What if it all sparks joy?

In praise of collections, ephemera, and stuff

Image description: A page from my art journal with the statement “my things do not define me…in their presence or absence” on a multicolored background

This whole decluttering and miminalist movement is making me very nervous. I fully admit I have overflowing bookshelves and boxes full of paper ephemera…but I am an artist and a researcher, so it seems to me that is what my shelves and storage cabinets should look like! Particularly since my aesthetic incorporates vintage ephemera and what I call “heavy mixed media” techniques…all these items are the raw materials for my work. I collect vintage items to tuck into paintings and artwork — little bits of life and nature that are an essential part of my process. I’m proud of my stuffed bookshelves — they represent areas of interest and inquiry and some of those books are old friends who’ve traveled across the country and back several times with me.

I think we make hasty judgments about the how and why of people’s collections. I worry that this emphasis on simplifying and clearing away is short-circuiting a need to have conversations about the things we’ve saved. These items and objects may represent unresolved grief, unfulfilled dreams, or unspoken desires. In general, I believe we make too many assumptions about what people save and why; I wrote about it as part of a discussion of access to art and art materials. Sometimes we do not realize the value of what we have until it is gone — ask people who survived the recent fires: grateful for their lives but regularly moved to tears about small sentimental things that burned up. This can happen digitally as well; last year my external hard drive crashed and I lost my entire digital archive, including raw research data and photos of deceased loved ones.

I wonder if part of the desire to downsize, simplify, or streamline is really driven by our hyperconnected lives — we may not be able to turn our smartphones off, but we can give away three of our five sweaters or that ‘extra’ pair of jeans. I think we are missing the point. The problem isn’t the jeans it is the fact that we have three separate email addresses and five devices beeping at us at any given moment. The problem isn’t the album of family photos, it is that we haven’t taken time to breathe or to watch the sun rise. Cleaning out our sock drawers is not going to solve the larger problem of being overwhelmed and overworked. How can we find stillness and peace without stripping our lives of texture, sentiment, and nostalgia? Personally, I’d rather see us patch, mend, save, and cherish than strip things away to the bare minimum. And the things that truly do not ‘spark joy’ can be catalysts for conversations prior to their disposal or donation.