The Karma of Found Art


Note taped on large abstract painting below

Original paintings are treasures to me. I don’t care about their financial “value.” What I love is staring at them for moments or hours, appreciating the effort and dedication of the artist. After all, each brushstroke was done deliberately, by a human being. A painting may carry messages unintended by the artist, but the paint on the canvas was put there in a certain, unique way, and I find that fascinating. Especially since I couldn’t produce a decent painting if the safety and well-being of the entire universe depended on it.

I also appreciate the way paintings can’t be duplicated (like prints and photographs); rarely get modified or “interpreted” by others (like songs); or get edited by multiple people (like books). So I try to hang as much original artwork in our home as possible. Fortunately, several of my friends are gifted artists, and over the years, they’ve shared some of their work with my family. My husband and I have also bought a few paintings over the years for various reasons.

Then, there’s our found art. Found art is one of my very favorite things, because it’s always a surprise, often a mystery, and it’s free. Every time I look at one of our pieces of found art, I feel eternally grateful to the person who created it and left it for someone else to enjoy.

Now to clarify, found art is art discovered legitimately. It’s never stolen, and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be the result of dumpster diving, which is rude and also illegal in most places. Dumpsters on private property are private.

Found art, on the other hand, is generally spotted on the curb, often accompanied by a note stating that it’s up for grabs. Although there are exceptions. And I think there’s something karmic about found art, too. In other words, people often discover it after they’ve donated things themselves, or have suffered emotional losses.


Small painting left behind by a roommate who didn’t want it

For example, my very first piece of found art was this lovely little painting, done by a roommate who left it behind when she moved out. And for the record, I did check with her to see if she wanted it back, but she said to throw it away. For me, however, the painting was/is anything but trash. I was physically unhealthy at the time, and because the roommate had gone to live with her boyfriend, I was also left temporarily alone in an apartment I couldn’t afford on my own. It’s just a simple little painting, but its colors comforted me, and helped me believe things would get better. And they did. Not long afterwards, I found not one, but two new roommates, and a whole new chapter in my life began.


Small piece spotted on the curb in Montreal

Jump ahead a bunch of years to last summer, when my family took a little trip to Montreal. The vacation was nice–we loved the city and hope to get back there soon–but the weather that week was so unbearably hot and humid that we didn’t do nearly as much walking (or shopping) as we’d planned. In fact, we spent much of the vacation rafting and boating on the Saint Lawrence River, in an effort to stay cool. We were also carrying some heavy emotional baggage, as our 17-year-old cat, Mac, was ill and we knew he had very little time left. And my son was about to begin high school, which was foreign territory for us. So as we trudged to our car, preparing for the long drive home, the whole family was feeling end-of-vacation anxiety. Back to the real world; back to reality, responsibility, and imminent pet death. But about a block from the vehicle, on the grass beside the road, was a pile of discarded household goods with a sign that said FREE on it. We weren’t interested in any of the dishes, pans, or silverware, but right in the middle was this painting. It looks sort of like someone’s art experiment, but I love the optimism in it: the pink on the horizon, and the sparkly stars in the pretty green sky. Taking it home with us made the trip feel more complete, and also helped me believe that although we were probably going to encounter some darkness in the near future, there were good things up ahead.

nyc paintingI’ve already written a couple of blog posts recently about the challenge of cleaning out the home my parents bought when I was a little kid, the house in which they raised my brothers and me. In a few words, it’s been a lot. A lot of dust, a lot of tears, a lot of bittersweet laughs, a lot of hauling things around. One of the hardest parts has been saying goodbye to things that seemed like permanent fixtures in our lives. We’ve done our best to keep the really special stuff, but none of us have much extra space, so many large items have ended up on the curb: perfectly good furniture, bicycles, yard equipment, TVs, dishes, glassware; you name it. And although it’s kind of cool seeing people pull up in trucks to load them up with your castoffs, it’s also slightly sad. (Hey, there goes my childhood bed!) So it was very exciting for me, the morning after a huge day of cleaning, to find this awesome painting on the curb in a neighborhood near my current home. The note on it said, Free sidewalk art circa 1950 NYC artist unknown. I fell in love on the spot, and the painting looks terrific over our living room couch. A couple of people have already expressed interest in buying it, but I’d never sell it. (That would be bad karma, right?) On the other hand, perhaps I’ll pass it along–on the curb of course–someday, when the time feels right.

