‘What percentage of this stuff really is raw material for my art work? How far is the sheer volume of it a reflection of how hard it is for me to let go?’
These questions came to my attention again recently as a memory on Facebook. They’re from a blog post, written here in November 2015 at a point when I’d finally managed to get my entire collections in one place.
Four years on … it’s a long time, but some changes are finally happening. I’ve started the process of letting go, with the question ‘what percentage of this stuff really is raw material for my art work’ in mind. New additional questions include: ‘Will I use it? If it’s not for my art, do I need to keep it? Do I even like it?’
The sorting is all part of my working process and historically, though enjoyable, has caused me a certain amount of anxiety – afraid to throw something away on the basis that it might ‘come in handy one day’ as my Nana used to say. I also often get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff. Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly aware of the difficulty of giving up things that are of sentimental value and in this respect, make allowances for myself. And yet, what do you do with all this stuff? Do you, as so many self-help books suggest, become weighed down by it, so that eventually you’re no longer able to fully exist in the present?
So many questions and so far, not too many answers. But there’s been a definite shift in my approach recently and the actual task of getting rid of things and the willingness to do so, has started to feel easier. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve managed to empty two 30 litre boxes in the studio and offload their contents to a charity shop. I now feel that I want to start reducing the amount of stuff I have in storage. That’s a very different mindset from feeling that I have to and being psychologically geared up makes the process that much easier.
This shift in my thinking is undoubtedly to do with what life has thrown at me over this past year or so. Being ill and in hospital last year, followed by a long period of recovery, is one of them. I had a lot of time to reflect and all the concerns associated with my ‘stuff’ being a burden to others resurfaced. Very little has changed since I wrote this four years ago:
‘Besides the obvious issues that come up when thinking about the end of one’s life, for me, the what happens if I die question raises, in particular, issues around the amount of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Selfish, unfair, inconsiderate are all descriptions that come to mind …’
Coming to terms with the death of a friend has also had an impact and nudged me towards reevaluating what I currently own. My friend David and I shared a love of collecting, would regularly bump into each other in local SE London charity shops and flea markets and compare our respective finds – ‘treasures’ as David referred to them. I found the wonky-faced ceramic cat he persuaded me to buy in my sorting last week, held it close and thought of him, acutely aware that this daft, wonky object had outlived a brilliantly vibrant man. When I heard news of David’s death, I thought about all the wonderful times I’d spent in his flat – always beautifully curated and adorned with the amazing weird and wonderful objects he’d collected over many years. We could spend hours ooh-ing and aah-ing over the latest acquisition. Such fun! But ‘you can’t take it with you’ (another Nana-ism) and David’s collections were confined to his home and didn’t include over 100 boxes stashed away in a shed!
The whole process of letting go is a fascinating one; I’ve been looking back at times in the past when it has felt more manageable to wave goodbye to certain things. Specific objects often remind me of other people and I always feel an urge to unite them with the person in question. I have at times offered these things to people as gifts – it somehow softens the blow of parting with them, knowing that certain things can go to people who might appreciate them. I’ve also offloaded things through my work, by creating various events that invite people to take something away with them. ‘Going for Gold’ for example, during the 2012 Olympics and more recently, ’30 pieces of silver’ at the Collyer Bristow Gallery and ‘102 pieces of glass’ at the OVADA Gallery in Oxford.
Some things are inevitably easier to part with than others – specifically those to which I have no real emotional attachment. There’s also the fact that there are quite a lot of objects that I don’t particularly ‘like’ any more. There was undoubtedly something that attracted me to them in the first place, but as time has passed, their appeal has diminished. I’m not the same person I was four years ago after all – let alone all those years since I first started collecting. My taste has changed as I’ve grown older and my work, largely autobiographical, is changing too. My preference is clearly for old, used objects – things that carry a patina of age and signs of being well-used. I’ve also accumulated things that people have given me – objects that were never ‘quite right’ for me, but that I’ve been too polite to refuse. Any collector will tell you that the things they collect are very personal and very specific.
This extract is from a post written four years ago. It seems as relevant and pertinent now as it did then and so it feels appropriate to include it here:
‘… all questions that I will continue to address as the cycle of sorting, re-evaluating and making decisions about what to keep/let go of persists. For now, at least, I can see more clearly what I have and while it occasionally overwhelms me, I never seem to tire of the sorting process – from writing about it, to the actual physical sifting itself; what the sorting unearths in terms of past memories and how I respond to the feelings they evoke. Some items just make me laugh, while others can stir up a whole host of deep rooted emotions.
Small wonder then, that I have a tendency to flit from one piece of work to another, the butterfly approach to it being as much about survival as it is about maintaining a keen interest in what’s going on around me; not getting too bogged down in the past, especially the sad parts – and maintaining a keen interest in the present; what’s here, right now, in front of me. A couple of weeks ago, I rediscovered a pair of my late Father’s pyjamas, carefully packed away, momentarily forgotten. They will be the subject of a future blog post here one of these days, I’m sure – once I’ve allowed myself time to properly digest and process the impact of finding them again, that is …’
Back to the present, and the memory of the rediscovery of my late father’s pyjamas is as pertinent still and I feel comforted by the fact that such significant moments and finds are recorded here. Even objects of such huge sentimental value can get ‘lost’ in the midst of so much stuff and so it feels important to stop and take stock from time to time – stay on top of what’s what and where it is – and to keep listing the individual items in order to have easier access to them when I want to use them in my work. If I manage to get rid of just a fraction of my collection, I’m confident that I will still have a lifetime of materials and ideas to work with. And while the general cost of living and specifically, studio rentals in London continue to increase, the fact that my raw materials cost me nothing is a very comforting thought … my hope for the future is that I’ll never be short of ideas or raw materials.