The American Heritage Dictionary lists the second definition of “homely” as “Simple or unpretentious; plain: homely truths.” I double checked the exact definition just now, to make sure that my title made sense, because “homey” was not right, and neither was the idea of homely being unattractive. But yes, an unpretentious, simple exhibit is just what I mean to say.
This idea all started with a series of questions: What are the objects that I’m drawn to, that inspire me? What are the everyday things that I want to look at, to touch, to hold, or display? Delving beyond the appearance and feel of these objects, what is the meaning they carry?
From childhood until now, my most collected and cherished objects have often been natural ones; pieces of nature, such as rocks, sticks, and shells. Or items a few degrees removed from their origins, made from wood, stone, clay, or paper. Tactile qualities, the rough or smooth, delicate or sturdy, attracted me in the first place, and still do.
As much as I have moved in my adult life, I have accumulated the aforementioned kinds of things, for want of a better word. In many cases these special items have been packed away or stored as I settle and re-settle, and don’t always get to see the light of day. Then I moved into this, our first house, and immediately laid claim to the room with built-in shelves, my new studio. What possibility!
My friend Heather and I were talking one day about studio and workroom set-up, and the best use of our spaces. We share similar organizational issues, and a desire to use and appreciate the best of what we have, while attempting to weed out the unnecessary or otherwise unappealing. We both like the thrill of thrift and antique shopping, and treasure the finds that seem as if they were made for us, the ones that might add character or color to our households.
Heather and I challenged each other that day to create a shelf space that could serve as a kind of rotating display, a museum of sorts, that would inspire our artwork and help us re-think what we own and why. As an artist, I also wanted to think about the connections between the pieces on the shelf, and imagine an allegory from the grouping; a story told.
The top middle shelf in my studio was ideal, once cleared and dusted. Piece by piece, I began to cluster potential artifacts. I started with a very old silvery photograph, one I bought in Chicago from the neighborhood’s rare book store.
The photo speaks to me of pine trees and mountains, of scent and memory, and light. This landscape on paper, a setting, led me to a new favorite handmade object: the little wooden cabin.
The rough-hewn cabin, led to ideas of handwork, home, and tools, and to a wooden level and an empty embroidery hoop smooth with age. Three books ended up on the shelf: “Ways of the Six-Footed,” a study on insects written by Anna Botsford Comstock, published in 1926, with double cicadas on the cover, “The Wonderland a Knowledge,” an illustrated guide for children on subjects of every kind, and “Mechanical Drawing,” an old textbook from a similar era, open to the two page spread on the “Theory of Shape Description.”
To help hold Mechanical Drawing in place, and because it fit the emerging theme so well, I added a red wood and metal hand drill that I still use. And last, three delicate objects, two of paper, and one a pressed and dried leaf. The grayish paper that partly obscures the green book cover is a piece I made. It looks to be inconsequential, but is a strong piece of flax with cement particles embedded in it. The second paper is turquoise in color, and about the size of a business card. In elegant black and white ink flourishes is my grandmother’s name, written in her own hand. The leaf had to be included, and though I don’t remember where it was collected, it could be from any number of my former homes, pressed in the height of the fall season.
That’s it, those are the parts. What is the sum? There is a story being told through these things, that perhaps only I see. A homely exhibit, one that calls to mind my roots. Roots in the strength and simplicity of my forebears, the ones I remember and the ones I never knew, and the curiosity that led them out into the world to build a life, with hand tools and books, needle and thread, or pen and ink. But in the space between the objects where I find invisible links, and in the objects of my choosing, I am too.
From this amalgam may come pieces of art– drawings, paintings, or prints– or at least the spark of a developing idea, it’s in my fingertips.