Culture sheds itself like dead skin cells into the void of trash oblivion and is reborn every generation with a new mask. We collectively purge the past to make way for new growth. The dumpsters of America are filled with our collective secrets and historical legacies. Sometimes I find myself digging around in a dumpster filled with the leftover remnants of a person’s life, and find myself wondering, why the death purge is so indiscriminate and are we losing something vastly important to the careless renewal of time? As this planet shifts around a vast solar system in the circular patterns of the eons, we leave a human mark that is both temporal and necessary. I believe our collective memory could use some real, in the dirt analysis of what we are losing in the consumer conveyor belt of historical waste and I contend the current reflection of who we are, is also found in the dumpsters of the world.
I coined the term “Death Purge” in 2015 to describe a certain type of Dumpster discovery. All across America with a generational mass, our ageing populations are slowly being downsized into dumpsters. From the traditionally old, to the surprise passing of those without loved ones or biological heirs. The newly dead are leaving their legacy in apartment buildings and dilapidated homes. Dumpsters fill with photographs, art, antiques, collectibles, books and even our own written history as “the trash” becomes the last stop to dissolution.
The Dumpster Archeology project, is a series of collections based on these Death Purge discoveries. People’s legacies which ended up being saved from a dumpster, being used for inspiration and artistic creations. Dozens of solidly fascinating human souls have been rediscovered from complete abandonment back into the cultural zeitgeist. The project has grown a lot from the first experiments in Artistic storytelling, however I haven’t fully fleshed out what a “death purge” is, to a definitive popular opinion. The Death Purge and it’s value has yet to be truly understood by the public, so I endeavor to solidify the term by I exploring several key discoveries and their impact.
An easily discovered example of a Death Purge can be found in any suburban town in America, often in older neighborhoods where homeowners have resided for decades. The massive industrial walk-in dumpster will appear in the driveway and is quickly filled with the “junk” of the householder or new owner. Each tragic circumstantial reason for the dumpster is quickly understood as one pokes their head over the edge. A Death purge is obvious for it’s private personal possessions and quality of reusable items. It has the air of the indiscriminate.
The Dumpster Purges in my possession, I discovered across the St Louis landscape, from suburban homes to inner city alleyways. They had a certain unique charm to them that prompted an examination and personal story that left an emotional bond between me and the lost soul. The unique personality in each collection appealed to the Artist in me and the storytelling potentials within.
Case 11: Maude Withhall was from Lincoln, Missouri. A small town at the edge of the Ozarks. She was valedictorian of her class, and became a school teacher, smiling in the school group photo from 1908. I saw that photograph first, in the dumpster outside her Granddaughter’s house in a tiny suburban hamlet called Oakland. Maude was a historian, even after she married and moved to St Louis with her family to settle. She maintained a long photographic collection of her family, cousins and random people from her favorite little hometown. The Collection was discovered at the bottom of a box filled with magazines. When Christy Jane (Maude’s Granddaughter) lost her husband, and the house for some unknown reason, her grandmother’s legacy ended up in the dumpster along with all the items in the overstuffed garage.
Maude Withhall’s story is perfect fodder for Dumpster Archeology. The genealogical history of the Pioneer women of Missouri, including photographs, is quite a story. It is a tale filled with movement, and bloodlines, school teachers and the inspiration that one’s own grandmother has on a trajectory of a life. Dumpster Archeology showcased the photos repeatedly, created a scrapbook in honor of Maude and created online content to explore her world.
Case 13: I like to imagine a vintage woodgrain lined 1970s era bedroom, that has been frozen in time. Mabel Fitzwater died sometime in the early 80’s, so nothing I found is dated past that point. The discovery occurred one rainy night in Dogtown with the strange three black trash bags resting at the bottom of a hill. After examination it was discovered that one contained vintage clothing. High end dresses with tags, pant suits and slippers. It was as if a closet shut several decades ago and was suddenly purged in 2016.
The second bag contained glassware, small hardware and kitchen utensils. The majority was unbroken and had a similar dating as the clothes. The third bag was paperwork. Bills, deeds, postcards and various items dating all the way back to the 1920s. Every important piece of paper for the life of Mabel Fitzwater was saved until the day it ended up being tossed. The postcards were of beautiful places she wanted to go to, with remarks by her son and her granddaughter telling stories of their fun. Mabel’s father and his legacy as Dogtown’s most important financial member is told within the leftover remains of the paperwork from the trash bag.
This Death Purge didn’t just have substance, it had roots that went back deep in the history of a neighborhood, St Louis city, and it’s unfolding into western spaces. Mabel became the “Queen of Dogtown” in my written work on her. She became a central figure for an Art Experience called DreamManager as I used her dress and personal items as Archetypal Symbols of femininity. They were displayed like a mandala in an abandoned store window for a week and lovingly viewed by the St Louis public for one last time. The exhibit reentered the dumpster from wince it came.
