Katie Scarvey column: A few lovely, perfect things

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 12, 2007

Having the privilege of seeing the art of local collectors has made me think about the collecting impulse, and how what we collect says something about who we are.

As a kid, I loved things from the earth, especially if I found them myself: fossils, arrowheads, pretty stones. As I grew older, I also started collecting things made by human hands: quilts, antique fans, books, masks and paintings.

I doubt that anything in my collection will ever show up on the auction block at Sotheby’s, but I love the pieces that I have. My collecting guidelines are pretty simple. It can’t cost too much (at least at this point in my life) and it has to uplift me.

For me, art doesn’t have to match my sofa or feature rainbows or sunflowers or apple-cheeked children, but I stay away from overly somber themes. So if you were thinking of giving me Picasso’s “Guernica” for my birthday, no thanks, although I’d love to contemplate it in a gallery. I’d rather explore suffering and tragedy through literature.

I try not to get overly attached to material things, but there are pieces I’ve collected over the years that I’d be sad to lose because they’re part of my history, because they lend a sense of order to my often chaotic life and because, to paraphrase Walter Pater, they help give the highest quality to moments as they pass.

These are just a few favorites:

* A carved wooden draft horse acquired for a buck or two at the Salvation Army store, lovingly painted and varnished, and probably about 100 years old. It reminds me of my father (who used to own a team of Belgians) and my grandfather, who broke draft horses as a young man –a profession that enabled him to buy the farm I grew up on. I know it’s crazy, but I wouldn’t sell this little horse for 200 times what I paid for it.

* A wooden folk art alligator, bought by my husband at an auction shortly after we got married. Although I grew up going to country auctions, this auction was my husband’s first.

* A watercolor of a muddy lane in the snow that was given to me by Mark Brincefield. I love it because it was painted by my talented friend and because it reminds me of living on a farm. And it’s beautiful.

* A whimsical watercolor of our dogs, Seamus and Edy. It makes me smile when I remember the artist, Emily Eve Weinstein of Durham, painting it in our kitchen one Sunday morning several years ago, while I struggled to get our mutt Edy to stop being a prima donna and sit still.

* A print of a lazy cat on an Indian blanket by Lexington, Va., artist Marsha Heatwole — a wedding gift from my Aunt Madelyn — that perfectly captures feline indolence.

* A lovely watercolor that my brother brought back from a trip to Peru.

* A multi-color penguin painted on a piece of copy paper by my husband simply because a kid’s set of watercolor paints happened to be in front of him.

These things make me happy. Even writing about them makes me feel good. Wallace Stevens wrote that most people read poetry listening for echoes of the familiar, and I think the same applies to art. We collect things that offer us echoes of what is familiar, what is beloved, what is beautiful to us.

Sometimes, I feel a little stab of jealousy when I see the amazing things others have collected. But how many lovely things does one need? I like the wisdom Anne Morrow Lindbergh has to offer: “One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach; one can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.”

Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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