As far back as I can remember, I was a collector. As a kid, I collected baseball cards, electric train paraphernalia, plastic airplane and automobile models, even ceramic dogs for my knickknack shelf. That “hobby” never diminished over the years and as I grew into adulthood, it just got more expensive and my collections became more sophisticated and larger. I have always had a love of roaming through an antique shop, flea market, yard sale or anything else where a person’s life may be up for sale. I always found it sad when strolling through an antique shop and finding a bowl on the table with family photos piled up inside. I found it so sad that this is where our lives end up and eventually those old photos of mom and dad, or grandma wind up being disposed of in the trash. I owned an antique shop for a short while after I retired from teaching and innkeeping and I refused to take the photos when people brought objects in for sale.
Actually, I furnished much of my homes with furniture collected this way, and have pieces that I really love. Unfortunately my children aren’t quite as interested in “old” furniture as I am and will probably wind up donating my collections to the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity. Brown furniture, as furniture in natural wood finishes is called, is no longer in demand. Slap a coat of the newest paint on it and voila, it is chic and desirable. But I digress from what I wanted to talk about. As I aged I started becoming interested in Folk Art. In my case my interest was in the kind of thing a grandfather would make for his grand children. Something so personal within a family shouldn’t just be disposed of at the curb and I began collecting these homemade toys that were the work of love from one generation to another. I admit I added to my collection at times from curbside objects offered “free to a good home.” I guess because of my personal connections to model trains over the years that I began collecting incredible home made wooden toys of trains, boats, planes, and trucks. And now at my age when you enter my house you will see all kinds of vehicles made of wood or metal on the floor lining the rooms. I also have, as my pride and joy, a jazz band made of papier mache that I found in a small antique shop just north of Albany and paid a small fortune for- but the workmanship is worth every penny to me. These objects bring me joy every time I see them!
Over the years I have accumulated a very nice collection of homemade wooden trains, airplanes, ships and other wooden sculptures of anything that caught my eye. These items are not always easy to find. I can’t understand why a family would dispose of one of these works of art created with love for a grandchild or child. When you find one in an antique shop they aren’t inexpensive, nor should they be. The painstaking care that went into the execution of this work of art far exceeds any price tag that you could offer it for sale. The handicraft required to create these toys is exquisite, the painting and detailing truly identify these ageless toys as works of art. I guess I collect these for all the people who have created such things over the years to be acknowledged as artists and lovers of humanity, so they don’t end up in someone’s fireplace or trash can.
So as the years continue to fly by, I am always on the look out for one of these treasures and I never hesitate to purchase one if it is available. My house still has room for many more collectibles but I don’t want to earn the label of hoarder because my kids can’t get into the living room without knocking over one of Dad’s toys. I am guilty of a huge original watercolor and photo collection that covers my walls in every room so they understand I could have the potential of filling the house with stuff. I prefer to think of my collections as tasteful displays of folk art!
Artifacts and Fictions
Well, I can relate to Geo’s predilection for collections, although I’m not as well organized. By the way, he forgot to include his impressive gang of Santa Claus figures in his inventory of collectible items!
We explored the theme of minimalism and maximalism in an earlier post, In Defense of Magpies. Some would argue for the joy of a spare habitat, but heck, even Marie Kondo has relaxed that view after her third child!
I can see how compulsions start. You find one item that piques your interest. Just one item – it’s absolutely unique, so you gather it up. Then lo and behold, you run across a similar item a year later. Well, you can’t just ignore that, because it’s probably the only other one in existence. You do a little research and find that there is a bunch of these items in existence, not just two. And you discover that they have a history and a score of ardent admirers. It’s a whole genre that has its own vocabulary and back stories. There are people who scour the universe for these items. So, now it is a scavenger hunt: how many can I find?
This has been the way many of my collections have begun. Some are an acquired taste, like the brass images of the Lincolnshire Imp. I found one in an antique store years ago and found it irresistibly repulsive! The store owner had no idea of its provenance, but a few months later I found a similar image as a knocker on a museum door. Now I was hooked. No one could identify the object or its origin story. Start the scavenger hunt! Investigation revealed the legend of the Lincoln Imp and its role as the mascot of the Town of Lincolnshire. The result is a fair number of imp-ish door knockers, toasting forks, spoons, and horses’ brasses sleeping in a cabinet in our house (although, I’m the horse’s brass for collecting all these objects for which there is no useful application).
