A few years ago, artist Mark Menjivar was browsing a used bookstore in Indiana. He picked up a battered copy of “1000 Facts Worth Knowing” and found, preserved within its pages, four pristine four leafed clovers. This chance encounter got Menjivar thinking about the subject of luck and the role that it plays in our lives. He wanted to know just how deeply rooted are our superstitions, where do our cultural customs surrounding luck come from, and from which traditions we derive those things we consider to be good or bad luck. His curiosity piqued, Menjivar set out to find the intersection between luck and the human experience.
To begin his project, the artist photographed each of the four leafed clovers he found and made 250 prints to give to the people he would soon talk to about their personal experiences and beliefs about luck. The result of these conversations is told through photographs and first-person narrative accounts in Menjivar’s book, “The Luck Archive: Exploring Belief, Superstition, and Tradition.”
Menjivar will read excerpts from his book, published by Trinity University Press, at The Twig Book Shop at the Pearl on June 17 at 6 p.m.
“The Luck Archive” represents a physical archive that the artist has compiled over the years. It includes more than 450 items, including one pair of “lucky underwear” that the owner wore to 900 public speaking events.
“I never expected so many people to part with their lucky objects,” Menjivar said. “I think the participants were excited about the project and wanted to be a part of a collective experience.”
Menjivar also didn’t expect to turn his collection into a book – that is until almost one year after giving a TEDxSanAntonio talk in 2013. Off stage, he was approached by Trinity University Press Associate Director Tom Payton about the possibility.
He wasn’t quite ready for such an endeavor, but he told Payton to contact him in a year. Instead, Menjivar emailed Payton and initiated the process.
The documents and artifacts that make up the book are approachable – they do not seek to answer the lofty, elusive question of whether or not luck actually exists. Rather, they illustrate how our belief in luck manifests itself in our daily lives. Overall, this is a very human book. It explores our quirks and idiosyncrasies designed to ensure our good fortune, our private rituals to protect the things and people we care about, and our beliefs about our level of influence over the unseen forces in our lives.
The book captures a wide panorama of humanity and touches on many cultures and customs. Menjivar distributed his photographed lucky clovers on airplane rides, inside sports locker rooms, in a tattoo parlor (where he even got a “lucky 13” tattoo of his own on Friday the 13), in voodoo shops, and city streets. Here he gathered accounts of the many ways in which ordinary people interact with the concept of luck.
Some of what he found is familiar to us all, like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day or nailing a lucky horseshoe above a door (although there is apparently some debate about which direction it should hang). Other accounts are more personal, such as Lexa’s story. Lexa used to suffer from severe panic attacks whenever she boarded an airplane, until one day a friend gave her a small blue stone which was meant to be a token for good luck while traveling. With the stone in her right pocket, Lexa was able to fly safely across the Atlantic. “The stone gave me luck,” she said. “My plane didn’t fall from the sky. Nor did any other planes. Maybe they wouldn’t have anyway, but at the time it was thanks to that blue stone.”
Stories like Lexa’s make Menjivar’s book intimately engaging. He does not try to discover whether or not a blue stone is inherently lucky, but rather highlights Lexa’s belief in the idea that her talisman was responsible for her safe flight.
Other people Menjivar spoke to were not quite as taken with the idea of luck. When he asked Austin native “Cowboy” about his opinion on luck, the man quoted golfer Gary Player as saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Nicolette, on the other hand, claims that she can feel luck “the way a person with a bad knee might feel a rainstorm … Good luck just seems to have a feeling, and if I hold the antenna just right, I can dial into it.”
Many others Menjivar interviewed shared their own ways of dialing in on luck, from carrying auspicious objects, such as an amulet to ward off the evil eye, or a medallion of St. Christopher, to carrying out certain rituals, like the skateboarder who taps his knee three times before he attempts a difficult trick.
In the end, “The Luck Archive” reaches no obvious conclusions about the nature of luck.
“I didn’t set out to define luck,” Menjivar said. “I wanted to create a structure for the exploration of the subject, a way for people to participate in the process of showcasing an idea.”
Zach, one of the interviewees, gives what I think is the best definition of luck in the book: “a fluid, elusive force that could come right up to us and still go unnoticed.”
Menjivar’s project has ensured that the nuances of luck, from personal belief to cultural traditions, while not exactly pinned down, are not allowed to go unnoticed. He brings our attention to the essentially human impulse to influence those things that are not always within our control.
Menjivar stresses that The Luck Archive is an ongoing project. He welcomes and looks forward to submissions from anyone on his website.
*Featured/top image: Mark Menjivar’s Luck Archive on display. Courtesy photo.