What would you do if you suddenly were responsible for over 1000 original
oil paintings, mostly characterized by a very accessible characteristic
of mediocrity, and all painted by someone you were supposed to feel love
and respect for, but honestly mostly pitied and avoided?
What if the local thrift shops asked you to stop donating these artistic treasures?
Would you dishonor the painter and pollute the ground water by sending them all to the dump?
Would you feel compelled to keep the art work, and care for it physically even though you did not care for it emotionally?
In 1989 my sisters and I got the news that our paternal grandmother,
Alice PostWilliams, (Born Alice Marion Post) had died on the way to a parade
in Post Falls Idaho, where she was to be honored as the last surviving daughter
of the town's founder.
Thus began a year of excavation into the life of this woman, my own grandmother, an amateur artist and a sometimes difficult individual. I take no pleasure in speaking ill of those who've gone, and who cannot tell their own side of the story, and my sympathy and empathy is more now than when she was alive, but it is important to start by saying that our relationship was not comfortable. I have pelasant memories of sitting in her garden as a young child, using needle and thread and geraniums to make a lei while she played guitar, or gluing pebbles into mosaic patterns on cardboard, and I admire her life long interest in painting. It was not until after the death of my father, in my teens, that I began to see her as insecure, clinging and annoying, and ultimately to begin to need to have more and more distance from her. So I treasure those early memories, and will let the other stories of our relationship during her life fade.
The sad task at the time of Alice's death, after her funeral was over, became mine and my sisters' -- to clean her house and look for a will.
This took about nine months. The first day, my sister and I boldly entered the dark home and made our way through precarious corridors between piles of newspapers and belongings over twenty years deep. The sheer quantity of particular items, such as small flashlights, transitor radios, metal wire end-tables and boxes of kleenex was shocking and disturbing. In her final years, Alice's artistic projects had turned to a performance art piece about hording, it seemed. There were whole rooms which were packed nearly full of old clothes, and in the basement was a whole room full of oil paintings. Most of the artwork was framed, some were signed. I wondered if my lack of appreciation of the products, if not the process, was colored by my own estrangement from the artist, and I showed a few paintings around. The very worst ones were the easiest to give away, amusing in their stiffness and in some cases almost looking like an intentional parody of a visual cliche.
The few very best ones were also placed in good homes without difficulty.
Some to family members, some in a tongue-in-cheek but successful charitable
art auction for East Bay N.O.W., and a few to a second-hand store dealer
at a massive garage sale. But while getting rid of 40 excellent or terrible
paintings is a challenge, getting rid of the other 960 or so mediocre canvases
was a greater challenge. Some did indeed go to the dump, I'm sad to say,
where the groundeater is currently being changed by the slow leeching of
the pigments, alas. Some went to Salvation Army where the response was "we
don't need any more picture frames! Please stop."
I was spending my evenings cleaning Alice's house, and my days at work. My social life shifted to the electronic variety -- hanging out on The WELL late at night seeking company for this peculiar misery of marathon house cleaning and Mediocre Art Glut. We brainstormed ways to get rid of Mediocre Art. While the prevailing inclinations seemed to be blowing the paintings up, or otherwise dramatically destroying them, my own criteria included avoiding pollution. And the only way to do this would be to change the context, and transform the works from junk to art.
Is it the frame, or lack of it? The position in a museum or lack of it? What gives a painting appeal?
The banter on the WELL's ArtCom conference included a lot of joking about
what makes art valued. I considered conventional PR, but I knew I didn't
have the connections needed to make that work. One day a concept came to
me while excavating Alice's house. There was very little of value in that
entire house full of posessions, but I came across an old purple bottle,
and I set it aside with the garage sellable treasures. Knowing that the
bottle had been collected in the desert, and that the bottle had been garbage
to a prospector at some point, I exclaimed out loud.
Context was the right idea after all... the pictures needed to be placed where they'd be "collected".
I planned a winter trip to the Death Valley area, to find a new frame and gallery, if you will. To change the context and make art.