Broken Things and Ghost Gleaning

I have been a maker my entire life. When I was a kid, I was always making something out of leftovers from everyone else’s lives. Fabric and cardboard scraps, paper of any sort, broken things, twigs, seeds, paper clips, string from the dog food bag, paint samples from my dad’s car parts store–anything! Things are not different now. I actively seek out the trash that collects in and around the creek behind my house. I save bottle tops from drinks and twist ties and tea bags and labels and strings and little gift boxes. I’d much rather make a piece of artwork out of a well made box than a store-bought pre-stretched canvas. I think making for me is a process of drawing out shy ghosts and conjuring stories out of objects and situations not of my making. I’m a keeper and reshaper of broken things, a rebus maker and a ghost gleaner. New, for me, is about rearranging and juxtaposing and layering the damaged bits and showing off the way they complement each other and bring attention to things that were ignored or overlooked before. There is poetry in the rearrangement and intentional presentation of the forgotten things. It makes them less invisible. It gives them new purpose.

Over the past month, since purchasing the Ghost House property, I have been picking up shards of glass from around the little studio house. Several but not all of the windows have been broken over the years. I am going to try my hand at making monotypes using the shards. I may make a few of my Counterspell collage pieces too. That’s where I transfer photos to the glass and make translucent collage images and then seal them in with paint and sometimes stitched padded fabrics around the edges to cover the sharpness. It’s about capturing pieces of stories and giving broken things a new life. It’s about eliminating waste and finding promise in lost and broken things.

I am saving wood scraps from the house and garage that will become frames or armatures for sculptures later. I will not save everything as the house is dismantled, of course, but I will definitely save choice bits. I have already started tucking my treasures in a little room behind the garage. I have neatly lined the floor with odd bits and bobs that I have found as I have been clearing away the weed trees and vines around the house. I have a collection of Ball jars and their metal lids, rusty nails, broken doorknobs, wire, rope, an old saw, a fork and knife, a little wrench, old newspapers, tiles, a little rain melted plaster duck and a dog cut out of a scrap of metal… More of my weird After the Apocalypse fetishes will be made. I’ll need to box these treasures up once the builders arrive lest they think they are trash and throw them away–again.

The thing about taking on this house that I haven’t written about much is that it feels like a continuation of my Ship of Theseus Paradox work. I am seeing and will be treating this old Frankenhouse as my biggest assemblage piece ever. I need to have others do the structural work for me to save the house and make it safe and functional. I am not a house builder. People with those skills with tear out the damaged parts and put in new parts that will make it stronger and cleaner. Obviously the goal of the ship builders that rebuilt the Ship of Theseus were trying to replace the rotten and broken bits of the aging ship with identical replacements so that they could preserve the identity of the ship. That isn’t going to happen here. The house will become a studio. The ship will be rearranged and reassembled and whittled down. It will be a smaller boat–or a boat with a different shape and purpose at least. It will no longer be a home for people. It will house stories and objects that I imagine and make.

The big question that I find most interesting in the Ship of Theseus thought experiment is the one that asks, ‘When the new ship is completely rebuilt with new parts, is the new ship still the same ship?”. When exactly did it stop being the old ship and become the new ship? It’s fun to think about this little tumbledown house and the objects I find and work with in this way. When I am pondering the Ship of Theseus Paradox, I like to think about the old parts of the ship that were cast off. Were some of the parts reused? Could another ship have been built –or maybe a smaller craft? Or maybe some handy maker turned the old boards into a table or chairs and the sails into a tent or an apron or bags. Did some of the old parts get a new life? I like to think so.

I don’t know how much of my fascination with the cast off bits is part of my upbringing or something to do with the times I have lived in or how much of it might be genetic but it is very much a big part of who I am and how I move through life. Maybe I was a Magpie in my last life. Ha! Maybe I’m this way because my great grandmother handed down her Depression era sensibilities and the women of my family just keep carrying forward old traditions and fears that make us all hold onto things for too long. Maybe it’s because my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t buy me proper art supplies so I learned to make with the leftovers. I also married a man who did not like to spend the little bit of money we had on expensive supplies so I continued to improvise and made my work from hand-me-downs and leftovers even after I went to college to study art and went on to make and exhibit and show my work.

Interestingly, I have always tried to conceal or disguise the lost and found bits in my work so no one would know that my work was made from garbage. I painted over canvases left behind by my husband’s students or wood panels left from anyone’s building projects. I made a lot of paintings on old drop cloths in college then I started drawing and making collages because paper was easier to come by and someone was always tossing out old frames that I could spruce up for shows. At some point it just stopped crossing my mind that I should make art out of new materials but I still kept trying to make the things I was making look like everyone else’s. I would frame rectangles and hang them on the wall and hope they passed. Absurd, I know.

At some point I started pulling things from my neighbor’s trash pile and gleaning from the creek and bringing home boxes of weird things after several/too many family members died over a short span of time and I couldn’t squeeze these objects and ideas into the old templates and my work started to take on new forms–forms that feel more sincere or truthful, for lack of better words. The last 5 years have been so complicated and I have experienced so much loss, I guess I just couldn’t continue with the pretense of caring whether my work fit into the traditional art spaces or conformed to other’s ideas of what it means to be an artist or what it means for me to be appreciated or respected as an artist. I just needed to glean and sort and make to stay sane.

As the surviving members of my family had to pack up and close up the houses of the dead, they either wanted nothing and wanted to sell it all off or they wanted nice keepsakes. No one wanted the weird stuff in the junk drawer or the jar of washers and nails and buttons from workshop shelves. I have a weird collection of fabrics and wood scraps and old hardware and books that no one else saw any value in that I couldn’t bear to see thrown away. Old seed packets and broken jelly jars, pencils and pocket knives, straight pins and needles rusted to their paper and foil packets, fishing lures tangled in fishing line, recipes scribbled on scraps of paper, makeshift tools, thread spools, eye hooks, broken scissors and eyeglasses, chipped bowls and tins and boxes… the list is weird and endless. And, for me, these weird remnants of other people’s lives speak to who these people were in a more honest and humble way than the nice things others wanted that carried messages of success and aspiration. The silver and fine china and jewelry never interest me as much as the well worn and patched linens and the chipped teacups or the buckets with holes in them. There are stories or energy –or ghosts rubbed into the surfaces of all of these damaged and worn and overlooked objects and I love them because they feel so alive and loved to me.

When I find objects in the drawer of a departed loved one, I rarely know what it meant to the original owner but I know it was kept. When I find something in the creek, I know it was tossed away or washed away. These weird objects that have been shoved to the backs of drawers or wedged into a crevice between rocks in the creek and caked with mud and washed by rushing storm waters call out to me. It’s weird and it complicates my life and clutters my home. But I’ve come up with a plan for these little lost and damaged ghosts and this plan is to weave and stitch and glue them together and use them to embellish and med the little ghosty studio house.

I have no big picture in mind. There is no vision of a completed thing or environment but the compulsion to build and make in this way is very present and I am going to run with it and see where it leads me. I feel just as damaged and lost as some of these objects after losing so many family members. I am the ship whose parts have been removed but no one is replacing them with new parts. It seems there is no one left to do the work of helping me rebuild so I am rebuilding myself and my ghosty house using the scraps from other’s lives. I am going to weave and stitch and glue and hammer and mold the damaged things into something new and beautiful and the weird little studio will be put together like my little crazy quilt assemblage pieces and life with no talk of memory keeping or legacy or history. This way of building, for me, will be about salvage and reinvention and redemption. It will be about change.

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