Feeding the ghosts

“Are they your relatives?” People ask me that all the time, when they see all the old pictures in my pieces.


The answer is “no”. I don’t have many very old pictures of my relations, because they got left behind in Cuba when my family fled. But these are not them, in any case. These people are hungry ghosts. A concept in Chinese Buddhism that refers to a spirit who has no living person to venerate and feed them.

They have no history or context when I find them. Sometimes there will be a name, date or location somewhere. Handwritten on the back or embossed on the front by the photographer. But more often than not there is nothing. They’re strangers, piled in a box or basket at a flea market in dusty stacks. Forlorn and forgotten.

I find it indescribably poignant that these were people with stories, once. The invention of photography has given a depth to the idea of people that never existed before the ability to capture the true to life image of a thing. Sure, you know that humans have been alive for millennia. Feeling, breathing, living humans. But the advent of modern photographic technology gave us the ability to give that concept a face. Posture. Dress and adornment that expresses an individual’s taste and preferences. Their wealth or lack of it. Their features, and the expression in their eyes. Little details that make people real. These people had conversations and aspirations and foods they hated and people they loved. And pets. And hats. And favorite songs. And now, nobody knows who they are.


So I give them new stories. I take my boxes of junk and bones and broken things and I knit together a story and put them in the center of it. I make a spirit house for them to live in. Someplace to come to on All Souls after they visit their burial place, maybe. Someplace for candles to burn near, so the light can guide them back. Maybe my customers don’t know they’re feeding hungry ghosts by looking and thinking about the story. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t care. That’s fine, too. They’re self sustaining ghost houses. No maintenance required. Just look. Just brush your eyes across the picture and the art does the rest.

But I know. I like to think all those hungry ghosts are sitting there, patting full bellies, wandering no more.




“Where do you find all this stuff?”

Number two question I get asked at shows. The answers, in order of preference, are:

Flea markets! I love me a flea. It’s the best of all possible junking solutions. It’s not necessarily the cheapest, but here’s why that’s ok. I could spend my every weekend going to all the estate sales in my area in order to acquire for the least possible dollar amount maaaaybe trunkfull of items I might be interested in, or I could let the pickers do it for me, hit them all up in one spot, and pay their (usually) very small markup, which you can negotiate down anyway (you’re not being mean by haggling, pickers expect you to haggle and work it into their price structure because it’s all part of the game at a flea). I consider it a convenience fee and I’m happy to pay it, because I’ll spend less in gas and time, and come out ahead overall. It’s the same reason I’ll go to “hip” second hand stores. Because they’ve done all the legwork of going to every single Goodwill in the city and dug through the piles of polyester and whatnot, to find the cool stuff for me. The prices aren’t that much higher and I only have to go to one place. Plus, some pickers do it for a living, but some do it because they’re born scavengers and it’s a compulsion not unlike popping bubble wrap, and there are enough of those just trying to make back what they spent that you’re gonna get it so cheap it’s practically dumpster diving. They’re in it for the love of the hunt. I can relate.

Estate sales! When someone dies and their family (or whoever, if they have none) doesn’t want to deal with cleaning out their house, they hire a company to catalogue, price and sell everything. Estate sales usually happen Fridays through Sundays. On Friday, you’ll get the best selection of stuff, but the prices are way higher. These companies work on commission, so they’re motivated to get top dollar. On Friday they won’t haggle with you and they won’t give you a bundle deal. On Sunday however, they absolutely will, because it’s their last chance to make any money. On the last day of the estate sale, prices are usually down by 50-75%, they’ll take less, and they’ll bundle. The down side is you’re usually picking through dregs because all that’s left is the stuff that’s on its way to Goodwill or the dumpster. If you’re an artist, this doesn’t matter too much. If you’re a picker, this is not your day.

Yard sales, Goodwill, etc! You can find some awesome junk at these places. They’re my least favorite because you usually have to hit up many, MANY of them before you get anything like a worthwhile trip out of the adventure. The exception is church rummage sales. Like a flea, there are multiple contributors to the overall junk selection, but because it’s basically 30 households or so having a yard sale in the same place, the prices are low. Downside is it’s mostly kid stuff. Which, if you have a kid is great, but if you have an art project is a bit limited.

Lastly, because it’s an opportunistic act rather than something I do because I need junk for art, is dumpster diving! I don’t dive on the regular. It’s more of a magpie thing. If I happen to see shiny I investigate. Now at a flea market, don’t be too proud! There’s great shit in those dumpsters (stay AWAY from the ones near the food vendors though). I’ve found doll heads and vintage books all for the bargain price of free because someone decided there was no money to be made with them and chucked ’em (pro tip: the pickers at the flea check the dumpsters too, and many have admitted to putting what they find on their own tables and selling it). But mostly I just keep my eyes open on trash day because you never know. One day I was walking the dog and found two child sized chairs sitting in the alley. Good quality ones, too. If you’re following me on the Facebooks, you’ve seen what they turned into. I’ve found an old chippy, peely cabinet, antlers off a 6 point buck that are at least 50 years old, anatomy and neurology text books from the 60s, broken dolls and various and sundry awesome rusty shit, all in my tiny neck of the woods. A friend in New Orleans once found a huge, hand made Indonesian mask! People throw out the damndest things, so don’t let those opportunities pass you by.

So, that’s where I find all this stuff. Any other junk lovers out there are welcome to hit me up if you want someone to go junking with. I go to Grayslake just about monthly, and I’m always up for company. Just don’t mind the weirdo caressing an old, rusty piece of farm equipment or a half decomposed accordion, mumbling “My preciousssssss”. That weirdo is me.