When I was a child and later a teenager, I found myself in the basement of a Kensington home, bent and focused over a table covered in brown paper. Carol Bonderoff, with her springy hair and attitude, spry and agile, and partner Stan Phelps, a man with a focused expression and a love for purple, taught me to paint.
I was a quiet, focused and intense child – serious by nature and extremely sensitive. I watched the world unfolding around me with wide eyes, silently perceiving people and trying to get a bead on what was going on. As long as I remember, I felt a wash of emotions inside me, turbulent and intense, from which my art came. Somehow hours of mixing colors in a palette and applying them to canvas and paper focused my energy.
The constant movement of the hand, the brushes, the smell of acrylic paint, the brown paper table, the paint-filled egg carton palettes, the constant conversation around me that I could listen to or tune out, made up my Friday nights for almost seven years. Every week, I longed to walk through Stan and Carol’s door, through their art-covered hallways, and into their basement full of young people. Sometimes Stan would show us slide shows of well-known artists throughout history; he would talk of composition, placement of form, and use of color. In those moments, the basement was dark, save for the dusty light of a slide projector putting magical and impermanent images up on the wall. Some kids would snicker or giggle in the dark, but I would stare intently at the artwork and analyze its every corner. What made that piece up there make sense? What made for a good piece of art?
My palette was an egg carton at the time, and remains an egg carton to this day. I mixed paint in those separate compartments. I came to understand complementary colors, secondary colors, and primary color. I loved to put these pigments together and push my hogs-hair brushes into them, watching them mix and form new colors of my own choosing. The palette was layered as well – layered with other kids colors, kids that had come before me and painted with acrylics. Who had used this shade of blue? Who had mixed these pigments before me? I painted with reds, purples, experimented with greens.
All of these tools and tactile materials were loved with a child’s innocence and sensitive understanding of the everyday. Those mucked-up brushes, used by so many careless and open children, those sloppy, bright colors sloshed into palettes. In Stan and Carols basement, I found freedom, sitting with utter focus at narrow tables. Though we took a cookie-break halfway through the class, I hardly wanted to stop. I simply obsessed over these pieces of creativity, unfolding before me. Though my voice was soft, I was able to express some passionate observation on a contained surface. My continual draw to the structure that contained and allowed my expression was instinctive.
I still paint a good deal, almost everyday, finding solace in the process. Thirty-two years old now, I return to the studio with the same focus that I cultivated in my youth. For hours, I stand before the canvas, until my muscles ache with the effort and the air is filled with the odor of oil thinners. I am still in a relationship with my paint, and my mucky egg cartons, my canvases. Sometimes I wonder if I could have gathered this energy and focused it in a different direction; I wonder if my anxiety could be tempered by an ordinary job with an ordinary group of people. I think of my own desire to bring a child into the world, and how my own practice is still like that of a child. Does that prepare me to be a structured and dependable adult?
Regardless of my worries, I return to my palette, my canvas. When my world is utterly confusing and the relationships in it are senseless, I return to the studio. I draw on the walls; I drip paint on the floors; I mix and mix my colors. The world does not come together then, complete and perfect, but the moment does, and that is what I continually return to. The moment of creativity.
— mailed from Canada
We’re requesting the palette because it represents the artistic process and this summer we will be collecting materials for an arts drive for San Antonio educators. The egg carton can be an artist’s best friend!
— mailed to San Antonio, TX
Object Ethnography Project: Survey for donors
What did you donate?
I donated an egg-carton painting palette.
Please describe the object:
The egg-carton is covered with layers of oil paint from several years of mixing paint in it. The carton itself is permanently open and sculpted into place from the hardness of the oil paint. Colors sit on top of colors; the particular palette represents my own favorite colors with its mix of cadmium red deep, paynes grey, and yellow ochre. Certain oils have a slight sheen to them, while others are matte. The palette has weight – substance – when you pick it up, and hold it in your hands.
