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The Artist as a Collector

collector

In February 2015 the Barbican Gallery in London held a major exhibition called Magnificent Obsession: The Artist as a Collector. It featured items from the fascinating collections of various 20th century and contemporary artists. Interviews with artists/collectors were also gathered and published in an eponymous volume. It was into this book I found myself stuck the minute I found it. It was marvelous.  So marvelous, in fact, I decided to throw myself into the tableau and post an interview an artist/collector with whom I’ve become acquainted.

We’ll call her ‘Evie.’


You’re a collector?

Evie: We all are, no? But yes, I am. Formally, I suppose. Consciously?  

Can you remember exactly when you started collecting?

Evie: I was born a collector—I just didn’t have a collection. It started when I picked up a rock, a stone, on the Continental Divide, hiking with my family. We were hiking to stand at the apex—you know, the spot that divides all the water in the United States, east flowing and west. We were wearing these huge, flapping, bright and colorful, but utterly useless, ponchos, standing at the part of water. Like Moses.

And the rock? You found it on the path?

Evie: Maybe it found me… I can’t say. But I had a rock in my hand, and I felt its heaviness, turned it over, I saw the colors, imagined what it would look like dry. Then it was in my pocket.

You just shrugged. Why? Did you not feel agency in this circumstance?

Evie: No, I did, but that’s the thing about childhood: you never really know where the instigation comes from because your subconscious is so vast. Every volition seems external, even when it’s not. I assume I wanted a memento of our accomplishment. Enthusiasm and curiosity? I had those in spades.

Arguably, you still do.

Evie: Well, to be a writer, it helps.

And from that point on?

Evie: I was a collector in practice. Rocks from interesting places that I had been. The idea came to me, broke through like a ray, or a tapeworm. It digs down and holds on and seizes you, clamps on, and that is that. That’s when you start looking for your next piece and feeling through experiences to determine if they are

What was your next piece?

Evie: Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky. Another family trip, same year. I was deliberately looking for the right rock that time and found one, really small. On the way out, I saw a sign about not taking rocks. I was quite scared—we were raised to respect authority. But I kept it. I kept it under my mattress for years, thinking the government was going to tell my parents. I was more scared of my parents than of the government! Funny enough, twenty years later I visited the Petrified Forest in New Mexico, and they have all sorts of signs, like “Do not take rocks,” and that time I didn’t. I bought one properly and felt much better, although the rock arguably feels less special.

Why did you choose rocks? Why not postcards or magnets or man-made paraphernalia? 

Evie: Well, first off, you are mistaken, dear. Rocks are man-made. They are shaped by us as much as anything. They are part of something—a wall, a path, a ground, a field. They’ve been covered, uncovered, stacked, thrown, skipped, touched, held…. Anywhere in the world, they are around, witnesses. The specimens I have moved with me to Michigan, then London, they have a story. Now I’m part of their story. There is no story with postcards—or there is, but it can be cliched and deprived of beauty. Rocks allow me to imprint my story on them. But it’s touristy too, nothing about it isn’t touristy. Mementos. Like postcards. That’s why I choose my rocks carefully or let them choose me. I don’t pick up the first rock I find—I take my time to survey my surroundings until I locate the one rock that tells the story I care about. The perfect rock.

I mentioned agency before. It sounds like you have a lot of agency in your collection, a drive for control even?

Evie: Well, I’m a middle child. It’s all about being noticed and gaining power, right? Wanting to create things in my own way, move things together that only have in common one thing—rocks. And I’m bringing them back. Perhaps that is my Moses moment.

What, like being a savior?

Evie: Oh no. Commanding nature. Parting the seas. Moving land and earth. Well, rocks.

So tell me about your collection. It’s been more than thirty years—what pieces are you most proud of? How has it changed? What do you want to acquire next?

Evie: In the beginning, it was simple, memory devices, curiosity. I have one from Lincoln’s birthplace, Truman’s home. Places our family visited. I imagined collecting rocks from all the most amazing places in the world—all the continents, all fifty states, all the highest peaks…

So, really, you were collecting experiences, not rocks?

Evie: Exactly! And I was competitive about it. But then it changed as I matured and grew into myself. It became less about the place and more about me. A rock from Harvard Yard, found on my first day at college, or this one from when I fell in love for the first time.

I see that one’s white, is that intentional?

Evie: You mean representing Virginal innocence? Of course. I was young. Sentimental.

I notice your rocks got bigger too, is that intentional?

