A Lifetimes of Memories Discarded at the Curb

As a lifelong antique collector and fine artist, I appreciate objects that once belonged to strangers. I fully embrace the concept of recycling on many levels – environmental, global, financial, practical – and aesthetically. I have frequented estate sales for many years – mining the sales for treasures that I incorporate into my collage necklaces, mixed media works, to resell, and on occasion – to decorate my home. I love antiques for many reasons – they offer a glimpse into the past and sometimes reveal fascinating histories. I also appreciate the workmanship and fine materials employed by skilled craftsman of yesteryear.

But I have to admit there is an inherently sad aspect to these sales and now that my elderly parents’ mortality looms on the near horizon, I am seeing possessions in a new light. My mother has been in poor health for a few years – several falls she suffered recently led to cleaning out years of accumulation at my parents’ house. There were a few treasures, but also a lot of junk – the kind of stuff that piles up over the years through entropy – after a dozen or so visits, I have made some progress.

One day this past summer I was about a mile or so from my parents’ house when I saw a couple of women digging through a huge pile of discarded junk on the curb. I hesitated about stopping, but decided to do so. I could not park on this busy street, so I drove around the block and parked on a side street. There were old clothes and the two ladies had pretty much plundered everything else, but a pale blue scrapbook caught my eye. I pulled it out of the garbage can without retrieving anything else and went on my merry way. I took a peek inside its bulging covers and saw that most of the items harkened back to this woman’s youth – from grade school through college.

When I got home, I inspected the contents more closely and quickly deduced that this woman would now be 74 years old, having graduated from high school in 1956. Although I am not going to include her name here for moral and privacy reasons, I Googled her and found nothing. There was no obituary under her maiden name which surely would have been noted. This led to conjecture on my part that she or her relatives sold the house and she moved to an assisted living facility. I did locate a mention of her dad’s death in 1991 on a genealogy site.

Most of the contents (many of which are pictured here) consisted of birthday and grammar school/high school graduation cards, Valentine’s Day cards from beaus and relatives, report cards, and mementoes. On every single greeting card she noted in very small, neat handwriting the gift that accompanied the card. There were a few sentimental items from college including dance books, playbills, a football ticket stub, a dried corsage, a few postcards, and some nifty arcade cards.

I have no idea why this very personal scrapbook with her childhood memories was thrown out in the garbage, but it made me sad. Here are some glimpses of this woman’s life:

I vowed to honor this mysterious woman’s memory in a mixed media collage incorporating pieces from the scrapbook, the results of which are below. The woman in the center is how I imagined she looked in her 20s – there were no photos of her or anyone else in the scrapbook. Something about finding this scrapbook really struck a chord and made me realize once again how preciously fleeting our lives are – memories last a bit longer, but also disappear with time.

3 Comments:

  1. Hi Betsy,

    Wonderful blog post above! I am also a lifelong collector of antiques, and a (mostly) amateur artist; and I too, very much appreciate items once owned by strangers.

    I stumbled upon your blog post, as I was Googling the artist George Pappas, and I am very glad I did. You write very well, and your nostalgic, perhaps even sentimental slant to most of what you write about, I find particularly compelling.

    Anyway, back to the main reason I am touching base with you…

    I recently acquired a large “archive” of George Pappas’ correspondence, and among the correspondence, there is a fair bit of original art. A friend of mine asked me to sell the art for him, and being a sentimentalist, I told him it would be a shame to separate the art from the letters and he agreed with me. So he gave me (he knows I am an avid art collector, amateur historian, and lover of previously-owned interesting objects) the large container of material, and basically asked me to find it a new home. But, of course, that means trying to sell the art for what it is “worth.” (You, being both a collector and an artist, know that it is difficult to put a monetary value on pieces of art, much less correspondence.)

