also operates the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

"The focus has a lot to do with legacy," says Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, which will exhibit some of the Kinseys' art next year as part of a series on African American collectors.

From the Kinseys' collection, she says, "You get the notion of African Americans as a broad people with a broad interest. [They] might have something that looks obviously black, and at the same time something abstract with no racial identity."

"They might have a Ming vase or a polar bear from the North Pole," she says. "It's like loving Bach and Miles Davis and everything in between."

"The collection is not only impressive," says Atlanta art dealer Thomas, "it's really a role model of what many collectors should be looking at. He [Bernard] doesn't approach the art as mere decoration. He really understands the importance of art, and material culture — documents and books, and to approach it in a very thoughtful and mindful way. He knows where he's going."

Follow Bernard downstairs along a narrow corridor into what was once the wine cellar and find what is now a humidified gallery that tells the story of African Americans. Visitors pass framed shackles intended for a female slave, circa 1853. An 1899 sculpture of a slave boy by May Howard Jackson stands sentinel.