From Istanbul to New York, I Make a “Wall of Stuff” as a Love Letter to Each Place I Live
Growing up, my family always allowed for total creative freedom when it came to decorating my room. For me, that meant choosing pink, green, and yellow paints to illuminate the walls. Next came the posters, magazine cutouts, and random bits of things I picked up from travels, trips, and friends, which I layered over the bright paint. While I now question the color choices, I never stopped sticking a bunch of different things on a designated part of my bedroom wall — the collection has just become more intentional and true-to-self as I’ve gotten older.
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In my adult life, I’ve moved a lot: from Istanbul to New York, then to five different apartments within NYC, and now I’m en route to a new destination. Which means I got to stick a lot of different things on an abundance of different walls. Throughout the years, I’ve come to cherish this consistent, evolving collage I carry with me everywhere I go, and I’ve dubbed it the “wall of stuff”.
Each wall of stuff is a wonderful and joyous celebration of my time at a place, filled with postcards from restaurants, friends, or different cities, birthday cards, illustrations, wine labels, random pieces of wall art, coasters, beads — basically anything and everything you can put up on a wall. One of its beauties is that it rejoices in simple things, like a visit to a cute cafe or a sticker found stuck on the side of a lamppost. We tend to create a hierarchy when it comes to collecting memories — birthdays, weddings, and vacations usually take precedence over a restaurant visit or daily musings. But the wall of stuff is a reminder of the beauty in the mundane. And I’m not alone in this tradition: I’ve been in many friends’ bedrooms who had designated areas for the memories they deemed worthy of putting up on a wall.
Emily Carpenter, a New York-based teacher, says she started putting stuff up after getting a bulletin board for Christmas one year. What started with pinning up a single certificate morphed into the creation of different walls of stuff throughout the years, her original collection following her in a bag. “It was really nice to see that part of my life so well documented. Looking back at those items brought back memories I forgot I had and words I forgot people wrote to me, so I just kept doing it,” she says.
Similarly, artist Carlos Michael uses his wall of stuff as a way to remember — not only the highs but also the lows. Starting to create his wall collection while experiencing some mental health issues due to COVID-19 isolation, Michael allowed his wall collection to follow his healing journey as well as his development as an artist. His wall features his pen and pencil sketches as well as paintings. “I am building the wall in a new way that isn’t denying the pain I was in but trying to find the beauty in it. [It’s] representative of how I am living now,” he shares.
While Michael uses his wall of stuff to externalize internal change, for Inji Kim, a PhD student in art history at the University of Washington, it represents a physical transition. “I move from place to place pretty often. I don’t get to have a lot of books, furniture, or stuff in general. So I usually allow myself to have two files of paper stuff that I carry around, mostly photos, cards, and artwork that friends made,” she says, adding that the first thing she does when she moves somewhere new is to put this collection up on her new wall.
Characterizing herself as a “sort-of-nomad,” researcher and strategist Jess Francis also does not feel as if she is fully moved into a new place until she has put something up on her walls. “You should see my storage. It is shoe boxes full of random things to put on an eventual wall.”
The wall of stuff looks different for everyone. I tend to choose a focal point like a mirror or a big piece of artwork to be the core of the wall. Everything else is in its orbit, creating a constellation of memories. Carpenter begins in the middle and starts expanding, trying her best to “tetris” everything to fit together. Some like to have themes, like Michael, whose wall focuses on nature and art, while others, like me, put up anything and everything that means something to them.
The wall of stuff signifies a place and time, so it is only natural that it also comes to end. A vital part of the process of the wall of stuff is tearing it all down. Peeling off all the things you stuck to your wall piece by piece is very cathartic. I usually make myself a cup of coffee or pour myself a glass of wine, play some music, and stick everything in a notebook that will have the year and place written on it with large letters — probably on painters tape, definitely with a black Sharpie.
“Seeing the empty walls after I take them down kind of signifies that I’m ready to move on,” Kim explains. I don’t know if I ever fully move on from the places I try to fit into notebooks that end up on the shelves of new spaces, but whether to signify an ending, a beginning, or a journey, the wall of stuff lets me remember what was and celebrate what is yet to come.