Hidden Treasures

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we are told, but sometimes it takes a keen-eyed, visionary, and creative person to see beauty where many people see nothing more than detritus and decay.

Two such people were the subject of last night’s talk at MHS, “The Nature of Lost Things,” part of the “Richard D’Abate Lectures: Conversations about History, Art, and Literature”. One was the speaker, world-renowned artist and photographer, Rosamond Purcell. The other was the focus of her talk, the late William Buckminster of Owls Head, a scrap metal dealer.

Purcell’s 15 years worth of visits to Buckminster’s junkyard, the decaying items she unearthed there, and Buckminister himself became the subject of her 2003 book Owls Head. The Boston Globe magazine featured a review of the book, and many other facets of Purcell’s unique and provocative work–she’s been called the “doyenne of decay”–in a detailed article that year. National Public Radio also reviewed the book.

A visually eclectic slideshow accompanied Purcell’s talk. These included shots of the junkyard, including an aerial view capturing the tremendous breadth of Buckminster’s collections, and hauntingly beautiful photographs of items Purcell purchased from the man she calls “Bucky” and brought back to her Medford, Mass. studio. In one, a crushed and corroded tin can dappled with splotches of teal and orange resembles an alien landscape. In others, badly dessicated books turn into works of natural art as their pages bleed into the landscape, or, shredded into oblivion, become a nest for birds.

“Much of what I picked up there wasn’t redeemable,” said Purcell, but “history is everywhere [and Bucky could] find history in the midst of chaos.” He tagged most items with a price and an item number faithfully recorded in a ledger.

The talk’s highlight was a short film depicting one of Purcell’s visits to the junkyard, during which Buckminster spoke about and showed off one of his great historical finds: the foundry once owned by William Webb, a master brass maker from Warren (1773-1868). Piece by piece, Buckminster transported the foundry to his property, educated himself thoroughly about Webb, and went on to collect hundreds of items produced by the foundry.

An alternate version of that bit of video had years ago been shown by Purcell to MHS executive director Richard D’Abate, then relatively new at his job. Bucky had seen an article about D’Abate in Down East, and decided that the MHS director was the only person to be trusted with the care of the foundry. Though MHS offered to purchase it and the related items at the appraised value, Buckminster eventually decided not to sell. It has since been passed down to his nephew.

In a final reflection on the myriad items both Bucky and she amassed over the years, Purcell said, “Sometimes things are kept not because they are in good condition, but because they are things people just want to have around. There is magical thinking that goes into the things we all find.”


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