It’s Just Stuff Until You Say I Love It

Artists are collectors of stuff; the materials of the medium could be paint, fiber, or found objects. They carefully arrange stuff in some way to create meaning and continuity in their lives. I don’t live in an empty room. I fill it with my stuff, and these books and posters and images represent something. Can I use things to express myself? I thought to ask some artists in Portland how they use things to express themselves.

“An artist creates something out of themselves. It’s what makes us not robots. It’s what makes us humans or what brings us out of animalness,” Adam Sorensen ventures. “I need to create; it was always the desire to create things. When I started painting I discovered it had a straight-forward way to create something.” I ask Sorensen how the effort of arranging shapes and colors on canvas influences the way he arranges stuff in other areas of his life.

“Me and my girlfriend who I’ve lived with for many years,” Sorensen says, “we’ve collected lots of salt-and-pepper shakers of mushrooms and pyramids and things; and there’s no similarities until they’re all pushed together.” His girlfriend Midori Hirose is also an artist. “She made all these snow globes,” Sorensen muses, “and we have all those. I collect plastic football helmets. I’ve always loved the color theory that goes along with sports – the colors and logos. I find it interesting that a group of people would associate themselves with a few colors. I’ve made my own football helmets that are color theories.” Sorensen says, “That’s another way I organize things. It’s very surface at first, but a lot of things can be written off as surface – but if you give things time, they could explain it.”

I inquire how things do this and Sorensen explains, “I’m instantly comfortable when I go home, and that’s probably from what I see when I come home and how I feel – what is generated by the things. I have a mantle full of little objects, art objects, things people have made, things I have collected. It’s like souvenirs, moments in time or memories of certain people – things that I enjoy having around me. I couldn’t live in a stark barren space. When people come in, ‘Oh yeah, this is Adam’s house.'”

Adam Sorensen works at PDX Contemporary Art in the Pearl District. “While working here, I’ve met collectors,” he informs me, “a big part of being a collector is having an inventory and dealing in a theme.” Sorensen adds that “some people just say, oh I want to look at that,” and it’s a one time purchase. The average age of an art buyer is 40-60 years old. Stable income. Stable lifestyle. “It’s intimidating at first,” gallery owner Jeanine Jablonski says, “with contemporary art there’s such a long history involved. It’s so all over the map, that people do need a little guidance as to who is a good investment.” Jablonski’s gallery, Fourteen30 Contemporary, is in SE Portland. The average price on the list for the current show is $1,000. Jablonski says, “Unlike your sofa – unless you’re looking at a piece of Danish modern furniture – you can look at as an investment, and hopefully over time – depending on what you buy and when you buy, it will increase in value.” She observes, “Some people don’t necessarily work that way – it’s more a visceral response. It’s all dependent on personality.”

Contemporary art may appreciate in value simply through the artist being collected by extremely wealthy people and getting written up in the press. Other collectors want to be a part of the security associated with a big patron’s investment, and there’s something of a chain reaction. After sitting in the contemporary art gallery and talking with Jablonski, I begin to think about how value is created. Is it the skill of the artist? Is it a value inherent in the materials of the object? Is it the subject matter of the artwork? Is it the media buzz around the artist? Maybe the inside story of art is a chain letter, sent along from one wealthy patron to another going all through history from church to state commissions until it’s just a painting on the wall of a cave. Inhabiting this movement are artists whose personality and skill in communicating a unique sensibility increases the art’s value through the storytelling of their life and the legend attached to the work.

“I like to work with materials that have a story of their own – quirky bits of rusted steel that I find on the street or salvage yards.” Portland architect and sculptor Fredrick Zal explains, “That propeller has a shape and it could potentially become a bowl, a shelf, or you could machine it down to become a fender on your bicycle.” Zal designs and builds just about anything that can be made or reclaimed from wood, steel, concrete, and glass.

We sit at his dining room table he made from a fire door. “I found this by Miller Paint on SE Grand,” Zal tells me. “It was basically sitting in the dumpster. Getting the paint off, that took a lot of time … and the table legs took twenty minutes. I had some wood lying around, and I just chopped it up and put it together.” Using found objects to create personal objects requires a mysterious ingredient. Zal relates this to home cooking. “Being the idea of cooking with love,” he says, “it doesn’t matter what it is; what’s important is the care and attention you put into making it.”

When Zal offers me a piece of chocolate tort, he serves it on a rectangular glass plate. The unusually shape and material cause me to rethink the whole idea of what a plate is. “When I’m designing silverware, there’s a very simple function it has, and the materials it’s crafted with,” Zal says, “and then there’s questioning how we use a fork – how we hold it. That’s where the artistry comes in.” I do a double-take at the thought of redesigning common objects. The forks we’re eating with have a three-sided handle. The fork appears normal, but when I pick it up and feel three sides where I expect a flat narrow handle, I really think about the fork.

“I think about it as artistic guidance. If I’m working with materials, I help the material be what it wants to be.” Zal points to a bowl on the center of the table. “So this thing,” he says, “I found in the basement of a restaurant supply shop over by OMSI. “It’s just a funnel. It actually was from a scale. There were two of them and you’d put your flour or what have you in it. I think what I like about it is: it’s scratched; it’s bumped; it doesn’t have an exact geometry about it anymore.”

