Crammed Spaces by Marjan Teeuwen, an artist from The Netherlands. This is part of the show Hoarding, Amassing and Excess at Northern Illinois University. Can you find the hoarder in the photo?

Whenever a person experiences art, they do it through the lens of all of the detritus of their own lives. That is the reason why people can have many different responses to the same piece of art. It is also the reason that I rarely read the explanation posted next to the piece. I don’t want the artist to influence my response with his interpretation. I like to look quickly at a lot of pieces in a show or museum. My approach is not right or wrong it is just the way I experience art.

So when I drove out to Northern Illinois University’s Art Museum to see the show, Hoarding, Amassing and Excess, there was a lot going on in my brain before I got there. It was not lost on me that I drove nearly an hour through empty and barren farmland, a very minimalist landscape, in order to see a show about hoarding. I will admit I was a little anxious on the drive. I’m claustrophobic and the thought of walking into a “hoarder” installation was scary. It reminded me of a personal encounter I had with a hoarder twenty years ago.

I was president of the Mendham Junior Woman’s Club in New Jersey and my duties required me to go to a regional meeting held at the home of the regional president. The fact that someone gave me a “heads up” that her house was cluttered peaked my curiosity. The only thing I knew about the woman was that she was married with no children, nice and was very involved in the Junior Woman’s Club.

As I approached her house, I was surprised at the size. It seemed large for just two people. It was very pretty with a well-manicured lawn. No junk here, I thought. I entered the house with some trepidation. I was not disappointed. There was a living and dining room on either side of the entryway. They were filled with stacks and stacks and stacks of plastic bins, filled with stuff. She was clearly an organized hoarder, no dead animals in here. Throughout the meeting, I was able to keep my claustrophobic reaction in check but got out of there as soon as I could.

I am the polar opposite of a hoarder. I am a purger. Not food. Stuff. I got rid of my children’s high chair before I was done having kids. When my last baby was born, I solved my lack of high chair issue by exclusively nursing him until he could sit in a chair and eat. I always have a pile of stuff ready to give when I get a call from the Vietnam Vets, Epilepsy Society, etc. I give away furniture, rugs, clothes, household items, new stuff and old. I troll the house, the kids bedrooms and closets just looking to cull the herd of stuff we accumulate.

I suppose my obsession with purging is the reason that I find hoarding so fascinating. I love to read about hoarders and especially look at photos of their homes. Those pictures are so rich, filled with endless amounts of stuff. I’m not sure why but the majority of notorious hoarders lived in New York and come from socialite backgrounds. The most famous hoarders in history are Homer and Langley Collyer, both members of Manhattan’s elite. They were both found dead under mountains of stuff in their New York brownstone. Langley had died from the collapse of a pile of junk, which he had booby-trapped and Homer, who was disabled and blind, starved, to death.

If you’ve never been to NIU, it is a treat, a very pretty campus in DeKalb. The museum is located in Altgeld’s Hall also known as The Castle. The show is beautiful and cleverly curated. There are seventeen artists’ works in the exhibit, from paintings and sculpture to photography and an installation. These artists explored the notion of hoarding with different mediums; some are disturbing, some entertaining and others quite beautiful.

I really loved Celeste Rapone’s paintings of “store bought celebratory trash.” They are fun and colorful but expose the dark side of all of the junk we buy to use for parties and celebrations.

Carrie M. Becker’s photos of rooms of hoarders made me anxious (what if my house got like that? What if I couldn’t get it clean? What if I couldn’t get out!!!). I could only look at them for about a second. But I did go back, again and again, because their lure was so strong.

My favorite piece was Marjan Teeuwen’s Crammed Spaces photographs of spaces organized and stuffed with things. I think these probably appeal to me because they are colorful, organized chaos instead of just chaos.

Why do people hoard? Who knows? Do people hoard because of learned depression era behavior? Are people compensating for a loss? Is it a protection? Is it a mental condition? Once you visit Hoarding, Amassing and Excess at NIU between now and May 23rd you may be a little closer to understanding the mind of a hoarder.

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and board member of the Riverside Arts Center. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...