On Artists Collecting Objects

From the Sea. iPhone image. ©2015 Lee Anne White.

From the Sea. iPhone image. ©2015 Lee Anne White.

At the end of a drawing class at the Spruill Center for the Arts many years ago, the instructor invited us to her studio, which filled the basement of her home. While most of the class was drooling over the spaciousness and the oversized work table, I was captivated by her collections—the organized drawers and bins of shells, rocks, driftwood and other found objects—mostly from the beach—which she used for reference when painting and drawing.

This week, while exploring who knows what online, I stumbled across photos of Gail Rieke’s collage and assemblage studio in Santa Fe. The things she collects, the way she displays them and the ways in which she uses them to make art just blow me away.

Last night while on Pinterest, I saw a photo of Georgia O’Keefe in her home. Although the décor was minimalist in nature, I noticed there was a long bench covered in a collection of skulls and bones.

An article by the Museum of Modern Art explores a practice called Objet Trouvé, or the collection of objects by artists, in which the objects are included in an assemblage or collage. This dates to the Dada period of the early 1900s and continues today. Prior to that time, people (and not just artists, of course) collected objects and organized them in cabinets of curiosities, a practice I find equally fascinating.

I collect things, too, and always have—at least as far back as age 7 or 8, when I collected butterflies, stamps, coins and rocks—none of which, unfortunately, I have any longer. (My mom was big on yard sales and cleaning out.) These days, I collect natural objects I find on my daily walks—whether in the garden, on the beach or through the neighborhood: seedpods, starfish, bird nests, shark’s teeth, feathers and such. I also press leaves and wildflowers that I gather through the seasons. I love being surrounded by nature, both indoors and out, and I use these items when making art—whether for inspiration, as the subject itself, or for physical inclusion. They aren’t quite as organized as the objects in Gail Rieke’s studio, but I still enjoy looking at them daily for inspiration.

In his best-selling book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon says, “The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.” Psychologists agree on the distinction. I hope someone will point this out to the husband of a friend who, when he saw my collection of Southern folk pottery, said, "There is professional help for people like you."

Are you an artist who collects items? I’d love to hear about what you collect, how you organize and display these objects, and how you use them in your art.