365 Things: A Year of Household Objects and a Moving Look at Memory and Meaning

Photo credit: Amy Manso
Photo courtesy of Stephan Han ’23

A lamp, a bird’s nest. Dominoes. A lobster Christmas ornament. Books, clothes, knickknacks, treasures, kitchenware, family heirlooms. These are among the many objects that Rick Jones has in his house, accumulated over the years. Like the many things floating around my house – and probably yours – some are purely functional and some deeply meaningful. In Jan. 2021, Jones embarked on an ambitious project; He was going to draw one object a day. “I’ve always been interested in things or objects that people have and use,” Jones told me in an interview inside the Palmer gallery, where his work is currently being displayed. “I love the history of them and the stories that are contained in them, and this project was a way for me to get at those in a really concrete way as opposed to just having it all in my head.” Jones succeeded in his goal, and the result is 365 Things, a gorgeous collection of detailed drawings accompanied by notes and stories about the objects depicted. 

The process was seemingly very simple. “I’d just pick an object in my house, each day, and ask, ‘Why is it here and why do I have it and what am I doing with it?’ and then draw it and write about it,” explained Jones. At first, pandemic restrictions made it easy for Jones to focus his creative energies on the contents of his house. Then, as those rules started to loosen in the summer, a small handful of objects from outside his own home made it into the collection. While Jones redrew a few pieces, the vast majority of the works in the exhibit are the first and only attempt at depicting each subject. A few of Jones’ objects themselves accompany the art in addition to those from other members of the Vassar community who were invited to contribute their own meaningful items. President Bradley, Professor Adedoyin Teriba of Art and Urban Studies, and Professor Jodi Schwarz of Biology are among those who participated. Schwarz, Jones’ partner, also contributed many of the drawn objects as well.

Since so many of the items were passed down by Jones’ or Schwarz’s families, legacy and tradition are common threads throughout the work. The end result, however, is something more complex than simple nostalgia. For instance, not every relic of the past is necessarily something worth keeping;Jones explained, “There’s some objects in your house that you probably shouldn’t have, like a children’s book reinforcing racist stereotypes, that comes down in your family and you have to examine them, decide what to do with them, and answer questions like that.” In the caption of the drawing in question, of a faded copy of the famously racist Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” Jones asks “What do I do with these symbols? Save them as objects of witness, or cast them in a fire of atonement?” 

Some of the subjects are more mundane, like a plunger whose caption begins, “This is not an item one should inherit” and a casserole dish accompanied by the musing, “Are the glory days of the casserole gone forever?” But most have more significant stories attached to them. “One of the themes is that all these things are vessels for the meaning that we put in them,” Jones explained. “It might be a pair of shoes, it might be a lantern, but it has associations and that’s what makes it important to you—those relationships create this magic and for you but if nobody else knows about it it’s just a thing until someone else ‘activates’ it with their own magic.” 

One of the most strikingly magical pieces is a pairing of two collections of objects, one belonging to Jones’ grandfather and one to his uncle. In the caption accompanying the collection, Jones explains, “Both of these men passed away while I was in my teens, so I never got to know them as an adult with the subtleties of understanding that we develop as we age.” In “Unpacking a Man’s Valet, 1974,” Jones depicts the careful organization of his grandfather’s tie tacks, cufflinks, glasses and other items that he used to get ready in the morning. In “A Man’s Tool Box, 1979,” he captures the shimmering jewelry and makeup that his uncle, a drag queen, used for performances. While the tool box might seem to hold very different objects from the valet, Jones saw his uncle’s collection of objects as very similar to his grandfather’s.“I was struck that this was his way of doing the same thing, gearing himself up for his job, and preparing to bring his audience along to the place he’d prepared for them,” he said. “So I found that a really powerful connection, and I was able to ‘talk’ to both of them together, and renew my relationship with both of them.”

The care with which Jones treated each object absolutely shines through, and the resulting exhibit is not only a meticulously drawn feat but an emotional journey. While the drawings and their stories may be incredibly specific, there is also something universal about the link between material objects and memory, family and humanity. What seems at times like an anthropological study of Rick Jones and his family is really a beautiful reflection of us all.

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