Shadow Box

I love shadow boxes. I don’t mean the practice of sparring with yourself (though this is a worthy act that bears repeating). Think of a literal box, perhaps protected by a glass front, inside of which resides a world of whimsy. Think of it as found poetry in three-dimensional form.

Shadow box by Marcia Espinosa
Marcia Espinosa, Detail of “Shrines for your domestic wishes”, TAFE Gallery Central. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Shadow history

Sailors were the first to create shadow boxes. They made them out of wood salvaged from their ships. They made them out of fear. Sailors believed that if their shadow reached shore before they did, their life on land would be cursed. The box, containing the sum total of a sailor’s personal effects, protected their true self.

The tradition carries on among US military. Upon retirement, they receive a shadow box of medals, awards, flags and insignia. It’s a physical manifestation of a life of service.

After my mother-in-law died, her youngest son created a beautiful shadow box using her collection of family medals and another one containing her carnival souvenirs. A shadow box as portable memorial.

Omi’s shadow box. Assembly and photo by Bart-Jan Verhagen

Cornell boxes

A shadow box can also be for fun. Children all over the world know the joys of collecting things that adults call trash. Marbles, bottle caps, sea glass, feathers, bits of string, stamps, coins, bubble gum wrappers and popsicle sticks. Because of the dreaded parental eye, we are not allowed to display them as such treasures deserve. We hide them in our drawers, pockets and underneath the bed.

Joseph Cornell had an indulgent mother. She allowed him to use her basement in Queens, New York to house the treasures he discovered in dime stores and antique shops and the streets of New York City. He was a bit of a loner who survived the Great Depression as a door-to-door appliance salesman until he broke through with his first shadow boxes.

It’s comforting to know Cornell was an autodidact. He never finished high school, let alone get an art degree. His imagination was his only guide in assembling his boxes out of photographic fragments and Victorian bric-a-brac. He asked the viewer to make their own connections and stories out of the items assembled in his shadow boxes. As Adam Gopnik wrote of Cornell: He preferred the ticket to the trip, the postcard to the place, the fragment to the whole.

My shadow boxes

Until last week, I had never heard Joseph Cornell’s name. Now that I know who he is, I see riffs on his work everywhere from Perth to Munster to Los Angeles. You can make a shadow box out of a clock case or a plexiglass box. Marcia Espinosa repurposed a blender, television set and dishwasher. Cornwell, the former appliance salesman, would have approved.

Since his death, in 1972, it is not so much that Cornell’s fame has grown, which is what happens when critics water a reputation, as that his work has become part of the living body of art, which is what happens when artists eat it.

Adam Gopnik, “Sparkings” in The New Yorker, 10 Feb 2003

These shadow box artists ask us questions. Why these objects? Why this arrangement? Sometimes the questions are unanswerable. I don’t know what to make of a shadow box filled with doll heads. All I know is that I love it.

Shadow box by Arman
Arman, “Tamerlan’s Memorial”, LWL Museum, Munster. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I’d like to be as generous as a shadow box artist in my own work. To trust my reader to complete my meaning, especially when I write nonfiction. The urge to make my point or win the argument is hardwired in me. It would be lovely to summon up the courage to hand over the controls to the reader and let them fly.