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.


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 The mandala rings include papers cut from outdated calendars of antique maps, African textiles, medieval art, and Georgia O’Keeffe (no relation to the artist) florals.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band from the center the viewer may find words (read clockwise, from the top of the circle) from the prologue of an unpublished novel by the artist.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.


“Lamentations” (2015)

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

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