Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects: Memory and Aesthetics

sculpture created by my son

Finding Meaning in Art and other Objects

One of the sources of meaning in my life is creating relationships between things we own and have in our home and connecting them to a narrative through creativity or memory. I suspect we all do that in ways particular to us.

On an alter-like table in our living room sits an eloquent sculpture of an old man –an improbable man with legs out of proportion to the rest of his body. I often think of my father when I look at him—the many lines carved in his face and, although my father’s legs were like the rest of him, thin and sinewy; they were strong. He was full of energy well into his early 80’s, walked quickly, took up curling, and stood for long hours in his workshop creating bows and arrows, and repairing things.

I also see this strength in my son’s sculpture which was created in a university art class as part of an installation. It had quite a different meaning for him at the time but such diversity of intention or impact is the potential of art.

This year, my husband’s daughter gave him the little boat carved by an old man she met in China. Can you see the old man of the sculpture gazing pensively at the little boat, perhaps wishing to sail away one last time?

My father always wanted to sail and did build a catamaran in his late 70’s. So, the relationships and meanings evoked by this little scene contain layers of meaning.

It interests me how these associations come about. Perhaps via the affection I feel for the old man on the table and for some fond and entertaining memories of my father. He was a creator, a maker, a man of passions that regularly exploded into the atmosphere of our small home. He had a temper that we liked to avoid and nightmares and other effects and behaviours resulting from his time as a 17 year old in the trenches in France during WWI. I am glad that in his last years one of the ways he found respite from the war and other difficult memories was in his workshop.

dad in his workshop, creating a bow – photo by Paige Finney

I am aware that I am summarizing the detail and complexity of his life but I am conscious of the “more” that his life and relationships were about and of their importance for him and to me.

To return to the beginning, the ability of art and other objects to evoke ideas, feelings, and memories and add another layer to daily life seems very human to me. Sometimes they can startle us into larger perspectives and sometimes this happens gradually as the object asserts its presence until finally you notice some way your thinking has changed. I don’t know precisely why the sculpture of the  old man came to be my father but the relationship is not so much thought as felt. And that seems an important distinction.

As I thought about this business of objects, memories, and meaning, I decided it is, most simply, a part of being human. Why do we keep what we keep? display what we display? Why do we pick up that pebble or shell on the beach and put it in our pocket and later perhaps in a drawer?

Penelope Lively has something interesting to say about this tendency in her memoir written at 80. In her book Dancing Fish and Ammonites (2013) she comments,

I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can  see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

She goes on to describe her books and objects as this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to . . .” (p. 4).

Objects can evoke memories we didn’t know we have and feelings we can’t always describe and perhaps, it is not too much to claim that objects can heal.

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