My maternal grandmother, Helen Elizabeth Porter Conway, was a kleptomaniac. For most of her life she lifted things she considered beautiful or interesting – everything from antique jewelry to library books – and she tucked them away in various nooks and crannies around her house. She would even give fun gifts to me as a kid and then admire her taste so much that she would steal them back for herself. While other family members – especially my mother – found this behavior horrifying and unacceptable, it strikes me as charming somehow. The assemblages I create spring from that aesthetic, which is one of theft, looting, or rescue depending upon one’s perspective. I work with found objects; flea market bargains; things once grand. I like to create a story that alludes heavily to the past but reconfigures it unexpectedly. While I don’t steal my supplies like Gram did, many of her purloined fripperies find a permanent home in the pieces I create.
The “Helen” assemblage is a piece I created as an homage to the kleptomaniac and features her in one of her many photo booth glamour shots from the late 1930s or early 1940s. At the center of the piece is her wedding band, worn so thin after 40 odd years – and I mean that in every sense possible – of marriage that one can barely see it as well as a scrap from a book she likely pinched called Helen’s Victory. Her gold-filled eyebrow pencil graces the upper left corner, a totem of her endless quest for beauty. She and my grandfather were both lovely looking people and so I chose the overall theme of the piece to be a kind of winky reference to Helen of Troy, as they were both great women of considerable beauty in addition being uncontrollable forces of nature.
My other assemblage, “Justice,” features the base of a nineteenth-century American Empire clock supporting a doll whose head has gone missing. In its place, I’ve inserted a nineteenth century French zinc piece of architectural fretwork. She proffers her make-do scale, which is a pulley of some kind. Purportedly blind, this rendition of Justice includes a set of porcelain doll eyes suspended from the scale along with other scraps of Victorian mourning jewelry; a gold heart-shaped pin with a velvet inset from the 50s that belonged to Helen and about which I was obsessed as a child; and a rose cameo stickpin from the 1890s. I included these pieces to evoke memory, emotion, and loss. I also included a clock key that I uncovered while renovating our house, symbolic of the need to keep the wheels turning for things to operate effectively.
Joshua Adair is currently an associate professor of English at Murray State University where he serves as coordinator for Gender and Diversity Studies and director for the Racer Writing Center. He has published on topics from the novels of Beverley Nichols and Christopher Isherwood to the historic house museums of queer men.