Things matter

Paul Epp

Some so very much more than others

Things matter. Material things. Of course they do. But they don’t all matter the same; we have our favourites.

Things usually refers to what has been made. Especially made with an intention. An old distinction has been made between that which is utilitarian, like tools and that which exists only for its meaning, like art. It’s easy to see that most of what we have we have to serve us, which is what tools do.

Those things that are symbolic also serve us, but it’s different. Often the distinction is easy but sometimes it’s not, for we can find a lot of meaning in a tool we don’t use because of what it symbolizes for us.

Most of the meanings we find in objects are personal. These are a form of stories that remind us of various times in our lives, or who we are, or what we have accomplished.

One of the things that has the most meaning to me is an old silkscreen print I have. It was derived by A. Y. Jackson from the Northern River painting by Tom Thompson. When still a child, I had seen it in an old schoolhouse and I liked it very much, a depiction of the Boreal Forest in its wild desolation, which I knew very well.

Years later, while a college student, I spotted a copy of it in a junk shop in Toronto. The price was 10 dollars, which I didn’t feel I could afford, but later I went back for it. Having spotted my interest, the shopkeeper had, in the meantime, painted the frame a garish silver and raised the price to $20. I bought it anyway and scraped the paint off. It has been one of my most enduring and endearing possessions ever since, and any early example for me of putting aesthetic things ahead of that which was only important.

I bought a black candle holder when I was 19, in Antigua. I had no utilitarian need for it, but I wanted to have some nice thing in my life. Not long after, my sister gave me an elegant small vase, of black-enameled copper. She and I shared this appreciation for graceful things, in a way that I didn’t with the rest of my family. Not so long before I left the farm, I was cultivating the land where there had once been a house.

A flash of colour caught my end and I went back to pick up a ceramic pot. It had Chinese characters on it and the particular Chinese green glaze. It was roughly made but there would obviously be a story behind it. A Chinese pot in a bush homestead in northern Alberta? The family that had lived there had left the aftermath of the Russian Revolution by traveling east through Siberia and then through China before settling in La Glace. Years later, I found very similar pots in Toronto’s Chinatown, full of ginger.

Epp artifacts: hanging cabinets, tools.

While a student in Scandinavia, I bought a set of drinking glasses by the famous designer Tapio Wirkkala. They are a brilliant translucent red, with green and black banding and they still form an important component of my “treasures,” reminding me of my early travels and how full of wonder I was at one time.

So it goes, collecting things of meaning. I chose to make a profession of designing things. And, as part of that, to make them as well. Some of the first things I made represent both my commitment and my early achievements. I made some wooden handplanes while studying under Jim Krenov in Sweden. I shaped them to fit my hands and their use has given them an even more personal patina. Will they ever mean anything to anyone else? It’s unlikely that they will be used by someone else, fussy things that they are. I built a hanging tool box to put them in, but it just looks like a simple wooden box, not so special. It wasn’t meant to be, but it kind of is, at least to me, because it represents my graduation to competency.

I’ve designed and made a lot of things since then. Some have more meaning for me than the others, and many have found their own place in someone else’s set of stories. The stories will change as things change hands, stories gained and stories lost. So it goes.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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