Arts and Culture

The Mayday Experiment: For a Tiny House, (Almost) Everything Must Go!

I have a confession to make. I'm a hoarder.

Not in the "as seen on TV" sense, thankfully -- though I suppose I've come close at times. I don't hang onto things out of sentimentality, but because everything is useful in my eyes. Everything. See also: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Mayday Experiment

This is a surprise to no one who has known me for a while. In fact, before I went to grad school in Ohio in the fall of 2010, I needed to have epic garage sales for months -- I think there were five in total, and all of them had different stuff. My fabric hoard alone covered two four-foot by eight-foot tables stacked two feet high, and that didn't count the bolts.

I was raised to think of stuff as having value. My mom -- an antique collector, arrowhead hunter and, though she would quibble with the designation, inveterate hoarder -- imbued in me the idea that if you hang onto things long enough, they become valuable. She was keen on the idea of the "collectible" long before it became popular: My Barbies were saved (and later sold for far too little to raise the down payment for the house I bought with my ex), Matchbox cars meticulously cared for, and Breyer Horses babied with an eye towards future value. But the hoarding goes deeper than that: When cleaning out my grandmother's Depression-era apartment, we found bread bags stuffed in bread bags stuffed in bread bags, stacks of half-napkins (we never used a whole napkin -- too wasteful), every magazine ever purchased and pill bottle used. Recycling is in my blood, but so is this need to hang onto every scrap of usefulness that an item can yield.

And my mom isn't completely wrong about this "collecting" urge -- many of my collections and finds sustained me for years, sold for amounts that even I found ridiculous (but was all too happy to accept) in the early years of eBay's existence, before it was taken over by Chinese auctions with one-cent starting bids. For many years, the hunt -- through estate sales, auctions, and back alleys -- served as both entertainment and an extra source of cash, though for everything sold ten things were stashed away. But for all the value that our stuff has, it also has a cost.

Items need to be housed, cared for, accounted for. And storage isn't cheap. But when you're an artist, this is a double problem: Not only are materials needed, but finished artworks need to be stored, catalogued, repaired, tracked and protected. (This was a constant argument with Philip Spangler over the summer: His point of view was that I should destroy all my old work the way he dumpstered his - an argument that might have made sense if I, like he, made room-sized constructions and installations.)

And items are not only expensive to store - they're expensive to move. And move them I did, in a 24-foot truck across the country for grad school, and a 24-foot truck back -- still filled, but about half of it with different stuff. (In part, this explains Philip's attitude towards my work: He helped load the truck one of those times.) And I still had a closet in the studio filled with artwork, and a two-car garage behind our house that was practically an archaeological dig.

Just over a year ago today, digging is exactly what I was doing, as we prepared to sell our house. With help and support from my friend Jessica Joy, I tackled the garage, which truly filled me with anxiety. When we first bought the house, the idea was that the garage would be my studio, but I hated it and moved back into an outside studio within a couple of years. So with the remains of my studio in there and no hurry to move anything, the piling began. The immense hauls from the clearing out of the Burger Brothers Building downtown (something many artists in town benefitted from), yard tools, a four foot in diameter Styrofoam ball dragged home from Craigslist (it had a previous life on a parade float for the Elks), bags of clothes intended for ARC that never made it there, boxes and boxes of paper swept from the desk with the intention of future sorting...all of it piled up in towering cubist stalagmites of dusty crap. And while the impulse to throw it all into the dumpster was great, amongst the garbage was treasures: my grandmother's jewelry, high school pictures, and the dangerous proliferation of social security numbers on scraps of old mail and paperwork.

Each day, Jessica would keep me focused on one box at a time, offering encouragement and support for the things I got rid of, and never judging the strange, random crap I kept. A previous attempt at this task with a professional organizer had not gone as well -- she was baffled that I saw no use for plastic containers but was obsessively hanging onto rusty cans. She couldn't begin to fathom why scraps of paper on the floor were important to keep, but perfectly good handbags didn't interest me. I watched every step she took towards the trash can with suspicion and a tinge of horror. Keep reading for more on the stash of stuff... But Jessica made it fun, and given that cleaning out your home of fifteen years is bound to be traumatic, that was the most important thing of all. Digging through the layers of Public Service Company and Mountain Bell bills (for real), old magazines, unfinished projects and broken parts, I started to find peace. For years I'd had a recurring fantasy: that the garage would just catch fire, and maybe the house, too, and rid me of the responsibility of digging through the crap. It held too many memories, too much fear and a fair amount of spiders, and none of those were things I much wanted. And neither, I found, was the majority of what was in the garage, but the treasures unearthed in the garbage were worth the trouble of digging. Once at the studio, Jessica played Tetris with my boxes of crap, building towering, wedged-together structures in my storage closet that didn't waste a drop of space.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that for me, everything is useful. My materials have included things such as industrial felt scraps, wasps' nests, tire scraps picked from the side of the highway, used motor oil, tar, old powder puffs, stuffed animals, fishing lures, weave hair, dead things, taxidermy parts, broken toys, Styrofoam and plastic packaging, and garlic. And often it takes me time to aggregate enough of these things for a project. (Friends are currently collecting plastic bags for me, mailing them and dropping them off weekly - and I still need more before I start laminating them together in the sculptural form I'm envisioning.)

I can still work this way in part because I'm blessed to still have a decent-sized studio in Denver's insane housing market. And already, the writing is on the wall in rapidly changing Five Points, and I live in fear of the developers' offer that finally piques my landlord's interest, especially after all the times I've been forced out of studios by gentrification. I live in it but, even so, it's a struggle to pay for, which is one problem the tiny house seeks to solve. But the tiny house creates another problem: What will I do without my stuff? I'm keenly aware that this will radically change my work, and I'm curious to see how I will rise to the challenges.

It also means I have to carefully consider each object I own, and where it fits in my studio, my home, my life - all of which will coexist in a mere 210 square feet along with my cat, Monkey. Trying to predict how I will work, with my short attention span and multi-layered practice, feels almost impossible. What tools will I need? What materials? What furniture? Aside from a work surface, drawers and a spot for my sewing machine, I'm still unclear on what I must have. I've had thoughts of building a box for the back of Bertha that could function as an auxiliary studio, but first I have to get the house built, and that's daunting enough.

And even before that, a massive amount of de-hoarding is still required. Come spring, let the yard sales begin. And the decisions will be tough this time. Unlike other tiny housers, I don't intend to pare down my possessions to what will actually fit in my home - while on the road, I will keep my stuff in storage in the studio (which I will sublet), in two closets that roughly equal the size of the tiny house. I'm guessing they can fit maybe a third of what I currently own, most of which will be artwork and studio furniture. But it's clear that tough decisions will need to be made, and the day looms when I will need to make them.

And still: it feels a little like cheating, this keeping of things...but this is one argument Phil isn't going to win.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at

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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy