MINE: Paint Chip Collection

by Caitlin Kelch

Most of the time, we tend to hold onto things and objects that make us smile or revel in a sweet moment of nostalgia. The majority of the boxes in my basement that I’m slowly taking inventory of represent just that — special moments in time, embodied in a collection of like things. It’s cathartic to take a trip down memory lane once in a while and revisit those moments. Taking some time to make some tough decisions about whether to “let it go” and live on in memory or to dust it off and see where it should live today isn’t exactly fun, but sometimes it’s necessary.

A few weeks ago, I made a decision that a basement full of memories was a little too similar to living in a haunted house. I wanted to somehow honor the contents of the many boxes that lived there, but more importantly, I wanted to actively determine (on a gut level) if I needed to reclaim this space for my needs today. Armed with my camera, I decided to gather the contents of my boxes and give them their due, respectively, by creating an image archive. This would give me some time to figure out where these treasured things should live moving forward.

Going through these boxes, there were tons of moments when I was reminded of where I was at a certain time in my life. Yep, I cringed at some, nearly gagged at others and some made me smile, feeling a pure sense of freedom and growth. Some were just gross and needn’t be given another thought or photograph. Then I opened my paint chip box.

Never in my life did I think a box of 200+ 1×1 pieces of card stock could hold so much all-over-the-place emotion. Each color had a memory, each color name printed on the paper was heavy with meaning and equal signs. Somehow, a light purple color chip named Dreamland equaled Central Park with Sascha. It was a crazy color math equation that I never quite solved. I had opened Pandora’s box, disguised as an Amazon Prime package.

Needless to say, I had to let the box sit for a few days before tackling it. When I’d take a break from work and sit in my favorite chair in my living room, I felt as if the color chip was sitting directly below me in the basement, smiling all sorts of vaguely creepy smiles, as defiant and sassy as a middle school mean girl. The box was demanding attention and it was getting impatient.

Just like the familiar scene in horror movies, I made my slow and cautious descent down the basement stairs, almost hoping for something to jump out and take my attention away from the box. No such luck. Not a single rodent, snake or masked figure came to my rescue. It was just me and a bunch of boxes. And the box, still open with the paint chips spilling out like a beautiful waterfall, whose powerful force could pummel you on the rocks below.

Armed with my camera, I suddenly realized that taking photos of 200 chips wasn’t that practical. It was downright weird and quite possibly the biggest waste of time I’d indulged in. So I grabbed a dusty chair and sat there, going through each paint chip one by one. As the saying goes, I laughed, I cried and I also cringed, gagged, giggled, and cocked my head trying to remember every detail of the memory embedded in the color at hand.

I told myself jokes to get through some of the more painful memories, like, “This is the original memory chip. Take that, technology!” And finally, three and half hours later, I had gone through the entire box and I was exhausted. Sadly, I realized that I still had no idea what to do with this box or where it should live.

I was left with a familiar feeling, though. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was one made up of part nostagia, part grief and a ton of knowing smiles. Then I came upon it. It was the feeling that I have when I sit down to paint. I’m not “a painter,” but I paint often and love how I get lost in the process, but never have a creative hangover because there is a tangible result and a container for what I was feeling. It just feels complete.

I picked out the 20 colors I had the strongest reaction to and headed upstairs to capture the emotions they aroused on paper with some gouache. I wrote down a simple summary of what the chip reminded me of next to the quick painting, and it worked! The feeling ended like it did when would I paint portraits from old magazines or the flowers on my porch. All gone! Preserved, honored, recognized and felt fully. They now had a place of their own and I had mine.

The next day, I trotted down the basement stairs, grabbed the box and walked into town to drop it off at the local shop where they hold art classes for kids. As the delighted kids reached into the box and grabbed handfuls of squares, I wanted to shout “Be careful with that one,” or “Macaroni and cheese is really special,” but it passed and it passed quickly. I knew that the memories were in good hands and would turn into to something even more beautiful and hang in a window that I’d pass every day.

