Office Treasures: A Landscape in a Lamp

Their CVs tell one story, but the things professors surround themselves with tell another

David Guss and his office lamp

In the fifth of a series, we visit the office of David Guss, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Being an anthropologist, says David Guss, gives you a license to collect. His home is filled with so many objects from his travels that his daughter has jokingly suggested they could charge admission. In his office, Guss has a cornucopia of artifacts: masks and headdresses from Latin America and dozens of the South American noisemakers called matracas.

But what he prizes most was made in Piermont, N.Y., a small town on the Hudson River where Guss and his wife were living just after he finished his doctorate at UCLA. An Italian shoemaker had died, and when it came time to distribute his belongings, the local priest, who knew both men, decided Guss should have a lamp the cobbler had made.

“It was a small town, and I was active in the town politically,” Guss says. “The priest said, ‘Listen, I think the lamp should go to somebody who would value it and perhaps keep it, because it’s quite extraordinary.’ ”

The lamp base is made from a burl, an uneven knob of wood taken from alongside the Hudson River. The shoemaker had polished the wood, inserted a rod to hold a brown-and-white lampshade and added tiny plastic animal figures to the base. “He created this incredible landscape,” says Guss, who has added some plastic animals of his own over the years.

“We would call a person like this an outsider artist, a naïf, a popular artist,” says Guss. “It demonstrates the whole notion of what I call visionary art, made by people who don’t necessarily define themselves as artists and often have other professions. But they create an environment in which everything has been transformed to some degree, and generally are using found objects.”

Guss’ interest in the lamp goes beyond the academic. It evokes a time and place, around 1985, when he was finishing his dissertation and teaching at Vassar and his daughter was born. “The longer I’ve had it, the more I love it,” he says. “We’ve aged together. It’s a wonderful object.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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