10/18/2011 07:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

Fran Moreland Johns: Your Stuff As 'Art'

By Fran Moreland Johns

Stuff as art? Your stuff as your life?

A dumpster filled with 457 items including old license plates, worn shoes, defunct telephones and fading baseball cards was recently exhibited in Manhattan's Dumbo Arts Festival. It is the work of collage artist Mac Premo -- who was never one to throw anything away -- and he says the dumpster-art is "a portrait of a life."

Premo is 38.

This raises a question: If art, portraiture and Stuff are one, could some of us twice his age create a masterpiece? Tell our (or others') life story with a stuff-portrait? In a contest between pre-Boomer Premo and the post-Boomer generation, my money is on the elderly.

Take the Stuff of my husband Bud, for example. 457 items wouldn't even be a beginning -- though admittedly he's been at it a little longer than 38 years. I could tell his stuff story just fine, even without the high-tech web page catalog support Premo offers.

For openers, there are the typewriters. If you've been a writer for 70 years or so, typewriters are far too central to your Stuff to be tossed. Therefore we have on hand an IBM Selectric for addressing envelopes and writing notes without the pother of computer printers. Then there are assorted models of yesteryear -- mea culpa also here, since I can't bring myself to toss out the pink Royal portable on which my own literary career was launched in the 1950s -- and the open frame Smith-Corona that Bud's father bought second hand in 1932 and on which Bud learned to type when he was eight, now lives in our garage. Lots of Stuff lives in our garage. There may be a few more typewriters tucked away that I haven't met in the 19 years since coming to this happy home with its historical stuff.

There are other ephemera specific to the writing trade, large and small. The Pearl letterpress snuggled under a chenille bedspread for lo these past 30 years, in case someone might want to get it working. The typography books, the old racks and drawers for hot type, a few miscellaneous lead letters and chops here and there. No. 2 pencils. A few sheets of carbon paper.

Speaking of handy tools, while Premo boasts a toy adding machine, we have a Burroughs hand-crank job, circa 1900, Bud bought for $10 from his friends at the typewriter repair place, who overhauled it for good measure before they sent it off with him. It's a little hard to access, as it lives in a far corner of his desk extension, partly obscured by old day-books (remember day books?) and Rolodex files and index cards with important data on them. And a few files and letters and papers and things. We also have a collection of handmade tools from Bud's Cornish miner forebears and his Michigan miner/blacksmith father.

The rest of my good husband's portrait is, casually -- sometimes even intentionally -- collaged around the four levels of our dumst -- oops, house.

Premo has a dysfunctional old doll? We have Tonto, the smiling, ceramic-headed but essentially unclothed doll that was one of the very few toys of Bud's 1930s childhood. Tonto lives on a living room shelf, undismayed by the fact that one leg is inexplicably shorter than the other, happy to be brought down to entertain any visiting toddler. Under another shelf in the same room is the rusty but highly functional 1929 Buddy L dump truck which -- another mea culpa -- I found after a two-year search because Tonto and his late Buddy L dump truck were the only manufactured toys of my husband's memory. Bud and the Buddy L were both born in 1929.

Premo has mnemonic scraps? Bud's portrait has a craggy piece of metal in the midst of other artwork that includes a kinetic "Bud on Tap" sign. It is mounted on a block of wood so you won't think it's just a craggy piece of metal. It's from the blown engine of the Team Highball stock car driven by his friend Amos Johnson while it was leading a race. "My $10,000 sculpture," he calls it, since that's what first place would have paid. Then there is the wind-up toy his staff presented him with when he was named vice president of the company sponsoring Team Highball in the 1970s. There are other significant toys I would put up against Premo's whiffle ball any day.

So Premo has a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Bud has the complete, three-volume Oxford English Dictionary complete with magnifying glass. Plus books: in floor-to-ceiling shelves, on tables, in piles on upstairs floors. The books are currently being cataloged so I won't wind up putting something worth $1,000 in a yard sale. This could happen. One nondescript volume has, on inside pages, a few notes and signatures penned by Robert Frost and H.L. Mencken. Cataloging is wise. Premo's catalog is there on his website; most Stuff accumulated by the elder among us is less technologically complex. Awaiting cataloging in Bud's Stuff are mini-collections of books, like books inscribed with drawings by the authors, or the complete collection of Matrix fine print books issued by England's Whittington Press, or every book but one -- he can't find that obscure one -- ever written by M.F.K. Fisher.

There is the oversized coffee cup owned by Mrs. Fisher's father, whose brother for many years owned the Albion, Michigan newspaper for which Bud wrote early in his newspaper career. The discovery that Fisher was born in Albion, home of his eponymous alma mater, prompted an instant friendship between the two. Eventually, when Fisher learned he would be driving through Albion on a trip, it also prompted a middle of the night bourbon toast delivered by Bud, at Fisher's request, in the middle of the street in front of the house where she was born. Portraiture by Stuff, I submit, accumulates far more fascinating side stories as the subject ages.

And there is the art: on the walls wherever there's not a bookshelf, in flat files, under the beds, documentation of an addiction. Because my predecessor in this house was artist Judith Clancy - otherwise known as The Late Wife - there are more than a few actual drawings of the subject stuff-accumulator. But the complete portrait is in the Stuff.

There are antique sweaters and shirts, each with its own history and most still often seen on his back, in public. Some remain confined to the house, such as the warm wool Marine shirt that left North Carolina with him upon his discharge in 1953. There are several drawers of T-shirts from Ride & Tie races, a sport Bud invented 40-some years back involving teams of two runners and one horse that is still going strong around the country. There are big things, like the cart used to transport more valuable stuff at San Francisco's old mint; little things like a manhole pipe topped with a brass New York water meter cover; and tiny things on 12 x 8-inch shelves set into the kitchen wall -- such as an old, lead model Remington typewriter. Which brings the portrait full circle.

I fear, though, we could not find a dumpster big enough for the exhibition.

Fran Moreland Johns earned a BA in Art from Randolph-Macon Woman's College and holds an MFA in Short Fiction from the University of San Francisco. Johns has written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, Business Atlanta, Parenting, and National Real Estate Investor. She is the author of the nonfiction book Dying Unafraid; a commissioned biography, Charlie's World; and the biographical memoir Never In Doubt. To learn more about Fran and to buy her books, visit her on Red Room.