When Ed West asked me if I had any collections for the Creators Collect show opening this week, I couldn’t think of any – I’m not a collector myself, unless you consider the dust around my house a “collection.” (The exhibit runs through Oct. 9 at the Slusser Gallery, 2000 Bonisteel Blvd., located inside University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design.)
It turns out I shouldn’t have dismissed my dust collection so quickly. After all, Michael Rodemer submitted his prized collection of “lint traps.”
Okay, so Michael Rodemer is a quirky fellow but still, one must ask… what kind of person collects lint traps, and why?
When I actually laid eyes on Michael Rodemer’s lint trap collection, I understood the impulse. These little debris covered screens seemed animal-like and morbidly sculptural, laid out like a body count across the gallery floor. And, yes, thank you Michael Rodemer for noticing: they are beautiful. (Regardless, Michael told me he had to hide the collection from his wife.)
This is a gallery show that contains no work by the artists themselves. Instead Ed West asked people to submit the stuff they collect. The premise is this: The collections of maker-folk are likely to be fairly interesting since, if you make objects yourself, you are more likely to notice objects and appreciate them in unique ways. Visual people love to look. And as Ed says: “What better way to get to know somebody than to see what it is they love, ie. their collections?”
Take Joe Trumpey for example. Joe Trumpey loves his skulls. He began salvaging them from “the bug room” at his school when he was a student. (In case you didn’t know, as I didn’t, the bug room is a room where they set loose hundreds of flesh-eating dermestid beetles to ‘clean’ the bodies of dead animals.) On display will be the skulls of a pot-bellied pig, a warthog, a juvenile Nile crocodile, bats, rats, chameleons and numerous other treasures discarded by the vet labs.
When I asked him why he first started taking the skulls home with him, he looked at me as if I had asked him what the color of the sky was when it was clearly blue. Finally he said, “Uh, because they’re beautiful.” He cooed the word beautiful, as if the word itself wasn’t quite enough and needed a sound effect to enhance its meaning.
Ed sees it this way: A&D is a community of makers. We know each other’s public offerings, but what about our private lives? In some ways, the things we love speak more to our true selves than even our work.
It turns out getting people to turn over what they love was like pulling teeth. First, people claimed they didn’t have any collections. Ed changed the question: what do you accumulate or hoard?
Then people started spilling the beans and didn’t stop. An hour long interview about their collection turned into three. “These were deeply held, deeply private objects that hold stories and meanings and fascinations,” Ed says. (See this recent article in New York Times Magazine for more supporting evidence.)
And then, once a collection was identified, people were reluctant to let their objects go into the gallery. Ed said: ‘People are more protective of these collections then they are of their own work!” Kate (his wife) adds, “this is because this is stuff you can’t recreate, it’s rare. This may be why we love it so much.” Or as Joe explains, “I mean, where else am I going to find the skull of a pilot whale plucked from a beach off of North Carolina?” (Curiously, the ‘North Carolina’ part seemed to have just as much meaning for him as the ‘pilot whale’ part. See above: it is the story behind the object that is part of its value.)
Ed & Kate West are clearly object lovers themselves. One visit to their house and it is clear they are hoarders, ahem, collectors, with deep genetic roots. You could fill Slusser with just their stuff alone. Alas, in this show, all you get to see is three posters from their Swedish poster collection.
In their home, though, they have squirreled away some beautiful and historical collections, some of it inherited from Kate’s mom.
A set of egg-beaters, a set of 19 Century straight-edge razors (perhaps the reason behind Ed’s stylishly groomed facial hair), an international set of Monopoly games, (Monopoli, who knew?), lobby movie posters from the 1950s, and… opera glasses, international movie posters, a set of maps from the 18th century, canes, and whew, there’s more, even! Yet my (non-collector) home is more cluttered than theirs. Go figure.
It seems people collect for a variety of reasons. How else can one explain art historian David Doris’s fascination with Tiki Mugs (400 +) which led him to create an authentic Tiki Bar in his house, complete with a straw canopy. Turns out, David Doris’s research gets into the territory of theme parks. Do I sense a connection here?
Which appears to be another motivation behind these collections: to more closely observe the things that inspire the things that you, as an artist or designer, want to make.
For instance, Picasso began collecting African art (long before it was fashionable, by the way) and clearly to imbibe some of its forms into his painting.
In this show, Marianetta Porter’s church fans, Bill Burgard’s comic book collection, or interestingly, Janie Paul’s collection of children’s drawings,
…are all a visual resource for their own making activities. As Janie says, “I realized there was a quality in these children’s drawings that I was seeking in my own work. I began collecting them from the children I was working with so I could study them more closely.”
Or, if you are interested in wire and line, as Larry Cressman clearly is, you may be drawn to collecting egg baskets during your trip to Italy.
By the way, Ed managed to quote both Hannibal Lecter and Mao Zedong when talking about this show: “We covet what we see, “ Hannibal Lecter said in explaining why the serial killer was abducting women. (He was collecting their skins, by the way.) And then Mao said this, apparently: “The only way to know something is to stand in its presence.”
Which explains why Mark Nielsen is so 1950s jazz: he has clearly spent too much time around his lamp collection made in that era. “Lamps from the 50’s and 60’s were so jazzy and cool! How come they don’t make cool lamps like that any more?”
Though quick to point out that he himself is not a collector because he actually uses everything he collects in his home (is this a relevant distinction?), Mark has this to say about collecting: “Collecting is either some form of sickness – a kind of addiction that fills some void in one’s spirit – or it’s a small contribution to the everlasting program of methodically organizing the entire universe. I like to think it’s the latter.”
There’s something really interesting in this observation. Seeing a lightning rod from the 19th century on its own is interesting but a collection of lightning rods invites much more. The collection makes something visible: it reveals a pattern about a place in time, a people, a story, a way of thinking…
There’s much, much more to all of this of course, including stories about all these collections, fabulous prints, cigarette lighters in the shape of genie lamps…. You can see for yourself: Creators Collect is up until October 5th in Slusser Gallery.
What do you collect? Most importantly: why?