The Mayday Experiment: The Joy of Hoarding

We all get stuck at times. We don’t always know why, but sometimes that task we know we should be doing lingers, becomes larger, then turns into an insurmountable problem. At those times, we need to reach out for help — and I've always kind of sucked at that. As my life has been in transition over the past few years, I’ve had to learn that hard lesson several times, especially while juggling multiple things.

I have often joked that I am a hoarder, but it's only half a joke. True: I doubt I have reached TV crew/intervention levels, and I don’t need to save every piece of trash for nostalgia’s sake, but I have found that the amount of space I have tends to fill with possibilities – items that may become art or may become otherwise useful, but instead often become obstacles to trip over while they gather dust. 
Because the reality is, what we own becomes a burden. Each thing needs to be cared for, stored, used…. With the plethora of free junk littering alleys or simply dropped on my doorstep by well-meaning neighbors, I have managed to add to my hoard considerably while still obeying my general rule of not buying things (my former hobbies of thrifting and stopping at every estate sale are no longer a part of my life). And still,  the stuff comes.

Another reality: I am not an organized person, as much as I would like to be. Things tend to aggregate in lumpy piles in my studio, my filing cabinet gathers dust as papers are piled on top of it, and at least once a day I find myself walking in circles searching desperately for one tool or another. This makes me the opposite of my mother; my brother and I regularly prank her obsession for order by moving her tchotchkes an inch or so, then watch her zero in on them like a hawk and, frustrated, rotate them back to the correct relationship to their tchotchke friends while scolding us like a squirrel protecting her nuts. Needless to say, I drove her crazy as a teen, and when ordered to clean my room I usually swept everything into a corner and holed up reading for the afternoon — not that I was fooling anyone.
Which is a big part of the appeal of completely changing my life by moving into Tiny: I like the changes it will push. Without infinite places to stash things, my choices need to be carefully considered. Even though I intend to keep a studio or storage area, my living space will be going from 2,000 square feet to a little over 200, which is a shocking transition. While I have tried to limit new acquisitions and even to get rid of things, it seems clear from my surroundings that I am largely failing at this task, especially with a recent influx of free materials from an event design house that I rescued from a sad fate in a landfill. When I conceived of the idea for Tiny, I was living in a 112-square-foot closet at the back of the studio; now I find myself incredibly frustrated with my backsliding.

When I first moved into the closet, however, I was imagining a different life: the initial plan was to move to the Hudson Valley of New York with my mother, a move that surely would have become the poor woman’s Grey Gardens in no time. So everything I intended to pack and take to my new life was organized and packed into the “Tetris Closet” by my friend and assistant at the time, Jessica Joy. I kept the bare minimum out for living, and imagined myself loading the truck and moving within three months, tops, while I showered at the gym and enjoyed a more minimal existence at “home.” Of course, life (and my brain) has a way of pitching curveballs, and here I am – still in Denver, building a tiny house, and allowing the usual flotsam and jetsam of life to accumulate in the corners of my studio while still making artwork that needs to be stored and otherwise dealt with.

But “dealing with it” was not exactly what I was doing, and after the massive and traumatic leak in my studio last April, it never really found its shape again. I would try to clean it, but either wound up overwhelmed or getting sucked into a project — the equivalent of my strategy in my teens.  I worked around the mess after a halfhearted attempt to clean up the worst of it, leaving the piled tables with wet, matted, drywall-covered paper on them; using parts of my studio for storage, weird new finds and things I intended to get rid of, with no rhyme or reason.

I came up with the clever strategy of giving myself a deadline by scheduling an Open Studio Tour with the Art Students League of Denver, coming up this Saturday (it’s not too late to sign up!); unfortunately, I got too busy  doing big projects for clients and traveling. I found myself pining for a visit from my old friend Jessica Joy, who could wrest organization out of the worst mess while making me happy to follow her commands...but where would I find another Jessica Joy? She was one of a kind and now living in Herald, California, with her boyfriend and four baby goats.

Just about the time I was tearing my hair out, wondering how I was going to address my mess, I got a quixotic text from a new number: “I have a secret…and it’s not just that I have a new number.” Being busy, I forgot about the text for a few days, not quite sure who it was…and then the next text, “Don’t you want to know what the secret is?” was followed by the important words: “This is Jessica Joy.” 

My excited thumbs typed back, “I hope the secret is that you’re in town…I need you!!!” And never has a wish come true so fast, for indeed, she was. I felt instant relief: Everything would be okay.
How do I explain Jessica Joy Dispoto? She’s a magical ball of energy, someone who spontaneously starts dancing to a tune in her head as easily as to whatever song is playing; who can floor you with her laser-sharp insight and weasel out your secrets and the exact thing you didn’t want to talk about; someone who sees you for exactly who you are and doesn’t let you forget it. Everything becomes a fashionable wearable in her hands; her look is unique and ever-changing, on stage or in person, and even while working on cleaning up the studio. She’s equal parts Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, but more of a badass Riot Grrrl Tinkerbell who is not taking anyone’s shit. When we met many years ago (she was working at the now-defunct Plastic Chapel), we instantly connected and found that we had endless things to talk about.

Randomly, we wound up visting NYC at the same time, when I was preparing to move out of my house and address the massive hoarding pile that was the garage upon my return. At a bar on the Lower East Side after a night of gallery-hopping, we caught up on each other's lives – I had been away from Denver for a while at grad school; she was traveling a lot and leading a much more interesting life than mine. I confessed to her that I had to deal with sorting through the garage and I was dreading it, and her face lit up: “I love organizing! Hire me!”

“Seriously?” I asked incredulously. “Who loves organizing?! People love organizing?”

“I do! I’ll do it!”

And thus began a partnership that saved me…. I had so much trauma associated with the move out of the house, I can’t imagine that I could have ever done it without her, patiently moving things around behind my back while she kept me focused on sorting one box at a time.

To be honest, what she does isn’t organizing — it’s therapy. I’ve hired organizers before – usually pert suburban women armed with plastic bins and labeling machines who are completely confused about why I would get rid of perfectly good new objects while obsessively collecting scraps of paper and broken machinery. Jess not only gets why I want to keep things, but she intuitively knows exactly what I will want to keep and doesn’t question it; in fact, she usually shows as much obsessive excitement over my treasures as I do, arranging them into little mini-installations that I find for weeks after she’s left.

Walking through the studio after her week here, I feel cleansed and renewed. There’s still way too much stuff (which sometimes feels like it will smother me), but it’s organized and put away in a logical and tidy way, and I can actually work and see what I have…and also start to get rid of it, so that I can one day fit my belongings into the tiny house and a smaller studio. I feel lighter and inspired now, and ready to get to work.

Jess is in town for another month for the Arise festival, after which she will disappear back to her goats and grandmother in California, having sprinkled fairy dust behind her at each stop, I’m sure. But she intends to ply her gift professionally, so if you’re in need of a magical organizer who will help you get unstuck, look her up. You won’t be sorry.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about 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