Evie: Well, I own my own space now. We all do, the older we get. I used to share a room, not a ton of space. And my mom would go through my stuff and get rid of things. Sounds silly now, but back then, it was extremely traumatic for someone who was trying to carve out her own space and identity, and a lot of that identity was in my “stuff.” The smaller the rocks, the easier to hide. As an adult, I don’t have to hide anything. Best part of being an adult.

You asked about my favorite piece, I love all my rocks, but I think this one is my favorite.

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It’s huge. And lovely, very smooth. Shaped by water?

Evie: Yes, the Pacific. See the tiny holes in it? There are skeletons of tiny sea creatures who’ve used it for shelter.

Where is it from?

Evie: New Zealand—I won’t say where, don’t want to get in trouble. It was a heavy haul but worth it. When we flew home, it was in my hand luggage, and they told me it was a dangerous weapon, so I had to check it.

Oh, and these small ones too, they are my favorite. These were given to me by one of my favorite people in the whole world. She collects rocks too.

They are extremely dark. What are they?

Evie: Brimstone. From a special Island in Maine. I rub them when I’m thinking.

Do you ever give your rocks to people?

Evie: Of course. To special people. They are a part of me. I believe when you give something, you should give with both hands, expecting nothing in return. The positive feeling generated from generosity is more powerful than any sensory affect from the actual item. Its seared on your brain. Before I die, I’m going to give away all my rocks. Rocks to loved ones, with notes.

That’s touching. You wouldn’t keep them as a collection?

Evie: Goodness, no. And do what, burden everyone to have to get rid of them? Put them in my casket? Perhaps. Maybe I’ll become really famous and sell them at Sotheby’s.

Like Warhol. Well, many artists are collectors—like Warhol, Hobson. What is the relationship of your collections to your work?

Evie: It’s thematic, sure. I love nature and include it in my stories. I have a Rousseauvian belief of the restorative goodness of nature, man’s true self is to be found there.

And the corruptibility of society…?

Evie: In a fashion. But not entirely.

How so?

Evie: Well, the goodness of man, his purpose, lies in society.

What purpose is that?

Evie: To help each other. To be good to one another. Not just to perpetuate the species but to improve the experience of the species. That is what makes us better than other animals. We can improve our experience as individuals and our path as humans.

But you’re not going into nature, you’re bringing it to you. Even bottling it up.

Evie: I suppose. A reminder. Sometimes the rocks work, sometimes they aren’t enough. I have to go back, leave society. Eddie Vedder’s song for the Into the Wild soundtrack means something to me. I build rocks around me like a wall, writing is the same thing.

Do you admire other artists as collectors? Warhol is famous, certainly. His collections selling in over ten thousand lots upon his death.

Evie: Warhol gets a lot of credit because he’s Warhol and so hot right now. But he was a hoarder, let’s be clear: his collections owned him. His huge, expensive townhouse in New York was so crammed with things he couldn’t use the rooms. No one ever saw them. He didn’t donate them, he just bought and bought and bought. If he wasn’t Warhol, he would have been another rich, materialistic American.

But he was Warhol.

Evie: He was a contradiction—he didn’t want to be flashy or pretentious, but he was… I think he occupied himself with collecting as a way of running away from his own issues. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Alright. Back to the original question…

Evie: Arman has a beautiful collection of African art, and a refined appreciation for it. Find an interview of him talking about it, he is incredibly intelligent about it. I appreciate that fully. If I ever make it, I’ll collect art and understand it fluidly like he does.

What kind of art?

Evie: I love ceramics. They are like rocks—thematically—but, of course, they usually take a vessel shape. They are made out of the same material that makes rocks. And you can see the artist’s hands, her thoughts and inspiration. I love that.

It sounds like you’ve started another collection.

Evie: I’ve started collecting. We have a few pieces, contemporary British and Irish ceramics. They are super hot right now in London and continue the long history of pottery and ceramics craftsmanship in this region. It’s impossible not to get into it. And I have a other naturalia. They overflowed the bookshelves so I bought jars. Now everything is in jars, labeled. And in my journal. I note the places I find things. Pine cones, seeds – things like that.

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Would you say that collecting feeds your art?

Evie: It feeds me. I feed my art. I love my rocks. I inhibit people. I am obsessed with individuals. Seeing a person and jumping into them, as deep as possible. As an individual. My work will always be about that, about individuals, characters.

Rocks are like that. In a composite, they form a cliff, a mountain, a beach—hell, the earth. But they are individual. At the intersection of individuality and society, if you will. My piles of rocks, which I move around regularly, shake up, touch constantly, are tokens of individuality. Hold on to that, express and expose it. That’s what my writing is about. That’s what my collection is about.

Worthless to some, priceless to me.

Warhol?

Evie: Gertrude Stein. She collected too.

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