Collecting as an Art Form

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as CollectorI’ll admit it … I collect:

  • cane trays (the sort made in occupational therapy classes),
  • stones (but they have to be white and smooth),
  • fabric of every colour and texture,
  • aprons,
  • cow designed themed china,
  • retro plates,
  • lace,
  • children’s books,
  • and Hanmer-Ware Pottery.

I have had to make a room in my house for my “stuff” and it gives me endless amounts of satisfaction to go and look at it all, marvel at the variety and plan how one day I will actually put it into some semblance of order.

For some this may sound like I am in need of help or at least a guest spot on a reality TV programme, but hoarding is not my problem.  No. I am a ‘Collector’, and according to a new book Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, I am in very good company.

Peter Blake is an artist renowned for his Pop Art of the 1960s.  His studio is apparently filled with his collections, one photo featuring every imaginable form of ornamental elephant known to human kind.  All are arranged beautifully, so cute, so useless … but undeniably a feast for a collector’s eyes.  Interestingly, Blake collected miniature elephants as a way of stopping himself from bigger acquisitions.

I was becoming a bit like my grandmother.  I wasn’t quite collecting 30 mincing machines, but I was heading in that direction, over collecting and collecting madly.  I thought I would put a safety valve on myself: if I go to Portobello Road and buy a miniature elephant instead of coming home with an old bicycle or a complete kitchen or something crazy, I’ll have achieved my ambition for that day

Damien Hirst (famous for his formaldehyde Shark)  has always been fascinated with collecting.  He believes that collections say as much about the person who collects them as it does about the material that is collected.  His collections reflect his interests and passions, they include the macabre, the beautiful and reflect the relationship he feels between art and science.

This title has a collecting obsession to suit every occasion from books, taxidermy, medical instruments, posters, album covers, fabric, postcards etc.  The list is endless, the photography captivating and the interviews enlightening.

Magnificent Obsessions is like a self-help book for Collectors Anonymous.  No longer will you feel alone, ridiculed by family and friends, unable to control your addiction, you are after all in the company of the artistic and creative!

A portion of my Hanmer Ware pottery collection
A portion of my Hanmer Ware pottery collection

Beautiful Burlap

I need a hobby. A creative hobby. I am feeling the “desire to be a clothing designer or an artist (one who doesn’t draw or paint or sew)” to quote Heidi Julavits in The Folded Clock: A Diary.

Cover of The Origami HomeThe library seems the logical place to look for inspiration to set me on my true creative path. But I don’t think just taking books home and being daunted by them will do it.

The Origami Home – exquisite but, honestly, the instructions. “Fold the left, right and lower edges in. At the same time, fold in the corners (a).” At the same time? Are you joking me?

So no to origami miniature design furniture.

Cover for Burlap BoutiqueBurlap could be the answer to my hobby needs. Beautiful Burlap: Cute Accessories to Create and Stitch and Burlap Boutique: Charming Accent Wreaths and Home Decor. ‘Cute’ and ‘charming’ – a bit off-putting, but my front door is worryingly bereft of an accent wreath and burlap sounds more forgiving than origami paper. Also it is a very pleasing word. Burlap. Much better than Hessian. Or Sacking. Are they the same thing? On to the For Later shelf they go.

Cover of Viktor Wynd's Cabinet of WondersA recent mover from the For Later List to the In Progress shelf provides some hope that I can become creative with very little effort. Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Wonders has thrilling chapters such as “The Collector as Artist”, and its even better companion “On the Joys of Mess”. Apparently finding and installing is as creative as actually making.

According to good old Viktor, “Collecting as an art form in in its own right is rarely given much thought.” So endless fossicking through every second-hand shop that presents itself is creative. Who knew?

I’m still going to investigate the burlap though.

The owl that fell from the sky : stories of a museum curator – New Zealand e-book month

Natural history museums contain many thousands of zoological specimens and each has a tale to tell – often involving extraordinary people, daring explorations, unquenchable scientific curiosity, and strange coincidences. This perfectly presented book, with its engaging pictures, is rich in stories and unveils many secrets.