    Anyway, in an attempt to keep this introductory message to you as brief as possible…I’ll get right to the point. I believe the art (mostly drawings and watercolors, and a couple of screen prints), are worth at least $1000. But, as mentioned above, I believe that it would be a real tragedy to just toss the Pappas correspondence away…(you can imagine the loss to the art world if Van Gogh’s letters were destroyed!) Likewise, I want to respect the privacy of the letter writers (some of which are still alive)…so, in essence, I’d like to get this entire (a couple of hundred, I’d guesstimate) “archive” of Pappas letters to its new best home. After reading this blog post of yours, as well as the truly fascinating blog post you wrote about RISD (in which you specifically mentioned Pappas)…I am thinking that you would be the ultimate new caretaker of all this material. Perhaps you could make an awesome collage of all the art? Perhaps, as a veteran eBayer you could sell the art for a small profit? You certainly could write a wonderful blog post about all the new material. But mostly, I’d trust you to respect the privacy of the letter writers (some of the letters are intensely personal), while at the same time honoring the memory of George Pappas. The most compelling aspect of all the letters, is that Mr. Pappas, the RISD art professor, was truly beloved by many of his students!

    Interesting, and yes, relevant to the “monetary value” of the few art pieces, many of Pappas’ former students went on to be well-listed artists. Also worth mentioning, Robert Morris (I’m assuming a friend and colleague of Pappas, but not a former student) is listed at $1,258,500!

    So, Betsy, if I you have any interest in being the next caretaker of the Pappas archive, please contact me. The price of the handful of original art is $1000 – I have a fiduciary responsibility to the owner – but the couple hundred letters are free (given the promise you’d respect the privacy of living artist/writers). With a bit of luck, and great deal of sleuthing, you may be able to track down some of the letter writers, and possibly return the letters to them? I imagine RISD graduates are a quite intimate, keep-in-touch type of personality…and so perhaps you may even know some of the letter writers…or maybe there will be a six-degree-of -separation type of connection.

    I really hope that I can find these letters and art, a thoughtful (nostalgia-appreciating) new owner!

    Thanks for taking a few moments to read my introduction. And, at the risk of repetition…I really enjoyed reading some of your blog posts. Over time, I’ll try to read all of them.

    Regards from a fellow artist (though not a RISD grad!),

    Chip

    • Hi Chip:

      Thank you for writing to me and I am glad you enjoy my blogs. Your proposal is definitely the most interesting I have ever received since writing my blog! I am flattered that you would consider me as a trustworthy new owner of the George Pappas’ archives. This begs what seems like an obvious question, but have you contacted RISD? It seems to me that they would be far and away the best new owner for this material. The RISD Museum would likely be interested in the artwork and perhaps the library would want the letters, although they would have to make public only those that are not intimate in detail. I am interested in hearing back from you whether you tried contacting RISD. While your proposal is intriguing, I am too busy with my paid freelance writing and hobbies to accept your offer.

  2. Hi Betsy,

    Thanks for the quick reply! I totally hear you about being too busy to take on such a potentially time-consuming project. I’ve dealt with a few historical archives in the past few years – mostly much older than the Pappas’ papers (19th and 18th century) – and it takes a great deal of time to do them justice. Of course with papers mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, privacy concerns are present.

    I’ve considered contacting RISD, and may still do so, but I know through experience that when dealing with universities and historical societies, the wheels of acquisition turn very, very slowly. Universities, and particularly historical societies, often have very limited budgets, and rely primarily on donations from “the estates of.”

    With the Pappas archive, I am not the owner, so I can’t donate the art, and the sentimental part of me hates to separate the little watercolors and drawings from the letters they accompany. In the end, I’ll probably put the art on eBay (as a mini archive) and save the letters, until which time I can figure out how to best find them a better home.

    As you poignantly expressed in your blog post, there is a certain sadness to seeing “once cherished” by someone else mementos/letters end up four corners to the wind (via estate auctions, and yard sales), or worse, simply tossed away (sometimes even by heirs) as no-value ephemera.

    If you happen to know of any former RISD art students (1970s, primarily) who might be interested in the art, by all means feel free to let them know about this Pappas archive. In the meantime, I’ll think about other possibilities. Perhaps the current owner of the papers/art could use the tax deduction, if they were to donate to RISD. Though, generally, out of necessity, owners of antique shops and consignment shops tend to not get overly sentimental about objects they acquire…or else they’d never be able to sell anything!

    Thanks again for the reply!

    Chip

    ***I’ll slowly peruse through the vast number of correspondence, to see if there might be a little doddle/drawing, from Robert Morris to Professor Pappas. That would be a frame-worthy find!

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