My students in Art Since 1960 last Spring interviewed people they knew who were collectors—self-described or otherwise. Last spring I shared a couple of those interviews, which covered a wide range of collections and people. This spring our blog season begins with one last interview, by James Hamilton. James interviewed his mother, Mrs. Carla Wilson.
This collection is something personal to me, as well as to Mrs. Carla Wilson, who happens to be my mother. As our interview began, we focused on her collection of plates that she has put together over the last 30 years, but as we were concluding, she mentioned a certain coffee mug and this led to the variety of mugs that she has collected over the years. Carla had collected plateware for her own enjoyment, simply because she liked the image that decorated the plate or its size, shape, color, etc. But as the conversation shifted to her coffee mugs, she seemed to speak about them in a more passionate tone; I sensed more excitement in her voice. The collection holds its value in memories and function as opposed to monetary value or its relative rarity. These cups function as a way to mark certain meaningful events throughout my mother’s life and also allow her to share and display these memories.
I asked how this whole mug collection had got started. She recalled a memory from her early childhood in Guthrie, Oklahoma: when her mom was out of town or had an engagement to attend, her dad would take the kids down to Tee-Cee’s for fried chicken and potato wedges. Tee-Cee’s was a typical 60’s diner in the rural town of Guthrie. She recalled the baby blue vinyl booth seating they sat in, from which she could see an accordion style shelf hanging on the wall. On each peg of the shelf, different coffee cups were hanging. Today, Carla has her own accordion shelf hanging on the wall in the breakfast nook of her home. The pegs hold different cups that mark certain important events or people in her life.
Although her interest in collecting mugs had been sparked at an early age, she didn’t recall this collection starting until she was in her mid-20s. At this age, we naturally start acquiring items as we start making our homes. The first mug—the one that she considered the beginning to her collection—was a mug that she purchased while on a business trip to San Francisco. She was a young public school teacher and she had made the trip out as part of a teacher’s conference to California. This cup recalls a time when she had just begun a new career and was also just beginning a new chapter in her life as a young mother.
A little later in life comes a set of small white café style coffee cups. These cups were purchased by Carla and her husband as a young couple, and so they’re a reminder of the beginning of their new relationship. Another cup that recalls an important memory is a set she purchased during her son’s (my) wedding. Three years ago I got married and it was a wonderful, large family gathering that brought together the bride and groom’s family from all over. Most of the close family stayed onsite that fall weekend in a cottage hidden in thick foliage. This Inn happened to sell coffee mugs with their company graphic printed on them, so she purchased a pair as a way to bring home a little piece of that weekend to hang on her wall.
Collecting a functional item such as coffee cup allows one to enjoy the collection on multiple levels. In addition to collecting the cups as a reminder of past places or experiences, they also allow you to enjoy the function or ritual for which the object is used. Drinking coffee is a daily ritual for many people, and one that seems to mark the beginning of a day. Personally, if I don’t get to enjoy a warm cup of coffee in the morning, it means I’m running late and my day is slightly off balance. In our family, the ritual of drinking coffee happens on the weekends or holidays when guests come to visit. Often we’ll sit around in the evenings and discuss what is going on in each others’ lives. We’ll share stories or jokes along with a cup of coffee. As a result, while these cups mark specific old memories they are also a catalyst for making new ones.
Amongst some of the other “greatest hits” is a pair of terra cotta mugs that she brought home from an annual family trip to Matamoras, Mexico. This pair wasn’t collected for the expert craftsmanship or high quality materials, but as an object that recalls a yearly trip to Mexico that our family had taken for many years, a trip which we no longer make due to unsafe conditions at the Mexican border cities. There is another, more recent, set she acquired while on vacation with her husband in Cancún, Mexico. Here again, these cups were most likely mass produced, but it’s the memory that makes them important, not the material value. This set marks a point in their life when they were able to start enjoying the fruits of their labors; they’re nearing retirement and able to afford their own get-away vacations. These cups remind them of the good times that they shared in Cancún and are also a look ahead to the good times to come in retirement.
A simple coffee cup collection can really serve many purposes! As I began to put the cups in a chronological order as way of organizing my information from our conversation, I realized that these cups are a timeline of my mother’s life. Her first cup, from San Francisco, marked the beginning of her new career as a young person. Next is a café set that marks the beginning of her relationship with her husband. Then there’s a set from my wedding, a set that marks a new branch of the family tree forming. I didn’t mention earlier a cup from her first grandchild, certainly a very important tick mark on her timeline. She has also collected a cup from each of her employers along the way, as they give those away to new employees. All of these cups might be worthless to someone who collects valuable or only handmade mugs, however, to my mother, these objects are priceless. These cups are a timeline of my mother’s life and, when the collection is handed down to me to be continued, I will add to this unique way of keeping track of important dates and memories.