For grandma, it started with a Staffordshire china duo.
The second hand stores around our neighbourhood had been filling our home with furniture and knick knacks for years, and grandma has always been known for having a good eye. The only things that entered our home and didn’t immediately leave it as a gift to someone else were either flawless or priceless, and this duo was one of them. Grandma learned about English fine china at her English class the week before, and had come home inspired to seek some out, just to see.
The duo was simple in its elegance. White, emerald green, and gold, the handle on the cup boasting a flick—like a cat-eye—at its tip. Gold lined the rim of the cup, the rim of its foot. Another line drew a boundary against the inside of the cup, and a similar design was echoed on the saucer. It looked rich to me, and it looked good for its age.
Other than that, I hadn’t paid the cup and its saucer much attention. I was of a generation and countenance that didn’t find delicate golden things particularly exciting, but grandma displayed the cup proudly in the living room and showed it off to anyone who came by.
Within a few weeks, it wasn’t one cup, but two. And then three.
Not all of them were Crown Staffordshire china. Now we had Paragon and Aynsley, Hammersley and Royal Winton. By now, the stores near our home had been cleared entirely of their stock of old china. Some of the store owners even kept the cups aside, when new stock came in, just for grandma to see and assess its worth to her.
Before we knew it, we had two glass-front cabinets in our living room, housing this budding collection, and countless compliments of grandma’s incredible eye for beauty.
The cups ranged in age, as well. The youngest were from the late fifties, her oldest at that point was somewhere in the early 1900s. And as proudly as she displayed them, grandma just as proudly set them to the table when people came over, allowing each guest to choose their favourite from the cabinets to enjoy their tea or coffee in. To her, the cups were beautiful, but they were also useful. Why have a cup that collects dust, when it could serve tea? Tea tasted even better when it was drunk from cups with history, rather than from porcelain mugs we used for our day to day living.
The cups rotated within their displays, stacking in two or three levels high when space became scarce.
Within a year, we had three glass-front cabinets.
It was funny, because it was always grandpa who was bringing home random pieces of wood and rusty screws to store in the garage “for a rainy day”. A habit kept from the war, I think, when everything was extremely hard to get.
By now, grandma had to branch further afield to find anything of interest, with the collection growing. Mum took to the internet seeking for cups in other cities, learning quickly who was there to push prices up and who actually knew their real value. She had pages upon pages of printed information on every stamp and marking that could be found on the bottom of each cup and saucer, she took the time to date every new cup that joined its siblings in the cabinets in the living room, and to catalogue the entire collection in a photo album, so grandma could quickly access it without having to bend and find the cups in the cupboards.
I found myself turning over any cup I saw in a shop window, running my eyes over the name, trying to remember if that was a manufacturer that my grandma collected, or one she wasn’t interested in. After a while, I, too, could tell which design belonged to which era, which shape was from which year. Still entirely uncaring for flowery things, I could now tell the difference between Royal Winton’s “Crocus” and Aynsley’s “Orchard Gold”.
It became a habit for everyone in the family. It became a habit for our friends. Every birthday and Christmas new cups and duos and trios entered our home. And at the first opportunity, most were returned to the second hand stores from whence they had come.
But no one knew about that. Grandma was particular, but she wasn’t tactless.
When we had to move house, our friends, mum and grandma carefully wrapped and stored over 180 cups and their accessories for transportation. Nothing was broken in the move.
When I returned from my first trip to London, I presented grandma with her 194th cup.
By now, the market near us was empty of the known names. Now, any cup that was beautiful found its way to grandma’s collection. We even had a dozen Japanese cups, the porcelain so thin you could see through the bottom of a cup to the stamp. Sometimes, a Geisha would look back, blush coming and going with the light as you turned the cup.
After a while, it was hard to circulate the cups, and fewer guests chose them from the cabinets to have their tea in. After a while, grandma didn’t even look at her catalogues anymore. But still, Gran often asks mum or I to open the doors of the cupboards, to look at the beauty transcended through the years and centuries. She feels better seeing them.
Over a decade of collecting had found our home filled with over 200 fine china cups and saucers, silver dishes, kettles and monogrammed gravy boats, and the occasional porcelain flower. Five cabinets can’t contain the entire collection, and we store the “orphaned” cups and saucers – those without a pair or a three – elsewhere, out of the way.
The oldest cup in our collection heralds from 1820.
Daily, the cups watch the sun rise and set through the polished glass of their cabinets. They watch our family go about its day.
I’ve always believed that objects carry a feeling with them, something left behind by the last person to have touched them, or let them go, and all our cups hold kindness and love. They’re not discarded anymore; they’re as much part of our family as the rest of us are.
Contribution by Val Prozorova
Story location: New Zealand, Aukland
Time period: The oldest cup in the collection dates from 1820
Although I am a musician, I never really considered myself an “artist” because I always thought that one had to be able to draw and paint beautifully detailed and shaded still life, portraits, nature scenes, etc. When I was a kid I could barely draw the pirate on the matchbook cover that would qualify a young artist to a dubious "scholarship" opportunity. But I have always loved the collage-like album covers from the 1950's "exotica" recordings as well as the work on the 1960's jazz and psychedelic records, so I just spent my youth listening to music and envying the work of Cal Schenkel, the artist responsible for the covers on Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lps. Even as a musician I guess I was always subconsciously also cultivating my visual muse.
When I turned 34 I needed a steady, good paying gig to support my family, so I became a Letter Carrier for the United States Post Office, where it turns out that carrying mail is the perfect activity for stimulating one’s muse. With so much time alone with my thoughts, my songwriting became effortless. I carried around a cassette recorder to capture my songs on the fly. Soon after, I became very interested in objects that I'd find on the road, such as catalytic converters, hubcaps, rusty hinges etc. I'd dutifully pick up these objects without much of an inkling of what I'd do with them. I would, however, bring the objects back to my basement and organize them somewhat. After a while I realized that the objects reminded me of Schenkel's album artwork, which lead me to research other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, and Willem de Kooning. It was like an epiphany – "You need not be able to draw in a straight line to be an artist!”
Shortly after this insight I began gluing, painting, and screwing together the various objects in my basement. The process is wonderful. One such creation (above), “Give Me the Music Makers”, features a photo of poet and member of the Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, collaged with a found reel-to-reel box. Another piece (below), “Working for the Man”, includes the figurine of a man bowling from a vintage game, an industrial beater for mixing food, a shoe insert, and a stool.
Over the years, I have become more selective of what objects I'd pick up and sometimes I have no idea of what will become of them, but when the idea arrives, sometimes years later, the project and the objects take on a life of their own. I do get stuck sometimes, but the key to getting unstuck is playing some avant garde recordings in my studio and cleaning up my last mess while sipping bourbon. Before I know it a title strikes me and I am back to gathering objects for the new "canvas". For my family’s sake, it is usually best when it is not a work night because it can be a long meandering dance!
Today I no longer carry mail. I retired last year after 30 years. Now I am a substitute teacher in the same public school system where I attended public school. I always enjoy teaching Art class, and as part of my "lecture" I display some of my work on an easel and explain the process and the excitement. Their eyes widen and they say: "You really sell that stuff"? I think that there is a mix of admiration, confusion, and excitement at the suggestion that Art is not only for the chosen few.
Contribution by Tim McCarthy
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.