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Object lessons



Photo by John Valls

It’s not much to look at: Short and squat with one leg slightly gnawed by an anxious dog. But the little wooden stool, handmade by a grandfather in Wales, is a treasure. He spent his days a mile underground building supports to keep the walls of the coal mines from caving in. And when he surfaced for good with bad lungs and a retirement pocket watch that, as it turns out, was not real gold, he spent his remaining days making small furniture for the young grandchildren he hoped would live better lives. My husband has shipped that impractical little stool around the world at a cost that is totally illogical.And it makes perfect sense.Many of us have such objects. The things we hold onto tell the stories of who we are, which is why museums display not only masterpieces, but also everyday objects from the past. “We had a real desire to help people understand why ‘things’ matter,” says Christina Olsen, director of education and public programs at the Portland Art Museum. They launched the Object Stories project this past March, inviting people to bring in small objects and tell their stories in a photo and audio recording booth. The edited stories and images can be seen in the museum and online at portlandartmuseum.org.“I think that as you listen to the stories, you begin to quickly realize that people are telling the most fundamental stories of their lives through objects,” says Olsen. “I think about the booth like a meaning-making machine, and how people make meaning in the stuff of their lives.”It’s the meaningful stuff of life that transforms a house into a home.Five Portlanders share a few of their favorite things.





Photo by John Valls

Terri Naito

Object: A cedar-lined Chinese lacquered steamer trunk

Lesson: In 1937, Naito’s Chinese-American father set off from San Francisco to spend a year studying abroad. He traveled by sea and recalled passengers being asked to keep an eye out for Amelia Earhart and her missing plane. By the time his ship arrived to port in China, that country was under attack by Japan. So the young man, along with friends he’d made on board, headed to Shanghai for safety. “Insofar as I can tell, he then partied until his year was up, ignoring his parents’ pleas to come home and away from the threat of war,” says Naito, who is active in several nonprofits and is the former daughter-in-law of civic leader Bill Naito. Her father bought the trunk somewhere along the way and adorned it with souvenir travel stickers. Naito repurposed the travel trunk as an end table.





Photo by John Valls

Karis J.A. Stoudamire-Phillips

Object: A glider chair and ottoman

Lesson: Her father lives in Idaho, and before visiting his baby grandson for the first time in Portland, asked repeatedly if Stoudamire-Phillips had a rocking chair. So she wasn’t all that surprised when he arrived with a gift of a glider and ottoman. But what she didn’t immediately realize was how her father had carefully picked out the fabric and overseen the upholstery job to create a one-of-kind chair. “He’s not shy but he doesn’t like to draw attention,” she says. The denim blue fabric with multi-colored spots is a fitting choice from the man who lives in jeans. “We joke that he should buy stock in Ralph Lauren.” Stoudamire-Phillips, who works as a health-plan provider at ODS, says the chair was the perfect spot for rocking baby Michael “and comfortable for the men in my family,” including her husband, saxophonist Mike Phillips, and cousin Damon Stoudamire. These days when little Michael wants to watch TV or read he climbs into the chair. “It’s become treasured in such a short amount of time,” she says. “It’s become something I would never give away.”





Photo by John Valls

Jason Ball 

Object: A bronze-banded, blown-glass vase

Lesson: Ball’s not sure of its origins but imagines the vase could be from Morocco. His parents picked it up at a flea market in the ’70s before he was born. They divorced when Jason was young. He recalls visiting his dad at his apartment and asking about the mysterious green glass. “He would tell me a story about how a genie lived in the bottle,” says Ball. And even though, on some level, the young boy knew they were just pretending, he loved looking for the magic genie. “This piece reminds me of one of the most special memories I have of my dad during a difficult time in my life,” he says. It’s the only item from his childhood that he displays in his home. Ball, who runs his own interior design company, has decorated entire houses for clients based on a single cherished object. “It can be a great starting point,” he says. Although his magic genie vase coordinates with absolutelynothing else in his home, Jason would never give it up. “It’s a reminder that even the smallest thing a dad does,” he says, “can have great impact on a kid.”





Photo by John Valls

Clarence Morton Bishop III 

Object: Spindle bed with Pendleton bedding

Lesson: For four generations, a Clarence Morton Bishop has covered the same antique spindle bed with a Pendleton blanket. Each member of the “Clarence Club” selected a different pattern from the family-owned mills. Mort Bishop, president of Pendleton Woolen Mills, recalls leaving the antique bed behind when he headed for college in 1970 but bringing his Pendleton bedding. “Just the blankets,” he says, “not the matching pillows and drapes,” lest he get a pounding for being too matchy-matchy. Bishop says he likes to think that those Pendleton “colors and patterns develop a person’s imagination,” and maybe even inspired the décor of his 22-year-old son’s Manhattan man cave. “You’ve got to bring your wildness to New York.”





Photo by Jon Valls

Pennie "Lane" Trumbull 

Object: Two rococo “kind of Russian Byzantine” lamps

Lesson: She grew up the only child of older parents. “My mother sold brassieres at Meier & Frank for 20 years before she had me when she was 46,” says Trumbull. Her father was an electrician and lineman for PGE. They never knew their daughter was the ’70s teenage rock groupie that inspired a character in the movie Almost Famous. Trumbull kept up her good-daughter behavior, helping with maintenance on her parents’ rental properties. She came to admire how her father helped many tenants buy their first homes. “They all came back and thanked him at some point.” When Trumbull built her own home on Sauvie Island, her father, who lived to be 94, talked her through the electrical wiring. “It passed on first inspection,” she says. “We could light up half this island with the transformer we have.” It’s fitting that her treasured object is wired. She has a pair of rococo “kind of Russian Byzantine” lamps that came from a mobile home that belonged to a good friend of her father. “They are weird and just kind of work in my house.”

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