We were invited to dinner with one of Carole’s fellow art teachers. They lived in a fairly new housing development, where all the houses were cookie cutter matches, up and down the streets, with the streets lined up-and-down the newly developed Arizona desert. Urbanization was filling up the outskirts of Phoenix like water filling up a pot.
Our hosts were a very nice young couple with two kids; Carole and Margaret were friends over years of teaching in the sprawling Peoria Unified School District and we both knew Margaret and Curt well. But this was the first time we had come to their house. It was a shock.
Through the whole house, there was not a single picture on the walls. Not a clock, nor children’s painting on the fridge, nor framed Bible verse — not even an Olan Mills family photograph with the stiff smiles and Sunday dress-up clothing. Nothing. An empty room is spooky.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a house so blank. It was as if they had just moved in and packing boxes were stacked in the corner, except there were no boxes and they’d lived in the house for years. There was a full set of furniture and curtains on the windows, but no art. All the more surprising since Margaret was an art teacher.
Even cheap motels put decorations on the walls.
This is not to complain about Margaret and Curt. The dinner was fine and we had a great night together. But the house haunted me afterwards. A house with blank walls is a house without a soul. You feel it in the gut. A void, an emptiness.
Something on the wall seems almost instinctual, from the cave walls of Altamira to the poster of Farrah Fawcett taped up in the dorm room. If nature abhors a vacuum, house cannot abide a blank expanse of plasterboard. Something — please, something. A framed halftone image from Target of a tree or a cliched Parisian street scene. Something.
In Medieval Jewish folklore, a golem is a clay statue that comes to life when a magic incantation is inserted into its mouth. And so a home becomes alive when a painting or photograph is hung above the sofa or piano.
When I moved into my first rented house, after leaving the college dorm, I hung photographs on the wall and a color-field painting made by Doug Feeney, a fellow collegian. I even put a frame around the wall phone, as if it were a Duchampian ready-made. Wasn’t I clever.
Later, in another house, I filled the entire dining room wall, from top to bottom, with photos I made of all our friends. There must have been 30 or 40 pictures there. I couldn’t afford matting and frames, so they were all scattered across the wall, held up with masking tape. They kept us company. Because I was a photographer, most of the art in the houses I have lived in were decorated with my own work. But a good deal of the work that hung was traded for with other artists. This is a great thing about having artist friends and about making art. We mix and match. I now have enough art to fill a gallery.
I most value art made by my brother, who is a working artist, and by my late wife, Carole, who was a visionary. She made a painting of the tree at night that grew outside our Phoenix house; it is surrounded by stars and the bluest dark sky I’ve ever seen. It now resides over our dining table, sharing the wall with an embroidered copy of a detail of the Unicorn Tapestries from the Museum of Medieval Art in Paris.
The tree painting is not only a fragment of Carole’s soul remaining with me after her death, it is a window into the larger world she had access to.
And that is one of the functions of art in the home. For many, it is a photograph of the family or of the parents or grandparents. It is a reminder of our unbreakable bond with the past — both our growing up and our ancestors.
In old British manor houses, the walls are covered with the stiff, starchy paintings of lineage going back centuries. “That was the third Marquis of Snotsbury. He was hanged as a horsethief.” Thieves are hanged; artwork is hung.
Sometimes the art is a souvenir of someplace that was meaningful to us: that trip to London or the landscape or our childhood. Sometimes, it is just a pretty picture. For my religious grandmother, it was praying hands and scriptural verses. We find meaning and display it.
Unfortunately, the art in the house is often just a pro forma accessory, something perhaps picked out by an interior designer. Such art usually offers no emotional connection, just the fulfillment of a middle class expectation. The decor in such cases is usually not more than tchotchkes — something merely to fill the vacuum. Very tasteful — but soulless.
(I remember that time in college when I painted a large abstract canvas in reds and ochers and gave it to my parents to hang over their sofa. It stayed there perhaps a year. But then, my mother asked me if I could do another one to replace it, one in blues and greens that would better match the room’s decor. I did it for them, after all, they were my parents. But I was miffed. I have rebelled against anything “matching” ever since.)
The interior design impulse means that for some, a concatenation of artwork, collected from various sources over years, is simply not unified enough. It really helps such an impulse if you are an artist yourself and can fill the house with your own artwork. Then it all hangs together.
And, as I said, most of the art in my house is by me, but there is no unity at all. That is not a quality I admire. I love diversity — a kind of Postmodern mix of everything. I have Hopi pottery, African Tsi-Waras, a Ganesh of sandalwood and a bronze Shiva Nataraja.
There is some Blue Willow crockery and a gorgeous giant etching made by Carole’s childhood friend, Ruth Haggerty.
A snow scene by Georgia artist James Lyle. A vintage cookie jar in the rotund shape of a G.I., that we named “Urnie.” And a life-size copy of the Venus of Willendorf made by Tempe artist and friend Bill Tonnesen.
In the bedroom is a gigantic painting of an abstract nude by Virginia painter Steve Wolf.
And over my computer is a framed drawing of me made by my granddaughter Carol Lily Cloos when she was 8 or 9.
And next to my computer, at eye level so I can look at it every day, is a pencil drawing that Carole made of a dead starling. It is resonant in ways that make me weep.
Over the piano is a large painting by my brother, Craig, that is one of his typical flying antelopes, and in the bathroom there is his “portrait” of our late lamented cat, Ruthie, complete with spaying scar on belly. There is also a Japanese Ukiyo-e print of two graceful women in the snow, under an umbrella. So, there is no order or reason, just a collection of things I love.
I have several dozen of my own photographs that I framed and showed at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and now I have them stored away, but I retrieve a group and I switch them out occasionally on the walls. Currently, most of them hanging in the hall, office and bedrooms are images of Monet’s gardens at Giverny.
All of them give character to the house, and more to the point, to life lived in the house. The house isn’t just a group of walls, doors and windows, but a personality.