The Making of “Extra Bits” time-lapse video

This is a short video documenting my process from blank substrate to a completed artwork entitled “Extra Bits.” From time to time people ask for more detailed information about my process in creating a work. Of course my process varies from piece to piece, for each collage is individually conceived. In this small collage, I chose to create a concentric piece that is structured very much like a “rag rug” or “braided rug.” (I am often inspired by designs found in traditional arts such as quilting and rug-making). The wood substrate for “Extra Bits” comes from salvaged bed-slats cut into small rectangles and prepared with a preliminary layer of paper from a discarded dictionary, glued down with Elmer’s Glue-All (which I buy by the gallon) used at full-strength (not thinned with water). I framed the design area with papers I like in a compatible color family, then established a “center” (a round dot of paper I formed with a hole-punch). After that I began gluing down thin, strips of paper, hand-cut straight, (with scissors) but eased into a circular pattern until the framed area was filled, using papers I found interesting. After the collage was finished I brushed on four coats of polyurethane varnish, and put a hanger on the back using two screws and some wire. You may notice in the brief video that I often use a stylus to guide the strips into place. You may also notice that I sometimes have a curious observer to my work. Watch for my cat, Buddy!

Art in the Time of Covid-19

Quartet. Mosaic paper collage on framed substrate, finished with multiple coats of polyurethane varnish. Hanger on back. 16″ x 16″. $275.00.  SOLD

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Stephen King a few days ago.  Of course they talked about the pandemic that has turned many of us suspicious of our own hands, not to mention the world at large.  Near the end of the interview, Gross asked King about a quote he read somewhere and re-tweeted.  I don’t have the precise words, but I can share the idea:  If you think art is not essential, try getting through these weeks of isolation without fiction, poetry, music, film, dance, and visual art.  Those of you who visit my website, and the websites of other artists, those who are taking comfort in a good book, or poetry, or music, or Netflix (how many times I have heard people say, “Thank God for Netflix!”), understand this well.

Artists and craftspersons who do weekend art shows are frequently receiving emails of cancellations of the shows that have accepted us.   The organizers have been supportive and generous, refunding our booth fees and, in some cases, offering us opportunities to participate in virtual art shows via Zoom.  In many cases they have also directed us to various resources to make up for the loss of income which, for some artists (not myself, fortunately) can be catastrophic.

If enjoying art, in its many forms, can help us through this time of crisis, creating art (or something) can also offer a balm.  I am finding the extra time in my studio to be extremely rewarding, especially with the just-completed extension created by my nephew, daughter, and husband (with a little painting assistance from myself).  I experience peace, a sense of freedom and well-being, and the hope of a good future when I work in my studio.  Of course there are times when the work is tedious, but a collage is not a relentless taskmaster and can be left while I get a snack or run around the room, or put the wash into the dryer.  (Which reminds me, there is wash waiting . . .)  I am working large these days, an opportunity I don’t have in the fullness of the art show season.  The extra time I am afforded by these many cancellations is, on the one hand unfortunate, and on the other a great boon,

Not everyone is an artist, but I fiercely believe that everyone is creative.  People sometimes tell me that they are not creative.  But then I learn that they are innovative cooks, or talented gardeners, or they understand how to put together a interesting outfit, or create peace in tense times.  Creativity is not just for artists.   We need every kind of creator possible, especially now, in this time of physical isolation.

What do you like to create?

Back to my hands, which I wash often and long.  This morning (and yesterday afternoon, too), I also got prodigious amounts of Elmer’s Glue-All on them (which I later had fun peeling off) as I prepared a large piece of substrate for a collage I have yet to create.  It sits across the room from where I type, a 16″ x 48″ void I will be filling for at least the next two weeks, piece by piece.  When I am collaging, when I am using my hands to create, I do not fear them.  I trust them.

This poem I created out of a list of words I was able to make from the letters in the word “Refrigerator,” appears somewhere else on this site (cf:  “Making Mandalas:).  It seems worth repeating now to myself and anyone else who finds it encouraging:

To get fire:  rare.

To free fire:  rarer.

To err:  oft.

Tiger at gate:  go.

