Cornell at work
Does anyone ever tease you about how many things you find and keep? Has anybody ever called you a "pack rat"?

Then you can imagine what Joseph Cornell's family might have said about him.

He lived in a small house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, a suburb of New York City. He shared his house with his mother, his brother…and hundreds of file boxes and files full of fascinating stuff that inspired his artwork!

He liked living near New York, and he delighted in exploring its streets and neighborhoods. Sometimes he wrote about the many unusual things he saw, but often he brought them home! Old books, records, photographs, movie films, theater programs—the shops he visited were full of these things. He collected whatever struck his fancy, no matter how old or ordinary it might look to someone else.

He called his collection a "diary journal, picture gallery, museum, and clearing house for dreams and visions," because it became an important part of his artwork.

Once, while wandering down a street, Cornell noticed some compasses in one store and boxes in another nearby. He wondered what these objects would look like together. "My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city," he said. He began making boxes for his collection, choosing objects that combine both materials and ideas. He found some surprising and marvelous combinations! We might not even notice something as ordinary as a postcard or a shell if we saw it by itself, but in one of Cornell's boxes, it suddenly seems very special and even a little mysterious. Cornell's boxes can make us think of all sorts of things…like magic games or secret rooms.

Joseph Cornell was very shy and often sad, but he said that his boxes gave him "a world of complete happiness." An ideal world is sometimes called a utopia. Isn't it funny that Cornell make his "happy world" in a cluttered basement studio on Utopia Parkway?


…Cornell's whole family liked the opera and the theater? Many people think his boxes look like stages—just waiting for the action to begin.

…Cornell loved a magician named Houdini? Houdini was a famous "escape artist." He could break loose from handcuffs, knotted ropes, and boxes that had been sealed shut. Many of Houdini's boxes had a secret—a trap door. Cornell's boxes seem to have secrets, too.

…after he grew up, Cornell never left New York? He took pretend journeys when he made his boxes. He filled some of them with objects from other countries and gave them make-believe names in foreign languages. Some of his boxes are imaginary hotels in places he never visited, like southern France and North Africa.

…Cornell especially admired writer and nature lover Henry David Thoreau? Thoreau could have been talking about Cornell's art when he wrote, "The question is not what you look at, but what you see."

Joseph Cornell

Ideals Are Like Stars; You
Will Not Succeed in Touching
Them with Your Hands…

("Great Ideas of Western Man" series)