Putting in time, attention, and love creates a personal attachment and uniqueness. “The big argument,” Zal suggests, “when we went to the machine age we lost the care.” Consumer products today exist in an sea of disposability. After the industrial revolution allowed the creation of more products than consumers could buy, we entered an age of planned obsolescence. The objects of consumption have a limited lifespans subject to constantly changing fashions.

Zal says the golden sheen on a handrail displays a history of human interaction. “These candlesticks I found in some thriftshop and they had a story to them. That’s why I bought them.” Zal looks around his living room and reflects, “There’s this thing in American society about working your whole life so you can retire, but – I have to remind myself this sometimes – you have to live everyday how you want to be.” There’s a promise of ease, comfort, and fulfilled desires in the marketplace. The consumer culture is driven by the impulse to say young, sexy, and powerful. Advertisers prey upon insecurity. Products promise an identity, and people are conscious of the brand and the status it carries amongst their friends. Is artwork only a leftover product that results from pursuing an ideal, or maybe an identity? What is it that we are really seeking in life?

“Eleven years ago when I started painting,” Sorensen says, “it began an out of control spiral where I continually have to do it and do something better than the last time. Artists have something to work towards – the only motivation is my desire and need.” I ask Sorensen if the motivation is to create a thing or to be an artist. He says it’s “both to have an object and be identified as an artist.” The creation of artwork is both an expression of ambition and the human need to be loved.

“I don’t think the majority of artists,” Jablonski muses, “that I have worked with, have created work for someone’s home. I think they would be embarrassed to say that. I think there’s lots of different reasons, but I’ve never had an artist say to me, well I made this to go over someone’s couch. They’re making it for their own reasons, creatively, to put it out into the world. I would be the one to say this would look really good over here. That’s why artists want a dealer like myself, so they don’t have to think where this would go, they just have to make it.”

The gathering of things and the creation of atmosphere, Zal likens building a nest, “It’s not conscious. I think it’s subconscious. Crows pick up things that are shinny and weave them into their nest.” He further compares the creation of atmosphere to clothing. “People wear clothing … and people pick that clothing, whether it’s new or it’s vintage. You pick what you wear and there are some things that are scratchy and there are some that are soft. You wear the clothing that makes you happy and that clothing is not literally the fabric of the clothing; it’s not jacket; it’s not shirt; you surround your body with things you enjoy. You could think of it as temperature – living in someplace that is warm versus cold.”

“When you see something you like, I think it resonates with yourself. The reason you like something, it contains something that makes sense to you, whether you can put your finger on it or not.” Zal tells a story from his salad days, “This silverware … for years I was trying to save up money so I could buy the silverware from Pottery Barn called Willow, which I thought was beautiful, but I couldn’t afford it. I said, someday I’ll be able to buy that, but it was ridiculous. And then I was at my parents’ house and there was a bunch of stuff they were throwing away and I said, ‘What are you doing with that? This is the silverware I had as a kid.’ It is very close to the Willow silverware that I wanted, and it didn’t occur to me that the reason I wanted the Willow silverware was because it was connected to my childhood. I never thought about it until they were throwing it away and I saw it.”

It’s a way you make yourself comfortable, like padding your bed. People gather things that attract them, and that attraction is a feeling. People seek moments of connection and recognition where they feel most alive, and return to that place again and again. When I consider what I’m seeking in life, it is a feeling. Not something so material as a thing, or even a place, or a specific job, or a person. It’s a feeling of being alive. A connection. I do collect books, toys, computers, and clothes. These things can make me feel good, and that feeling radiates. The challenge now, is to not allow my stuff to become armor that prevents me from real human interactions. I love my computer, but I can’t have a relationship with a piece of plastic. I’m going to use my stuff to create meaningful human relationships and not become too invested in bartering for status. We all want to be loved, and only when we believe we can’t get real love, do we settle for less – and start negotiating for the trappings of a power. I’m looking for connection and recognition, but at least now I’m conscious of it.

The guy in glasses and full beard sitting next to me in the Waypost cafe looks interesting, so I turn to him, and decide to try and open up. It turns out he’s a painter. I can’t believe my luck. I have to ask him about his work. He shows me his website: davidstein-art.com and tells me, “A friend of mine built it. I traded him a painting for the website.” Stein works with oil paint by pressing a page onto the wet paint and pulling it off, then gazing at the surface until he sees an image. “I don’t really collect much of anything,” he says, “I try to keep the house as empty as possible. It’s really difficult.” I ask him if the paintings change his life. “It definitely changes my life. I spend my time painting my own little world, and when it’s finished I allow the public to see it. The idea is to make it as available for the public to see as possible.” Stein’s work is represented by the Mark Woolley gallery in Portland. “At a gallery opening, I’m there, the art’s there, and I meet a lot of people there. That’s how I met most of the people I know in Portland.” Stein co-directs a dance performance group hotlittlehands.org with his partner, Suniti Dernovsek. “My girlfriend is a dancer and a choreographer, so we create these performances, basically through putting our heads together and creating this little world.” What Stein says about his work is true for me too: “It brings me into contact with people I would not ordinarily be in contact with.”

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