Why did you choose that object? What do you think about the object? How does it make you feel?
When imagining what object of value that I could possibly donate to this project, I wanted to supply an object that was part of my everyday experience. I also wanted to donate an object that contained some aesthetic beauty, as well as a sense of history. After several days of consideration, my painting palette came to mind. The palette is present in my everyday space — a simple tool that is an essential part of my creative process. The palette contains history, in that I used similar egg-carton palettes to paint with as a child. In this sense, the egg-carton palette contained a sense of longevity, weaving through my life as a constant part of my art practice. Finally, the egg-carton palette, in and of itself, was a piece of art in my eyes. Though unintentionally beautiful, the layers of paint and texture, the weight and sculptural aspects of the object, and the transformation of a Styrofoam egg-carton, made me feel that the egg-carton palette, in it’s own form, contained an aesthetic value.
How did you choose to tell the story about the object?
As a painter, my tools are an essential part of my story. My husband, Aaron Jensen, and I were talking about the Ethnography Project recently, as it applied to my own painting palette, and he mentioned the book entitled ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. ‘ In this philosophical novel, the author, Robert M. Pirsig speaks of an essential element used to make a motorcycle: the screw. When compared to the motorcycle itself – and its presence as a whole – it seems that a screw is nothing, unnoticed. However, the seemingly unimportant screw is an art piece, in and of itself, and is a key part in the making of the bike.
Likewise, my painting palette, though seemingly un-important, is essential in the making my work. Not only that, but the palette is part of my story as an artist. My history, my sense of color, and my sense of the importance of something unimportant, my process: this is the egg-carton palette. Like a motorcycle screw (a small piece of art that makes the bike) my egg-carton palette is a small piece of art that makes my paintings.
Did you consider other objects? If so, why did you not choose to donate them in the end?
My egg-carton palette seemed to be the most relevant object to this project.
If your object has been exchanged, how do you feel about the story that the exchangee told?
The story was short, mentioning an interest in the palette as it represents the artistic process. The story stated that the object is to be collected as part of an arts-drive for educators. I am curious to know how the egg-carton palette will be used in the educational system – whether it will be used as example of a palette used by a Canadian artist – or whether it will be appreciated in a utilitarian way (having the kids actually use the palette).
In this sense, I feel that the story itself is in process. I would like the exchangee to expand on their story, letting me know how they view this object. I am especially curious about whether the educators see the object as a piece of art or whether they view the palette as a useful tool for the kids. I find this perceptive of the object to be particularly interesting.
* If the kids do use the palette to paint with, the educators should keep in mind that the palette paint is oil. Though I do not have control over the next story of the palette, and that kids may enjoy using it to paint with, I would recommend using oil paint in an oil palette (rather than acrylic paint). This will preserve the integrity of the palette itself, but in a practical sense, it will also allow for a better paint-mixing lesson. (No acrylic over oil!)
How do you think the two stories (yours and the exchangee story) and the object relate to one another (or not)? Do you think this relation is significant? How so?
Though I think the intention of the storyteller is good, I feel that the story could be expanded upon. I put out some effort to explore and understand my object – it’s present, it’s past, it’s aesthetic and personal value – and I would love it if the exchangee could expand on their own perspective surrounding this donation. I think that my object has value, as well as it’s story, and I would love to hear about the exchangee’s continued story! If the exhangee is able to send additional photos and/or thoughts about how the object is used (a documentation of it’s life as a painting-palette) I think this would be a curious and exciting exchange.
On the other hand, I didn’t participate in this project in order to gain a story from my exchangee. Thinking of my own object, it’s value and it’s existence, sending it to New York, writing about it, has been a great experience. The object, in the end, is a gift, and I do not expect one to reciprocate in any particular way to this donation. Though I would certainly be interested in an expansion of the story, I appreciate that the object will be enjoyed in some mysterious capacity. Simply being involved in this process has been enough for me.