dad's flowers

An oil painting by my dad, done in a summer art class

And here’s the final one for today. It’s my favorite painting right now, as I think you’ll understand if you keep reading. Earlier this week, my brothers and I were in the final stages of cleaning out the house. As far as we knew, everything was gone from the upstairs level, and the only room downstairs that contained anything at all was the kitchen. But as I swept out a deep hallway closet, I saw something flat and wrapped in white tissue paper way in the back. I was actually a little frightened. What was it, and why hadn’t anyone noticed it before? Of course, I pulled it out and unwrapped it, and was delighted to see that it was an oil painting my dad had made when I was a kid. He’d taken an art class one summer, and although he was no Picasso, I think he did an OK job with this one. Neither of my brothers wanted it, nor did my mom, so I’m really looking forward to getting it framed and adding it to my family’s found art collection.

How about you? Have you ever discovered something wonderful (art or otherwise) on the curb, or in some other unexpected place? If so, please share your story in the comments section.


About Mary Rowen

My three published novels, LEAVING THE BEACH (a 2016 IPPY Award winner), LIVING BY EAR, and IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY focus on women figuring out who they are and what they want from life. Music and musicians have a way of finding their way into the stories. I live in the Boston area with my family and pets.
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13 Responses to The Karma of Found Art

  1. I am not writing this to express my delight with art that I found. I do still have a relevant story. About a month and a half ago, I left the city of Moncton in new Brunswick to travel here to Halifax in Nova Scotia. I had been working on my first extremely large canvas ever. The project was so meaningful to me. I don’t produce art based on real life things. I produce at that can only come out of me – I think the simplest way to explain it the way that perhaps some people would is that I produce energy art. It isn’t just abstract, it’s very complexes and metaphorical in every little part. I make sure metaphors stretch out not just in the smaller parts but also in the larger prospective of the painting. I haven’t been pairing like this for long, I just sort of sprouted this ability to be creative in this particular way after spending allot of time on the mountain in Montreal. If you’re familiar with how this atmosphere evolves throughout the afternoon evening and late night, you might understand a little where my energy drafts were born.

    My painting was becoming so complexes, trees mending with water and sea animals and florals and clouds and flows and splashes, moving within the current of rings like a split rock, certainly not lacking in color stimulation, despite my lack of basic pigments. My plan was to use this canvas to work on a painting so amazing that it didn’t matter if I was a traveler who didn’t have her work with her, people would see it, see me, and I could sell it to pay for more supplies and get my art career going.

    The day we were ready to take the train to Halifax, only about a couple hours before our long awaited train was scheduled to depart, the person at the counter tops me I could absolutely not take this canvas with me, neither in the passengers area, nor in the cargo.

    I cried about it for about half an hour, then declared the thing mourned, having no other real choice. I wrote a note behind it, with a black permanent marker, that the painting was left behind without a choice and that anyone could either take it as is, or add to it if they do pleased. Left my contact information and a signature, with a cheesy “lots of love” not being something I was able to talk myself out of leaving, so I did.

    No one ever contacted me, but with all my heart I hope this made it into a human being’s hands. I don’t care who and I don’t care why and I don’t care how, I just hope someone can has it with them. It would mean the world to me just to know that it isn’t in a dumpster.

    (For all I know, it could be…)

    Since then none of my art has been able to match that painting, simply because I work with donated supplies. I can’t yet afford an enormous canvas to work on but I will some day and hopefully do this abandoned work justice.

    I always appreciated finding art in the streets on the curve, but never have regarded them the same way since this experience of mine.

    Thank you for reading and allowing me to share my story


    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Oh Gabrielle, I’m so sorry. Your painting sounds like something really powerful and incredible, and I can’t believe they wouldn’t let you bring it on the train in some way. That is so heartbreaking–all that work and energy. I also hope the painting found someone who loves it now, although I really wish it could somehow make its way back to you. Did you take any pictures of it? I’d love to get some sense of how it looked, and also, perhaps someone would see it on the web and contact you. I know it’s unlikely–especially since you left your contact information–but you never know. Thank you for sharing your story, and I sincerely hope you are someday able to paint another painting that you feel is as good if not better than that one.


