COMMITMENTS : Hunter Gatherers : What compels otherwise rational people to collect things like salt shakers, old radios or bottle openers? Is it a control thing? An obsession? Maybe it’s just that the stuff is so cool.
Ellen and Barry Blum started collecting old radios a few years ago. Now they have hundreds of them--Crosleys, Arvins, Silver tones--having traveled across the country in their quest, made hundreds of phone calls and risen at 5 a.m. to be the first at a swap meet.
The Blums, owners of Art Concepts frame shop in Santa Monica, aren’t sure why they do this.
“What was it,” muses Ellen Blum, “that drove us to accumulate over 200 radios? Was it their unique designs, or a desire to be a part of preserving a slice of Americana, or was it merely the hunt?”
Or, she adds, was it just a contagious disease?
Why do people collect?
The question fascinates social scientists. What is the attraction of a cabinet full of salt-and-pepper shakers? Or a box of glass eyeballs? Why would someone hang on to those little inspection slips that mysteriously show up in the pockets of new clothes?
What dormant hunter-gatherer instinct compels an otherwise rational adult to keep accumulating a whole lot of one (often useless) item?
Tom Patchett, a TV comedy writer (co-creator of “Alf”), has tackled this question by assembling a bunch of collectors and asking them to explain their obsessions. The result is a show called “Collectism,” on view through Dec. 22 at the Track 16 gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station complex, 2525 Michigan Ave.; (310) 264-4678.
An inveterate collector himself of both contemporary art and memorabilia (“The combination gives me a view of where we are going and where we have been,” he says), Patchett owns the gallery--"I needed some storage space,” he says.
Aiming to elevate collecting to something more than a hoarding experience, Patchett has put together a show featuring dozens of collections, including some of his own. And although behavioral theorists tend to analyze the impulse to collect as rooted in a childhood desire to exert control over the outside world, Patchett insists that there are “lots of reasons why people collect,” a theory confirmed by a visit to his show.
If there is an overriding theme in the hodgepodge of old suitcases, posters, snow domes and calendars, it might be nostalgia.
Artist Jill Poyourow remembers, as a kid, waking up early on Sunday mornings and making cinnamon pinwheel biscuits. “Baking became the only thing I felt as passionate about as painting,” she writes, in homage to her collection of battered cookbooks.
Scott Boberg can’t even remember his first visit to the California Alligator Farm, but he knows it was a thrill. “Simply put, staring at ponds overflowing with alligators had always been a part of my life,” writes Boberg, director of education at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, in explaining his rich collection of alligator farm postcards.
And for actress Beverly Archer, a collection of jack-o'-lanterns and other Halloween icons evokes the memories of a uniquely goofy holiday, of “leaving the house with my sister, unaccompanied by parent or guardian, of dashing through the neighborhood for a night of unabashed greed, of dressing up, of living alone in a universe made for kids.”
Literary agent Ron Bernstein likes calendars because they provide little spotlights on history. His collection of 1900 to 1920 calendars, with their idealized view of nature and comforting aphorisms that told people how to live, mark the transition “between the Victorian era and the beginning of Modernism, which comes at the world with gale force winds by the 1920s.”
Some of the collectors were motivated by looming technology. For instance, architect Kip Kelly says his notion to collect bottle openers sprang from his realization, as a youngster, that they would soon be rendered obsolete by twist-off technology.
Artist Lynn Aldrich started collecting inkwells as a pre-computer-era adolescent who had just discovered “great literature” and linked good writing to meaningful communication, “which actually leads to knowledge,” she says.
More often, collections started as an impulsive gesture, out of the blue. Artist Paul Ruscha still doesn’t understand why, as a high schooler, he was compelled to start saving inspection slips from new clothing.
“It was as if these slips were desperate little messages from sweat-shop elves,” he writes of his hobby, which eventually grew to a 25-volume collection including sub-collections of erratum slips placed in books.
Writer Kristi Kane picked up a deck of cards in 1969 in a Moscow airport, looking for an inexpensive souvenir, and now has more than 500 decks encompassing most of the world.
And marketing executive Allen Wizelman explains that “I got my first credit card at one of the hotels on the Strip. Next thing I knew, dozens more had arrived in the mail. Next, every store in town, including ones I’d never even heard of, were sending them,” he says of his wall of credit cards.
Despite using the word “compulsion” frequently in their essays, the contributors seem to view their obsessions with affection.
“Suitcases are icons of travel, leisure and adventure,” writes gallery owner Robert Berman of his collection of sturdy valises. “As I go through this world, I believe in luggage with history and character.”
And though cultural critic Jean Baudrillard has maintained that those who collect “can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity,” other analysts are more charitable.
Westside psychologist Lilli Friedland calls collecting a “wonderful pastime and avocation.” It can make us a mini-expert in a special field and tends to enhance the self-image, she says. “It’s one way of defining yourself.”
And although many collectors refer to their “compulsion,” they’re probably using it in the fun sense, she says, as opposed to mental health experts whose idea of compulsion is behavior so strong the person can’t control it.
“It’s a matter of balance,” she said. “If you go on a vacation, but spend all your time looking for cookbooks, even when you’d rather be doing something else, your collecting hobby has taken over your life.”
Patchett, who has only been collecting for about six years, confesses that his real motive was to find partners-in-crime.
“I put the show together so I wouldn’t look so obsessive,” he admitted. “I think people are basically insecure about their choices, and always looking for a soul mate for their vices.”