Forge art or fear.

Great gift after grief.

–Deborah O’Keeffe

Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Mosaic paper collage on wood, finished with multiple coats of polyurethane varnish. Hanger on back. 15.5″ w x 11.5″ h. $235.00.

Cymbeline: The Fiery Giver of Life

Cymbeline: The Fiery Giver of Life
Cymbeline: The Fiery Giver of Life

Deborah O’Keeffe, 2016

Mosaic paper collage on wood with polyurethane finish.
Mandala triptych 72″ wide x 80″ high, overall.  SOLD

You start in the center. The collaged mandala triptych, Cymbeline, is the long answer to that simple-enough conception.

In the case of Cymbeline the center is off-center, a little low, a little to the left, a little unround. The process of working out from a central point provides the creator of the mandala–any mandala–the experience of many mandalas as the piece, in its multiple stages of wholeness, grows more complex. To create a mandala is to participate in a way of natural growth, observed in the patterns of atoms, cells, trees, rocks, sound, cities, planets, solar systems, physical forces, and much more. Things radiate.

Cymbeline incorporates thousands of small pieces of paper–bits and strips handcut from a variety of papers, mostly recycled, including old art calendars, magazines, books, art-auction catalogues, and music. More than eighty rings radiate from its small, dark, less-than-an-inch-in-diameter heart. Every piece of paper in these rings, as well as in its center, has been cut by hand with scissors, thus preserving the slight natural variation of similar pieces not delivered by a shredder or paper cutter. The mandala rings include papers cut from outdated calendars of antique maps, African textiles, medieval art, and Georgia O’Keeffe (no relation to the artist) florals. Papers from discarded books in German and English also appear, along with interesting end papers (red and black, about 21 inches from the center), and strips from old sheet music. About 19 inches from the center, a wide ring of asemic (“without meaning”) writing spontaneously penned by the artist contrasts with adjacent dark bands. While certain of the primitive-looking characters seem to repeat, they have no assigned or consistent meaning; attempts to translate that “text” will prove futile.

In the ninth band from the center the viewer may find words (read clockwise, from the top of the circle) from the prologue of an unpublished novel by the artist.

There is no end not beginning.
Always beginning in the end.

Great now, the thin, bright note
Breaking the heart of the sky.
It is the beginning of the song of the eye;
The eye flies.
The air!
And music of the curved, hot light
Bursting into wings.

The mandala encompasses a universe of mystery and meaning. In particular, Cymbeline (Celtic/Gaelic, “sun lord”) is a world created through a marriage of passion and patience. Although people frequently comment on the artist’s patience for meticulous detail, they are less apt to note the passion–indeed, the impatience with what exists–that presses her to continually work at the edge of what is coming into being, passion that energizes the long process of realizing a work. Cymbeline gathers art, music, literature, nature and, surprisingly, a bit of intuitive geometry and physics, into its sphere. “It is more than I know,” says O’Keeffe.

Start in the Center – NEW 2-minute interview with collage artist Deborah O’Keeffe

Please enjoy this brief video interview with collage artist Deborah O’Keeffe introducing a major new work, Cymbeline: The Fiery Giver of Life. This video was produced by the Staunton Media Lab, which makes video profiles of artists, authors, musicians, actors, or other creative people at very affordable prices. Visit the Staunton Media Lab today and get your profile made!

Three-Minute Audio Profile of Collage Artist Deborah O’Keeffe – MP3

Collage artist Deborah O'Keeffe and her largest composition to date.
Collage artist Deborah O’Keeffe explains where to start when making abstract art. She’s shown here in her studio during the making of her largest work to date. Photo January 2016 by Steve O’Keefe – copyright free.

The link, below, should play a three-minute audio interview with collage artist, Deborah O’Keeffe. In the interview, Deborah first introduces herself and her methods, and then quickly enters a discussion of how her work affects others. She introduces a mammoth new collage and explains how she “grows” a collage without knowing where it’s going.

Collage Artist Deborah O'Keeffe
Collage artist Deborah O’Keeffe. Click on the image or the link, below, to hear an audio profile of the artist. Photo by Steve O’Keefe – copyright free.

