I just finished Rosamond Purcell’s book Owls Head, a recounting of and meditation on purveyor of trash William Buckminster and her own career as collector and photographer of ruined things. That simple sentence, my feeble attempt to describe in two lines a complicated, creative, elegant, and somewhat surreal book, cannot do justice to this extraordinary book’s themes, ideas, or originality. Owls Head is haunting, mesmerizing, and surprising—as I suspect Purcell is herself.
One of the subjects of Owls Head is Buckminster—the presiding “deity” of an eleven-acre kingdom of trash, and an expert hockey and pool player—but a man not easy to get to know, a reticent, gentle, respectful man who, Purcell discovers, doesn’t collect stuff because it might be useful someday but because he loves it.
Purcell spends twenty years visiting Buckminster’s place, foraging through his mountains of trash and dilapidated buildings, buying hundreds of decaying books, toys, tools, bones, dolls, kitchenware—the list is long—and getting to know her fellow collector. She and Buckminster, she realizes, are both intent on recognizing and honoring the past as viewed through the things people owned and threw away.
That sounds like anthropology, and Purcell’s vocation is not to explore culture, although she elucidates a lot about human proclivities in the course of her work, but to make art; her goal, her need, is to find and arrange old stuff, discarded stuff, to make connections between one object and another, and to photograph the ephemeral beauty of cast-offs, of the rotten and decayed, so that she, and we, the original consumers of that stuff, see something aside from a piece of junk—a beauty of line, shape, texture, and color.
Purcell says, “As adults we think we know more, but have stopped perceiving unconditionally.” Buckminster and Purcell have retained the child’s ability to “accommodate the flavors of any scene.” They teach us to take off our blinders and open ourselves to the heart of the “missing, maimed, or misbegotten.”
What especially picks at my heart is Purcell as poet: her savoring of words, her delight in language, her concision. Sitting in her studio one day, surveying her holdings, most of which come from Buckminster’s trash heaps, she lists objects in a long, down-the-page, continue-in-the-notes-section, catalog poem. Here is the very beginning:
Here is a bottomless
a paint can with four Jim Dine brushes
anatomical lead pipes squeezed into a head
a limbless torso
arms with stripped ends
shaft of a lantern
We see each thing, don’t we? We allow each part its white space. We hear the music.
Read the book if you can, but make sure to visit BTG Rochester on Sunday, June 11, at 5:30 to meet Rosamond and to hear her read from Owls Head. Feast on her photographs on view in the gallery until July 23, and—this is exciting—view the film “An Art That Nature Makes” about Purcell at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts (Hanover, NH), on Sunday, July 16, 4:00 p.m. Catch these special opportunities to meet Rosamond Purcell.