Love of the Tactile

Ever since I was a kid I’ve liked objects.

I don’t mean in terms of when people like to buy expensive watches, or luxury desserts – in fact stuff like that doesn’t really interest me. No, what I like are tiny knick-knacks and personal journals, rock collections and old pennies off the street. What I like to call Lifetime Objects.

I’m all about the tactile qualities of an item, and the smooth grooves that begin to form when something has been used continuously for decades upon decades. In particular, people’s notebooks and journals. Let me show you a few pages from my archive of art journals I’ve had since about December 2019.

The sketchbooks themselves.

These are pages I’ve gone back over and over again, wearing them down from their manufactured state at the beginning of each journal. Every stain and smudge adds to these notebooks, because in a sense they are living, organic things while they are being worked with. In creating one of these notebooks I consider what they’re going to look like at the end as well as what they look like in the moment. They’re pretty heavily curated, but in a free-form sense.

A few years ago I made the photo series Still Lives, which explores what happens when a camera is trained on the minutia of specific objects, treating them with the same care and consideration as a museum artifact. I was inspired to make this photo series in part by the book Studio Life: Rituals, Collections and Tools by Sarah Trigg, a great book that focuses less on the artists themselves and more on how they interact with their studios, itself very inspirational when working in personal areas such as studios, offices and bedrooms.

One of the more famous well-used artifacts that I know of is Willie Nelson’s guitar Trigger, which he refuses to get refurbished past a certain point, because he likes the way the wear and tear of the guitar, since it’s essentially a living timeline of his life so far – scars and all.

Willie Nelson holding Trigger.

I find it very interesting that while the guitar is very well-worn, nearly broken, the hole that Willie’s pick has dug into the body of the guitar is often referred to as the “Second Sound Hole” by Mark Erlewine, the guitar repairman. This has the feeling of ‘Trigger’ being around so long that the guitar truly has started to evolve and age with Willie, being transformed into something completely different through daily use, like a wooden worrystone.

Another famous example of a somewhat innocuous object that has since become more famous due to its use over time is Chris McCandless’s ‘Bio-Belt’ which he carved throughout his infamous journey towards Alaska. Here are some shots of the belt itself:

The images carved on the belt are the symbols that are bouncing around inside Chris’s head – and he’s utilizing this belt as a secondary brain, an archive of where he’s been, because the belt has been there too, every step of the way. I’m sure at the very beginning it was a light, clean leather – but as he was changed and weathered by the journey, so too was his bio-belt, until the tragic end.

I think the biggest draw for me to these well-used and sentimental things bought are the connections between the object and the person itself. Sarah Trigg uses the word ‘mascot’ in her book Studio Life, and I think that word is very apt. I think everyone has a mascot in their lives – whether it’s a T-shirt that they’ve had for so long that it’s falling apart, or a notebook that they bought many years ago that they’re still erasing and rewriting things in, it’s an object that they’ve had around for so long that it’s become part of themselves.

More recently I’ve been reading the book The Diary of Frida Kahlo, which is a 1:1 replication of the famous artist’s personal journal. While I can’t read the original text, there are several translations and annotations at the end of the volume.

Attached are some pictures from the book itself:

This combination of lettering and watercolor on a journal that is clearly not built for how much mixed-media Frida is actually putting into it really cements the concept of these personal notebooks as a secondary alcove of thought for the artist. A place for concepts to digest and reframe themselves in new compositions. I would argue that this diary would not, and in fact should not be categorized as a sketchbook. I believe that something like this falls into a middle ground, rather than a sketchbook which is purely a place for the artist or designer to develop sketches and final pieces, or the notebook, where ideas and concepts are collected – this is something more personal for whoever creates it.

One final artist’s books that I admire greatly are those of Jose Naranja and his Orange Manuscript, which he’s uploaded entirely for free here.

While less immediate and expressionistic than Frida Kahlo’s, Naranja’s Manuscript is one of my favorites in the sense that as it goes on it gradually becomes an informal encyclopedia of all the things that he’s interested at that very moment. In the first few places we’re shown diagrams of the Taj Mahal, next to his dream studio – all rendered in sharp watercolor sketches.

In conclusion, I think it’s highly important to make and/or keep something that’s unequivocally yours. Even if it’s just a phone case you like, or a belt your grandfather gave you. There’s something at the heart of these objects, and you can reach it with the lead of a pencil, the thinning hair of a paintbrush, or the oily texture of shoe polish.

1 Comment

  1. I also like going places where the feet of many people have worn into the stone steps. Not as personal as objects that I have lovingly shaped over the years, but moving in their own way.

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