The Sketchbook

For as long as I can remember, I have collected things; things with material weight and sometimes, also with some emotional freight.

I have vague memories of my Mom reminding a babysitter to “check my pockets” when I got home from a playdate, as chances were high that the inside of my garments would reveal carefully preserved leaves, pebbles, bottle caps… “You’d come home with the whole beach in your pocket if I let you,” she’d laugh. In fact, one of my earliest memories (Earth Day circa 1997) was the sound of a classmate screeching when she noticed the live worms I’d imported inside from the playground.

What 90’s baby didn’t collect beanie babies?

An equally beloved pastime from childhood was “Show And Tell.” In hindsight my passion for Show & Tell feels predestined, as if  written in the stars. I’m the daughter of a museum curator; I quickly learned that every object has a story, provenance, history, and meaning. I’m also the daughter of an eccentric graphic and exhibition designer. After growing up with nothing, my Dad made sure that I appreciated the little things; a cleverly designed matchbox, a heart shaped rock molded into shape by the sea. What he couldn’t bring home with him (a garden gate in Tokyo, for example), he would document in his sketchbook – forever preserved by his pen. 

I’ve come to appreciate now that for children, collecting represents the most rudimentary way to exercise personal control over the world. By laying things out, grouping them, handling them. Elementary school teachers utilize Show and Tell as an exercise for building communication skills and self-confidence in the presenter of these keepsakes. 

Collecting runs deep in my family, but not in the manner of a Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J. Paul Getty – or the blood-sport collectors battling it out at Sothebys. Members of my Mom’s side of the family seem to have an obsession with Cranberry Glass. My own parents collected 19th century American novels and books: Dad, intrigued by the book bindings and titling graphics; Mom, drawn by the story content captured inside them. My quite elegant Grandmother had what she called, “The Bad Taste Collection,”  which she proudly displayed in her living room. Family and close friends delighted in adding to it with gifts – including her prized ceramic smoking babies, a sock puppet nun from the Vatican Museum, and a Charles & Diana commemorative divorce plate… 

Several generations worth of cranberry glass – on display at my great-grandmother’s house

Three years ago when I started painting again, I gravitated towards certain objects as my subjects. But not just ANY object. Objects invested with meaning, carrying memories in their very existence. Around this time I also became more involved with the Alzheimer’s Association (proud Junior Board member, reporting for duty!) which introduced me to the scientific study of objects and memory. I became fascinated with the psychological motivations and sociological phenomena of collecting things. 

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard says of the subject: the objects in our lives…represent something much more, something profoundly related to subjectivity: for while the object is a resistant material body, it is also, simultaneously, a mental realm over which I hold sway, a thing whose meaning is goverened by myself alone. It is all my own, the object of my passion.” 

It’s the subjectivity of an object that makes the act of collecting so fascinating to me: the inspiration or incident that ignited a passion. A glass jar housing dozens of restaurant matchbooks suddenly illuminates and compresses the three years that I lived in Washington D.C. A collection of seashells conjures my Aunt’s Florida beach; playing with my cousins in the shallows as we tried to catch fish. A box of colorful bow ties brings back to life the sight of my Dad, napping on the couch in his suit jacket after a big Thanksgiving dinner. 

My matchbook collection lives in 3 foot vase in my studio

Any psych student could readily diagnose my intrigue with “systems of collecting.” If memories make up a life…watching my father’s memories disappear into dementia made human existence feel fragile, our time together with those we love, all too fleeting. Yes, a name can be forgotten. But the pair of dress shoes he bought on a whim in London to comply with a strict hotel dress code that otherwise would have stood in the way of a highly anticipated afternoon tea with his nine year old daughter – those shoes I can hold in my hands. When I touch the leather I swear I can still feel his face, the strong ‘T’ of his brow running between his craggy eyebrows. I’m nine again; my Dad is telling our waiter we would like the Earl Grey tea, thank you very much. 

Baudrillard summarizes this phenomenon perfectly: “Collecting simply abolishes time. Or rather…references that can be replayed at will, in reverse order if need be, collecting represents the perpetual fresh beginning of a controlled cycle…man can indulge in the great game of birth and death.” 

What we want from objects is not necessarily the reassurance that we can outlive ourselves. Instead, it’s the sense that through this “object-system,” we can transcend the vagaries of an existence over which we have little controlling power.. Baudrillard says, “the man who collects things may already be dead, yet he manages literally to outlive himself through his collection, which, originating within this life, recapitulates him indefinitely beyond the point of death by absorbing death itself into the series and the cycle.” In this sense, each object is the mediation of a wish.

Things can be palpable reminders of people, places, or times that may no longer exist, but are wondrously immortal. They are silent storytellers…until now.

One of my Dad’s collections: Heart shaped boxes. Many of the boxes pictured were given to him as gifts.
Interior design legend Mario Buatta’s personal collections made headlines in 2020 when Sotheby’s auctioned reached $7.6 million. This red chest housed only a fraction of his floral ceramics collection.
American painter Edward Hopper and his wife, Josephine Hopper, were frequent theater goers. A collection of his saved ticket stubs were on view at the Whitney’s recent exhibit: Edward Hopper’s New York

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *