As a time of renewal, spring prompts us to clean house and make busy all the projects that winter stunted. I have been organizing my studio the last few weeks, not just in service of that cathartic spring clean, but to prepare for the Elephant’s Eye Bucks County Studio tour, in which I will be participating for the second year.
Regarding the arrangement of my studio space, I often think of the eccentric New York short-order chef who described his kitchen as a series of creative solutions to the problems that arise over time. Building a creative space is a communication back and forth between a person and their surroundings leading to a design adapted to one’s personal habits. The studio space is very much an extension of the inhabitants’ personality in this way. One feels a strong personal connection then to the artifacts that have been inherited into the studio and it can be hard to let go of them.
Most artists I have known, even the most fastidious, seem to have a disposition to collect. Cultivating an eye and an aesthetic, an artist often defines their appreciations through collecting. There are those who scavenge materials that may have future use in a project. Others collect copious amounts of reference material and inspirational items. I’ve known an artist who kept several dozen spectacles for different focal ranges, an artist with label swatches from every paint tube he’d used, an artist with every book concerning Goya that he could get his hands on, and a artist with a respectable arsenal of civil war weaponry. Creating collectable objects must support the artist’s tendency for him or her to also collect. Creative thinkers are perhaps less likely to accept their surroundings as fixed and have fewer reservations about shaping the world they wish to exist within. Artists often think associatively, leading to creative systems of organization or lack there of.
Collections that surpass the collector are something that pique the imagination. We accumulate information and look for patterns to establish meaning. Museums illustrate the orderly procedure of accumulation as it relates to a larger culture. The collection of an individual, such as Barnes or Frick, however, carries with it the zeal of a legacy.
For a hoarder, a collection becomes something very different though. The parameters and purpose are unclear or absent and the act of collecting ceases to be voluntary. Hoarding, or disposophobia is a psychological condition that accompanies obsessive behavior where collecting isn’t controllable. In the public consciousness, Hoarding was dramatically illustrated by the story of the Collyer brothers who lived reclusively in Harlem from 1909 to 1947. Langley Collyer had been taking care of his older brother Homer when he was crushed by one of his own booby traps within their bower and Homer died from hunger shortly there after. It took an arduous excavation for the police to make their way to the through the house to the bodies. The fortress of objects included towers of newspapers and fourteen grand pianos. The story of the Collyers was recounted by Frans Lidz, the nephew of two uncles who were hoarders, in his book, “Ghosty Men” (later adapted into the movie Unstrung Heros). E.L. Doctorow has a new novel exploring the lives of the Collyer brothers.
In the fever of reality TV shows that revel in dysfunctional and deformed personalities being coaxed back into societal normalcy, hoarding has gotten its turn in the spotlight. Two shows, “Hoarders” on A&E and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC examine this peculiar lifestyle. The episodes interview the sufferers and their loved ones while doctors and personal organizers try to help them gain control over their compulsion. These programs amount to novel form of gaper-block. People want to see the gore of a car-wreck but then wish the survivors safety to justify their rubbernecking. Reality television carries with it a strange moral code that wishes to expose peoples’ private oddities and then either fix them or have them judged. True hoarding can certainly be a hazard, but suffering aside it reveals intrigue in the nature of collecting.
We are fascinated by personalities that exhibit extreme versions of tendencies we recognize in ourselves. Hoarding presents practical worries about disorder leading to unsanitary conditions, fire dangers and perilous piles but its also relates worries as to what hoarding is a reaction. Hoarding holds a light to issues of impermanence, consumption, greed and control. Hoarding gives a physical dimension to uncertainty. A hoard makes fears and desires something you can hold in your hand.
To an artist, hoarding doesn’t appear as unnatural as perhaps it should. The accumulation of stuff can even take on a beauty. An artistic perspective favors personal solutions that take a logical risk to illustrate a thought. Of course the thought should be at the mercy of the thinker and not the other way around to keep a collection from becoming a hoard.