I smiled as I thought about Dreamland, pasted on construction paper with flowers around it and the words “By Emma, Age 8.” —Caitlin



A decade of memories from my time in New York City live in these tiny paint chips. Shown here are 16 of about 200!
The infamous Dreamland chip.
Macaroni and Cheese = My introduction to good/bad food freshman year at my all-girls Catholic college. I grew up in a low-income, single-hippie-Mom home, so we grew most of our food. I was the kid with cucumber and alfalfa sprout sandwiches who eyed bbq chips and Snack Pack pudding with longing. When I went to college, I was stunned that bright orange cafeteria mac and cheese was so tasty!
Grape Jelly = Stealing my roommate's food in Greenpoint 1989. My unnamed roommate literally taped up his food in the fridge long before I decided to help myself. I didn't really want or need the food, but the tape just made me feel like eating a little bit was the right thing to do. Horrible, I know!
Timberwolf = Walking past Trump Tower and wondering what went on inside. Coming from a small town, I was pretty much in awe of New York's skyscrapers, but Trump Tower fascinated me. I always passed it coming from my coat-checking job and so many times I found myself staring at the gaudy facade, wondering exactly what the hell went on in this crazy building.
Ladybug = Flying away from my home (in NYC) to Tokyo for way too long. I spent my early career working for Bloomberg building TV studios in all of our news bureaus around the world. Tough job, I know, but it felt like I was never home for very long. And I love home. I did, however, develop a passion for fancy hotels, which doesn't serve me well these days.
Sailboat = Visiting Brittany, France with Sascha just before the break-up. Even tough I had a full-time job at Bloomberg, I was always helping friends and acquaintances start their dream businesses. My boyfriend at the time wanted to have crepe stands all over NYC, so we traveled to Brittany to learn to make crepes from the experts. He did open a single crepe stand, but we didn't make it as a couple. I was brokenhearted.
Beach = Sunbathing on the roof at 233 West 14th Street and getting in trouble for it. It was a great roof, the door was unlocked and it seemed a shame that no one used such a wonderful space. So I did. And it wasn't allowed. I got in trouble with the landlord and feared I would be evicted. I felt so bad for so many weeks and then the neighbors told me they sunbathe there every weekend.

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  • I may or may not have teared up reading this. My home is 860 square feet. There isn’t enough space to save everything. And I’d like to keep myself from filling up the crawlspace. I’ve started on my closet and I’m slowly getting into the capsule wardrobe. BUT I was a swimmer in college and I have apparel from 4 years worth of college athletics, plus the 4 years of competitive swimming before that. I’ve been retired for 4 years now. I don’t wear those sweats/tshirts/jackets anymore, but I CANNOT get rid of them. I try and try. I can’t even figure out what I am holding on it. There are so many emotions in those faded cotton t-shirts and under-used jackets. Maybe I’ll be able to let go later this year…maybe I still need more time.

    This piece was very moving. Objects can be powerful. And I am glad to know, I am not alone.

    • Hi Julie,
      I don’t think i referred to the time period I have had the paints chips hanging around in my life. Just for reference, they were collected over a two year period, from 1999 to 2001 and I’ve held on to them until recently. So that’s almost 15 years! You’ll know when the time is right and realistically, the right time may never come. Thanks so much for sharing your story too. It’s feels good to know we all have more in common on a deeper level! -Caitlin

  • Now, that’s a good one. I’ve heard that idea before: taking photos as a replacement for the object itself as a way of freeing oneself up.
    But the artworks? Wonderful.

    The other day, Terri Gross interviewed the photographer, Sally Mann (http://www.npr.org/2015/05/12/405937803/making-art-out-of-bodies-sally-mann-reflects-on-life-and-photography), who talked about the way that a photo can actually steal meaning from some memories, while at other times, the photo is a creation in itself. Very enriching thoughts that mean we can define things any old way we please.

    Hooray for personal freedom.

  • Lovely essay! I just finished reading “the life-changing magic of tidying up”, and have begun my own cleaning marathon. It’s a very interesting process of self-discovery. I realized that I had a ton of art supplies that were tucked away in drawers or packed neatly in storage boxes in the closet. I had forgotten about them and barely used them. Now I put them on shelves out in the open so I can easily grab them whenever I’m feeling creative.

    • Ms. Weatherbee,

      Ah! That’s perfect. It is nice to know we can grow back into things rather than simply growing out of them.

      I’m so happy about your discovery. Make art!!


    • Yay! I dreaded it forever but when I decided to finally tackle it, it was not only liberating but actually a strange kind of fun. Best of luck with your project Aidel :)