This three-minute audio was produced by the Staunton Media Lab, a vocational program in audio and video editing for the blind, deaf, and uniquely-able. Founded by Deborah’s husband, artist assistant extraordinaire Steve O’Keefe, the Staunton Media Lab wants to make your profile. Their rates are very affordable and they use your assignments to teach editing to the so-called disabled.

To get your profile made, or to find out more about the Staunton Media Lab, contact executive director Steve O’Keefe or visit the SML YouTube channel.

“Lamentations” (2015)

“Lamentations.” 60″ x 19″. Mosaic paper collage on wood, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. $3,275.00.  SOLD

In December, 2014, I met Joan, a ceramicist, at her studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.  When Joan learned I was a collage artist who made book art, she gave me a small bagful of the writings of a homeless man she knew.  The man, who got his paper from the towel dispenser of the Torpedo Factory’s public restroom, regularly recorded his social complaints–the same ones, over and over again–on those towels with ball-point pen, and brought them to Joan at her studio.  After a month or so of consideration, I got an idea for a major piece, Lamentations.

Although the man’s handwriting was often illegible, and his thoughts often unintelligible, there was something in this writer’s voice that I understood and connected with the despair and marginalization experienced by some of the Old Testament prophets.  Looking at the book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah I saw, particularly in chapter 3, how that ancient prophet and this modern homeless man both felt outcast and deeply troubled by the social/political order of their time and place.  So I linked the two writers in this abstract collage.  The white column that runs the vertical length of the piece is made of strips of those paper-towel writings–about three layers of strips glued down over the base layer of paper (pieces torn from pages of an old dictionary).

Featured image

The narrower, very dark red strip that also runs the vertical length of the work contains the text, handwritten, of Lamentations 3, although after varnishing the text almost completely disappeared, which was fine; it remains there physically and, more important, its spirit pervades the piece. Embedded in the fine mosaic collage on the left side of the work is the Hebrew alphabet, in order, just as the book of Lamentations was written as an acrostic in the original Hebrew.

I am no great philanthropist, or particularly good at relating to people who make me uncomfortable, but it touched my heart to respect this homeless man in this way, and to maybe see something deeper in his purpose than can be intellectualized.

–Deborah O’Keeffe, October 2015

Fixing the World

"In the Beginning Was the Song." 14" x 7.5" set mandala collage. Paper collage, vinyl 45 record on board, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. $145.00. SOLD

The portable* display I take to art shows includes a variety of quickly readable statements about mandalas, collage, and art in general.  One of the most commented upon quotations issued from my young friend, Abbie, who offered me her wisdom on a Saturday morning in January as we were collaging mandalas together on paper plates.

A detail from my booth at the Berkshire Crafts Fair, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, August 2011.

Risking redundancy, I now repeat what you can mostly read in the above photo:  “When you’re collaging you feel like you’re making something to fix the world.”  Abbie was 6 when she said that; I am compelled to tell you that at this writing, she is 7, for every bit of age is important to Abbie at this point in her life. To Abbie, as to many children, small things make a big difference.

If people who visit my booth smile when they read Abbie’s statement, they are incredulous when I show them a sample of the raw materials from which I create the mandalas, altered books, and other art works covering the walls and tables of my 10′ x 10′ space.  Like most normal, tidy people, I used to throw such paper bits in the trash.  Now my chosen profession has created in me a consciousness that compels me to save the scraps, and sometimes even the scraps of the scraps, because I know what they might amount to collectively after 2 to 200 hours of artistic processing.  For some reason I get a big kick out of turning what you see above into what you see below.

My booth at an art show in Johns Creek, Georgia, September 3, 4, 2011.

People who visit my booth at art shows often tell me that I have the patience of Job.  Actually, I don’t.  I’ve been known to slap machines–cars, computers, radios, CD players, etc.– that were not working according to my pleasure; it drives me nuts to get stuck behind slow walkers when I want to move fast.  Anyway, I know that Job’s patience was not that of a bean counter, but an existential, life-bending, faith-stretching patience burdened with extreme suffering.  If Job and I have anything in common, it is that we believe with all our hearts that the unpromising details will amount to something in the end, and we are usually rewarded.