Case 7: Edward Menges passed away at age 97. His dementia had been a problem for a number of years, but he still painted daily until he was bed ridden. Edward came from an artistic family. His father was a famous composer and band leader with his work archived in the Library of Congress (a place where history will remember you). After the war, Edward became a famous artist, with his work known across America. In the 1950’s, his landscapes sold for top dollar and he was published in Chicago Art Magazines as his face was revered for its handsome edges.
By the 1960’s he was a teacher, educating St Louis Art Students and still pushing the edges of art with experimental work. Edward dabbled in video, photography, sports painting and was most famous for his nature based work. He stayed loyal to his country, serving in the Reserves and flying airplanes for fun. By the time 2000 came, he was retired, living in the DeMun neighborhood with the love of his life, walking to the zoo, and painting his final series of Art expressions. The small apartment was filled with his work, and the best stayed on the walls. It was the small ones, on wood, cardboard and old canvas that ended up in the dumpster the day I found them.
I met his widow randomly a month later and we talked about his legacy. His genius in my opinion is understated, his work forgotten and was inspired in make strides to tell his story. A blog post and a gallery wall, led to a publication in a local Art Magazine and my attempt to honor his 97 years of artistic effort. Through Edward, the Dumpster Archeology project began to expand into more public events and art shows.
Case 1: The History of the house at 2323 Lafayette ave is truly epic in it’s scale. One family, in one house, from 1923 to 2015. The Dumpster Archeology project “View from 2323” started with a discovered envelope containing the name George Seib, but it finished with a cast of characters that were also quite interesting and powerful in their own personal legacies. George led to Carrie Seib, his mother, a psychic, Spiritualist, poet and inspirational figure. His Reel to Reel tape recordings of her Spiritualist church services in the 1950’s, remain one of the project’s most treasured finds. His sister Edna is as interesting as her Anthropologist Doctor brother. Her early artistic career is filled with promise and fascinating twists.
The house itself became a focus of the project as August Nasse and his tragic life unfolded with historical wonder. The history of Lafayette Square, tornadoes, St Louis expansion and the German Synod Lutherans are intertwined with the 8000 square feet Romanesque revival house I dumpster dived in front of one October evening. Civil War Steamboat Captains, Ghosts, Toys, Strange Folk Festival and German poetry are all center stage in the formation of this epic Legacy born out of a simple discovery in the dumpster. After some detective work, I solved the mystery of how it was accidentally death purged, and some people are grateful the tapes have ended up not eradicated from history. Dumpster Archeology changed as I began to share in personal experiences with real live people that were connected to the project in many strange forms. It became collective as the stories were shared from unique perspectives. There was no separation between the dumpster diver and public sphere as it became Our Story.
At the heart of Dumpster Archeology and the Death Purge is a growing idea and a true unanswerable question. What are we losing? If I look randomly into a dumpster, finding facets of my own psyche in the stories and lives within, and then discover inspiration in perfect strangers, what else are we losing? We are told that psychics are not real, but Carrie Seib operated as one for 30 years and regardless if you believe in the ability or not, Carrie affected the historical landscape in which she thrived.
Is an artist a failure if culture forgets them? Randy Titus, Edna Seib, and Edward Menges all had art found in a dumpster and I contend they are worthy of our collective attention. It was simply circumstances that caused the cultural forgetting, not talent.
When an old photograph has no story behind it, no name written in bad cursive on the back, than what is it to anyone? The mementos of the past are only important if the story is passed on. Objects discovered that seem to have no discernible purpose, at one time served something in some capacity, and it is that purpose and meaning that should be discovered. The stories we lose in the manic indiscriminate tossing of fate, is only a glimmer of what it meant to exist in this moment of history.
What if for one moment, we look for inspiration in that which is about to be lost forever. Deep in the dumpsters across our land, a history of our Great Existing slips by unnoticed.
There is a photograph I have from the Randy Titus Collection, discovered in a South Grand alleyway, of Randy and an old man named Marcel Salinas. Like Randy, Marcel was a classically trained painter and philosopher. Marcel trained under Pablo Picasso and is considered to be one of the great 20th century painters, but time had forgot him and he ended up growing old in St Louis, a city that didn’t know who he was. He would go to the Museum and point out paintings, history and give his opinion of the work. I imagine that Randy would meet him there surrounded by fine Art and remaining enthralled by his artistic knowledge. In 2002, the Riverfront Times did a piece on Marcel Salinas before his death and he had one more moment of fame.
In the same manner I honor the legacy of all my dumpster discovered souls with a moment of remembrance for a forgotten legacy with an artistic offerings. Sometimes I have to remember that the Death Purge is only the beginning of the Story. Dumpster Archeology is like a chrysalis, growing into something unique and then it will fly away to thrive in the sun, one last time.
Death Purge: … to rid yourself of the possessions of the deceased in an indiscriminate way, and be free of the guilt of letting go.
Dumpster Archeology- Death Purge: … a collection of historical items discovered in a Dumpster relating to the history of a forgotten soul.
Dumpster Archeology: … is an Art form representing the communal creation of storytelling experiences, discovered artifacts from a dumpster and inspirational narrative expressions.