Arts and Culture

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

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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...

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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy