Eclectic Collections

BY NANCY STETSON

ASK ANY COLLECTOR AND HE'LL tell you: The world is full of curious and wonderful things, each object imbued with its own strange beauty: hood ornaments and hubcaps, neon signs, lace, doorknobs, belt buckles, matchbooks, cookie jars, skate keys, birdhouses.

"Life is much more interesting for collectors," says sculptor/collector Marilynn Gelfman Karp. "There's never a dull moment. You're waiting on a street corner, and there are millions of possibilities. It's wonderful for me, and probably for every other collector."

Ms. Karp is "willing to admit to 200 collections," but she actually owns more than that. An art professor emeritus at New York University, the incurable collector talks about and displays many of her unusual assemblages in "In Flagrante Collecto: Caught in the Act of Collecting." (Abrams Books, $60). See some of them online at www.inflagrantecollecto.info.

Collections fall into various categories, she says.

Some people collect items of intrinsic value, such as gold coins.

Others collect objects of extrinsic value, things that are worth something because many people want them. "That's how art achieves its value," she says, adding a canvas, wood stretcher and nails aren't really worth anything. It's when collectors start competing for an artist's work that it becomes valuable. "The materials are not what people are vying for."

And then there are items that appear to have no particular value at all, except to the collector.

For example, Ms. Karp's collection of found grocery lists. Or her collection of "this item was inspected by" tags. Or her collection of fancy wax paper.

After her book was published, she received a letter from a man in England about his collection of price stickers found on bread. He'd collected them throughout his childhood and had laid them out in books, hundreds on each page.

"Collectors literally embrace material culture, things that you can hold in your hand, while simultaneously, they're enfolded by their collections, and they're defined by their collections," she says.

In "In Flagrante Collecto," she devotes three pages to a friend's collection of soap shards. He groups them together and places them in frames, displaying them much like how "Victorians displayed geological specimens or fossils or seashell collections," she writes. The soaps are smoothed by use, Arplike shapes of various colors, some with white veins showing, as if they're marble.

Shared characteristics

Collecting is a calling, not a choice, Ms. Karp says.

She describes collectors as are those whose inner child still dominates.

"Anybody who has ever collected anything has felt the satisfactions of collecting, which are deep and urgent," she says. "It's analogous to gastronomy: devouring, savoring, digesting, assimilating. (A collection) becomes part of you. It enhances who you are.

"And as most people who ever collected anything know, the acquisition of (a desired object) gives you a state of peace and knowing, a rather proprietary stance. You just want to steal off with it and bring it to safe haven."

Hearts and more hearts make up Dianne Durante's collection. Collectors share common traits.

First, collecting gives them a sense of control. Children have very little control over their own lives, and collecting "gives them a province of absolute control. It's their domain," she says. "A collector is a godly king and an absolute monarch of a singular and self-defined territory. And in a real sense, they are master of all he or she surveys.

Second, their collections provide hands-on gratification.

"There's a deep satisfaction in handling, organizing, even inventorying and communing with the booty. 'I found it, it's mine!' 'These are wonderful!'" she says. "Touching the material objects connects us with the time and place in which they were made."

The third trait that collectors share is empowerment. Within their collecting sphere, their choices are limited only by their imagination. "Everything you do with the collection is self-imposed, except maybe if your mother comes into your room," she says, drawing unspoken images of mothers throwing out treasured collections, including valuable baseball cards or comic books considering them "junk."

Common dilemmas

Collectors often grapple with the same kinds of questions, no matter what the object of their desire: Should their quest be toward variety or quality? Quality or quantity? Quantity or one-of-a-kind? Perfect or flaws allowed? Should I upgrade? Should I trade?

"The boundaries, the criteria and the standards are all the collector's own," Ms. Karp says, "although limitations of budget are personal and may be built into one's criteria. I like to think of it as a sliding scale of allowable desire."

The fourth characteristic of collecting is "exhilaration in the quest and the satisfaction attendant to acquisition," she says. "You can sort of examine your own feelings about that and come up with a refined sense of strategic reconnaissance… and a fulfilling sense, really, of your own personal acuteness, judgment, attainment, achievement.

"If you've ever had a kid talk to you about things in a collection they put together, they really wax eloquent on their favorites and where they found them, or how they came by them."

The fifth characteristic is p possession. "Ownership is really an a act of self-affirming intimacy and self-committing responsibility," she says. "You're committing yourself to taking care of these things, and revealing yourself to be who you are through your selection, your objects. A collector's singular voice is always witnessed in a collection."

And the last trait, she says, is husbanding and transference of characteristics.

"Once you have objects, once you give them protective custody, in some cases it's like granting asylum, gripping an object from the wastebasket or the maw of oblivion," she says. "I think to collectors of all ages, a collection is a charm against chaos… it's protection against the world, it's the ordered part of their lives. It's their realm."

She explains that husbanding means you're committed to taking care of the objects, which confers, in some mysterious way, the characteristics of what's collected to the collector.

"If things are beautiful or (show) strength or poise or dignity or quirkiness, it's a mantle that the collector dons," she says.

Dianne Durante likes that idea.

If she only had a heart

Ms. Durante, a marriage and family counselor in Naples, has collected heart-shaped objects for more than two decades.

It started with heart-motif kitchen wallpaper that she just had to have. At one point, her collection was very specific: only purple hearts. "I was really into purple," she says.

When she first moved to Naples 20 years ago, Ms. Durante would walk the beach in search of stones or shells in the shape of a heart. "It was my symbol of hope, that if I could just find a heart, everything was going to work out," she says. "I have about 50 of those hearts, mostly stones. I have some at home, some at the office."

