Drawn Together

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Daryl Mccurdy

Perpetually in the Making

My friend Anna found a box. Inside were multiple bags. Each contained the following: a blue dress; dress pattern with two choices of fabric; a tree embroidery kit; a brown felt blanket; multiple dress patterns; a bag of twine; needle point materials; embroidery materials; a half finished embroidered tunic; embroidered tunic patterns; loose fabric with patterns; another length of brown fabric for a blanket; and a blue blanket. However, this box, which belonged to her mother Teresa, was peculiar. None of the projects—the embroideries, the centerpieces, the scarves—were quite finished.

When she was roughly the same age as Anna, twenty-two, Teresa was completing her student teaching, living alone, without a television or anything, and amassed this series of unfinished hobby projects. When I asked Anna what she found so interesting about this box of uncompleted projects, she answered, “They were important enough to start and then something else happened.” Now, Anna has taken it upon herself to finish them.

Pondering the significance of this decision, I keep thinking about Anna’s desire to complete the projects her mother had started. When I spoke to Anna about this endeavor, I was continually intrigued by the reoccurring dilemma felt between her impulse to finish these things and the air of responsibility she continuously feels bearing down on her; a responsibility to her mother and to the objects that once belonged to her. I decided to address this dilemma from both sides. First, why is Anna so attracted to these artifacts from her mother’s past? What about them makes Anna want to enter into the making process that her mother abandoned thirty-some years ago? And second, what are the areas that Anna, an intelligent and well-informed university student, interprets to be problematic? What is the ethical dimension to this project of finishing and how has it informed Anna’s approach in dealing with these objects?

Anna’s fascination with this series of objects has much to do with the particularities of the collector. Walter Benjamin wrote:

Actually, inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a collector's attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner's feeling of responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.

Inspired by her newfound possessions, Anna was provoked to insert herself into these objects. Left alone, these projects would be suspended in a perpetual past, for each object carries with it its own story. Curiosity compels the collector to follow the act of acquisition with the act of possessing. And, through the possession of the object, one can now inject herself into the object’s history, into its story. As Benjamin noted, it is this “transmissibility” that is so attractive about the inherited collection. What once belonged to someone else has been transferred into your possession. What was once the dominion of someone else is now an open playing field, rich with things to be uncovered, altered, and reclaimed.

To preface my exploration of Anna’s newfound connection with these objects, I wish to describe what it is exactly that she did with them. I have already made clear Anna’s intention to finish these craft or hobby projects and connected this impulse to the notion of possession. In order to examine this desire and deal with her new acquisitions, Anna decided to make her chapter in the lives of these objects into a piece of art. Fervently documenting her process by taking photographs and notes, Anna has assumed the guise of pseudo-scientist. I have seen the presentation of one of the completed dresses, which Anna entitled “Fourteen of Seventeen.” The numbers here refer to the taxonomical system that Anna has created to organize her making and remaking. Hung on a wooden clothes hanger, the dress is positioned above a square that is labeled “14.” Sixteen additional squares are located on the floor, each representing another project yet to be finished.

I find Anna’s anthropological approach both interesting and telling. When confronted with another culture’s system of objects, the responsible anthropologist must avoid projecting her own cultural context onto the examination of such artifacts. One way the anthropologist does this, as described by Alfred Gell, is to reject the impulse to look at these objects aesthetically. Instead, the anthropologist looks at the biographical background of the object and the various life cycles it has witnessed and been influenced by. Through her incessant cataloging, Anna remains very cognizant of her role in the lives of these objects. By preserving the biographical integrity of each project, Anna draws clear distinctions in the state of each item before, after, and during her possession.

It is from this point that I want to look at the type of objects that Anna has inherited and now works with. Each bag in Teresa’s box contains a craft or hobby project. The hobby project is a peculiar object in that it is valued for the act of making that it allows. The hobby object keeps itself open and available for its maker. It resists independence and instead relies on the act of being made for its existence. In few other objects is the element of time so fundamental. Indeed, the reason for its being is the desire to fill time. This is leisure time, busy time, a distraction from the everyday; time to practice one’s passion or time to fill otherwise idle moments. The craft item contains a duel element of time. There is the time that has been delineated by its making and the time in history that that segment of production represents. And, as the hobby object is activated by the person(s) who constructs it, its temporal qualities are specific to the life of its owner, its maker. Each object in the box that Anna found possesses this duel sense of time doubly. There is Teresa’s story and then there is Anna’s.

Finally, I wish to call attention to Anna’s contribution to the lives of these hobby objects. If the craft object’s life is contingent on the action of making, does the object die once it is completed? If the object is valued for and defined by the act of making, how are we to understand this ambiguous demise? I really do not want to be so morbid though, nor do I believe that hobbyists hold such a dismal view of the fate of their finished projects. Instead, and I think that Anna captures this vividly in her relentless documentation of these objects; the craft object lives forever in a state of unfinish. Each time the hobbyist displays a finished piece it is talked about and revered by virtue of its being made by the hand of the hobbyist. We value the time that is put into the making of a craft object and that is what makes it different from an object of which we are ignorant of its making. A quilt that was made by my grandmother is distinct from every other quilt because she made it. I will forever think of my grandmother and her labor in accordance to that quilt.

Even when Anna has completed all seventeen projects they will be imbued with her presence, Teresa’s presence, and both stories of their making. Indeed, by positioning this project as art, Anna is forced to question her impulses and actions. She has thrust herself into a relationship with these objects that must be critical and inquisitive. And, in turn, viewers are asked to question the status of these objects as well. What are the criteria through which we understand them? As Anna has drawn our attention to states of finish and unfinish as well as her role in this process, we are forced to view these objects through this lens. We, like Anna and Teresa, see these objects in a perpetual state of making. We keep them boxed up in our minds as somebody’s projects, still to be finished.

Anna Katherine Peters is a graduating senior in New Media and she works with old objects and memories.

  • Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, Engl. trans. London: Fontana, 1982, p.63.
  • I use the phrase “system of objects” here to allude to a Jean Baudrillard’s 1968 book, “The System of Objects,” which both inspired my interest in the “antique” and “collecting.”
  • Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. New York : Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 3.
  • Gell, p. 11.