A beautiful mess

Personal organizer-artist Jemison Faust finds inspiration in clients’ clutter

“Tipping Point #3’’ is part of “Before the Work Begins: Tipping Point Series’’ by Jemison Faust at the Bromfield Gallery. “Tipping Point #3’’ is part of “Before the Work Begins: Tipping Point Series’’ by Jemison Faust at the Bromfield Gallery.
By Irene Muniz
Globe Correspondent / June 23, 2010

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Jemison Faust enjoys helping people regain some control in their lives. A personal organizer for more than 20 years, she’ll sort out drawers or bring order to a kid’s playroom. She’s there for clients when they can no longer find bills or their closet becomes a forbidden zone — as she puts it, “when it has all tipped over into chaos.’’

The mess has also become an inspiration for the Newport, R.I.-based Faust, who is a painter and mixed-media artist as well. The “before’’ photos she takes to document the clutter are the starting point for the oil paintings in her collection “Before the Work Begins: Tipping Point Series,’’ on exhibit until June 26 in the South End’s Bromfield Gallery. Faust spoke with the Globe recently by phone.

Q. Let’s hear about your inspiration.

A. It was about a year and a half ago that I came across this particular group of photographs — of one toy room that was enormous and filled with toys — and I was thinking these would make amazing paintings. . . . They were all beautiful toys.

Q. How do you start?

A. When I go see a client I talk with them about what the plan is for how we’re going to work together. I take pictures before I start working with them if they’re willing. Some people are not. . . . I take those [before] pictures and often I combine two or three photographs and then add pieces. I’m not doing a document. As an artist you have to have that freedom — add, subtract, change color, perspective, move things around — but the whole goal is to make you feel about the space the way I did when I walked in there.

Q. Can some pieces come from another client’s space?

A. In this particular [room] there were only a couple of pieces from another client. Most of it was this one toy room be cause it was so rich in stuff, but in general I also combine things from other clients, so it’s not necessarily one person’s room.

Q. What do these images convey about your clients?

A. I’m greatly moved when I go into these homes. [Clients] don’t know how to make choices, they don’t know how to say no, they buy things because they’re on sale and they don’t have any place to put them. I want to show people what I see, but it’s like a landfill, too much. It’s beautiful, but it’s also sad in a way that we’ve gotten to this point where things are just piled up and people don’t enjoy them.

Q. Do they approve of your turning their chaotic spaces into paintings?

A. I’ve asked all the people for whom I take photographs if I can use them on my website, because in it I have before-and-after pictures. They know also that I’m going to be doing paintings. Some people like the idea of seeing part of their house in my paintings.

Q. Are there trends among your clients?

A. Everybody’s home is different and everybody’s issues are different, and yet I see so many people who have similar stresses and similar unhappiness about their life. On some level they’re all the same: It’s too much stuff, can’t find anything, don’t feel peaceful, I’m out of control, I don’t know who I am — and that’s common.

Q. Any peculiar things you’ve found buried down under?

A. We found lots of money and I’ve found some things — it was a house that had never been gone through since the ‘50s — that we don’t use anymore. Some of them were gorgeous, and thinking as an artist I just liked the shapes. We found passports and things people have been looking for for years. I feel like an archeologist sometimes.

Q. Have you had any clients who stand out?

A. I meet people who — we’re going through all this stuff — and I say: “What happened in 1985?’’ and the woman will say, “I got breast cancer, my husband left me, and my cat died,’’ and her life stopped in 1985. I have a client who’s an air-traffic controller. She is really good at keeping those planes from crashing into each other, but she can’t keep her house organized. My youngest client is now 12. I go twice a year and help him clean out his room. We’ll do all his Legos and get everything back to square one. My oldest client is 93 and lives in Providence, and I’m helping him go through all his memorabilia from his whole life. It’s fascinating.

Q. Is it frustrating?

A. It’s emotionally draining. I can work for eight hours, but most people get tired after about four hours. I’m very low key about that. There are some days when I go into somebody’s house and I think, what is the matter with you? But then I realize it’s not hard for me, but it’s hard for many people. You have to do it when you feel ready.

Q. On the positive side. . .?

A. It’s all about your relationship with that person. I’m going through their underwear drawer, so they have to trust me. We all need somebody who doesn’t care about it as much in a way and just cares about helping us get our life together, and that’s what I’m there for.

Irene Muniz can be reached at