Read about: the fate of a tortoise given as a gift by Captain Cook; the epic international voyage of the biggest known moa egg; the admiration induced by an ape from the jungles of Borneo; the barn owl of mysterious origins; the unfortunate fate of an angry young elephant; the quest to discover how a New Zealand heron turned up in a Florence museum; the strange arrival of an Australian banjo frog and many other mind-boggling mysteries.

You can read The owl that fell from the sky as an e-book from our Overdrive collection.

The owl that fell from the sky is also available as a paper book.

It’s the end of the world. Again. Armageddon Expo is coming.

Dust off your Daleks and polish up your Pokemon – Armageddon is early this year (9 and 10 March 2013). Our household is full of very earnest discussions about what shade of grey is acceptable for which character, and whether international shipping can be relied upon to deliver the necessary in time for the big weekend. The girl-child is attempting two different cosplay costumes, one from the insanely popular Homestuck online comic series, and the other from something that I am not even beginning to understand. There’s body-paint involved, and horns made out of papier-mache, and that’s all I care to know, frankly.

If you or your dear ones want to join the madness this year, fear not – the library has a range of resources to help sort out those pesky costume issues, study up on pop culture and comics, or just embrace your inner fanboy/girl.
Armageddon Expo 2010Armageddon Expo 2012

And if all else fails, and inspiration is still lacking, travel back in time and read our reports from previous years’ Armageddon visits.

Beauties (2)

Cover: Love looks not with the eyesThe big beautiful books just keep on coming and who am I to turn them away? I have a new category (a list can’t be far away) – “Books too big to be taken home”.

Love looks not with the eyes is a collection of over 400 photographs of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Anne Deniau is a French woman who photographed the models backstage at Givenchy, where she met McQueen when he did his first collection there. Their relationship continued for the next 13 years until McQueen’s sad death.

The photographs are very beautiful, but the really interesting thing about them is that they are taken behind the scenes – there are none of the models on the runway and the clothes really star. All the amazing details are here to be examined: the embroidery, the make-up, the hats, the sets. Also seeing how the beautiful genetic freaks that are the models tower over the ordinary mortals who design, make and fit the clothes. And how many of the models smoke.

Cameron Silver has a bachelor’s degree in theatre and after he graduated he began a career as a modern-dayCover: Decades interpreter of Weimar cabaret songs.  While travelling the United States interpreting, he visited second-hand shops, finding some great men’s clothes but lots more women’s. With the soul of a true collector he bought them without quite knowing what he was going to do with them.

Other true collectors also buy things without knowing what they are going to do with them – generally what they do with them is stuff them into already crowded cupboards, telling themselves they will mend, alter, display or in some way use them.  Cameron Silver is made of sterner and richer stuff. He decided to retire from interpreting and open a vintage couture boutique in Beverly Hills, specialising in “only the finest pre-worn clothing”. Not only that, but the clothing had to look modern.

After he’d been buying and selling these clothes for 12 years or so, he decided to write about them. Decades, a look at clothes from the 1900s to the 1990s, is the result. And what a result. The book  combines lovely big photographs from fashion magazines with publicity shots of movie stars, and well-written observations of how fashion changed as society did. It’s really worth a good poring over, but park near the entrance of the library if you plan on taking it home.


Obsessive collecting takes many forms. There are those tragic types who collect the titles of books they fondly imagine they will read some day. Some of those types even have lists of more than 200 books.

Cover: CollectomaniaThen there are the people who just can’t bring themselves to throw anything away. Chastened by too many viewings of Hoarders, they claim that they have ‘collections’ because somehow that seems more connoisseur and less crazy cat lady. Purists say you need to have three of something before you can call it a collection, but, even if it’s one random item picked up at the last car boot sale, finding another one is a great excuse to peruse every publicly available pile of tat possible.

These people look for reassurance that they are not going to end up crushed under a pile of ‘vintage’ (sounds so much better than second hand) Christmas decorations that include cardboard balls that were once strung across the streets of Geraldine. They hope that when they are found the small piece in the newspaper will not say things like ‘Librarian’s Body Lay Under Old Christmas Decorations Until February’.