Despite the fact that I am a woman of only average patience, I love this often-tedious work that I do full-time, every weekday, sometimes on Sundays, and even on my birthday.  Strangely, collaging is one of the primary ways I fix the world, or at least my world, the world that is my life.  I know that when I am feeling scattered, unfocused, at loose ends, maybe even a little worried, creating a small, beautiful-to-me object will help to center and settle me and put me in my right mind, which is not my fearful, calculating mind, but my creative mind.

I feel small in the cosmic scheme of things, and what I do seems likewise small.  Recently, however, I was reminded of what meteorologists sometimes call “the butterfly effect.”  The idea is that a butterfly fluttering its wings in, say, Beta Ho, China, where my mother used to swim as a child, might radiate a shift in air currents that could telegraphically alter the weather in, say, La Jolla, California, where I used to swim as a child.  It is, of course, difficult or impossible to measure and track the many slight influences that add up to weather, or a mood, a nice day, or a good life.  But I believe we must believe in them and consider that our own small part in the scheme of things may not be as small as it seems.

When Bill Moyers asked mythologist Joseph Campbell how one might save the world, Campbell directed Moyers to one’s most local and seemingly minor concern:  one’s self.  “The influence of a vital person vitalizes,” said Campbell.  “There’s no doubt about it.  The world without spirit is a wasteland. . . .  The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself” (The Power of Myth, p. 149).

Creating is an act of spirit involving love, faith, and risk.  Collaging is my passion, my way of creating.  People sometimes mistake creativity as the province of artists alone.  That is not so.   Creativity is for everyone, whether artist, parent, teacher, physician, farmer, scientist, carpenter, engineer, secretary, waiter, politician, writer, software developer, business owner, minister, or even first-grade student.  The world has benefitted from the creative actions of people we have heard of and even more from those we have not.  All together we may not only fix the world but make it, in our own way, beautiful.

"The Last Words of David." 7.5" x 10" collage. Paper collage on metal, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. Text featured: "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds, as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain." 2 Samuel 23: 3, 4. $135.00


*”Portable” means that two people spending an hour loading, arranging, re-arranging, and sweating, can fit the entire display plus themselves into a Honda Odyssey without having to tow a trailer or tie things to the top of the van.

“The Cycle of Life”

Steve and I were with his sister, Maureen, returning home from dinner with Maureen and Steve’s three other sisters, Diane, Sharon, and Janet, PLUS his mother, RoseAnn (his four brothers were not there), when I spied two bicycle wheels in the recycling bin of his mother’s neighbor.  I expressed the temptation those wheels presented to me, for they were not only scrap metal, they were ROUND and full of art-potential.  Then I dismissed the idea of salvaging the wheels because we were already transporting a van-load of art and paraphernalia necessary for my booth exhibit at the Flint Art Fair, which had just ended.  “Someone will take them,” said Maureen, an observation that alternately comforted and disturbed me.

Next morning at 7:00, as Steve and I pulled away from his mother’s home in Grand Blanc, Michigan, to head back to our home in Staunton, Virginia, I noted that those bicycle wheels were indeed gone from the neighbor’s bin.  Feeling once again comforted and disturbed,  I commented to Steve that Maureen had been right.  Steve agreed that someone probably took them, and then we started talking about something else, or possibly about nothing else.

Two hours later, however, as we approached Toledo, we were definitely talking about whether or not we should have taken Highway 23 or stayed on 23 or I-75 or whether it mattered, and more urgently, where we might find a bathroom, and after that, coffee.  I didn’t want coffee myself, or even a bathroom, but Steve wanted both, and as it turned out, a classic McDonald’s breakfast, which he got for himself while I rearranged a few items in the van so they would not slide around every time Steve changed lanes.

