Memory Palaces: on Remembering

| June 2, 2017 | Reply


This week I am working on a show for Millitzer Gallery called “Remembering”. It’s been good to take a look again at the posters I made last fall, and what more they are offering up after a little time to reflect. For each piece I wrote a blog entry, and many of them now seem a little too raw for personal consumption. An ad agency I worked for had a dress code rule about nakedness that seems instructive here: “Don’t show us anything we don’t want to see.” I think this rule applies for nakedness of the heart and soul just as clearly as it applies to nakedness of the body. Here though, is one tidbit I thought you might enjoy:

This last year I have faced some $24,000-question-type problems: the question of when to respond with practicality, and when to respond with the heart. It’s been a year of tricky problems: human problems, daughter problems, sister problems, caregiver problems, mother problems. These have proven difficult to navigate with the tools I have honed through my profession, as it seems to me that design prides itself on the practical, and is suspicious of the whiff of sentimentality.

We all like to pretend that we design in a pure space: an office where every detail has been attended to and considered to create highly effective and efficient communication. I have a beautiful space like this at UM-St. Louis that I love and use, but the vagaries of single motherhood mean I spend a lot of time working at my crowded kitchen table after bedtime. This messy, busy, multipurpose space suits me. It fully recognizes that my time is divided by a sea of myriad duties, all of which I chase down, pursue, and juggle with higgledy-piggledy, passionate exuberance.

Life isn’t clean, pure, or idealized. If it was, I would never have the career that I am so fulfilled by, or the family I never imagined. I would also never have allowed or planned for my father to recede and pass away last year in they way he did. It seemed so cruel a fortune for him to move my mother and himself back to St. Louis from Hannibal, and then for him to leave so soon after, with hardly a sweet family moment before he was too sick to enjoy much of anything.

My sisters are so far from St. Louis. For them, the decline of my mother and passing of my father was more terrifying. They were remote from the day-to-day, and as every bit of what we call home began to slip away at once, they struggled to respond in ways their hearts felt appropriate. In a year, we lost not just my father, but my parents’ house full of belongings, which my father didn’t have time to sort and attend to before he fell ill.

My mother, an artist, had dozens of framed prints and watercolors throughout the house: so many it was impossible to keep them all, and very difficult to sell them or give them away. She also made dolls and dollhouse rooms, so after we sorted her pictures, we needed to consider her many handmade porcelain dolls, room boxes, plants, carvings, castles and collections.

My father collected model trains and constructed by hand a massive Lionel train layout, each building weathered by hand, each window filled with a scene from his imagination. The layout contained a small city, some mystical bedroom community that greatly resembled his hometown in Virginia circa the 1940s. They also collected many pieces of my art from different periods of my life. For me, these were the easiest to jettison.

My sister Elizabeth called their home a sea of priceless bibelots. We could drown in this house so filled with trinkets, symbols and memories, so many of which were made by our parents’ hands. She and I, and my sister Anne as well, are haunted by these trifles, resurfacing as they do in our thoughts. We couldn’t keep them all, and the problem of dispatching them was daunting. In the end all the family’s antiques and collectibles were sold for a song. I recently found my father’s handwriting on some of his train photographs on Ebay. It was heartbreaking to see them there, and yet, there was simply no way to hold all their collections, and still have room for our own family’s stories.

My mother collected acres of things. She has the heart of a hoarder, and still craves the toys she didn’t have as a girl. She (with three siblings) was raised by a single-mother schoolteacher in Mississippi. Money was often tight, and she was forced at different times to live with gruff and disagreeable grandparents, in spaces that were not hers. Her things make her feel safe.

I went back several times to my parent’s house in Hannibal. Each time, I felt buffeted by things, both sublime and ridiculous, and the emotions they evoked. Each “last time” I returned (and I did keep having reasons to go back and say goodbye again and again) was the last time I would ever know a home that the two of them constructed together, and lived in independently. Each tiny piece hinted at their sweetest days together, their golden retirement on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, their sunset days – the glowing brilliant lives of a complicated and very idiosyncratic pair. I resisted the great mass of things at first, and then found myself sticking a single exquisite rock in my pocket, or a practical object I still needed in my new home, some kitchen scissors, a roll of tape. This, however, opened the gates for the sea of so many small objects of desire, as numerous as seashells on the beach. By the time I left my pockets would be full of memories I could not quite bear to leave behind.

Things aren’t memories; memories aren’t things. But as a maker of artifacts, even ones meant for mass production and disposal, I find it hard not to get carried away by the seduction of charmed objects. Here simple objects become a short-hand for big ideas: one’s concept of beauty, life goals, the value one places on the path less traveled.

What objects my sisters and I took away from this house, and with them what memories, values, viewpoints, and culture systems, became the impetus for this show. My parents are largely responsible for my place in design: my endless curiosity for the workings of culture. Their rebellion against cultural conformity and vigilant pursuit of the unique, arcane, and idiosyncratic allowed me to see cultural practice for what it is. Culture is a short-hand, born so often of path dependence. Their disavowal of norms led me to question why we value and find beautiful and moving what we do. It was one of their greatest and most memorable lessons. This show attempts to marshal some of the objects and ideas my parents held dear.

Category: Essays, Graphic Design, History, Printmaking

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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