Shana Novak a New York City-based still life photographer, and founder of TheHeirloomist. She photographs family heirlooms and turns them into life-size fine art. This is her story of how the TheHeirloomist came to be.
My Grandmother was a story teller and the keeper of the family heirlooms. She kept a number of carefully organized boxes of family objects and when she would open them, a favorite pastime, the stories would flow. When she was done talking, you’d feel like you just had a drink with the gentleman whose pocket watch that was.
This is how TheHeirloomist came to be. I am a photographer by trade so my instinct is to tell stories with pictures. I am inspired by the tiny, unexpected things tucked away in the closet. They tell the intricate stories of who we are. Some of my personal favorites: Civil War medals, solid gold tooth fillings, and the screws that held my Grandmother’s leg together when she was hit by a golfcart in Palm Springs.
What I learned right away when I started photographing heirlooms three years ago is that “heirloom” depends a lot on the meaning one attaches to it. You might automatically think of jewelry or candelabras. But my Grandfather’s vial of nitroglycerine sticks out as a good example of the heirloom as being personally defined.
As a kid, I knew my Grandfather always carried a vile of medicine in his pocket in case of (another) heart attack. The streamlined metal capsule was high tech for the time. It symbolized a constant and lingering danger that he was always prepared for. After he passed away, I found the vile in his bathroom drawer. When I picked it up, I felt like a little girl finally getting a close up of that thing-y Grandpa carried in his pocket. When I opened the vile, I saw one remaining nitroglycerine pill and instantly became an adult. I photographed the vile the next day.
TheHeirloomist is set up to bring those unique stories out in the world. I am not here to be sentimental with you, but rather to use my skill as a photographer to encourage people to find their stories, no matter how odd they seem, and to live them– with reverence and in good, spirit. I think exploring the corners of who you are through the people who formed you can be a tremendous force of energy in your life.
An example: one day while visiting my Grandmother, we had the boxes of heirlooms out in force. She casually handed me a button. She told me the button had come off the uniform of an ancestor who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. It was really interesting to me so I took it home to New York to photograph.
One night, I was sitting at my computer in my small Greenwich Village apartment and I unwrapped the button. I remember looking at the button and thinking “This button is from the Revolutionary War. THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. This button was buttoned by someone I am related to who FOUGHT FOR HIS COUNTRY wearing this button… and I am sitting here looking at it while eating take out sushi in my sweatpants.”That was a personal disruption of sorts for me. I snapped to a more focused attention that night. A reverence for what really matters came into my life. It became easier to know how to spend my energies, my money, how to share my heart and my time. A button did this. An object held such meaning that it inspired me to step up, make good, and be the wisest me. That object deserved a place on my wall.
Hence, TheHeirloomist. My job is not just to bring a pretty picture to your wall, but rather to create a piece of art that is made on pride and legacy.
My favorite part of being TheHeirloomist is seeing what people come up with as their chosen subject to photograph. I fantasize that I might make an impact on people’s lives by getting them to consider what really matters.
What objects would you photograph?