Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Second Lives

Sound Wave by Jean Shin

In the fall of 2008, when the Museum of Art and Design in NYC relocated from its former home across the street from and overshadowed both physically and psychologically by the Museum of Modern Art, and took up residence in a much more spacious and congenial building overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park, they held an exhibit called “Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary.” 

After the Mona Lisa 7 by Devorah Sperber

The show featured works made from salvaged materials one would not usually associate with the creation of art, including sculptures made from discarded LPs, rubber tires and even a reproduction of the Mona Lisa made entirely of spools of colored thread. The collection was a true celebration of the powers of imagination, and in some cases, the extent of extraordinary patience. 

Destiny Unchanged by Chakaia Booker

We live in a culture of contradictory impulses, always questing for the next new thing while continuing to be lured by nostalgia for the past. We produce and discard things with increasing readiness and indifference, and then set up elaborate systems to process them back into usefulness. One need only toss a crumpled piece of 100% recycled paper into a dedicated bin made of 100 % recycled plastic to feel the full weight of the irony we stagger under as consumers. The certainty that nothing will be wasted has made wastefulness acceptable again.

 Tara Donovan
have a look at this awesome slideshow of her work and be amazed at the materials used! 

That irony certainly lurks behind the creations of artists like Tara Donovan, who fills gallery rooms with her elaborate constructions made from millions of paper cups and plates, straws, buttons and straight pins among others, materials that defy and transcend their own nature to become something completely other than they are, hard becoming soft, soft becoming rigid, inanimate coming to life. Her work is proof that nothing is as it seems and that anything, even the most mundane and uninspiring of items, can have a second life.

 The Strand

When I lived in NYC I would visit the Strand bookstore as often as my budget and shelf space allowed. The number of my purchases was further limited by the size and carrying power of one large reinforced canvas totebag and my own upper body strength. I miss my days indulging in the embarrassment of abandoned riches of that establishment, part bookstore, part graveyard, part junkyard, part cathedral. My mission, and the reason for my repeated visits, was not one of thrift, but salvage. I arrived with a list of recommended authors and titles, and rarely left with exactly what I was seeking, but always exactly what I required. The Strand did not hold onto its stock for long; I was one of millions passing regularly through their doors. When a book fell into my hands, it was clear that the meeting was destined.  There were times it also felt clandestine, with so much furtive running of fingers along spines in the dim and narrow recesses of a dusty aisle, like an act of recognition, kindness and faith, bringing home these books who had all led former lives, some of them longer than my own, and perhaps more full. It felt like a contract, an alliance, a promise: you tell me your secrets and I will tell you mine. I will not break you, I will not mark you, but feel free to do these things to me. But mostly it felt like a gesture to the Universe, witness of so many human and material abandonments, acknowledging that nothing is without purpose, everything deserves a second chance, and being found so often means first being lost.

 Raw Materials

I have vast respect for artists like the ones I’ve highlighted here, who use found or repurposed materials in their works. It seems to me an indication of the highest and purest form of intellect and imagination when someone sees what to most people would look like a heap of old tires and instead sees the beginnings of a beautiful artwork. There is cleverness in such an instinct, but there is also love: love of the overlooked, love of the potential in all things, and love of the gift we artists all share, the impulse and the facility to make things, sometimes out of nothing, but mostly out of other things with promise only we can perceive and bring to light.

There is a great tradition in New England of treasure hunting amongst the discards to be found in second hand stores and even left free for the taking on the sidewalks in front of residences. With the right eye and sensibilities, one can return home with great finds, some in need of only a little cleaning, repair or decorative touches to begin a new life. Some months ago, friends of ours presented Brian with a beautiful sidetable they rescued from the trash. After several weeks, this table was transformed and now occupies the perfect place in their home, looking as if it is what and where it was always meant to be. Beneath its fresh coat of paint, I am certain this piece retains all the memories of its past life, and the history of how it came to be left one morning to be picked up as garbage and lost forever, and then caught the attention of a certain wise and vigilant couple. 

A few weeks ago, Brian and I made the rounds of some antique shops north of Boston. And now, thanks to a successful visit to one particular shop in Essex, he has a new table in his studio awaiting the same happy results. Those of you who follow him regularly will be able to see its progress over the next several weeks. Bringing new life to rescued furniture represents a new direction in Brian’s work, but one I think is both timely and relevant to the next phase of our life as we make concrete plans and set a timetable for closing one chapter here in the Boston area and beginning another one in Vermont. We recently acquired the old but woefully underused family car from my parents, and this will be our mode of transport in our new location. Meantime, another car, which has served us well but was sold last week to new owners, is about to start its own new life without us, here in the town we will soon leave behind, the leaving of which will be partly subsidized by this sale. The cycle continues, someone’s loss is someone else’s gain, and even in moments of utmost abandonment, there is the potential for rescue, and a second chance.   


This post is dedicated to all good champions of the overlooked, the discarded and the abandoned. You know who you are. Although it was not originally intended as such, it is now also a celebration of all the folks out there who have been suffering from the damage caused by one bad weather event after another in recent months, and are in the process of cleaning up and rebuilding their lives from whatever materials are at hand, with a lot of help from something that can never be washed away: the human will to endure.


