There is this really cool shop in Portland that I accidentally wandered into last week. At first blush it just looks like a metal junk shop but peering in the window as I went past, I realized that this just wasn’t any old junk shop. This shop was only selling old metal letters, the kind that you always see on top of buildings. Think of the letters that make up the words Wells Fargo Bank, Ace Cleaning, Popeye’s, or Safeway, etc. When buildings get torn down so do these old signs. Now imagine of all those individual letters all separated, gathered from various junkyards and randomly arranged upon a wall.
This is what this store looked like. The first time I passed it was closed and but it was so intriguing I just had to go back a second time. And this time it was open. Turns out the owner – a heavy set, super friendly guy in a faded orange baseball cap – used to just sell anything old and interesting. Originally he had only 5 letters. He hung them on the wall. They didn’t get much attention till one day a customer connected him with a guy in New Mexico who had a gazillion of these old sign letters. He drove down there and returned with a pick up truck full of them.
After hanging about a hundred on the wall and moving a lot of the other metal junk stuff to he back of the shop, people could clearly see this alphabet wall. The owner does not consider himself an artist, nor is he particularly interested in typography. He just hung them all up randomly on the wall. What happened next surprised him.
People would come in, stand in front of the wall and visually try to make sense of all these fragments of letters. People would read into them what they wanted. Accidentally he spelled “PIG” and he ended up selling about 5 sets of these. People would find their initials. The wall was just kind of suggesting all kinds of associations for anyone who took the time to look. Everyone would ask him what he meant to say, but for him it was just absolutely random. He just hung them up without any thought at all.
Despite this, people would still just find their own meaning in what they saw or would re-arrange them into their own words. And then much to his surprise people would buy them. He sells about 50 letters a week.
This all kind of reminded me about how when we make our own art we often wonder whether people will in fact get or understand the meaning we intend. I know this is true for me. We put so much thought into what we make that it seems important everyone, or at least most everyone, gets it. But now I am not so sure this is so important anymore.
I know it matters to me to stay focused on the thinking behind my art, especially as I am making it. But maybe it doesn’t matter that much, if after it leaves my studio, people understand it in the particular way I meant. If they connect with it in any way seems to be a far more likely outcome.
When I let go – even just a little – about worrying whether the world will understand exactly what I am making, I do feel slightly concerned. This feeling, however, is soon followed by a sense of liberation. It feels similar to when, finally, in your studio you get to that point where you can actually say to yourself that you really don’t really care what anyone thinks about what you are making right now. I am doing this for me because it just feels right. When this occurs, suddenly your art making becomes recharged, the possibilities are once again infinite, and your once smallish studio suddenly becomes significantly bigger.
In the end maybe the value you receive from your Art is given to you when you make it. Maybe as the artists, we don’t have to worry so much about how everyone else will receive theirs. We are all so totally different from one another. People will find meaning and value in your work in their own particular way. To me, this feels perfectly ok.
Right before I left the shop I couldn’t resist asking him if there was one word above all others that people would create and then buy from his wall. He said actually there were two. “Eat” and “Love.”
Maybe we are not so different from one another after all.
The store is called St. Salvage located at 3576 SE Division St Portland, OR 97202. There is no website.
In gratitude, Nicholas