At St. John Fisher Grammar School, the only person I thought was more important than the nuns was the janitor. He had a 4-inch ring with dozens of keys for every door in every building on that square Chicago city block.
During my last year in graduate school in Urbana, Ill, the university had decided to tear down two buildings to make way for something new. They spent weeks and weeks emptying the old rooms. I used found objects in my art; while they were clearing the buildings out, I waited for the perfect time to get inside through a window to find treasure. I left with 2 large, labeled boards with all the keys to all the doors in the buildings. They wouldn’t be needing those anymore: the keys were featured in a few of the works in my MFA thesis exhibit.
When I first moved to Houston, my friend Kevin invited me to visit another friend of his. The old woman’s husband had died years ago and she kept his ashes in a shoebox in the house. The old guy used to love driving his car around Houston, so Kevin would place the shoebox in the seat next to him and drive around Houston.
When we visited, the woman showed us into the attic of her Heights home. It was filled with a lifetime of memories and objects, things you’d expect to see in an attic, and a few odd things. She told the two of us to please take anything that we could use since she was tried to clean out “stuff”. I went home with a taxidermy fox on a skateboard, a shoebox of freeze-dried chicks that were meant to be attached to Easter baskets years ago, and a box of keys. The keys were old and all different sizes and shapes, some with ID tags or numbers or names.
Years later, I started teaching adjunct at a local college. I had to check out keys to studios or wait for someone to open them in the morning. Later, when I was full time, I had my own large ring of keys to doors, lockers, buildings, supply closets, and offices. I remembered feeling like the grade school janitor who had access to everywhere. Soon I was the department head and was handed a master key as part of the job: I went from 20-plus keys to one key. One key that opened everything.
In Houston I started using keys in my work again. The more the work was shown, the more people wanted to give me their old keys. Some days, I’d check my school mailbox before class and there’d be a Ziplock baggie with a dozen keys. Other days I’d go get the paper from the front porch and find a small box of thirty keys. I’d open my mail sometimes and find a key taped to a note about its provenance.
The notes were the best part:
My mother’s home blew away in Katrina and these are the keys. I hope you can use them in your work.
My sister died and I’m giving you her keys so then I’ll know that they are in an artwork that will always be somewhere.
My father moved into a nursing home years ago and I finally got the strength to sell his home and clean it out. I found all these keys. I have no idea what they are for, except for the key to the car he taught me to drive.
In the art department at school, the studios had lockers with keys that were handed out every semester. But students dropped a class or never turned in their keys, so all the locks were eventually removed and replaced with hardware to accommodate padlocks. I ended up with another 300 keys.
There was a secretary at the college who showed up in my office one afternoon. She had always called me “my Michael”, but she was 20-something years my senior and I assumed it was just her way of showing affection. Years later, I would learn that her son, also named Michael, had died a few years before I started working with her, and that I reminded her of him. But I didn’t yet know that when she sat with me and pressed a ring of keys into the palm of my hand, telling me they were her daddy’s keys. She said he was the driver who drove Miss Daisy. I never asked her if it was true, or if he was a chauffeur for some random, old, white woman.
That key, and about thirty others, were kept safe for historical, beautiful, or sentimental reasons. Eventually though, those too would be used in projects.
Sometimes I would just sit and hold keys in my studio and wonder about all the hands that touched them and all the memories they held.
After several years of an HIV+ diagnosis, I was told I had about two years to live and I started having bloodwork done more often. I would go from the doctor’s office to my studio and count out the number of keys to match certain test result numbers. That became a parameter for making an artwork. 45 T-cells: 45 keys. There was a year or two of making works with very few keys.
When the new “cocktail” of medicines arrived, my bloodwork started to improve and within a few years I was making 6-foot square paintings to fit all the keys.