Crane in the Bottle: The Art of Art Abandonment
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
The crane in the bottle is little larger than a thumbnail and made of folded computer paper. At certain angles it resembles a pterodactyl and when the bottle is jostled, the crane will keel over as if drunk. In a collection of oddities built over a lifetime, it’s one of my favorites. I don’t know who made the crane or why it was abandoned; in my part of this story, the crane simply appeared on a classroom table and I noticed it only after I plunked down a stack of graded papers and sent it flying. I picked it up by the tips of my fingers, afraid I’d accidentally crush it in my palm. It survived being smuggled home in a pencil case and now sits atop a small pile of rocks collected from the River Shannon by an old friend on their trip to Ireland. I find it funny how that bottle, holding its stones smoothed by water, was the only vessel that could harbor a piece of paper shaped by an artist’s hands. The construction looks purposeful, this miniature diorama of a bird on a riverbank, something serendipitous and—though I did not know it at the time—the first piece of abandoned art I’d ever own.
I recently learned about the Art Abandonment Project from the founder of our town’s new art group. The act of leaving art in public is, of course, nothing new; from primordial oxen painted in caves to complex graffiti tags scrolling across tunnel walls, humans have left their mark on shared spaces for as long as they could make images. But the internet has made tracking these spontaneous public art movements easier and fostered their worldwide reach. The Art Abandonment Project started as a 2012 post on mixed media artist Michael deMeng’s personal blog and has since grown to a global movement through books, social media groups, and community collaborations. The rules are simple: leave behind a piece of art—crafted from any media of your choice—in a public place for a stranger to find and keep. In the post, deMeng shares his first piece of abandoned art—a sketch left around Eugene, Oregon—and details the ideas behind the project, such as the importance of letting go of one’s work and increasing accessibility to the arts. Most intriguing to me is his third point: “This is good for the soul. A random act of kindness.”
It is an idea I heard echoed by other artists, both professionals and hobbyists, who’ve participated in the project. By abandoning a piece of work with no expectations and no money owed, one leaves behind a tangible gesture of goodwill. Whether the piece finds its person or ends up in the trash is beside the point—it is out of the artist’s hands, out of their story and in someone else’s.
Jake Garcia mentions the “story” of his abandoned art in an interview with WCVB. Garcia is a nursing student and painter who isn’t affiliated with the Art Abandonment Project, but is known for leaving plein-air paintings around Boston since the beginning of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. When speaking about why he leaves his work behind, he states, “This is a real life thing, a tangible thing you can hold, put on your wall, and it’s a story, you know, ‘I found this painting, this guy left this painting’...whether or not you think it’s a really good painting, it’s a story.”
I’ve been thinking about this idea of experiencing art as story during my own participation in the Art Abandonment Project. My local art group settled on a week in January as our first Abandoned Art Week, a time when we set out pieces as an introduction to the wider community. I love a good scavenger hunt so I signed up, not expecting the commitment to have such an influence over my creative process. I wish I could say that creating my contribution was effortless, that I didn’t care a whit about the results and I kept the spirit of art abandonment in my heart the whole time.
Every painter will tell you each painting has an ugly stage that will try to break you. You may question your skills, your life choices, your sanity—you think, ‘I have one life on this good green earth, and I decide to spent it doing this?’ The knowledge that my painting would not only be seen, but seen by real life people, who might know who I am, added such pressure that the ugly stage of my painting began with the sketch. I conjured images of the unwanted artwork hanging in some lonely place for weeks, soaked by snow until the tape unstuck and the paper floated on the wind before it got sucked under traffic and rolled over eight thousand times. Hell, maybe it’d get hit by an Acme anvil.
Every painter will also tell you that you cannot avoid the ugly stage—it is intrinsic to the process, a necessary time to block out colors and lay down shapes. To skip the ugly stage means skipping the very act of creating, and so, the piece is never finished. The artist never makes mistakes and learns from them. They never reach the important part: the practice, the discovery, the experimentation. That old adage of “the journey is the point” applies as much to creating as it does to life. And when creating a piece of art that you intend to abandon, the success isn’t in crafting the most beautiful thing ever—it’s in finishing it and letting it go. It’s about leaving it to become part of another person’s story. About a generosity of spirit that extends to the artist themselves.
Of course, supporting your local artist by buying their work is a good and important thing—I say this as someone who wants to make a living from mine. But separating the idea of “creating art” from “creating art people will buy” for this piece gave me the space to refocus on the journey, on how making something out of nothing sated a very ancient human hunger for meaning. Professional or not, I think it is healthy to feed this part of ourselves in whatever medium we feel most drawn to.
So, I finished the piece. I could still see the mistakes and the things I would change in a second version, but for this painting’s story, I had only one more part to play. In the bright light of a freezing cold Saturday morning, I traveled to the town square and furtively secured my painting to a park bench with blue painter’s tape and a note. Because I am a dork, it felt exciting, almost rebellious, to run from the bench and back to the car certain I hadn’t been spotted. My part in the story ended. Another’s had begun.
I don’t know who made the paper crane in the bottle. But I like to imagine them still making cranes today, their hands nimble from practice as they fold and turn and crease, transmuting small squares of paper into talismans of joy.