Friday, August 27, 2010

Can Art Be Clutter? Can Clutter Be Art?

Short answer to both: yes.

Of course, art definitely is not supposed to be clutter. It's supposed to be something that, when you look at it, touches your heart, or stimulates your mind, or reminds you of your dreams, or challenges your thinking, or transports you to another time and place, or any other worthwhile response that makes you feel good that you have the piece of art in your life. It's not just supposed to fill up empty space, or match the sofa, or be in your life because Great-Aunt Winnie left it to your mother, who hated it, but felt obligated to keep it because it had belonged to Aunt Winnie, and who, in turn, left it to you and now you hate it, but it belonged to both Great-Aunt Winnie and your mother, so it has double the family obligation attached. That makes it clutter.

However, even if your possessions, including your art, are of excellent quality and are appreciated fully by you and all who see them, if they are simply overwhelming your space and your life, you still have a clutter problem. This is often what motivates society's wealthiest and most notable families and individuals to have huge auctions in which they part with beautiful items that appear invaluable to us. They have decided to unburden themselves rather than cart around forever all of the accumulated treasures of the years, no matter how fine, because those treasures have turned into clutter in the lives of their owners.

But how can clutter be art? Many of you may be familiar with the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg who sometimes made art out of found objects, the commonplace, the detritus of life that most of us would ignore and many of us would consider to be clutter. Not all viewers of their artwork respond positively to this type of creative effort, but many art critics certainly have shown their appreciation, as have collectors of contemporary art who are willing to pay astronomical sums to own it.

Most interesting, to me, however is a new opportunity for anyone to participate in making a found object work of art, even if you've never considered yourself even remotely artistic. Best of all, you'll be part of an art project that is devoted to uncluttering, if only on a very small scale. The clever curators at The Brooklyn Art Library are soliciting "artistic" contributions for "Pockets." Here's the description of the project:

We all carry excess baggage with us every day: keys to forgotten locks, expired chewing gum, intimidating balls of lint. These freeloading objects take our pockets, purses, and bags for granted, weighing us down and holding us back.

The International Association for Empty Pockets is a worldwide movement dedicated to the end of pocket clutter. Contributions to the Pockets Project will form a communal burial ground for the detritus of everyday life – and mark a new era of freedom for your pants.

Our pockets are overflowing. The time to empty is now!

To be a participating artist, you simply put individual items that were in your pockets into plastic baggies and send the baggies to the gallery. (There's a classification system that's explained on the website.) Then all of the baggies will be made into a giant installation work of art. The reason? Here:

Developed by the International Association for Empty Pockets, the Pocket Artifact Classification System encompasses the entire spectrum of pocket, purse, and bag clutter. By organizing contributions into a common system, the Pockets Project seeks to illuminate the objects that share our pockets' darkest corners.

The Pockets Project imagines a second life for the stuff we've forgotten and offers each of us a chance at a new beginning. Everyone is welcome to participate – there is no artifact too insignificant or contribution too small. As people from all over the world empty their pockets together, these ordinary objects hint at the common threads of our daily lives.
How can you not love a project from the "International Association for Empty Pockets" that encourages uncluttering, that creates art and offers participants "a chance at a new beginning?" The whole idea makes me smile! Check it out if you're looking for a creative place to begin your efforts to unclutter and simplify your life.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Carlos Paes at stock.xchng

Friday, August 20, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Sentimental Clutter

Even in our most zealous moments of uncluttering our lives, almost all of us are stopped cold when we're confronted with something that has sentimental value. That's understandable, but often what we really need to confront is the fact that our definition of what has sentimental value is too broad. Almost every object in our homes will conjure some sort of memory, but even if that memory is connected with a special person or is a part of an overall happy time in life, that doesn't mean that the object is worthy of keeping.

I've had the good fortune to inherit some truly lovely sentimental stuff, but eventually I had to acknowledge that many of the most meaningful items were no longer appropriate to have in my daily life. Redefining them was the only way that I could let them go and, logically, I knew that I needed to do that. (Specific stories are in my book.) When I did let them go -- thoughtfully and, a few times, tearfully -- I was both liberated and challenged in ways I hadn't expected. Yes, there was room for things that were more functional, but there was also a void. Who was I if I wasn't the caretaker of the antique family furniture and dishes? Who was I if I was no longer the girl who grew up playing the piano and continued to do so for all of her life? Did that mean I was disconnected from my heritage in some way? Was I supposed to abandon my love of music?

Of course not. But it's surprising how much our individual identities are connected with our possessions and how when we change, as we inevitably do, those objects that surround us can become anchors to a past that we need to carry more lightly or sometimes shed altogether. I had to realize that my connection to my family history was just as intact as it had ever been, even though I had fewer tangible mementos. My relationship with music was still solid, too, even though it was expressed in a different way. For some of us, or for some aspects of each of our lives, simply letting go of the past completely by letting go of the things we have that are associated with it allows us to be more comfortable with who we are now. However, anyone who's ever parted with something that signifies an important relationship with a person or a time of life that has ended knows that there's a feeling of finality and acceptance that allows us to move forward, yet we often find intermingled with that feeling a bit of insecurity about who we are now that we're no longer a part of that relationship. I think that's okay. In fact, I think that mixed feelings are what we really need to get comfortable with in order to navigate life with less stress and anxiety.