  1. Beautiful post as always. One of the highlights of your work for me is your focus on the small and oft neglected facets of our lives. And, as a chronic book hoarder I smiled in recognition.
    Thank you.

  2. Well, thank you EC! I had a feeling the section about books might appeal to you!

    Small neglected things have always caught my eye, and I'm happy to bring them into focus for others. That kind of seeing enriches me in the process as much as in the reception of the results. Have a great week!

  3. What a great post Gabriella! Excellent. Love your words.

  4. Dear Gabriella, oh how i enjoyed your post!,
    as my house is filled with things that got a 2nd, 3rd or whatever life; Brian did a great job on that table.
    Reading your post i had to think of René Margrittes 'Ceci c'est ne pas une pipe', it is indeed all in the mind, love the art you showed us ,wonderful, thanks X

  5. A second life as a beautiful piece of art..
    How wonderful in a world drowning in a river of the new technology!!!

  6. TT-beautiful words "champions of the discarded" to describe the simple but very important act of seeing beauty in what is and what it-she-he might be; and then maybe taking the opportunity to give that thing or person another life - letting it-them shine through some small insight or intervention. B

  7. Luis - many thanks! Photography too in its way is an act of rescue and transformation. So many of your photos give new life to something most would not open their eyes to see otherwise.

  8. Renilde - you were one of the champions I was referring to when I said "you know who you are!" I love when you share on your blog images of so many beautiful things you've recognized and brought to their new home! It is a high calling indeed!

  9. Monika - yes, isn't it wonderful to see how much life the old things can have in the right hands and seen with the right eyes? By the way - your parcel is now in the mail - let us see how long it takes to make its way to Greece! All the best to you, my dear.

  10. Barry - you were also one of the champions I had in mind when I wrote this post! Your instincts and insight amaze me. I can see that such materials have potential but I would never know what to do with it or how. I'm so happy you do what you do! Go well.

  11. As I mulled this over after reading it last night, it occurred to me that photography often does what you described in your post - transforming the ordinary and overlooked into art. And now I see that you've already said that in a comment :-) Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

  12. JMG - funny isn't it - sometimes I don't give enough credit to my own medium! I think, especially in recent times, there has been such an emphasis on the digital side of photography, how it has been taken over by the masses as just another fun thing to do with a computer, I often have to be reminded that it is an artform with all the same transformative power that other artforms possess - and all the same room for uninspired mediocrity too, I suppose! We are makers too. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Beautiful post as always. I have always loved your writing and they are thought provoking. I love books and am equally passionate about recycling discarded things to create something new. I loved the table painted by Brian its beautiful.

  14. Hi G/Tt - so glad to hear that the next chapter is about to begin; I hope it brings you both much joy, happiness, satisfaction and success! I love that so many people take the time to find the beauty in the discarded and the worn and find new ways to revitalise them and give them new life; and let their beauty shine. Is The Strand still there? If we make it to New York, it looks like an absolute must! Hope your weekend goes well...

  15. Narayan - glad you liked this and thanks for your comment! That table Brian did really is beautiful. I'm sorry I couldn't get a photo of it in its new home - we saw it in its proper place last week and it really does look perfect with its purpose renewed and fulfilled! Have a great weekend.

  16. Yes, F - the new chapter is planned to begin soon, but there are always little delays and detours and obstacles along the way, as with any creative project! It helps to understand that these are just the Universe's way of keeping us on the right path and not just random difficulties! I do believe the Strand still stands! Haven't been down there in years, but I'm sure I'd feel the cosmic shift if such a place closed. It is definitely worth a visit - provided you can control yourself and limit your purchases! Did I mention they have a whole other section downstairs just for rare books?

    Have a great weekend.

  17. the truth is the the older thecnologies are replaced even before they are able to reach its own potential.... see the new generation of musitians that are working with 80's video game's thecnology or casset tapes and producing brand new music.
    I don't believe in replecement but in adding.


  18. I agree! Just because there is something "new and improved" doesn't mean you need to throw away the old things - they still have usefulness left to explore. But it takes a special sensitivity to recognize and make it happen. Thanks for your comment, Caio!

  19. Great post! I'm amazed by what can be created out of old discarded items. That table sure was a great find! Have a wonderful weekend!

  20. Hey, thanks for stopping by James! Glad you enjoyed this one. You have a great weekend too.

  21. Hey G, I absolutely love these images and of course your words! Do you remember seeing Pablo Picasso's sculpture of a bull's head using just a bicycle seat and handlebars... brilliant.

    Once again your blog inspires me... as always does Brian's work

  22. Douglas - yes, of course, the Picasso! Awesome how it takes so little to suggest so much, when left to the mind and hands of a master. I'm really glad my humble ramblings here can be an inspiration for you! This blog helps me focus my own thoughts and keep me motivated, so if that helps other people too, it's a win-win! Hope your week is going well.

  23. well addressed, this issue!
    recycle and transform, is to respect the history of an object ...
    is an emotion, 'find' an object that almost always seems to be exactly what we need right now, right?
    is the law of the universe, we think, and get a gift to be reused!

    I love the way you explains a topic,
    always with great examples and conclusions!

    a huge hug my friend!!!

  24. Denise - I am happy you understand this issue so well! My posts are only as good as the people who read them, and you are an excellent reader! Thank you, my friend.