They revere Andy Warhol; admittedly before his death he was unable to get into most of the rooms of his house because they were full of his ‘collections’, but when his belongings were auctioned in 1988 they fetched $5.3 million dollars. Warhol’s example is the perfect answer to the threat of the skip parked up the driveway.

Reassurance that things aren’t really out of hand can also be gained from reading about other collectors. Collectomania presents collections from Bakelite radios to classic cars in a chapter by chapter format, with lots of photographs. A Collector’s Year takes the reader through 12 months of one man’s trawls through car boot sales, auctions and odd shops in search of the next great addition to his stuff.

One Coin is Never Enough addresses the psychological aspects of collecting coins in a nicely upbeat way with the emphasis on how the choice the collector makes when he or she adds an object to their collection transforms that item. Satisfyingly intellectual.

Cover: Proust's OvercoatProust’s Overcoat is the story of an even more rarefied obsession – the work and belongings of Marcel Proust. I came across it when I was reading books about Proust rather than actually reading books by him (could be why completing his magnum opus is once again on my 2013 resolutions list).  It’s about a man who started out collecting Proust’s books and letters. When the opportunity presented itself  he branched out into material items like furniture and then the ultimate prize – Proust’s overcoat.

On the “if only” front, Herb and Dorothy is a delightful DVD about a postal clerk and a librarian (!) who spent every spare penny from their modest incomes on collecting modern art, ending up with a museum quality collection worth a very large amount of money. But, true to their principles, they have donated it all to the National Gallery of Art.

Do you have a picturesque collecting obsession?

But I need it! Crafts and collecting

Are you a hoarder, a collector, someone who just can’t bear to part with things? Maybe you feel you must be a keeper of the knowledge of your life, community or every piece of paper you ever owned, including receipts. As a child, did you not want to eat because you felt the food would be sad and feel pain as you chewed? Are you a compulsive shopper, buying gifts for people, but once your purchases are home, you can’t part with them? Then you will find kindred spirits in Stuff – compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things. This riveting book sheds light into the crevices and dark tunnels in the homes of America biggest hoarders. And yes, apparently there is a reality show!

CoverI found it a fascinating read, even bored my fellow library lunchers with it in the staff room. In it are people whose lives are limited and crippled by a need to collect and an inability to throw away. There are often links strangely to perfectionism, ADHD and giftedness and it had me thinking about the more sane end of the spectrum –  the collectors amongst us.

I for one have always collected. Trade Me has been my recent undoing, my sparkly brooch collection is impressive, as are my necklaces and the group of very useful old Temuka pottery in my kitchen. I’ve just married a retro collector who also has ‘throwing away’ issues, so lord help us!

Whether it is rare bone china tea sets, GI Joe comics or making your own retro lamps , it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t collect stuff. Some do it for long-term rewards, hoping that in their dotage they can sell their collection and live off the profits. Others may love the feel of the objects in their hands, or the memories they evoke. But for whatever reason, it’s a trend that’s big and getting bigger.

The popularity of Antiques Roadshow and the ability to hunt down maker’s marks and the histories of objects on the internet as well as trade amongst others with ‘The Sickness’, all makes it easier and more exciting than ever before.

The libraries stock many books on objects, furniture, books, stamps and many other things people collect. Price It! is a searchable database is constantly updated and contains more than 20 million images and prices received on treasures people collect, buy and trade.

Just ensure the things you collect don’t take over, so you have to engineer complex tunnels through your possessions to get from one end of your house to another, as the reclusive and obsessive Collyer Brothers did in 1930s New York, one of whom was crushed to death by the ceiling high piles cramming their four storey mansion.

‘Stuff’ makes you think about your own attachment to ‘things’, our materialistic world and ways to collect but not obsess. Now, back to my Trade Me watch list…

Militaria mania

Photo of medieval armourFor something completely different, I agreed to work my club’s stand at the Arms and Militaria Show held at the Riccarton Racecourse. I have to confess that I have a long-standing fascination with things military,  reaching back to a binge on WWII young adults literature at high school. Even so I didn’t really know what to expect, and hadn’t really expected quite such a range of people and products as were on show, and for sale. Here are a few photos of some of the different stands.