  2. jan says:

    I’m probably guilty of leaving behind more art than I’ve found. I gave a sculpture to a friend of mine and a few weeks later she got an offer on her house with the contingency that my sculpture be a part of the deal which I guess is flattering but it made me more leery of just giving away art (especially now that carpal tunnel has ended my sculpture career!) I think your dad’s painting is lovely – very Van Gogh-like. It’s too bad he didn’t keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Rowen says:

    Oh Jan, that sucks about your carpal tunnel. I didn’t know you’d done sculpture, and hope you didn’t give all your stuff away. Yeah, I’d be flattered but leery too after that house offer. Sheesh. And thanks for the kind words about my dad’s painting. I love it, just because he made it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, and the replies were interesting too. Both my parents were artists, Dad painted ultra-realistically and Mom was watercolors and looser in style. They are both gone now, so their paintings remind me of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thanks, E.C. I’m so sorry to hear that both your parents are gone, but glad you have their art to help keep them alive. I’ve spent most of this morning trying to get one of my dad’s old cameras to work, since he was a photographer, and using the camera makes me feel closer to him. Although I really wish I could ask him for advice!


  5. judithworks says:

    Great story. I’d love to find some even though I don’t have room for any more. The only thing I ever found was in Italy: one of the giant hand-blown green glass bottle used for storing olive oil. It was “resting” by a garbage container. My husband saved it from certain death.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. eandeoconnor says:

    I agree the fact that so much time goes into creating a piece of art makes it much more personal no two pieces are the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. elainemansfield says:

    So lovely to find your dad’s painting, Mary.
    My prize antique image is a large, sepia, fancy-framed portrait (photo) of my Great Aunt Eliza. It’s on a wall next to my bed. She watches me with huge serious brown eyes that look much like my eyes when I was young.
    The photo was taken a few months before she was killed in 1886 in tornado that ripped through a rural schoolhouse in Missouri and killed three six-year-old girls who sat at the same desk. My grandpa who was 16 was spared, but he told the story over and over again. The photo was given to me by my grandmother when I was nine. When I went to college, my mother confiscated it, put it in storage, and wouldn’t give it back. She wanted to sell it since it was my father’s side of the family and not of emotional value to her. About twenty years ago, my mother arrived at my home and gave me the photo with frame restored and safely wrapped in brown paper. It felt found, since I’d given up on it. I’m glad I hung on to my request like a bulldog. My mom finally saw how important it was to me.


    • Mary Rowen says:

      I’m so glad your Aunt Eliza is hanging in her rightful place, Elaine, but how sad that she died so young. And the other kids too, gosh.

      I’m also glad your mother realized how important the photo was to you. There are certain heirlooms in my family that don’t belong specifically to anyone–they’re things that have remained after people have died–and sometimes my family and I discuss which ones should stick around and which ones we should sell. It’s difficult sometimes to make those choices, especially if an item doesn’t have a particular “use” and if it’s worth a decent amount of money. But clearly, Aunt Eliza, belongs with you.


  8. ghostmmnc says:

    Your found art is wonderful, especially the painting your dad did. Glad you got to keep it. I’ve been through similar, clearing out my parent’s house, now that they are gone. We grew up in that house, and to see so much of it, house included, go to strangers…well, it’s hard. We kept some things, though. …I leave some of my art in public places, actually. I do ZIAs ‘zentangle inspired art’, which I sketch out (just small pieces) to leave randomly. On the back is a note, saying it is free, or to pass it along. Love your post about found art very much! 🙂


    • Mary Rowen says:

      Thank you! I agree that it’s so difficult to give away pieces of your life, especially the things with special memories associated with them. And what a cool idea to leave art in public places! I especially love that you include the note, letting people know it’s free, so they won’t worry about stealing something. A lovely way to make the world more beautiful. I just checked out your blog and followed it. Really enjoyed reading your poetry.


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