Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby....

As an ephemeraologist, one of the questions I get asked the most frequently is, "How can you bring yourself to use these old items?"

It's a good question, and it's not as cut-and-dry as you think.  I LOVE vintage ephemera but there are instances where I just can't bring myself to use certain pieces.  More on that in a bit.

I belong to the Ephemera Society of America (ESA) (see my article here reiterating my point!) and their main focus is to preserve our history through paper.  I have a feeling that most of the members would cringe if they saw me using old paper in my collages; indeed, I have gotten comments that have hinted at that.  Here's my take on the subject:  the paper that I use in my work is by no means rare.  Some may argue that it may not be now, but in the future it'll be harder and harder to find unused telegram booklets, for example, or WWII ration stamps.  This may be true. 

To combat that problem, I always try and purchase a whole bunch of an item if I can afford it.  I have enough vintage trading stamps to last me until Rapture.  Unless I do an enormous installation piece, I can't imagine that I'll ever use them all in my lifetime.  I'm 42 and I don't have any kids; where is my stuff going to go after that, anyway?  I have three nieces and a nephew and I doubt that any of them are going to want my collection, save for a few neat pieces to remember me by.  I suppose I could will my collection to the ESA, if they'd like it, or other collectors could grab some of my stuff at my estate sale when the time comes.  But what if no one takes it - will it just get thrown out anyway?

Sorry - I didn't mean to get maudlin!  :D  What I'm trying to say is that when it comes to my artwork, I take an existential stance - I'm going to live for today, because I don't know what's going to happen to my collection in the future.  I'd rather see my collection being used in artwork that someone else (hopefully!) enjoys than have it sitting in the bottom of a box in a musty basement.

On the flip side - if a piece has sentimental value, such as those telegrams sent to my great-grandparents - NO WAY am I going to cut them up!  That seems sacriligeous, somehow, akin to spitting on my ancestors.  I have a personal tie to them - their daughter is my beloved Grammie.  My mom dearly loved her grandparents and would spend entire summers with them.  So to use these pieces would be wrong, at least to me.

Some people, when they find old photographs or ephemera, scan it and use copies.  I have done this in the past too, but not lately.  I think the last time I used a copy was here:
The photo that you see is a transparency of a scanned photo of my Grammie on her 18th birthday, in 1942.  I made this card for her 85th birthday, which was in August of 2009.  Of course I wasn't going to use the real photo!  I want to preserve that for future generations.

If I can, I will alway use the "real thing".  A copy doesn't have the same feel as the old paper.  It doesn't have the same patina and you just can't replicate it, even with certain "antiquing" inks.  Sometimes the paper crumbles in half - even better!  That's serendipitous, if you ask me, and it's the Universe telling me to go that direction with my collage.  Sometimes the old paper has stains or rusting or smearing - that's all good too.  I love the ageing and imperfections that you just can't get in a new sheet of copy paper.

I'm hoping to use my old paper in new and exciting ways this year - wish me luck on that!  Until then I'm going to continue to enjoy my collection of vintage ephemera the best way I know how - by cutting it up.  :D


  1. Mel - I like your point of view. I to would rather see my "non sentimental" ephemera used in art rather than sitting in the bottom of a box. As a librarian I had a HARD time "deconstructing" old (not rare) books for art at first but now, knowing they would have ended up in the trash, I feel like I give the papers inside and the covers a second life. Same with old photos that I have (but not family ones) I like using them to tell a "new" really interested to see what you do this year. Jewels

  2. What a wonderful card you made for you grandmother! I love the photo of her, of course you wouldn't have used the original. As for other ephemera, I am right there with you. I am all about using the original. It gives the art more substance and value.

  3. If you don't use these papers in your own way that preserves them, then don't they run the risk of never seeing daylight and/or deteriorating with time? And you're right, there is no shortage of antique and vintage books, magazines and clippings that survived this long that are just (for lack of a better phrase) non-special. You can see the piles of it on ebay if you search for estate lots of ephemera (and I do)! They don't contain priceless works of art or rare prints, but they are a definitive glimpse into life way back when and someone with a creative eye can take the ordinary and give it a new life. :)

  4. Your work is beautiful! I too was wondering how you part with some old treasures but then you used a transparency for grammies photo - so I get it!
    BTW found your blog via a comment left on Facebook.

  5. Wow! Thank you for all of your wonderful comments! :D I guess it's all in the context, right? :D Lynne, thank you so much! I'll bet you found me via my husband Brian's Youtube post of your wonderful Fond du Lac concert on Saturday! :D