Author finds clarity in father's belongings left behind
In his book, “Wreckage: My Father’s Legacy of Art and Junk,” Feinstein even titled the first chapter, “Wisteria,” because of the duality. “That gorgeous vine entangles whatever it reaches and eventually brings it down. This was my father: someone who brought great beauty to these places, while at the same time destroying them,” he said.
“My father was a genuinely brilliant painter, and teacher of art. His sense of aesthetics continue to guide me (even though I use language, not paint). He also eschewed anything commercial and almost never bought anything new, from clothing to tools. His collections of junk worked best in wall-to-wall still lifes, from which his students painted, but he also filled up entire rooms in all three of his homes. By the time I inherited the summer house on Cape Cod, the structure was mulching to the ground. Not even the septic system worked,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein, an accomplished author, ranging from poetry to jazz criticism, found inspiration in his father from a young age.
“Both my parents were abstract expressionists, and their influence cannot be overstated,” he said. “Between their guidance and the possibilities available in Manhattan, where I was born and raised, I was immersed in art early on. My father also taught his art classes at home, so I got to hear his critiques weekly and I adored that students adored him, that I was the only child of this forceful man who carved out philosophical statements about art as though chiseling them in granite.”
The task of writing this book for Feinstein was liberating to him. “I never had an honest conversation about anything that could have been considered a challenge to his character,” he said. “I could not have written this book during his lifetime, largely because I needed to dig through the remains to understand the magnitude of his collecting, but also because any tiny criticism about his life was met with Thor’s hammer. He could be controlling to a punishing degree and quick to irrational anger. To raise the insanity of his collecting would have been met with condescension and fury.”
Through all the “junk” Feinstein encountered in his father’s belongings, there also were sentimental objects, including revealing letters from during World War II that Feinstein was unaware of to his father’s second wife, the woman before Feinstein’s mother. He said he knew the woman well, but the letters gave him a new, clearer aspect on the relationship the two of them had.
He also found a notebook from 1932, when his father was 17; a drawing that cartoonist Charles Addams sketched of him during his Army years; and a small clay sculpture of his parents for their 30th anniversary amongst remnants of broken pottery and other things that most would see as trash.
Feinstein had an idea of the job he was coming upon by cleaning out his father’s houses, but he wasn’t prepared for 30 tons of it.
“In the house, some packed bureaus were utterly concealed by other cabinets (also packed). The entire second floor of the barn had no walking space and could not be photographed. So, yes, I knew plenty of junk had been accumulated, but it’s an entirely different experience once you start excavating,” he said.
With the popularity of shows about hoarding, Feinstein also enjoyed creating the tension of creativity and destruction with this book — something that the TV shows leave out.
“I also wanted to make this book because I have yet to see deep parallels with other hoarders exposed on TV or in publications,” he said. “Hoarders commonly won’t relinquish their trash because they have some kind of sentimental attachment to the objects, and they certainly have no vision for transforming trash into art. It’s a different type of mania. But because so much of what my father accumulated related to creativity — that is, because he only collected valueless objects that required his vision to give them importance — I could also write expansively about his artistic vision and sensibility.”
Feinstein will read excerpts from “Wreckage,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lycoming College Honors Hall; 6 p.m. April 24 at James V. Brown Library, Lowry Room; various venues on Cape Cod this summer and Bucknell University and other schools in the fall.
Feinstein is a co-director of the creative writing program at Lycoming College, where he has received both junior and senior teaching awards. For more information, visit www.Sascha Feinstein.com.