26: Hung Up

26: Hung Up

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less

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Hung Up

Unless you are prepared to give up something valuable you will never be able to truly change at all, because you’ll be forever in the control of the thing you can’t give up.

~Andy Law

Almost every bit of wall space, from the basement to the upstairs bedrooms of our Cape Cod–style house, was covered with artwork and artifacts. Visitors called our home a museum. I took it as a compliment. I like museums and I enjoyed living in one.

After sixty-three years of marriage, and me long retired from my fifth-grade classroom, Arthur and I were moving to a smaller space, a sunny condo apartment nearby. Which pieces of art would we take with us? What would we dispose of? Slowly, we began the process of making decisions and taking everything down.

And then a funny thing happened along the way.

Warren, the younger of my two sons, is an artist. It seems to me that he was doodling and drawing from the time he was old enough to hold a crayon. His orange and black bullfighter painting won first prize in a competition when he was eight years old. Fifty years later, that painting was still hanging in my kitchen. Dozens of others — many of them large canvases — watercolors, acrylics, and oils, created when he was in high school, added color and warmth to a dark basement.

Now a professor of visual art, Warren has worked in a variety of mediums, including “visual literature.” His living quarters are small, and my home had become the repository of his work. Beautiful collages made with flax, Earl Grey tea leaves, Chinese spirit paper, fabric, music notation and foreign language symbols were hanging in every room of our house — along with an abundance of other objets d’art we acquired along the way.

Friends and relatives, doodlers as well as serious artists, knew where they’d find an appreciative audience — and wall space. We were the delighted recipients of their work: a mother/child photograph, pebble sculpture, wool weaving, paper cutouts and assorted paintings. When traveling, we searched for unusual handcrafted decorative plates. On weekends, Arthur and I sought out arts and crafts fairs. The work we bought from the mostly young artisans competed with our son’s for wall space.

I was, and still am, an antique nut, with many collections — clocks, carnival glass, irons, trivets, trays, and trunks. Whether traveling abroad or browsing at a local yard sale, I rarely came home empty-handed. Except for our trunks and glassware, we found a way to mount them all.

We managed to find space for posters, picture postcards, and glossy photographs torn from calendars and magazines. Treasured family snapshots were hung in various places, a visual orgy of nostalgia. For celebratory occasions, Warren sent original poetry and colorfully illustrated handcrafted cards. We hung those too of course — in his old room.

I was forty-four when my kid brother became ill and died — a devastating time. Not long afterwards, while passing an upscale Manhattan art gallery, I spotted a colorful impressionist painting of three young children that could have been a portrait of his two sons and daughter. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It far exceeded our budget, so I kept returning — just to visit it. “My Brother’s Children,” I called it. Eventually, I gifted myself, and squeezed it onto a busy wall.

In retirement, I registered for two adult education courses — collage and decoupage. “You’ve been doing this for a while,” the instructor commented when she glanced at my first attempt, a skyscraper collage. “I’ve been doing it in my head for years,” I whispered. Subsequently, I mounted my own series in the attic foyer. For my decoupage class, I found a sheet of wrapping paper imprinted with Bruegel’s famous “Children’s Games” painting, and patiently applied many coats of shellac. It became a “museum” favorite.

I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of anything. Most every piece on my walls had a story to tell, all meaningful to me. Our moving date was getting closer, and we needed to get on with it. “Perhaps we could put some of it on the ceilings,” I joked.

We began by taking down the smaller and incidental pieces: calendar and magazine art, photographs, posters, prints, and greeting cards. As I emptied the walls, I was overcome with an unexpected sensation. The rooms suddenly felt brighter, cleaner, sunnier, larger. The newly exposed white walls became interesting surfaces of their own, reflecting an ever-changing display of light and shadow. It seemed to me that I felt calmer. Each piece of furniture rose to a position of greater prominence. Guests inquired about our new chairs, trunks, cabinets and tables, items they’d sat on or walked past for years.

I envisioned my apartment walls — spare and sparse — a selection of major pieces, each strategically hung: a butterfly tray collection over the living room couch; decorative plates above the dining room server; a friend’s weaving capping a large old trunk; my Bruegel decoupage crowning the den sofa, an eight-year-old’s prize-winning bullfighter painting in the kitchen. And didn’t “My Brother’s Children” deserve its very own space? Not exactly spare and sparse, you say? A gallery, rather than a museum.

I didn’t trash my prized pieces, now removed from prominent display. I took each from its frame, split the pile into three slim folders, and stored them in an antique file cabinet, where I’d be able to revisit them whenever I wished. The frames were thrown into three large cartons, awaiting an upcoming yard sale.

Warren took some of his smaller paintings, and gave permission to dispose of his large teenage canvases. “They’re not very good,” he said. I left some for the new homeowner, kept a wild abstract for the apartment, sold the others at our yard sale. Newlyweds, recently relocated from across the country, “to study art” they told us, arrived at the sale toward the end of the day, looking for a chest of drawers. “Artists?” my husband exclaimed, pulling a remaining carton with dozens of frames from the garage. The young couple would have loved to buy them all, but confided they couldn’t afford it. Oh good, I thought, I could fill a wall with those things.

Instantly, I stifled the thought, and pushed the carton in their direction. “A wedding gift,” I heard myself offer. They were flabbergasted, and delighted. So was I. The wide smiles on their faces matched mine.

~Ruth Lehrer

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