It had been a little tense finding this McDonald’s because I really wanted to find a Starbuck’s, and failing that, to stop at the gas station across from the McDonald’s for the restroom and coffee so that we could take advantage of the cheapest gas price I had seen since leaving Virginia four days before.  (By the way, in my travels up and down the eastern seaboard, into the south, and even the upper midwest, the cheapest gas prices I have found anywhere have been at home in Staunton, Virginia, which is conveniently located at the intersection of I-81 North and South and I-64 East.  In Staunton, the cheapest gas is off I-81 exit 222 as you go toward town on Highway 250.  Past the Walmart on the left and the Martin’s grocery store on the right, you will find the Hess and then a Texaco-like station.  Usually gas is cheapest there.  If you have a Kroger card and can find the Kroger, it may be even 3 cents a gallon cheaper.)

But we didn’t get gas in Toledo.  Rather, Steve fulfilled his hidden agenda of hashbrowns and an Egg McMuffin or some food like that.  When he came back to the van (a black Honda Odyssey, just so you can visualize it) he and I went to the rear compartment for water.  When Steve opened the tailgate, I burst out laughing.  There were the bicycle wheels, which he had purloined the night before while taking out the trash.

“The Cycle of Life.” 25″ diameter mandala wallpiece. Mixed media assemblage of salvaged metal pieces woven with copper wire onto bicycle wheel, finished with polyurethane varnish. $795.00.  SOLD

“You little sneak!” I said.  Or something like that.

I will spare you the individual salvation stories of every piece of metal I incorporated into what I made of one of the bicycle wheels, the mandala “The Cycle of Life.”  It is a tapestry of materials found on streets, parking lots, and sidewalks I and my friends have walked, from Louisiana, to Virginia, to Michigan, and places in-between, and also farther away, everything from rusty washers to broken jewelry to springs, and wings, hearts, and crosses.  I also used about 250 feet of new 24 gauge copper wire to weave the whole thing together.  The thing I love about old run-over, stepped on, rained on, broken, rusting metal, is that it is a manmade material in the process of being reclaimed by nature.  I appreciate evidence of experience in people and in things.  “The Cycle of Life” dignifies and coalesces the beauty of what was once thrown away.

There is another personal significance to this piece.  Less than a week after Steve sneaked those bicycle wheels into the back of our van, he took my hand across the table at Staunton Grocery, which is not a grocery store, but a fine little restaurant in the Staunton historic district, and began a sentence with the words, “I was wondering . . .”  I thought he was going to finish that sentence with, “. . . if you’d like to go to the Split Banana for gelato” which would have been fine with me.  But instead he said “I was wondering if you would like to get married.”

Now this was a surprise and not a surprise because although I wasn’t expecting him to say those words at that moment, I had sensed that he was warming up to saying them, especially when we were taking down the booth at the Flint Art Fair and in front of his sister, Janet, who was helping us, he called me his ex-wife’s name.  I knew he’d been thinking of me in a husband-like way for awhile.  But still, I was expecting him to ask me for gelato right at that moment, so his question did open my eyes a little.  And then, although I had entertained fantasies of making him wait, say 24 hours, or 3 days, or a week for my answer, I could only say Yes! and right away.

Steve has asked that question before in his life; I’ve said Yes to that question before in my life.  And yet both of us, in our somewhat chastened, more experienced 50s, have not given up on the possibility of enjoying a loving living lasting harmony in marriage.  We have learned things in our lives, about what is important and what is not important, and we have had some rough edges rubbed off.  Nature–my own nature– is reclaiming me with serenity and felicity.

Here is a poem that suddenly comes to mind.  These words are lyrics to a song by Franz Schubert, from his song cycle “Die Schone Mullerin” (umlauts over the “o” and the “u”) “The Fair Maid and the Mill.”  The text of this poem, “The Miller and the Stream,” is by Wilhelm Muller (another umlaut over the “u”), translated by William Mann, and copyrighted by him in 1985.  I quote now as I often did to myself during the four years I lived alone following a divorce:

“And when love conquers pain,

a new star twinkles in the sky,

then three roses,

half red and half white, spring

on a sprig of thorn and never wither.

And the angels cut off their wings

and go down to earth every morning.”

These words encouraged me through some dark times, to not stop believing in the renewal of life, or of the seasons through which we pass in our lives.  For winter is essential to the spring that follows.  I can see that now.

–Deborah Norsworthy, 7 July 2011

“The Cycle of Life” (detail)