We began the semester in ART 4613: Art Since 1960 with a discussion of how the purposes of art change over time, how collecting practices influence our perception of what is, or isn’t, art, and the many different ways in which art—and collections—have or create value. The students’ first written assignment was to interview a collector; the results were diverse and frequently insightful. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of the best interviews—starting this week with student Maggie Rogers’ conversation with her grandmother.
My grandmother, or Mammy, as we call her, is a very unique woman. She has been one of the most influential people in my life. She is an artist as well as a collector. When I was young, I would go over to Mammy’s house every Friday night to spend time with her. I remember walking into the kitchen every week and seeing the new painting she had started that week. She painted in the kitchen because that was the room with the most natural light.
According to Mammy, she was always interested in painting. She began by painting crude backgrounds for her mother to do flannelgraphs on in Sunday school, and she later found number paintings. Her craft has improved, but the same passion for art still continues. I remember always being amazed at the realistic quality of her paintings, and having an overwhelming desire to be as talented as her one day. Around the age of eight years old, I began to go to painting classes with her, which soon inspired my passion for painting and art as well.
The rest of Mammy’s house was like a candy store for an inquisitive child like myself. She had a craft room full of paints and random collections of boxes, bags, ribbons and other things that she would “keep to use eventually.” Mammy also has two attics that hold many of her collectibles. One attic, which she refers to as “Hobby Lobby,” holds many of her paintings and also house decorations for every season. The other attic is filled mainly with a large collection of hats. She is part of the Red Hat Society, but she also enjoys wearing a nice hat to church on Sunday. Her hats are pieces of art, all in themselves. I decided to interview Mammy because her collections remind me of Song Dong’s mother’s collections, which inspired him to make Waste Not.
Maggie: Mammy, what is your most favorite thing to collect?
Mammy: I collect many things, but the collections I love most are my dishes and books.
Why did you start collecting dishes and books?
I think anyone who collects, collects because one is interested in the particular items. I like dishes because they clean up so well. Dishes have a beauty all their own. They remind me of home. The older ones remind me of homes in my childhood.
I started collecting clear bubble glass because it was a premium in boxes of oatmeal when I was a child. I was always eager to open the new box and see if we had a new cup, saucer, bowl, or another piece of the collection. After I began collecting, I discovered bubble came in other colors also like clear, red, milk, clear green, and clear blue. Of course, I wanted all those sets also. Some of my collections remind me of sets my older sister, aunt, or my mother owned. For this reason, they are exceptionally special.
Homer Laughlin was a maker who made beautifully decorated dishes that the average housewife of half a century ago could afford. They are relatively inexpensive now but still beautiful. I have many sets of his work. I probably own thirty-plus sets of dishes now. Some are a set of six, some eight, and others twelve or more.
Mammy’s collections, like Song Dong’s mother’s, were generated from the era she was raised in. Her bubble glass dishes were interesting to her because they were a fun surprise in the oatmeal boxes they got when she was a child. I did some research, and I found out that these dishes were put in oatmeal boxes during the Great Depression. A dish in an oatmeal box seems like an odd gift to us now, but in the Depression it was probably quite practical.
Where do you find the dishes that you collect today?
I find dishes at antique malls, thrift stores, and garage sales. Folks who know what I collect also bring them to me from “grandma’s cupboard” or garage sales.
How do you choose which pieces to add to your collection?
I would love to collect all beautiful patterns, but space is limited in my dish pantry. Now I only add to the sets I already have.
Since your dishes stay in a pantry, how are you able to share your collection of dishes with others?
I love to cook (when it is my idea), and I serve the meal on a different set of dishes each time. Sometimes I permit a guest to choose the dishes of the day, and sometimes I decorate with dishes.
I love coming in on Sunday’s for lunch and seeing which dishes we will be eating on that week. So I guess your love for your dishes has been passed down to me in that way. Why and to whom else do you think your collection is important?
My collection is important to me. I love to gaze on all my patterns. They are not really valuable, but I find many of my guests enjoy them also.
You mentioned before that you have a pantry for your dishes. As for your books, how do you display that collection?
They fill my library and are in every room of my house.
Do you think of yourself as a collector?
Oh yes, I think of myself as a collector, if not a hoarder!
I love Mammy’s last answer because it reiterates that her collection shares common qualities with Song Dong’s installation Waste Not. Can Mammy’s collection really be considered art? If you are going by Song Dong’s idea of art then I think it would be, because Mammy’s collection is something that interests her, and her goal for collecting was to remind herself of her childhood. According to Yu (2007) Song Dong said, “… if the primary goal of art creation is profit, the manner in which art is created will cater to certain interests. When these interests and profits shift, no artistic quality remains” (p. 176). Mammy had no interest in economical profits when she began collecting. She didn’t collect books or dishes in order to gain a profit in any way besides the memories and joy that her collections brought her. “What motivates me is life itself and my interests in this world” (Yu, 2007, p. 177), said Song Dong. Mammy was interested in collecting things that interest her.
Now my mother, sister, and I appreciate the beauty in Mammy’s dishes as well. Not because they are overtly precious, but because they remind us of Mammy. I think many people could relate to that. I think Mammy’s dish collection would reach people from her generation who also remember getting bubble glass dishes in a oatmeal box, but I also think it appeals to a group of people who, like myself, appreciate obscure objects because they cause us to remember a certain person. Song Dong described my thoughts well when he said, “… I’ve had the chance to reconsider the present. The philosophy behind mother’s hardworking and frugal, ‘waste not’ lifestyle has allowed me to take notice of these many things, which originally would have disappeared onto the rubbish heap; her way of living has preserved for us these bits of ‘momentary history’” (Yishujia, 2006, p. 183). I think we have that generation to thank, for reminding us that it is the simple things that can be the most valuable.
While I consider Mammy an artist, I think the most important question I had to ask myself while writing this paper was, “Just because Mammy is an artist. does that make her collections art?” In the end, I think my overall answer is yes. Yes, because she collects things that interest her. Yes, because others can relate to them through generational perspective. Yes, because, like myself, many people can have an appreciation for obscure collections that hold a memory of a special person in their life.
Dangdai Yishujia. “An Interview with Song Dong by the Journal Contemporary Artists after the Sixth Gwangju Biennale in 2006.” Contemporary Artists 5.43 (2006): 181-85.
Yu, Christina. “Waste Not: An Interiew with Song Dong.” Chicago Art Journal 17 (2007): 176-80.