The Mayday Experiment: Made by Mom

There have been many things keeping me from working on the tiny house lately — from typical seasonal sickness to a gigantic commissioned project with an insane deadline that ate up all my time for six weeks — and now, with the holidays approaching, I despair of getting anything done. But one of the biggest things occupying my energy has been helping those close to me relocate — last month, my boyfriend, and over Thanksgiving weekend, my mom — and it has given me plenty of occasions to ponder the nature of stuff.

I’ve often jokingly said that I come by my hoarding ways genetically, and it’s true: My grandmother stuffed bread bags inside of bread bags, and my mother insisted that every toy be saved because it was “collectible.” (She was right, and I always got rid of them right before they became valuable, growing impatient with moving and storing them, and then later, grudgingly thinking as I perused eBay, that, yes, I should have listened to my mom. As usual.) We still use '60s-hued bows and foil tags on Christmas gifts that were written when her handwriting was less shaky, when I was too young to have remembered their first use, though they come out like old friends year after year. And though we constantly teased her for her urgent demands to not rip the wrapping (torture when you’re a kid!) and her careful smoothing and folding of the paper for the next year, I am thankful that I understood the concept of reuse from a young age — and I am sure that it shaped me.

But unfortunately, what she didn’t pass on to me genetically was her extreme sense of organization and discipline. My mother spent the last three months packing and living among boxes in anticipation of her impending move, and each box was meticulously, if shakily, labeled with the contents and desired location in the new home — and even the address of that home. And while she insists she has “too much stuff” for the new place, it is a fraction of what I have in my studio, which is a frightening thought. 

In this blog, again and again, I have come back to the idea of figuring out what is important to me in preparation for this impending life change, and the complicated nature of objects and owning things. As a maker of objects, this conundrum has naturally been on my mind, as each thing I bring into being is not only a piece of art, but a storage issue and, realistically speaking, one more object on a planet overburdened with too much. “What happens to my art after I die” is a thing most artists struggle with, usually too late to prevent their families from being burdened by the responsibility of handling an artist's estate. This issue can be complicated when someone dies young or unexpectedly, as I witnessed firsthand when my dear friend Brandon Borchert, a brilliant young artist, succumbed to depression and took his own life. In the weeks after his death, his family and friends (myself included) photographed his work and lovingly wrapped it up for his grandparents to store, saved his sketches, and created a memorial website. So what of families who face a lifetime of an artist’s work, typically disorganized, as mine is?

Despite not a drop of my mom’s organizational mojo finding its way into my DNA, I am her daughter in one of the most important ways of all: She is an artist, too. I grew up at her openings and watching her paint at the kitchen table throughout my youth with a palette of bright acrylics and a fistful of Sharpies, stole her supplies and, like a typical brat, didn’t really take her seriously until I was an adult. By which point she had given up her work, as so many people do, thanks to the pressures of life and being a single mother. But she still has a lifetime of work stored. One of my biggest regrets is that I wasn't more supportive, but I was a typical awful teenager, sadly, and far too cool to like things or understand how lucky I was to have an artist mom.

As I lovingly bubble-wrapped Mom’s work, as I had Brandon’s, it began to dawn on me that the only important thing was the handmade. And that, despite my mother asking me since I was twenty what I wanted when she died, all I really cared about were the things that invoked her memory: her paintings and the box of vintage Cracker Jack toys from her childhood that has always lived in her upper right-hand dresser drawer, pulled out when I was sick as a kid as a special treat to sift through and play with. I have little from my father, but what I prize most is a gorgeous easel he made me for my 21st birthday, with every screw covered with a decorative plug and a handmade hinge. The things that become heirlooms in our families, that become treasured, are often the things that bear witness of a person’s hand.

The return to the handmade has been evident as our world becomes increasingly manufactured and technology takes over. It is no surprise that Etsy has seen such a rise in popularity, or that crafting has resurged as an activity; there is something fundamentally pleasurable about the handmade. Joke about hipsters and artisanal products all you want, but as the handmade and homemade have become more rare, a market has been created with which to satisfy those cravings for realness, even if that “realness” is manufactured itself. You need only go to a store like the loathsome Urban Outfitters to see items that bizarrely seem handmade but are replicated in China, with each perfect “flaw” engineered in order to satisfy at least the superficial demands of “authenticity.”

Another thing about the handmade is that the investment of labor gives it an inherent value and, as such, people tend to attempt to make things that will last, a quality evidenced by the fact that so many handmade things long outlast the store-bought, and are carefully handed down or gifted to museums at a certain age or fragility. When contrasted with a throwaway culture of planned obsolescence, the craving for something that connects us to something made with love seems to make perfect sense.

As we drove to my mom’s new place with my van, Dorothy Harold, stacked high with my entire family’s artwork through the years, I tried to distract her from her anxious state. She had been a mess for weeks, fretting and worrying, and I was concerned about the stress that she seemed to be swimming in. We chatted about how many times she had moved in her life, and she listed the moves: from Yonkers, New York, as a toddler to Washington Heights at the upper end of Manhattan (tenement slums then; Jerry Seinfeld’s neighborhood now), then to Fort Lee, New Jersey, for high school, into one more Fort Lee apartment, then into a place on Kaufer’s Lane in Fort Lee with my dad, whom she married right after high school. (We'd visited the spot when staying with my grandparents in my tween years, and there was nothing left but the bomb shelter next to a hole in the ground.)  After that, to the home in Colorado where I grew up (after a six-week stint in a motel while contractors finished our suburban townhome), then to an apartment on Pierce Street once I left home, then to her most recent place. And now, a brand-new, beautiful apartment near a shopping center with a view of a pond. Nine moves in all, in her entire life. I was shocked to contrast that with my thirty-plus moves in Denver alone. I envy her ability to continually be in a stable environment, but it seems that for younger generations the norm is nomadicism, constantly moving, either by choice or gentrification. It may even be another reason we all crave the nostalgia that the handmade can bring us, harking to a time when people stayed put and knew where home was.

As I winnow down my belongings and prepare to tackle the storage room this winter, filled half with art and the other half with things for a life I may never have, I know, after helping my mom move, what I need to focus on making a place for in Tiny. The handmade will always have a loving place before the manufactured. Having things made by my friends from my collections of their work over the years, along with things made by my family, will let me take them with me everywhere on my journeys, the imprint of their hand and the residue of their love emptied into every pore of the object, and memories distilled into the fiber of its being.

PS, or shameless plug: This holiday season, think about the handmade for a gift, whether created by you or a local artist or crafter — it will mean so much more over the years than any gewgaw from China, and you’ll be supporting your local creative economy! (And if you are interested in any of my work, you can contact me directly, find it at the Arvada Center’s Art Market, at Indy Ink's "Gift of Getting" Show opening Friday, through Mai Wyn Fine Art or Leon Gallery, or at both locations of the I Heart Denver Store.)   

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 or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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