An entire wall in her office is filled with framed "heart art," including a hand-stitched needlework of hearts and a quilt.

Ms. Durante recites her favorite saying — "To hear with the ear and the heart is an art" — and points out that "hear," "ear" and "art" are all contained within the word "heart."

"I've surrounded myself with hearts," she says. "I think for me, it's hope… It's a belief in positive thinking: If I can just keep my heart open, I can find hearts all over and I will also do my job better. I will always have an open heart to listen to people.

"What better thing for a marriage counselor than to collect hearts, and to teach people about their hearts?" she says.

Full battle dress

Bill Deile, a city councilman in Cape Coral, has a collection that relates to his career: military uniforms, caps, helmets, patches and badges. A retired Army colonel, he fought in Vietnam and joined the Army Reserves when he returned to civilian life, eventually doing stints in Saudi Arabia and Hungary.

As a boy, Mr. Deile collected matchbooks, pennies and stamps. When he was in high school, he started collecting Army patches.

"What attracted me to them was the symbolism, and the color, the heraldic origins of them," he says. "I'm a student of history and heraldry. When I collect things, I like to know what they mean and what they're all about." About his military uniforms and accessories he says, "The colors mean something. The different shapes mean something."

He has at shelves filled with reference books in English, Hungarian, German, Russian and French, all about military uniforms. "The books explain the development, the origin, who the designer was," he says.

More than a dozen glass cases hold his collection of patches and badges. "Crossed rifles mean infantry," he says. "Crossed sabers mean cavalry."

Eight shelves display caps and helmets above a rack laden with uniforms. Visor caps are more structured, while garrison caps are made of cloth and look like envelope purses, he says. The piping on the garrison caps signified different things, he explains, for example, maroon and white is medical, yellow and green is military police, and red is artillery. "Everything has a significance."

His scores of Army uniforms date from the Spanish American War through World War II. He has an SS uniform and a French Legionnaire's uniform.

"The French Foreign Legion has a mystique to it; it appeals to me to have that," he says.

He holds up a Civil War uniform made of heavy blue wool with red trim. "The Civil War uniforms are small; people were smaller then," he says.

Mr. Deile tries to find uniforms that are his size. "Most of the uniforms I have fit," he says. "The Russian stuff, I don't have any problem. They're more robust."

So how does he find all these things? The process has changed over the decades, he says, but he adds he still loves the thrill of the hunt.

Back in high school, when he started collecting military patches, "I was limited to what you could get in Army Navy stores," he says. "You'd swap with friends, pick up pieces from relatives who were returning from the service. As I got older, I started acquiring from other collectors and dealers at gun shows and through mail-order auctions."

With the advent of the Internet, he's on eBay every day, he says, but he still goes to gun shows and talks and deals with other collectors. "I like to be able to look, feel, hold something," he says.

He enjoys standing in his room that's filled with uniforms. "I get a sense of satisfaction in what I've amassed over the years," he says. "I enjoy looking at them and figuring out where the gaps are in my collection. I enjoy doing the research (about the uniforms and the various battles they were in.)"

Sometimes he wonders about the men who wore those uniforms, who they were, what their dreams were, what they saw and experienced in battle.

Ms. Karp, the collector's collector and author of "In Flagrante Collecto," certainly understands.

"Every object has its history," she says. "That's implicit in what you're collecting. You inherit the whole bag."

Goofy gum and novelty neckties

Mickey Gorman, a fun-loving guy who lives in North Port, collects gum and novelty ties.

The gum collecting began as a joke, when his daughters were little, he says (they're now 32 and 30 years old).

"We started noticing all these silly different types of gum that were out there, and we started collecting them," he says. "They have them in these little milk cartons, they have them shaped like hamburgers and French fries, and in tubes of toothpaste and in packs like baseball cards."

He estimates he has maybe 100 kinds of gum, stored in boxes in his garage.

"It could be a huge pile of sticky goo by now," he allows. "I don't know how serious I got about it. How serious can you get about bubble gum?" The goofy stuff, Mr. Gorman adds, "just grabbed me."

As for his novelty ties, he estimates he owns a couple hundred, and this is after he's culled his collection.

"I have everything from a Rush Limbaugh collection to a bunch of Disney ties and 'South Park' and 'The Flintstones.' I've got a Mothers Against Drunk Driving tie. It's beer under a microscope. I have a Jerry Garcia tie."

He worked for a while on a tourist train in Grapevine, Texas, and bought a train tie. It looks like a locomotive, he says, with the point of the tie being the cowcatcher. When you push a button, it plays "I've Been Working on the Railroad."

He doesn't wear ties very often these days, but when he does, he picks one from his collection, such as his Bugs Bunny tie. "If you're going to wear a tie in Florida, at least you ought to have fun with it," he insists.

.. collect much? >> We're collecting collectors Do you have an unusual collection? We're not talking baseball cards, comic books, Hummels or first edition books. We're looking for the nontypical stuff: linoleum samples, barbed wire, bad portraits, paint-by-number kits, swizzle sticks, retro aprons, menus from long-gone hotels, horror movie props. The weird, the unusual, the funky. Whatever you have, we want to know about it. E-mail Florida Weekly arts writer Nancy Stetson at nstetson@floridaweekly.com, and we'll be happy to consider your collection for a story. Be sure to include your phone number in your e-mail.


Taken fron the From Naples Florida Weekly website, Week of September 17-23, 2009 (link)