Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Collecting Impulse

Newsman Jim Lehrer, himself a world class collector of bus signs and memorabilia, once said that there are important people and organizations working to preserve the “big things of life” like buildings and battlefields. It is left to the rest of us, Lehrer said, to preserve the other things.

But we would be kidding ourselves if we pretend that research and preservation are the only reasons for collecting. Lehrer himself has characterized the thrill of the “The Find,” the rush a collector gets when at last encountering that most highly sought item.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon and some concluded that the drive to collect comes from deep in the human psyche and may be almost as old as homo sapiens himself. Says Anthropologist David Given, “This focus on artifacts is a deep principle, and something that separate us from all other primates. Certain parts of our brain have specific areas that resonate to the features of human-designed products. We can’t get enough of them. It’s almost a compulsion.”

Throughout the ages pottery has had a special attraction for collectors. I am among them. In his book, A Tramp Abroad, American author Mark Twain announced himself as a “bric-a-brac” collector with a yen for ceramics. He said: “I am proud to know that I lose my reason as immediately in the presence of a rare jug with an illustrious mark on the bottom of it as if I had just emptied that jug.”

As Twain implies, there is something very primal about pottery. In the Old Testament Bible, for example, the potter’s art was extolled. Jeremiah, shown here in a medieval statute, in Verse 18: 1-8, was directed by the Lord to visit a potter: The Prophet, shown here in a statue, recounted his experience: “So I went down to the potter’s house; and there he was, working at the wheel. And whenever the vessel he was making came out wrong, as happens with the clay handled by potters, he would start afresh and work it into another vessel, as potters do.” A valuable lesson in pragmatism.

Writing in a more contemporary period the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, shown here, expressed this image of the potter creating from the earth: “No handicraftman’s art can to our art compare; we potters make our pots of what we potters are.” Or as it has been put more humorously: “If it be ashes to ashes and dust to dust; please, potter, handle my kin gently if you must.”

Speaking personally, the jug shape itself is highly attractive. I like to handle the items in my collection, to feel the texture of their surfaces and their roundness. It has been speculated that ceramic vessels that bulge at the bottom and constrict at the top as jugs do subconsciously signify shelter, self-sufficiency and “amplitude.” This may be just a fancier way of expressing the verse that appears on an American mini-jug:

“Nearer brown jug to me,
“ My lips pressed to thee,
“Even though thou art but clay,
“Close by thee I’ll stay.”

Still life artist Dennis J. Grafe once explained why he preferred to paint and draw jugs rather than landscapes. He explained that his purpose was to make his viewers throw off casual observation of their surroundings and really become aware of the distinct qualities of objects. “In the case of a jug,” Mr. Grafe said, “the viewer is exposed several qualities of this object which make it unique....shape, color, texture or weight.” In this view the pleasure derived is appreciating the individuality and authenticity of an item.

Collectable artifacts obviously range far beyond pottery. My collecting friends cherish bottles, vases, tiles, paperweights, watch fobs, match safes, trade cards, model airplanes, books, old toys and hundreds of other items. One only need look at eBay for a day to understand the vast numbers of different artifacts being collected by Americans.

Whatever an individual collects, whether of interest to me or not, I respect the impulse and pride behind the effort. While a particularly fine example of a jug may not be comparable to owning a Rembrandt painting of one, we collectors can be encouraged by the words of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Holmes tells his friend, Dr. Watson: “To the man who loves art for its own sake, it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.” To which I would add: “Elementary my dear Watson.”

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