Too much sentiment can be a dangerous condition. There's a difference between feeling rooted or connected and feeling weighted down or burdened by obligation. There's also a difference between embracing our history and how it shaped who we are now versus clinging to our past and, perhaps, our youth, because we're afraid of change. Maybe we need to work on understanding and accepting ourselves as much as we need to work on understanding and accepting that the things we own are not truly what define us.

Of course, life is unpredictable, so even if we've resolved these issues, sometimes forces outside of our control will continue to make choices for us. For a dramatic example of imposed choices, read Anatomy of a TornadoTornado Chronicles and Nature is a Moody Muse, blog posts by Debbie Kaspari, an Oklahoma fine artist who survived the devastating effects of extreme spring weather that she refers to as The Event. She explains how her relationship with "stuff" and "STUFF" was clarified in a way no one wants to experience. Fortunately, not all was lost for her.

How sentimental are you? Are you clear about what's just "stuff" in your life and what is "STUFF" that has real meaning? Would it take a tornado to make you figure it out?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Joel Messner at stock.xchng

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Families and Small Houses

My last post about small houses prompted a comment from a reader who speculated that she could live alone in a tiny home, but she wondered if families could live comfortably in very little square footage. Below are links to several relevant and thought-provoking posts on that topic. The concept of "small" is variable, but everyone can agree that it means less space than is the norm in our too-often "McMansionized" society.

First, the rather amazing story of a very large family in a small home:

Life in a Shoe: Methods and Madness of One Family of Twelve

How can a big family live in a small house?
The short answer is the same answer we give to many other questions: life style choices.
•We don't think every child (or even every 2 children) needs her own bedroom.

•We don't think we need a huge master bedroom with a walk-in closet and a master bathroom.

•Although we would very much enjoy having a 2nd or 3rd bathroom, we don't believe that we need it. In all fairness, some of the children don't quite agree, especially in the morning.

•We don't need space for an extensive seasonal wardrobe for each member of the family, particularly in South Texas. There are only 2 seasons here anyway, and one lasts for 10 months of the year. A summer wardrobe plus a few warmer items is perfectly sufficient.
This family home-schools, too! Check out their posts about storage, entertaining, and finding personal space. I particularly like the concept of a "treasure box" for the kids in which they keep their personal items. The name alone signifies that whatever is in the box is not junk or clutter, but something important (we know that valuable doesn't always mean expensive).

Here's an SFGate article about making room for adolescents in a small house and how to accommodate their psychological development needs.

"I think parents tend to err in giving adolescents too much space," says James Windell, psychologist with the family division of the Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Court and author of Six Steps to an Emotionally Intelligent Teenager. "You need to be looking over their shoulders," says Windell. "You need to know what they're listening to on CDs, what they're watching on television and what they are doing on the Internet. There has to be a balance between the kids' need for independence and the parents playing out their role of being there for the kids." . . .

What all this means in square footage terms is that, ideally, each teenager will have a room of his or her own, however small, and that the family will find a space in the home for teens and their friends to let loose a little while remaining within parental radar range.
The article writer, Deborah K. Rich, concludes:
. . . small homes force families to cooperate and solve problems as their spatial needs change; you may unexpectedly develop a functioning family.
Michael Janzen at Tiny House Design recently said that he is going to devote a series of posts to small houses for families. The first post, Small Family Birdhouse, reports on a shed conversion for a mother and young son. Too rustic for a city girl like me, but an interesting read.

Here's a book review by Jared Volpe at Sustainable Cities Collective of Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon. I haven't read it yet, but I'm now eager to do so. Vople states:
The book didn’t just focus on little houses, either. Some of the homes were quite large, but had been redesigned to fit two families or several independent adults who were willing to share common space.
I'm convinced that economic circumstances will continue to force many people to reconsider sharing living space with family or friends, but I'm hopeful that there will be benefits from that experience that will help us redefine community. (Sustainable Cities Collective is "an online community of urban sustainability professionals" and is an interesting resource for those of us who are committed city-dwellers.)

Apartment Therapy ("saving the world, one room at a time" -- one of my favorite tag lines) has a link to a series of posts about downsizing that includes several about families moving into small homes. Many photographs, as always.

Practically speaking, it takes an intrepid soul to consider tiny housing for a growing family. Most of us will choose larger spaces, but how large? It's a personal decision that has an impact beyond our own lives. It can be tricky to sort out responsible choices without feeling pressured -- or rebellious. The only sensible answer is to live in as much space as you need. And you are the only one who can figure that out.

An addendum: The Thoughtful Consumer is pleased to celebrate the fourth anniversary of this blog! Thank you to all my readers and special thanks to those who e-mail and comment on my posts. You keep me going.

© Cynthia Friedlob 2010
Image: Brindy Daniels at stock.xchng