What Artists Really Collect

This is from a presentation done August 2017 with several other Daytonians at the Roesch Library at the University of Dayton. Typical of the local Pecha Kucha presentations, over 250 showed up to watch nine presentations.

If you’ve never been to a PK Night — about 6 times a year, at different locations — you’ve missed some great fun. Each presenter gets 20 images with 20 seconds per image ( there’s no mercy from the slide changer) for their presentation on anything from their work on a cattle ranch to their roller derby team to what’s found in storage lockers to, well anything. It’s like show and tell for grownups and sometimes school children.

This original Pecha Kucha Presentation (along with all the others) can be viewed (blessedly without any images of me. It’s audio only with the original slide show)  at the Dayton PK site. I ran long and the last two words get cut off…

The first things I remember collecting were rocks. They just looked cool, especially the sparklies. I had boxes full, Pockets are a good thing, but skirts can hold a lot of rocks except your mom keeps telling you to put your skirt down. Then there were the fossils. Mom was dragging the boxes out of the house as fast as I could collect them.


I still love rocks, but I’ve pretty much got it contained. I have a few big, yes sparkly, rocks, and yes, I pack them in boxes and move them. What I still love about rocks is knowing where they come from. Over millions of years of magic and the constant churning of the Earth’s crust we are gifted with the product of the Earth’s story.


House plants. I do have a lot of them. I don’t actually collect them. There’s a story about how I came to have such a marvelous accumulation. When I was at Front Street a neighbor was moving in the dead of winter and I volunteered to keep them until warmer weather. That was a few years ago now. I’m not complaining. That’s just the story.


Walking into my studio you might think I’m a collector of many things, but I really collect only 1 thing. While I do have accumulations of  a number of items, I really only collect stories. That is what makes any collection at all interesting…the history of the collection, the collector and each individual element.


I collect interesting objects that contain a past; histories that connect to all the other histories. I don’t always know the story, but I know there is one, and sometimes I create a new tale with these items. Art is storytelling. It contains my life and always refers to our shared stories.


If I am a true collector of anything it’s rust. Corroded bits that human genius made from Earth’s minerals. The elements want to return to the Earth and they will; changing into the copper and iron it came from. Giving us textures and colors and shapes that tell their stories from below the Earth, to the foundry, and back to the ground.


The stories in the cast offs of the Industrial age include neglect that has worn them down; broken them into lovely bits, no longer useful. However, humans are drawn to colors, textures and patterns, lines and organic shapes. When differently assembled we see that their story did not end at the scrap bin or the scrap yard.

Yep, I have a bunch of books. Books are individual stories as well as parts of the collective story.  Essays and fiction help us make sense of the world or escape it when nothing makes sense. Field guides, art, food, Appalachia, poetry, and good manners for the unwashed masses; books can be sanctuary or art.


I have an inexplicable love of little pitchers. Lovely lines, utilitarian, but there are stories – who handled this? Did the dishwasher work there very long? Did he hate that job? What about the server? What restaurant? Where was it? Did one of my ancestors ever eat there? Who made this and where?


More sparkly things! The story of glass is as ancient as civilization. So there’s that provenance: who ever made this glass was replicating and building on the first glass in processes as old as the Iron age. Broken, found pieces or works of art have been accumulated and are among my favorite things.

Good places to collect glass are the streets and railroad tracks. Endless art supplies are dropped or thrown out by people who saw only garbage; a broken tail light, bits of railroad lanterns, ancient bottles broken and left to weather like urban beach glass may find their ways into an assemblage or even jewelry.


Old luggage is deeply infused with stories. One was converted by a friend of mine in the early 70s to carry art supplies. Another was my godmothers and she always had it when she came to visit. The hat box took many train trips, the brief case has my father’s history of work.


Mass cards or remembrance cards are tiny records of big events in life. Even in present day, when printed remembrances of vows, and births and dying are no longer essential, we put one in our pocket and remove them to a drawer for our children to find when they come to claim the estate; an example of an unintentional collection.


Like most of my collections there is little intent here. I’m an artist. I know artists. None of us can afford to buy art. But sometimes there is a gift. An artist trades their work for my labor or they needed cash and sold a piece too cheap. The art tells a story but the possession of it comes with a story as well.

At one time I collected real plants, pressed, and mounted them. Then I got a camera. Now I feed my inner artist and botanist with loads of pictures, mostly of the plants of the Midwest and especially of the local prairies. This lets me add to my collection of skies as well.

Plants have stories. They tell us an ecosystem is healthy by observing what’s thriving, and our history is intimately tied to plants. For example, Compass Plant, the tall plant on the left, could indicate direction to a traveler because its blooms face north and south to protect the flower from intense prairie sunlight.

My favorite collections are stories of the city. The stories are endless. There are stories about those who came before us, the earth the city is built on, the rivers that run through every part of Dayton and the stories of the people in this room. Photographed or written, there is history to preserve.

How we have interacted with the city leaves evidence; stories of people who have worked hard, or hardly worked. What remains of those efforts tells us tales of ingenuity, creativity, and need. Those stories, as well as what we value, may be collected into books, articles, galleries, or shared at a PK night.

The best tales are of small things that happen every day in our neighborhoods. Children playing, adults mentoring struggling young people, disasters, generosity, the persistence of Canada Geese. Gathering these stories makes us feel hopeful and shows us what’s good when so much seems so difficult.

Might we be changed if we began seeing the stories around us and caring about the new stories being created? Collecting stories is the same as collecting rust or bits of detritus to build an assemblage. If we’re open to looking and listening we a can find those small bits of life that when dusted off and presented become works of art.

21-Rainbow over dayton

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