Alexander Girard with his grandchildren in the foundation, ca. 1985. Photography courtesy of Aleishall Girard Maxon.
Alexander Girard. Sculpture with collected amulets. Photography courtesy of Aleishall Girard Maxon.
Alexander Girard and Susan Needham Girard with their children Marshall and Sansi, ca. 1950. Photography by Ezra Stoller.

What We Collect

by Aleishall Girard Maxon

The morning after my grandmother died, I was allowed to explore “the foundation” unattended for the first time. My grandparents’ house was never one filled with noise, but the quiet that morning seemed to carry actual weight. I made my way down the marble hallway to the kitchen, where I stood before a wide, heavy door that led from the house to this sacred room. I paused for a moment, and then opened the door. Inside was cool, and the smell of dust, cardboard, and incense hung in the air. I couldn’t believe I’d get to open any drawer or box that I wanted.

“The foundation” was one thousand square feet of cinderblock and concrete, completely fireproof. Sometime in the early 1960s, my grandfather Alexander Girard had it built to house his ever-growing folk art collection. This collection, which would eventually become the exhibition Multiple Visions: A Common Bond at the Museum of International Folk Art, had become too large to process, catalogue, and store in his home studio. The foundation was also a room where presents were wrapped, broken objects were fixed, and various organizational systems were implemented.  

By the time I was let loose to wander among the rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves, most of the folk art was gone. But what was left told a story all its own. Shells of every shape, size, and color. Flattened candy foil and cigar wrappers. Hotel stickers from all over the world. Miniature liquor bottles. Paint color swatches. Matchbooks. Wrapped sugar cubes. Tin cans, aged but not diminished in their beauty. Keys to old-fashioned windup toys. Tiny electrical components I would later come to know as transistors and resistors. Insulators that looked like mini porcelain sculptures. Smooth pebbles loosely organized by size and color. Lava gravel, small gray rocks with perfectly formed holes in the center. Obsidian. Dried cranberries and beans. Peach pits. Sand of every shade. Leaves. Walnut shells. Pistachio shells. Seed pods I recognized, and some I definitely did not. Eucalyptus buttons. Lightbulbs. Glass beads. Bamboo beads. Marbles. Pushpins. Paper clips of every shape and size. And those were just the drawers that I got to during my half hour of musing.

What—and how—a person collects offers a glimpse into the way their mind works. Thumbing through my grandfather’s meticulously organized drawers, I began to understand how he digested the world around him. As a child I had marveled at the beauty of individual objects, but now I could see his practice of collecting was as much a part of his creative process as drawing or photography. He paid attention to objects that reflected the quotidian nature of places far and wide and, by bringing them together in such an orderly manner, he was able to both reference them for his own work and assemble a global visual vernacular.

This was not an attempt to flatten richly diverse histories, traditions, and products, but to prompt a tangible dialogue between cultures that might otherwise have seemed unrelated or even in conflict due to differences in language, politics, religion, or geography. In looking through these objects myself, I observed that apricot pits from Santa Fe look very similar—yet distinct—to those from Egypt; that candy wrappers from Mexico and Japan relate in their palette and layout. Just as my grandfather’s folk art collection highlights the way disparate cultures around the world create and craft using similar methods, these more mundane assortments draw a thread through daily life.

Today this approach to collecting is less relevant as a reference tool. It even seems quaint, considering we can pull up a multitude of images on Pinterest at any given moment from anywhere and curate them into categories. However, there is something unique in giving space in your life to a physical collection. Objects have power—especially now, when so much of our existence is digitized. Holding a smooth rock in your hand, arranging Kokeshi dolls on a shelf, browsing through hotel ephemera, recalling the place and time you added a particular item to your collection is something that will never be replaced by technology.

Aleishall Girard Maxon is an artist who, along with her brother Kori Girard, co-directs Girard Studio. She lives and works in Berkeley, CA.