Richard Siken: What do you collect?
Jeanne Marie Beaumont: I have several collections, from high to low. The high end would be my outsider art collection, and the low end would be my collection of sand from national and international beaches. I have 28 samples of sand so far. They’re beautiful because of the range of colors and textures. It’s actually gorgeous how different sand is around the world. Most of these come from places I’ve been, like Ireland, the Caribbean, various coasts in the U.S., and the Lido in Italy. I say “low” because that’s a free collection.
In between I have a lot of assorted collections like egg cups, 1939 New York World’s Fair memorabilia, Shirley Temple stuff, old Nancy Drew books, thermoses. But the largest collection: I have about 280 dolls, and 200 of them are made by a single company, which no one’s ever heard of, the Flagg Doll Company. It was a small mom-and-pop company in Boston, and Mrs. Flagg actually hand-painted the dolls’ faces, so they have more personality than mass-produced dolls. Most are about seven inches tall, and they have a wire armature inside the plastic, so they’re somewhat posable. They’re not refined-looking like Barbie dolls; the plastic’s a little bumpy, and the limbs aren’t slender, they’re a little chunky-looking. They’re all dressed for dance or sports or in some kind of costume. They have a ’50s look to them. I’m sure that’s part of the appeal, because the ’50s and ’60s were my childhood, and we’re all sort of attracted to things from our childhood.
What’s the most important item in your collection?
(laughs) That’s really hard to say, because I love unimportant things. I think a lot of things I collect are unimportant, and that’s the charm of them. I’m not sure any of it is important.
Why collect stuff? How do you decide on, or give in to, the impulse to collect?
I started collecting when I was young because my mother collected. She started me collecting miniature cream pitchers because she collected regular-sized ones. I now have 50 of those. It’s in the genes, I think. Other people in my family collect too. As I got older and had some disposable income, I wound up flea-marketing and going to antique shops and tag sales and doll shows. I would just find things I liked and start collecting them. I guess the collecting got more serious about 13 years ago. I still had my childhood Barbie dolls, and I wanted to set up tableaus and take photographs of them that would look realistic. And as I began doing that, I needed more things: more dolls, more outfits, more accessories and furniture, to set up certain situations. So it started out as this weird photography project, and then as I got more involved in the doll world, it turned into a different kind of interest, and I stopped making the photographs. Then one Sunday I was at a doll show and saw the Flagg dolls on a shelf—things are always better when there’s a group of them, for a collector anyway, there’s something magical about groups of something, variation within the sameness, that’s part of the appeal.
How will you know when you’re finished with your collection, or will you ever be?
I don’t think you ever finish. There are some collections I relegate to inactive status. I’m not actively collecting vintage Barbie now. I am still actively collecting Flagg dolls. With Flagg dolls, I possibly could get “everything,” and I’m not very far from that point. Everything I know they made anyway, as much as I can document. But then there’s upgrading: you think, “I do have this doll, but here’s a nicer, more mint-condition example, so maybe I should upgrade . . .” and so it keeps going. It stretches into a kind of infinity, so it trumps mortality a little bit.
Poems are documents. Collections are documents. What does your collection document that your poetry doesn’t?
I think of poems and collections more as artifacts than documents because there’s the idea of the made, something made, that is interesting to me, more than something that provides information or evidence. Also, collecting is something that is giving something to me. Poetry, I think, is coming out from me. So directionally, they feel different. I don’t think of my collections as expressive. They’re coming at me.
Have you ever made a doll?
No, I’ve just made all these photographs of dolls and created the tableaus. I’d make scenes, like dolls preparing a meal, and I’d have to create the food in some way, have to pose them, and have to assemble the right furniture. That necessitated that I make certain things by hand. I’d tear green tissue paper and make it look like lettuce in a salad bowl and shape Play-Doh into a loaf of bread or even tiny pretzels. It seems so minor, really. It’s play. It’s a form of play, and maybe it was preparing me for the types of play that I engage in in my writing, or maybe it’s just an escape from it, I’m not sure.
What were your favorite tableaus?
One tableau I was fond of was a fortune-telling scene: I dressed Barbie as a fortune teller. I found a little crystal ball; I made a tent where she was telling Midge her fortune. In one frame, Midge fainted. That came out pretty well. For about six years I photographed a holiday scene and made the photographs into cards. Friends started to expect the cards; they were disappointed when I stopped doing them. But I had gotten two cats, so it was hard to set scenes up and leave them. That was part of the reason I stopped doing the tableaus. Although I do have a couple set up in my display cabinet. One of them is a Barbie at a desk, with file folders and envelopes and lots of books around her, and a typewriter. So there’s a sort of weird mirroring of my life in that scene, a miniaturization of the self. After I assembled that, I felt a kind of finality; I keep it there as the “last tableau,” or maybe a talisman.
How have your mirrors changed as you’ve changed? Can you track your progress through your tableaus?
I think for a while some of them were just re-creations of things that I remember doing in my life, or they were fantasies that I had. I always wanted to grow up in a larger family, so sometimes the scenes would have big groups, say, for a party or a barbecue. The dolls made a community, a little society. That stage of collecting coincided with being in therapy, and maybe there was some parallel in terms of the working-through process. I’m not doing that now, so now collecting seems more about my relationship to objects, and my sense of objects being handed down, and the solace of connecting to things that have been made by a human hand. So my relation to the objects is not as autobiographical; it has changed, and will keep changing.
Do your friends and family understand your obsession, or do they give you grief?
They tolerate it. The family that I grew up in understands completely. It’s more foreign to my husband because he doesn’t come from a family of collectors. I try to control it so it’s not in your face when you walk into the apartment. I think within limits, as long as it’s a thing that’s to the side, collecting is manageable. You know, I have a lot of things hidden. I certainly don’t have 280 dolls out in my apartment! I don’t even like clutter, so the challenge is always how to fit collections in. They have to have some place to be. I have just one cabinet where I have some dolls displayed—that’s in the bedroom, in a place where others can’t really see it. In another corner is a sort of small shrine to the sea where the jarred sand is kept. A lot of the dolls are packed away.
Is there a line you won’t cross, or have crossed—like going into debt, or building an addition to your house—when it comes to collecting?
I guess the line is: I don’t want it to take over my space or my life to any great degree. Let things have their place, and don’t let any one thing overwhelm my environment. Or my brain, for that matter. I probably have a lot of little lines in terms of monetary amounts that I will spend on different collections, but what’s shocking is that after a while you realize you’ve actually spent a lot of money and a lot of time on your collections. But I’m not watching much television. We all find ways to waste time.
Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your collection that I didn’t ask?
It’s the pleasure of the cataloging that is part of the appeal of collecting, and that’s something that carries over to poetry as well: listing and cataloging and bringing order to what you are accumulating. I think if you have that kind of mind, it’s going to affect what you do, in your poetry and in your life. I guess one other point is that if you’re collecting things, you’re also collecting dust at the same time. So there’s a sense of time gathering on and around the material; you’re always dusting off things, and you’re always taking care of things. Just a little curatorial burden, like being a museum keeper on a smaller scale. Everyone can have their own private museum where you take care of things, things that will outlive you.
Photos by Jeanne Marie Beaumont.