Inside the Wreckage: An Interview with Sascha Feinstein

Bucknell University Press: You’ve known most of your life that your father was both a brilliant painter and a hoarder. Did you plan to write this memoir even before your father died?

Sascha Feinstein: I didn’t seriously consider Wreckage as a book project until after he died, when I started clearing the land and buildings on Cape Cod (and, to a lesser extent, the house in Philadelphia). I also couldn’t write quickly because so much had to be unearthed for me to understand both the process of renovation and the artifacts themselves, and that took years. I’m still finding buried objects! But the majority of the labor and writing took place within the first ten years of his death [2003 – 2013].

As a writer, I’m most interested when polarities flourish simultaneously. And I had to get physically involved in the wreckage in order to speak about the disastrous rot and decay taking place in these locations of extraordinary creativity. When you braid that kind of double helix, art will emerge beyond the confines of anecdotes.

Did you find the book cathartic?

I’m frequently asked that question, and I still don’t have a slick answer! The process of saving the Cape property—which involved, among other things, the removal of over 30 tons of refuse—certainly liberated the residence itself, as did the extermination of monstrous poison ivy vines and tenacious bamboo. The making of the book (as with the making of anything creative) certainly made me feel alive as an artist. But in terms of catharsis, I would have to say that, yes, telling the stories and illuminating scores of people who thought they knew the totality of his character became a great emotional release.

He had a terribly controlling nature, so he swiftly attacked any challenge with vitriolic contempt. I never had, nor could I have had, an honest conversation with him about his hoarding. Art, yes, but nothing negative, nothing that might challenge his maniacal machismo. So I’ve finally had my day in court, so to speak.

You’ve described your writing style as “collage-like.” Why did you decide to create that kind of structure as opposed to a more standard, chronological narrative?

I tend not to view time in a linear way, and I’m much less interested in chronology than I am theme and metaphor. I want each chapter/essay to be an emotional journey, one governed by theme as opposed to time. (In that sense, I see strong parallels between my poetry and my prose.) Ideally, I’d like the reader not merely to remember specific stories but to return to chapters and revisit connective imagery. It demands much more of the reader, of course, but I hope the effort is worth the personal engagement.

I also wanted this form because it’s similar to the kinds of paintings that my father nurtured in his painting classes. He created immense still lifes out of broken and abandoned objects; from these, the students needed to find patterns and transitional colors in order to make the paintings achieve balanced movement and tone—to make them swing and evoke strong emotion.

I say “emotion” rather than “meaning” because we tend to associate “meaning” with narrative; these works were obviously nonrepresentational. If you look at the still life on the cover of the book, for example, you’ll find a tree trunk (still sprouting) holding an elongated, cracked vase of sorts, onto which my father attached a broken tea pot. This has no narrative meaning, but structurally—when we remove the associations of “tea pot” and “tree trunk”—they create interesting forms, echoed in their ringed movements by other objects in the still life. It was the artists’ challenge to transform the canvas into a cohesive, rhythmic statement, much like a writer linking themes and metaphors. So I think there’s a direct corollary to the chapters in Wreckage, where I take myriad sources to generate thematic coherence. (I originally called Selected Sources a “still life of sources,” but that was eventually changed by the editors.)

When it came to understanding and creating art, your father had the highest standards, and yet he seemed to collect junk not necessarily for aesthetic reasons, or even for specific projects, but almost arbitrarily. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely. He rarely collected junk with the thought of building something specific out it, like Simon Rodia and the construction of Watts Towers. Some exceptions on the Cape property included a large creature that he called The Monster and a large stone table. But most of what he hoarded simply disappeared over the years: rotting lumber, bags of Salvation Army clothing, file cabinets filled with ripped-out magazine articles, buckets of rusted nails, car hoods, tree trunks, hardened cement, you name it. Over the years, of course, the new still lifes would eclipse old ones, and the teaching locations lost workable space the way vines choke out landscapes. (This is partly why the first chapter is called “Wisteria.”) But you’re absolutely right: He didn’t really prize the junk he found; he merely wanted things because someday they might be used, either practically or artistically.

Given the extent of his collecting, how visible were his paintings in the house?

For a person whose life centered around art, it’s somewhat shocking to think how few paintings actually hung on walls. One exception would be Summer, which I mention several times in Wreckage, including a charming story of a woman visiting the U.S. from Russia who practically collapsed from sensory overload. “The sky, the sea,” she said. “I’m staying.”

The rebuilt Cape house, and my other Pennsylvania home, present the opposite aesthetic: Most walls feature work by my parents. (My mother was a painter, weaver, and textile designer.) I have more art than I can hang—but that’s a lovely problem.

Does this mean you don’t plan to collect lots of junk as you get older?

Absolutely not! One thing that the experience taught me was how much I don’t want to leave behind for our children. In fairness, I am a collector (mainly of music and books), but the difference between being a collector and a hoarder is pretty vast. At least I hope so.

And I have no regrets that I threw out so many tons of refuse. My father’s legacy should be art, not junk, and when I look at his glorious canvases, I forget the tremendous effort that took place in order to show them.

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