I begin this article with a personal experience. I don’t recall how old I was in this memory, but judging by how well I remember it, I must have been 10 or so. My recollections before this age are more or less nonexistent.
My parents had decided to take a “personal day” and left my brothers and I in the care of our grandparents. This arrangement must have been last minute, because my grandparents already had plans. Instead of taking a rain check, they kept their plans and brought us along. The outcome was equally unexpected and memorable.
After we piled into their sedan, my grandmother explained that we were going to see an old friend of theirs, named Charles. She described Charles as an “odd fellow” who lived alone in the house where he was born, never learned how to drive and liked to collect art. At this point, my brothers and I were expecting to be subjected to uncomfortable small talk with a weird old guy before being left to our own devices for the remainder of the afternoon.
We thought our expectations were confirmed when we pulled into Charles’ driveway. His house looked like it could have been the set of a low-budget horror flick; the facade was the color of death. Every window was boarded up and weeds erupted from every available nook and cranny. My grandparents appeared nonchalant, so we followed them nervously to the doorstep.
When Charles opened the door and invited us in, I felt as if I had wandered into an enormous geode. Nearly every square inch on the walls, floors, tables and doors was occupied by art in some way. The dinner table was overrun with origami foldings, some geometric and others depicting animals. Wherever my gaze settled, some sort of unique, perplexing and colorful thing looked back at me.
The place was simply incredible. At an art museum, each piece usually receives its own tract of rarefied blank space, distinguishing it from the rest of the exhibit and encouraging the viewer to consider it in isolation from someone else’s creative efforts. In contrast, looking at any one thing in Charles’ house filled my peripheral vision with a crowd of adjacent and equally interesting objects.
Sensing our fascination, Charles offered to give us a tour of his abode. His collection was not merely meant to dazzle visitors upon their initial entry. It permeated the entire house. Charles was indeed an odd fellow. Although he was friendly, he was very reserved in his demeanor. He had the perspective of an academic rather than an enthusiast. When he spoke about an item in his collection, his voice remained quiet and measured. He told us the time and place of its provenance or a biographical note about its artist. His knowledge was exhaustive, but his relationship to his assemblage of art seemed to end there. This was confusing to me as I considered that Charles likely spent more time in the company of his collection than in the company of other people.
At the end of our three-hour tour, we sat in the kitchen as Charles prepared afternoon tea. The theme in this room was vintage newspaper headlines with an infusion of sports bobbleheads. Charles reached into a drawer and produced three pristine dollar bills. As if to goad us into starting our own domestic exhibits, he deftly folded each into an origami skull and gave one to each of us. I still have that skull, and I’ll admit that since then I have developed a sizable origami collection.
When I see it perched on a shelf in my room, I am reminded of the unique experience I had in Charles’ house on that day. As I understand it, Charles had called that deceptively spooky place home his entire life. He must have built his collection gradually over decades. I don’t think he ever married or had children. To the best of my knowledge, Charles’ collection was really just there for his own sake. He didn’t seek to profit from it and appeared content that his neighbors remained unaware of its existence. Charles had a relationship to art that is unlike anything else I’ve encountered. I admire his individuality in creating a personal space completely saturated with beautiful and interesting things, unperturbed by any outside influence. If my origami collection starts to leak into my bathroom, I’ll know who to blame.