279312635As someone who’s “made” found art and “written” found essays, I find it a hard genre to defend and not only because I need annoying quotation marks. The charges against it seem fair. It’s art that allows anything and everything to be art. (Rotting cow’s head, anyone?) It requires no real talent from the artist. It’s gimmicky, pretentious, and often consumerist. Moreover, with its chair caning, urinals, bicycle wheels, shark carcasses, unmade beds, and dirty underwear, it’s usually not that good.

Sure, I might reply that found art takes us beyond notions of good and bad, into the realm of the pure aesthetic experience, or that it exposes the nature of artistic choice, but I’d I sound so obnoxious. As if I don’t really care about art. And I do.  In fact, one reason why I care about found art comes from another: literary nonfiction. I see the two in conversation, since often what I’m trying to capture in my writing is something that pre-exists the writing process: an event, a person, even an object. I’ve found something—in the figurative and sometimes literal sense—that I’d like to share with readers. Found art goads me: why don’t I get out of the way and just give what I’ve found directly to them?

It’s not that simple, of course (and here others might make liberal use of quotation marks in arguing how all art entails mediation and transformation, even a seemingly “plain” or “documentary” one), but found art allows for that ideal. And the best found essays, to my mind, preserve that sense of encounter: Here it is, dear reader, in all its complexity. Make of it what you will.

That “it,” that found thing, might be the violence inflicted on the transgender persons, as it’s captured in Torrey Peter’s found essay, “Transgender Day of Remembrance,” or it might be an encounter with one of the last defenders of a flat-earth cosmology, which John D’Agata assembles in “Flat Earth Map: An Essay.” In the case of Mark Ehling’s wonderful new collection, River Dead of Minneapolis Scavenged by Teenagers, the found material comes from overheard stories, snatches of conversation, and odd recollections found in old archives. Ehling is a collector, a curator, and his book is something like a curio cabinet you’d visit in a dream.

Ehling’s pieces fuse together quirky bits of narrative and observation with photographs that he’s found in old trade magazines and on forgotten junk, which he’s stripped down, so that they end up looking coarse and hand-drawn. (Ehling freely shares his process on his Tumblr account.) Characters don’t have faces; setting are sparse or nonexistent. Here’s the book’s opening page:

Ehling-SampleWelcome to a strange, not always likeable world. And yet, oddly, it’s ours. That’s what I admire so much about Ehling’s work: he’s managed, somehow, to keep the abiding strangeness of so many of those encounters, those arcs of thought and half-heard voices that don’t seem like much at the moment but that you find yourself remembering, days and sometimes years later, almost without trying.

So much of what we experience doesn’t make sense. That guy, making a weird animal noise at the end of the bar, that story granddad told about when he and his dog fought against another man and his dog—but it wasn’t even a story, was it?  Because it had no point, and stories have points. These experiences don’t—maybe even won’t—make sense, but they still matter, still carry weight. We find them compelling, although we can’t say why, perhaps precisely because they won’t yield to our question, “Why?”

And that’s one way to describe Ehling’s pieces. They’re like those odds and ends that you come across in a ramshackle antique store or an abandoned warehouse and you can’t help but pick up. They’re knickknacks and they’re nothings. They’re wonders and they’re junk. They’re curiosities you feel lucky to have found.

Eric LeMay’s latest collection, In Praise of Nothing, includes a found essay from Roger Ascham’s 1545 Toxophilus: the schole of shootinge contayned in tvvo bookes.