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The Art of Collecting: Autobiographical Storytelling

by Kelli Kehler

Caitlin Kelch does not keep a journal next to her bed or tucked away in a quiet spot in her home. She prefers to walk through life with physical mementos of special moments, fond recollections and even difficult moments from which a great life lesson was learned. Since childhood, Caitlin remembers not playing with things, but counting them, categorizing them and placing them in a special box for future exhibition on a chrome coffee table with a wobbly leg. According to her, “back then life felt like a series of still lifes” to be experienced in person and then again through drawings, paintings or collage — each of which enjoyed time in the spotlight on said coffee table with a few table lamps moved close to announce the exhibit had opened. As an only child with plenty of solo time on her hands, she learned to reimagine everyday objects and experiences at a young age.

That 1970s wobbly chrome coffee table lives on today, albeit in a new form. In her home under a 6×6-foot skylight dome stands an old table from a local restaurant where Caitlin spent a lot of time as a child. She remembers collecting sugar and Sweet ‘N Low packets from the tables and making designs underneath empty tables draped with heavy white tablecloths. “The sunny orange and yellow lettering on the Domino sugar packets looked amazing to me next to the harsh pink of the Sweet ‘N Low packets,” she recalls.

Now an adult, most pieces in Caitlin’s home, and especially on her “sacred table,” are prompts for fantastic stories and tales of a life remembered that she shares with her 12-year-old daughter now, as well as her guests. This special table has a rotating cast of objects, some of which are kept after their moment in the spotlight and some of which are “let go” to make mental room for new memories. There are no more table lamps pulled over to the table — the light from the skylight floods it with a glow as sincere as honoring the sentiment each object represents and the beauty of autobiographical catharsis.

Today Caitlin is sharing  her “sacred table” with us and some of the pieces that tell her story and remind her of the gifts she was given as a child — to transform, reimagine and release.

(The captions are written in her own words.)

“When my daughter discovered the musical Hamilton a few years ago, I fell in love with her passion for the lyrics of each and every song. I bought a fig tree to remind myself of that passion.”

“In the song One Last Time (from Hamilton), George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton he’s not running for President for another term. I always want to remember my daughter singing these lyrics, ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree. And no one shall make them afraid. They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made. I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree. A moment alone in the shade. At home in this nation we’ve made.’ I swear I simultaneously smile and tear up every time I pass that fig tree!”

“Even though this unfinished painting has a distinctly creepy feel, it hangs in my living room. It was painted by my Mom’s dear friend in her art studio in Murray Hill, NYC in 1974. I was seven and will always remember that Thanksgiving because I sat for this portrait and perched on the shoulders of a very tall family friend for an amazing view of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The painter, Jeanne Owens, passed away before she could finish the painting. The tiger was my best friend at the time, and as fate would have it, I grew up not knowing whatever happened to him — one day he was just gone. Literally 40 years later, I found him in an antique shop just outside of the town where I lived when he was my constant companion. I knew it was my tiger because he had the same ear slightly detached from his head and pink thread that I remember my Mom using to reattach it. Our reunion was meant to be and he now sits below our portrait. I often wonder what adventures that tiger had over those years!”

“These are some natural pieces that rotate in and out of the table display. Coincidentally, they all have a connection to neighbors that I became very close to. The fossil came from a neighbor who takes long trips to chip away limestone in search of fossils. When he’s back home he takes all of the chips and sprinkles them at the end of his driveway to fill a gap between the paved roadway and the start of his drive. As we’d walk pass his house, my daughter would discover pieces of stone with fossil imprints. I’ll never forget how Eddie’s driveway imbued her with a love of science and the natural world.”

“Sometimes my table is filled with bright, colorful objects that remind me of my Grandmother Margie. When I close my eyes and think of her, she’s just a swirl of pink lipstick, heady perfume and clove chewing gum. She had that tell-it-like-it-is wisdom with a soft, unspoken empathy she could communicate with her eyes only.”

“Once on a trip to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, I found a business card deck that simply said ‘Stop Talking’ in the gift shop. Growing up as an only child, latchkey kid, I spent a lot of time alone. Now as an adult, sometimes I just need to escape to silence and I’ll whip out one of these cards when I’m with close friends or family. They totally get it. And it makes them laugh. A nun gave me the insect case in third grade because I was fascinated with it. I thought that the gesture was very kind. And rather naughty for a nun. The fig on a string came with the fig tree and I move it around the house just to make me smile. The La Maison keychain belonged to Zora Leimbacher, a family friend who was old-school Hungarian and who watched me sometimes when my Mom was out late. She washed my feet with Wintergreen alcohol before bed because she said they were the worst smelling feet she’d ever encountered, including the feet of soldiers during the Hungarian uprising.”

“When I had my daughter at age 39, I became really into local history. I’ve always had a thing for abandoned houses and after driving by an old farm house just outside town for months, I decided to stop. I hid my car behind some unruly hedges and explored the property. In the upper level of the barn, the entire floor was filled with piles of old papers, letters, photographs and books that belonged to the residents long ago. It was so startling to see so much history in one place at a time when I was longing to know more about where I grew up so I could share that knowledge with my daughter. I took some of my favorite pieces back home so I could honor that day and the family who shared some moments of their lives with me.”

This post in brought to you in collaboration with IKEA to celebrate the introduction of their new SAMMANHANG line of small interior pieces and furniture. The SAMMANHANG line is designed to store, share and display memories and personal collections like the one shared in this post. See actual pieces from the collection here on YouTube and enjoy another autobiographical collection story below. Jules and Vince’s love of found objects is beautifully captured in this sweet video! They’ve been collecting pieces for over 20 years.

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  • Lovely! Many years ago I had a male friend who had a glass curio case that he named “the museum of me.” In it he displayed many personal mementos like the ones that Caitlin collects. He gave me a ‘tour’ of his museum and told me the stories attached to the objects. I’ve also thought that was such a wonderful idea.

  • I was surprised when I looked back to realise that THE table is small, in fact the one in the first image. What it carries in terms of storytelling though is huge. most visitors like to hear stories about objects in other people’s houses. I feel as though I have been invited into Caitlin’s house and enjoyed reading her story.

  • I love the story of your lost (and found) stuffed tiger! I have a great fondness for stuffed animals, especially the very old ones that are missing tiny bits. And finding a favorite friend like that – it was meant to be!

    • I could not believe it Carrie! I mean it is a small area essentially in the country so it’s not too, too far fetched to think I’d find him, but I’m so glad I did. Caitlin

  • It turned out that my grandmother never threw away postcards. Now I have a huge collection of congratulations, thoughts, and old news. Reading what friends wrote to each other, you can see how the world has changed. Those memories, though not mine, but very dear. We need to keep such things.

  • Caitlin’s collections are beautiful; visual storytelling at its best.

    This was such a positive collaboration post. I really enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to checking out the Sammanhang collection. Nice work D*S!

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