I blame it on my childhood desire to become an archaeologist. Collect and classify! I can’t walk away from artifacts. However, what struck me in discussion with Geo, is that a real purpose for some collections is simply to honor the maker of the object. George has walls of original art – and a connection to many of the artists. I feel the same way: my collection of wood-turnings represents makers I know, and most of them are counted as good friends. Unfortunately, a growing number of these makers have passed beyond. Now these artifacts are living connections to folks I miss.
Along those lines, I also collect Ainu carved bears. The bear represents the soul in the mysteries of this indigenous people. The bears are carved in archetypical forms – that is, the forms are mainly repeated. However, each artist brings a subtle difference to the completed work. My preference is for the form of a standing bear carrying a fresh-caught salmon. The anthropomorphic statue portrays a worker bear bringing home food for its clan. The ethic appeals!
The carved bears and the woodturnings are always out for display. I will regularly handle them and add a drop of lemon oil and wax to each, in order to honor the art and their makers. Now, the imps – well I guess they represent a far different part of my nature…
Ran across this poem by Meredith Gollomb in the blog of the Ernst Mayr Library of Comparative Zoology which captures the endless quest to collect and classify! Thanks, Meredith!
Yesterday I went collecting
Lord knows what I was expecting –
Dampness, yes, a toad, a frog,
I’d never really seen a bog.
Who knows just what I was thinking
Soon I found that I was sinking
To the thigh, and then the waist
In mud, the bog was making haste
To swallow me, net and all
(Although I am quite wide and tall).
I struggled free and struggled forward,
Struggled up and struggled toward
Where the salamanders played
Where the hungry herons preyed
And scooped and swung with my net –
No, no salamanders yet.
Further on, I did tramp
Through the wet and through the damp
What, am I still really newtless?
Could this tramping all be fruitless?
Then I looked down in my pail –
I thought I saw a little tail!
A newt! At least I caught a one –
Now if I could only catch his son,
Brother, wife, daughter, aunt,
All the newts that one could want
But all his pals went into hiding
They fled quite soon after deciding
To leave their dear friend in the lurch –
I suppose they don’t care for research.
Unlike George I am no longer a purposeful collector. When I was a young boy, I saved and traded baseball cards, had an accumulation of stamps from around the world, and amassed a pile of those blue coin collection folders filled with dimes and pennies. No longer. I’m not sure why.
Yes, I still have almost all of the books I’ve ever purchased and read. The exceptions are the ones I loaned to friends or acquaintances who must have loved them so much that they kept them. I also have jars full of coins. Those grew in number simply because I don’t like to carry around change so I’d drop them into whichever container had room. I’ve promised myself that when I get my house, I’ll make time to cash them in…(after I examine each one to see if any have some value beyond their obvious denomination.)
However, as I thought more about this topic, I recognized that the memories of times I’ve spent with those special people in my life, could be considered a collection. Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures, especially to remind me of those moments when I felt close, connected, in awe, inspired, and/or blessed. Years ago I used to make the time to arrange these photos by time, event, and location into albums. As I grew older time spent to keep them organized was redirected to other endeavors. So, eventually, these physical photos found their way into boxes or slide trays and lay dormant in the basement. Once smartphones came on the scene, I found it took less time to capture and organize those special moments as well as to be able to see them instantly! And while the technology soon after, offered a way to place them into virtual albums and allowed me to import all of those 35 mm slides and prints I had stored, it still required time and patience to make them into a collection (or subsets of the collection) that allowed me to view them in the context of a particular memory. Then, sometime around 2017, some programmer enabled my iPhone to search my photo collection and create themed slide shows with music! These daily snippets of my life pop up each day as a reminder of the things I chose to save. And every once in a while, one is so wonderfully reflective of a special time gone by that I choose to not only watch it over and over, but to forwarded it to those who were also part of that memory.
Like my colleagues, I look forward to adding to my “collection” over my remaining years.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Fred R. Barnard