Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Creeping terror, and the damnable, frustrating waste of it all.

My mother-in-law passed away just before Christmas. She died at peace with her family including me. What she left behind however, her estate, is not peaceful but rather an enormous cacophony of stuff.

I have taken on the task of managing the move, storage and organization of her many collections, in preparation for sale. It's a job that I can best do, as a service to my family, since I have no emotional attachment to her things, no fond childhood memories to revisit to slow down the job of wrapping and packing. There is a mountain of things from fine art, to decorative pieces and antiques, to ordinary household goods like the cookware from three different kitchens, to an endless supply of dark colored sweat pants and knit tops in a range of sizes.

Beverly collected. In her youth she collected Asian art and textiles from her travels, esoteric books and the fine art pieces of her artist friends. In her later years she collected catalogs, gems from cable shopping networks and boxed art notecards.

And a lot of her things are undeniably trash that she just wasn't able to release. I have placed hundreds of outdated catalogs from clothing and home decor stores into the recycling bin. Every small box, dish or basket has to be checked because lurking among paper detritus, used matches, cat treats and bottles of expired aspirin, will be a ruby ring or silver art deco hair pin. So many of her belongings are frustratingly damaged, including some of the decorative art pieces that otherwise would be of great value. So every tiny piece of wood or tin has to be examined and saved in case it is needed to repair something.

I have found boxes of garments, many new with the tags still on them, others stained and marred by scorch marks. The sizes range from Medium to 3XL. She kept vintage designer pieces and kimonos, which is great - but not everything was put away cleaned, which is not. She also kept ordinary contemporary clothes that no longer fit, rather than ever donate anything. Plus I have 10 old tube television sets, which may or may not work, but have to go to e-waste recyclers.

Much of what she saved over the years became part of what she considered her arts and crafts stash - beads, paper, interesting ephemera, shells (boxes and boxes of shells). But the sad thing is that in recent years, there is little evidence that she actually created, or at least completed, anything.

In her drawers and closets I found a few small half-formed beginnings of things - several items gathered in a dish, a beetle in a plastic box, a piece of gold wire almost wrapped around an antique bead pilfered from a beaded curtain. She kept supplies until they were beyond use, like paint tubes that had hardened, inks dried to a shadow, paper yellowed and crumbling. Then she bought more to suffer the same fate. It was as if she had many intentions but evidently little follow through in action.

It has been challenging to witness these dismaying twins of waste and lost opportunity. As a maker I too have a tendency to collect ephemera and materials. I keep things I like with the plans, oh yes the plans, to make art with them. But many of them sit for years. I have started to feel a kind of creeping panic, terror even, that I am becoming a hoarder without productivity.

I get some relief from my recent determination to organize my workspace. At least I know where everything is, in labeled boxes, which gives me a great advantage over my poor mother-in-law whose every drawer was a mish mash, and whose inability to find things among the stacks meant numerous repeat purchases. I surely don't want to die leaving a great challenging mess for my daughter to have to sort. I now believe that my recent purge was insufficient. Labeling and organizing (in her case piling and stacking) can also be tools of procrastination.

The other thing that disturbs me is the small scale of her work - and mine. I am a doll maker, so by definition sometimes my work is miniature - but that's not what I mean. I am speaking of the aesthetic value of the work. What disturbs me now is that I see, as a mirror, my tendency to dash out something small, and unimportant, because it is quicker to do, easier to set up. Small like a card or a flower pin, instead of moving forward on my larger scale - personally valuable and important - projects. It's fiddling around instead of diving in to the flow. Remember Covey's Time Management Matrix

I realized today that this scale issue has kept me focused on "crafting", instead of attacking my new business with gusto, or engaging with my next artistic goal of making large scale sculptures, or devoting real attention to my screenwriting. It's not only my personal satisfaction I am seeking, but also the idea of leaving a legacy of completed work.

Ironically writing for Natural Life Magazine hasn't helped. A while ago I wrote about my process of designing projects for the magazine (scroll down). Since my focus there is making crafts from recycled and upcycled materials, I have a tendency to hold on to stuff with the idea that it might become useful for the column, instead of simply looking in the recycling bin when I need something.

My mother-in-law lives in the memories of her family and friends, but passed away leaving only stuff as her public legacy. Some more special stuff, the family will claim as useful or meaningful; some stuff people will be glad to put to use; other stuff, being long unused, should have made its way back into circulation a long time ago.

I have a new determination - as soon as this ongoing estate disposal business concludes - to simplify my workspace, reduce the clutter of ideas by streamlining my plans, and ruthlessly eliminate those items I am holding on to non-specifically - just because they might be something one day. Gotta get rid of more of my old stuff.

Stay tuned for a de-stash - very soon.

Oh, and if you know anyone who wants a set of random antlers, let me know. We seem to have at least 20.


bhán said...

Very thought-provoking post (as someone else who uses bits & bobs to create).

Robyn Coburn Writer/Artist said...

Thanks so much for reading, bhan. I guess I'm seeing evidence of collecting bits & bobs but then NOT using them to create. The collecting of admittedly really cool and interesting things, may have become the end in itself, and I'm worried that I'm falling into the same trap - because gathering is such fun.

I did make a decision a while ago to use only my stash of vintage fabrics for dolls, instead of buying new fabric, but that is starting to feel limiting.

The great thing about this upcoming sale is that it need not include only MIL's estate. I can certainly bring back some of the textiles she gave me in the past, that I can't use, and add that to the stock.