The Power of Using Real Old Stuff in Art

Posted by: Elaine Luther

I not only love using found objects in my art, it’s my primary way of making. The objects come to me with a history, or brand new, and I choose them because of their shape, or what they mean or represent.

When I discovered the blog of textile collage artist Mandy Pattullo of the UK, I was enamored with her work. So much so, that I read her entire blog. The whole thing! I’ve never done that before.

Mandy does so many things well, but her particular genius is in working with old stuff. She’s very brave about working with genuine old stuff, even including the original of a 150 year old letter in one piece!

She buys old quilts – the ones that no one else wants, that are beyond using – and takes them apart and uses that fabric in her textile collages. She sews together disparate bits of various quilts, sometimes over-dying the quilt fabric first, and often embroiders onto these newly created textile collages. For that’s what they are, they’re a collage, made of textiles, they’re not an art quilt, they’re this new and different thing.

We’re all attracted to different things, I love old stuff. My mom was shocked to learn recently that I love the color of rust. What can I say, I do! I don’t want my own fence to be rusty, but I can appreciate the gorgeous color of rusting steel on someone else’s fence, or a train car or bit of something on the sidewalk.

And I’m not the only one, you need look no further than the headquarters of John Deere, built from Corten steel, a special steel that rusts to a certain point and then stops, (which is unusual, normally steel will rust until there is nothing left) to see that others appreciate this color too. This range of colors.

All this to say that I love old things and even varying stages of wear and decay and what that represents. But it’s difficult to explain. Luckily, I remembered that Tim McCreight, metalsmith, jeweler, professor and the author of many books, wrote a whole book explaining just this sort of thing. It’s called The Syntax of Objects.

He writes, “There is nothing so dearly loved, says the Velveteen Rabbit, as the one-eye, raw-worn, lumpy creature. There is no way to recreate that most exquisite decay except by the passage of time and attentive abuse. Objects are the canvas on which these stories are painted.” (p. 16)  This is why those parental attempts to substitute the back-up stuffed lovey that had in reserve fail.

McCreight continues, “Objects acquire power through ownership, or in some cases, even contact. In any museum we will find objects whose importance derives from the hands that once held them – Lincoln’s buttonhook, Churchhill’s cigar case.

As children, we are introduced to great-grandfather’s watch, or the Bible or compass or brooch that had been in the family. We learned that objects mark time in a unique way, a spiritual internegative. I could not hold the hand of my great-grandfather, who died before I was born, but I could hold his watch and it knew the contours of his hand. No one told me how this worked; I felt it.”  (p. 21)

I appreciate this writing, I appreciate the help in understanding why I like old things, perhaps why Mandy Pattullo does as well, and the why and how of objects acquiring meaning for us.

I need to know, because this helps me understand what it means when I use an old wooden spool in my art, what it means when I alter it by adding a fragment of a letter written to me when I was in high school, or a piece of a recipe, typed by a woman I never met, but whose recipe cards I purchased at an estate sale and have moved from house to house.

This history, contained in an object, even if I don’t know that history, is why I don’t use newly manufactured wooden spools, but instead collect the old ones, with their paper labels still attached, or text burned into them instead of a label.

Long ago, I was an apprentice to a bench jeweler who said she had an almost physical love for gemstones. Though I don’t feel that way about gems, I knew what she meant, the excitement, the increased heart rate upon seeing something that you love and also feel compelled to posses.  And sometimes, make it into art.

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