Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Swedish death cleaning for artists

Have you heard of the concept called "Swedish death cleaning"?  It's not as grim as it sounds.  The idea is that you do your heirs a huge favor by purging and organizing your extraneous stuff before you die, so that they don't have to.  The best-selling book that popularized the concept refers to it as "a gentle art." The promise is that by stripping out the inessential you can live a more stress-free, clutter-free life.

It's especially hard for artists to purge artwork, I think, because of the emotional, aesthetic, and monetary value attached to the art we've accumulated.  The current, April/May issue of American Craft features a helpful article called Planning Your Legacy.  How do you  plan for what happens to your artwork after you're gone?

It's all been on my mind lately as Sam and I purge and pack in preparation for a move across the country.  He's been photographing and I've been working in various fiber media for over twenty years, so we've generated quite a bit of work ourselves.  And then there's the art we have purchased, and the art we've inherited.  It's a lot, far more than we can hang on the walls at any one time.  (We do try to rotate what's on the walls regularly.)  So now we're faced with one tough call after another about which works to move, and which to let go of.

Regarding my own work, I've done a variety of things.  Some pieces have been sold at a discount.

Ways of  Looking at Dodd Creek #7.  Mixed media collage
(c) Molly Elkind 14" x 14"

Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek #11.  Mixed media bead embroidery.
(c) Molly Elkind  14" x 18"

Cardinals.  Quilt (cotton).  (c) Molly Elkind 54" x 70"
Some work I've given away.

Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek #6.  Mixed media fabric collage.
(c) Molly Elkind 14" x 14" 

Some work I've dismantled, taken out of its frames and shadowboxes, and saved in a smaller, lighter format for future reference or as potential raw material for future work.

Streambed:  Glacier.  Mixed media embroidery.
(c) Molly Elkind 8.5" x 11"

Gaps in the Sky:  Carolina Parakeet. 
Mixed media collage. 
(c) Molly Elkind 25" x 35" x 4" 

Some pieces that I no longer like, I've discarded.  Thrown out.  Trashed.   Apologies here for some less than stellar photographs of this older work.

Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek #4.  Mixed media fabric collage.
(c) Molly Elkind 12" x 24" 

Basket Case:  Improvisation.  Quilt (cotton). 
(c) Molly Elkind 38.5" x 38.5"

The 9/11 piece below was easy to throw out because it had sat in a cardboard box in the corner of our humid Georgia basement for 15 years, and showed mildew when I took it out.  A cautionary tale!

Into the Whirlwind:  September 2001.  Mixed media fabric collage.
(c) Molly Elkind 84" x 43" x 3"

It may sound shocking but it's surprisingly liberating to throw away work you don't like any more.  I think it frees up psychic space for new work.  Not everything we make is precious.  Some of it was only work we had to do to get ready to make the next piece, or the one after that.

That said, I did keep some older work that I especially like.

Six Sketches #6.  Mixed media embroidery.
 (c) Molly Elkind 14" x 12"
Cathedral.  Handmade paper sculpture.
(c) Molly Elkind 17" x 9.5" x 10" 

I'm really curious what you all have done in this situation.  What are your strategies and criteria for dealing with your work when it piles up, or when you have to down-size?  Let us know in the comments.


  1. Molly many of the newer hospitals and also satellite health facilities have art work which is wonderful for patients and visitors alike. I have had hospitals purchase my artwork but also I have donated tapestries so that they can place them where they want.

    1. What a great suggestion, Joan. Thank you! I'm glad to hear hospitals may be willing to take on tapestries.

    2. they often put them under glass but in my experience they do it after they accept the artwork.

    3. Ah. I wondered about that. Thanks.

  2. A timely and thoughtful post. I like Joan Griffin's idea of donating to hospitals, too. It is hard to part with things because of emotional connections. Something that has encouraged us is the fact of dealing with our parents estates and coming estates. You are right--getting rid of "stuff" does free psychic space.

  3. About four years ago, mice got into my studio. It was a tiny outbuilding, so most of my things were stored in a shipping container. Thankfully, I didn't lose everything, but I did lose a lot, as it was all either chewed into nesting material or destroyed by droppings. It was very hard to let go of a lot of it, but as you say, once it was gone, I did feel a bit more free. There was room for new things.

  4. I totally agree with you, I think a lot of times our work helps us to refine our ideas and get us ready for the next piece, and the one after that, etc. I always feel a sense of creative freedom when I clear the old stuff out. I don't have much work from college, as I also moved across the country. I sold some, gave some away, threw some out, and I'm happy to have all of this space to explore my new ideas. I love Joan's comment about looking into hospitals who might take donations or even have funds to purchase some art. Thanks for sharing this idea, and also I love your 9/11 piece. So much movement and emotion, sorrow and hope. Such a shame that the mildew got to it first!

    1. Thanks, Laura, for your thoughts and your appreciation of the 9/11 piece. I used to feel like everything I made was important and worth keeping. The more time has gone by, and the more I trust that the Source of inspiration is bottomless, the less I worry about letting go of old work. It's all cyclical, like the seasons. . .

  5. Almost two years ago, I had the job of cleaning out my parents' house. She was an art professor and artist, he was a chemistry professor and developed ceramic glazes in retirement. She made pots and bowls for him to test them on, and they exhibited together. She was also a weaver, knitter, painter, etc., so there was a ton of stuff to go through. And we learned the truth that no one wants your parents' stuff. My brother's family and my daughter took some special things, but we filled a dumpster twice, as well as donating many things. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally.

    1. Sorry to hear about the mice, Debra. That had to be upsetting. And clearing out your parents' stuff sounds hard too. I hope not to put my kids in that position. Now if could just find a home for my mom's 16 place settings of fine china. . . .

  6. I first met you through your Dodd Creek series and love it all these years later. In particular your map with faucet collage...I had no disposable income at that point. Your creations are lovely.
    Good luck with the next chapter of your life.

    1. Aw, thank you so much, Debra. And congrats to you on your current show, and best wishes for your ongoing creativity as well.

  7. I have SO many tapestries.....I am planning to put them all in an online photo album and ask family and friends to tell me which ones they like. On second thought my siblings and friends who are my age may not want any more stuff! But that way I can give people the one they actually like. As for paintings, mine are mostly for tapestry design and very few are worth framing so I can photograph them and then toss.

    1. That sounds like an excellent plan, Jan. Thanks for sharing your solution.