Student Spotlight: MFA student expands and explores his grandmother’s salt and pepper shaker collection

In the University of Iowa’s ‘My Collections’ exhibit at the Museum of Natural History students can submit their own personal collections for display. MFA student Kyle Agnew has taken over his grandmother’s salt and pepper shaker collection and explores their traditional values.


Isabella Cervantes

Kyle Agnew, a graduate student majoring in photography and print, poses for a portrait in the Visuals Arts building on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

The ceramic salt and pepper shakers that once rested along the soft pink and forest green walls of Kyle Agnew grandmother’s turquoise house now belong to a new collection that transforms their meaning.

Agnew, a graduate student at the University of Iowa seeking a Master of Fine Arts, spent a lot of his childhood with his maternal grandmother at her cozy Indiana home, which was decorated with around 300 salt and pepper shakers.

Much like other people, Agnew picked up a new hobby while stuck in quarantine during the pandemic. Of all the collectibles in his grandmother’s home, he was most interested in the shakers due to their unique coupling.

“This idea of a ‘set,’ as well as the ideals during this period in America that are often reflected are very heteronormative, often based on whiteness and racism,” Agnew said. “This was a really interesting reflection of the time that I just found fascinating.”

During this time, he began adding to his grandmother’s collection so he could add his own voice and shift the traditional narrative.

Agnew described a series of shakers called “kissers” where the two figures are connected through a kissing-like motion. The “male” figure has one eye open while the “female” figure has both eyes closed.

“I thought that was a very malicious and violent gesture that they had to make on these objects,” Agnew said.

Wanting to see himself in the shakers and envision what a “queerer” version might look like, he decided to design the box for viewers to deconstruct the shaker sets and make new matching sets with limitless possibilities.

With a lifelong fascination for museums and experience in the museum industry, Agnew thought to display his collection in the UI Pentacrest Museums.

He was looking through ways to display his shaker collection and stumbled upon the “My Collections” section of the museum’s website.

Each fall and spring semester, “My Collections” features the collections of two individuals. It is a continuous learning collaboration exhibition program through the UI Pentacrest Museums where the museums invite the community to participate in exhibiting personal collections.

In October, Agnew and his grandmother Jeffy Pearl Cromer’s salt and pepper shakers were exhibited in an old wooden display. The collection’s sentimental title  is “Salt and Pepper: Looking at Love and Familial History.”

Visitors can see Agnew’s collection until January.

 “My favorite set from her is this pair of two pink deer with flowers painted on them that are about to kiss, and they’re glued together,” Agnew said. “They no longer function as shakers since you have to pick up the whole unit, which I think is ludicrous and crazy because it destroys the function.”

However, the idea of no longer “being of use” as salt and pepper shakers is what he believes elevates them to the level of art. Because their function is no longer important, the aesthetics turns into the main point.

Agnew described himself as a huge collector as a child, as he spent hours cutting magazines and gathering pieces of everything he loved and stuffing them into his now tattered purple folder. As an adult, the collections have transformed into souvenir plates, thimbles, ‘50s and ‘60s-era cookbooks, and — of course — salt and pepper shakers.

He made many memories at his grandmother’s house during his childhood. Agnew believed her collecting habits began in the post-Depression Era.

“After she passed, we went through her house, and she kept everything,” Agnew said. “We would have milk jugs full of red tags and zip ties because she never knew if she would have access to them again based on her time living through the Great Depression.”

Even though his collection is large, there are still some shakers he has his eyes on. He said most people can find interesting sets for around $5, though he has been looking at sets in the $200s — particularly ones by the brand Lefton.

This old love for his grandmother’s knick-knacks has grown into a passion of his own: knowing the ins and outs of the salt and pepper shaker world. He said for those wanting to start collections of shakers of their own — or any vintage object — should follow social media accounts and get involved in the community.

“Know what you want because you can’t collect everything; that’s not practical,” Agnew said. “You have a limited amount of space. Figure out why you like the shakers. Is it the faces? Is it the colors? What draws you into that?”