My Thrifted $50 Marvin Gaye Triptych Has Seen Better Days, But it Still Moves Me
Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.
It was 2006. I’d just graduated college and snagged an entry level copy writer position at a small architecture firm that specialized in monochromatic school design. It was the only gig available to a poli sci/creative writing major, and honestly, I didn’t care how boring the work was bound to be. For the first time, I was going to have a little money in my pocket. Money for a decent apartment, without a roommate whose decorating tastes vacillated between tie-dye papasan and stolen street signs (think Peace Street and Stoner Avenue). Money enough to splurge for the shiny black faux leather Chesterfield sofa, but not the large-scale “Rage, Flower Thrower” Banksy canvas I’d imagined hanging above it.
Instead, I bought a Marvin Gaye triptych for fifty bucks on eBay as a congratulatory gift to myself. When I expanded the grainy thumbnail, I remember thinking, Now, this is my style—an aesthetic I’d describe as “IKEA Mad Man Meets Underground Hip Hop and Stainless Steel.” Originally, the piece reminded me that even muted tones can be transformed with a little tension and flair. That might sound corny now, but at the time, it was a pretty potent metaphor for all the copy I was writing about sustainable chalkboard paint.
Each panel feels like a window into the iconic soul singer’s hyphenation, and my own dispositions. There’s “Got to Give it Up” Neighborhood Marvin: full beard, playful beanie and plain tee, posing for a Polaroid at the block party. Dead center, he’s suited and booted on stage, spot lit, singing “I Want You” to you and only you. And then there’s “Trouble Man,” “What’s Going On?” Marvin. Leaned back, fingers interlaced behind his head, shrouded in danger, contemplating war and poverty, a country unraveling.
Faded black, white, and taupe spray paint stenciled onto cheap press particle board. Slightly chipped and smudged from nearly fifteen years of transport, the piece has seen better days. Though, as it happens, my rookie design purchase taught me to value household items that affirm life choices, over provenance and universal appeal.
Over the years, I’ve used this instinct to decorate various spaces with relatively inexpensive items. Like this $89 electric orange metal “Do the Right Thing” piece from Chungkong’s “Minimal Movie Posters” series. Or a lesser known Kehinde Wiley print I had framed at Michael’s to commemorate the cover of my second book, “Silencer.” Both evoke smiles, but the triptych brings me actual joy: Imperative! Ever-shifting.
Today, it resides in a rambling bungalow in Memphis, Tennessee, where I live the life of a socially engaged poet and professor of creative writing. Next month, me, my love and our two dopey dogs will move across town for larger, nicer digs. Now, when I pass Marvin’s soft eyes and full cheeks, amid half-packed boxes of books and LPs—during a pandemic and period of social unrest that is both welcomed and anxiety-inducing—I’m reminded of Gaye’s palpable longing for change. His gentle but powerful vibrato, insisting.