red-tailed hawk
Many participants in the Everyday Object project brought in items they made themselves, like this red-tailed hawk carved out of wood. Photos by Danielle Zerbonne

Objects tell their story

By Danielle Zerbonne - March 29, 2007

Mixed media artist Valerie Sonnenthal is interested in your stuff. That favorite teacup you've used every morning since college, the one-eyed cloth monkey you've held onto since you were five, a treasured ornament given to you by your great-aunt: such objects have incredible stories to tell, if only someone would ask. Ms. Sonnenthal has had a lifelong interest in the things with which people surround themselves. "What are the things that make people feel at ease in their lives?" she asks. "By sharing some of these significant objects we can learn something about ourselves."

This was the seed that germinated into "Everyday Objects: A Community Project." The public was invited to visit Ms. Sonnenthal at Featherstone Center for the Arts, to bring an object dear to them, share its story and have a photograph taken. Their words were recorded and written in red pen over the color photographs, putting the images in context. "I learned something every single day," said Ms. Sonnenthal. "The stories were so interesting."

Ms. Sonnenthal moved to Martha's Vineyard in September with her two school-age sons. Having spent many years in the Manhattan art scene, she seemed surprisingly at home in Featherstone's gallery, with its wooden floors and resident cows resting in the grass outside. Along with the Everyday Object project photographs, pedestals around the room held small objects of interest collected by the artist herself. One held a collection of beach stones and driftwood, another highlighted a large light bulb she'd plucked, intact, from South Beach. "I tend to make personal altars all over my house from finds on my walks. I have found solace and hope in very small things."

Valerie Sonnenthal and Shirley Mayhew
Artist Valerie Sonnenthal pins up one last photograph alongside others from the project while sharing some of the stories with Shirley Mayhew, who stopped by to enjoy them.

Several people who participated in the Everyday Object project brought in things that they themselves had made: a painted self-portrait, a red-tailed hawk carved into wood. For some of these people, "making art is their life," says Ms. Sonnenthal, and therefore those objects are really a part of themselves. Others brought items that they use every day - a favorite pair of shoes bought in Paris, a colorful beaded hair clip, a cappuccino machine. Then there are the things people have had in their lives since childhood, stuffed bunnies and lambs, love-worn and long-carried.

Ms. Sonnenthal called attention to one stuffed animal gazing out from a photograph. A 16-year-old girl had brought it in and told its story. "That bunny is the embodiment of her childhood," she said. "Look at how she's holding it so tenderly. The bunny's story parallels her family's life."

If you walked into one of these people's homes and saw one of these items sitting on a shelf, you might not think anything of it. But hidden within each object could be a poignant story, waiting to be told.