Medieval armour and weapons were on display at the Society for Creative Anachronism stand. This was a major hit with the kids, many of whom got to try on helmets, gauntlets and other bits of armour. The SCA has been ‘recreating’ the medieval world for over 40 years and also put on displays of combat outside the building.

Right next door to them was the Western shooting club whose members were also clad in appropriate gear (cowboy hats and fringed leather).

Model airplanes I was hugely impressed by a maker of model airplanes, the level of detail of which was extraordinary. At the other scale of modelling there was a full-sized display of a WWII Afrikakorps campsite.

There was a huge amount of military memorabilia on display, some of which was for sale. Medals, coins, books, magazines, uniforms and weapons were all available for the eager collector. We have quite a lot of resources for collectors of militaria I discovered, including several collectors’ guides, books about medals and badges, toy soldiers, collectable guns and blades and many titles about uniforms and armour including the well known Osprey books.

MedalsIn addition to our book collection the PriceIt source is another useful tool for the collector. It collates information from a wide variety of auction houses including eBay and includes authoritative articles about repair, restoration and conservation of antiques, hiring an appraiser and many specific areas of collecting.

Like all our sources PriceIt is free to use online: just enter your library card number and PIN.

The Detritus of everyday life

I am a hoarder of stuff.  By stuff I mean all manner of things that fit the criteria of cheap, second hand, and something that when spotted gets the adrenalin pulsing – A Bargain no less.  Looking at some of the books we have in the library I now realise that in fact I am no longer a searcher of  junk, but I am A Collector.  I have been ahead of my time, and all those old dresses and shoes I have are no longer called rubbish, the are “Vintage”.   This is great news, and if I knew then what I know now, I could have  written this book called Shopping for vintage :the definitive guide to vintage fashion by Funmi Odulate.

However, I not only gather clothes but can’t resist that gorgeous bit of chipped china, colourful fabric, interesting glassware, old cushions and blankets,  so thank goodness for Bazaar style: decorating with market and vintage finds by Selina Lake.  My house sometimes looks “Bazaar” but this book will quickly put an end to that!  Things will be tastefully arranged and artfully placed.  I can’t wait

I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t read Collections of nothing by William Davies King.

Captivated by the detritus of everyday life, the author has spent a lifetime gathering a monumental mass of miscellany, from cereal boxes to boulders to broken folding chairs. This book takes a hard look at this habitual hoarding to see what truths it can reveal about the impulse to accumulate.

I wonder what I would learn?


Men can truly be weird and I speak as a male myself. Three books that I’ve recently read provide an uncomfortable insight into the psyche of men who like to collect things. Women hoard; Men collect. This passion leads to destitution, the break up of families and social isolation. Inevitably the day comes when he has to choose between giving up the pursuit or going insane.

ErrorSimon Garfield begins his autobiography as a stamp collector on the doorstep of a counsellor’s office, with his album under his arm and a divorce pending. He charts his fascination with British stamps that have errors in printing that has has led to him spending thousands. Worst of all, as he nears completion, he starts to wonder what he will do with his life once he has succeeded. Perhaps the worse fate to give a man is to fufill his dreams.

The father in To See Every Bird doesn’t hoard things, but has an equally expensive and time involving hobby that plays havoc with his social life and sanity. He merely wants to catch a glimpse of every species of bird that currently exists. Not only does this take him around the world, over the decades he also gets to see several species that are now extinct. Again the question is asked at the end – what is it all for? We leave dad musing on beginning a new and equally enthralling subject of study: butterflies.

AchtungAchtung Schweinehund is a much more humorous look at the author’s fascination with military toys from Action Man, through Airfix fgures and the bloodthirsty novels of Sven Hassel, right up to the rigorous demands of wargaming and military modelling.

At the end he too wonders, when he calculates how much time he has spent painting and assembling model soldiers, if it has been all for nothing. Yet when one considers that the average Briton will spend ten years of their life watching television we have to ask who and what exactly is a waste of time?