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).
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