Tools & Talismans #30 — Jude Stewart

In the piece that Jude Stewart wrote to accompany her Tools & Talismans photo, she references an article she wrote about her grandmother’s matchbox collection (see below) and how the article gets at an aesthetic feeling of “the beauty of fleeting or forgettable things.”

So many of these collections people have chosen to photograph and write about for my Tools & Talismans project could potentially be put in the category of fleeting or forgettable, and yet, in the moment that these objects were chosen, they hold some importance, and possibly some measure of deep value.

It’s one of the aspects of this project that fascinates me — it’s a facet that I thought about before I conceived of it as the project it’s become, and again when I started receiving people's photographs, but the measure of trust and depth that I feel, seeing each submission come in, reinforces my own belief in the ultimate truth that what we notice, what we put our attention to becomes more valuable than all the riches we could ever imagine.

And now, on to Jude:

ORANGES by John McPhee is hands-down my favorite book. It started as a slender writing assignment: a trend piece for The New Yorker about the rise of orange juice concentrate in the 1960s. The article was supposed to ask a sort of audacious, even ridiculous question: was fresh OJ becoming obsolete? McPhee turns the humble orange in his writerly palms, considering it and illuminating it from every angle. His work is sumptuous, curious, funny, well-researched, eminently observant. He renders an everyday object visible and dense with meanings — my goal as a writer as well.

The Berlin flag has been with me for a decade. My husband and I have spent long stretches living in Berlin, so I consider our relationship to the city both a talisman and, occasionally, a creative tool. We're eager to unpause our annual travels there and bring our son Lev to our favorite city in summer 2016. Incidentally, as a graphic design writer I love the crispness of a good-looking flag like Berlin’s. Our other hometown Chicago has a smashingly handsome flag that appears everywhere. It’s an unbeatable icon of the city. A great flag embodies everything I want to write about: the distillation of teeming meanings into sharp, distinctive, hopefully witty design. Berlin’s flag is a pun on the city’s name, a homonym in English and German for “bear” (Bär).

Library card: I’m a nonfiction writer besotted with the thrill of finding out something strange that’s actually also true. At the same time, I’m well aware that creative nonfiction bends reality to the narrator’s ends and that truth is only its raw and most stimulating material. Libraries are indispensable to oddballs like me: reliable, well-ordered troves of potential surprise.

Gym lock: I can’t write well without sleeping well, and for that exercise is key. Also, I have a toddler son, so exercise is that rare commodity: me-time.

Highlighter-yellow: I’ve written a book about color, ROY G. BIV — and as such you get asked a lot what your favorite color is. I had to think long and hard about that, but then I realized it was dumb-obvious: an acidy lemon-yellow. I own six pairs of shoes in this shade, unbelievably enough, and scads of accessories to boot. This color brings me tremendous energy and cheer, and it’s funny as hell somehow. It also matches nothing — therefore goes handsomely with everything.

Last but not least are the three matchboxes in the middle. I wrote an article for Design Observer about my grandma’s matches collection, which spans the 1940s to 1970s (with my own, more contemporary additions). That essay gets at a certain aesthetic feeling I prize: the beauty of fleeting or forgettable things. I love this quote by the art critic John Berger: “The ephemeral is not the opposite of the eternal. The opposite of the eternal is the forgotten.” That pretty well sums up what I'm trying to notice, and capture, in my writing.

Jude Stewart is a Creative Writer and Visual Culture Observer.