Simple Objects: A contemporary archeological excavation revisited

Remember the Camp Fire in Paradise, California? It wasn’t the first catastrophic wildfire, and horrifically, not the last. What follows is a project about resilience, reality, and adaptation. It’s about what we each retain when we lose, about objects that no longer have value, except as memory. Something of value can be an object, a person, or for those of us who grew up with assumptions as to our very environment–transformation.

It’s snowing. Optimism is easier when it’s snowing. Unless we’ve been direct victims of forest fire and the effects of severe drought, we tend to forget–as if wishful aspirations wipe out our memory. “Oh, it’s raining, it’s snowing, the drought is over.” No. It’s not, and even if it were, there are other stresses on water supply in California and elsewhere that continue. If pioneering humans had listened to John Wesley Powell’s dire warnings, we wouldn’t have the West as we have it today. There never was enough water for humans.

At the Tate Museum, London, in 2003, I was captivated by an exhibition of artifacts found in the River Thames during construction, created as a “Cabinet of Curiosities.” I examined tiny items retrieved from the mud of the river by volunteers and installation artist Mark Dion. On another day, I wandered the British Museum, fascinated by artifacts from other cultures that curators had chosen to display.

Fast forward to January 2019. I was scheduled to have an exhibition at an art Sacramento gallery in June. I’d inherited my parent’s house several years before, a warm and loving home full of mementos and memories, paintings, antiques, albums full of other people’s lives. Too much stuff. I’d purged some and kept some, and was thinking about a series of drawings of these simple things that I’d chosen to keep and what each symbolized for me. Why keep a scruffy old, perfectly useless shaving brush? Simple: it retains my father’s DNA.

My father’s (1911–2004) shaving brush bears witness to his endless morning ritual.

I was born in Chico, just 20 minutes west of Paradise. Paradise was one of those small California towns that I’d promised myself to visit one day because who wouldn’t want to go to Paradise?

Turns out, I waited too long.

Quick sketch on my first trip to Paradise.

In November 2018, a fire started in forested foothills near Paradise. Two months later, I listened to a woman read an essay about her family who had lost everything in that fire, a fire so explosive and catastrophic that people fled for their lives. Her family had survived but nothing was left of two homes except things that had a higher burn temperature than the fire.

I asked her if she’d collaborate with me on my June exhibition, “Simple Objects:” drawings and photography of everyday things–the things that survived that fire, in those two homes.

The fire had begun the process of curating, and as we poked through the ashes, we began to choose and to think about what was lost and what could be saved. I spent five months photographing and documenting hundreds of objects, large and tiny. I drew, I wrote.

She had her approach, an intimate, heartbroken and personal response. I, in contrast, came to the objects with the detachment of an observer. We were bound to come into conflict, sadly, and we did.

A drawing made by combining an arrangement of pieces of melted aluminum hubcaps and a digital response.

Fire causes change–in landscapes, in watersheds, in creatures including humans. Things in California are all intimately connected, by fire, by drought, by water. By deconstructing a project that meant so much to me, I hope to understand the relationships between the humans, the ocean, the valley, and the mountains and the watersheds that connect what may soon be so fractured.

Shattered glass of a picture window.

Purchase the book Simple Objects: An Excavation

Artist/writer: multi-media from sculpture to paintings to words.

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Stephanie Taylor

Stephanie Taylor

Artist/writer: multi-media from sculpture to paintings to words.

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