What took me two months to accomplish can be viewed here in less than four minutes. Many thanks to Chelsea K Vance, for creating this video. For more complete information about the triptych, Cymbeline, you may read my previous post.
What took me two months to accomplish can be viewed here in less than four minutes. Many thanks to Chelsea K Vance, for creating this video. For more complete information about the triptych, Cymbeline, you may read my previous post.
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 The mandala rings include papers cut from outdated calendars of antique maps, African textiles, medieval art, and Georgia O’Keeffe (no relation to the artist) florals.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*”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.
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.
“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 British sculptor, Henry Moore, stopped halfway through the first chapter of Erich Neumann’s book, The Archetypal World of Henry Moore (1959) because, as he later said, “I did not want to know about these things. . . . I did not want such aspects of my work to become henceforth self-conscious. I feel they should remain subconscious and the work should remain intuitive.”
I don’t know whether it was a sign of strength or weakness, but I was halfway through the creation of this large collage, The Marriage of Sol and Luna, before I realized what I was making might be symbolic of a lunar eclipse. Days after that I learned a lunar eclipse was soon to occur, in a rare coincidence with the day of the winter solstice. At that point I was within striking distance of finishing the work, which took me nearly a month of long days to complete. Thus it was with conscious intention that I laid down the last of what seemed like a million (probably closer to 10,000) tiny collage pieces within one hour of the occurrence of the solstice, on December 21, 2010.
The dark lines which curve throughout the piece, dividing it into many smaller sections, are in fact a single line which I made at the outset, never picking up the pen until the line, through its labyrinthine twists, turns, and undulations, was finished. I established the area of the inner white circle by tracing a 78 vinyl record. The template for the larger white circle was an enormous quilting hoop that once belonged to the grandmother of my college roommate.
In his notes for the 1937 article, “The Sculptor Speaks,” Henry Moore wrote this: “The subconscious plays a great part in art, that is to say that in conceiving & realising a work a great deal happens which cannot be logically explained–the mind jumps from one stage to another much further on without there being traceable steps shown between–preferences for one shape over another which cannot be explained–sudden solutions which cannot be followed step by step–in a word–inspiration.”
Part of the ongoing, and sometimes difficult task of the artist, is to cooperate with this process, rather than imposing one’s self in a way that occludes or subverts it.
Making mandalas has taught me that it is good to be centered and it is needful to have boundaries. Making mandalas has shown me how things grow. I have seen that
1. You must start from somewhere. Anywhere. Preferably the center. But anywhere. You must start.
2. It is perfect to be imperfect. Even more, it is beautiful.
3. What seems like not much in the beginning may add up to something good, even remarkable, in the end–if you persevere.
4. It is not helpful to judge until a piece is finished. And even then it is not good to judge too much. Or maybe I should just go all the way and do as Jesus said: “Judge not. . . .”
5. Repetition of the same simple thing may become beautiful.
6. When you work from the center the piece maintains a measure of wholeness at every stage. As the circle grows it becomes more complex and interesting it gains depth.
7. Things that seem not to go together can go together if you let them and help them. This is called integration. There is integrity in that.
8. Surprises stand out in the context of a consistent pattern.
9. Many pieces go through an unattractive adolescent period. Don’t give up. Sometimes the ugliest adolescence develops into the most beautiful and unique maturity.
10. Expectations and preconceptions are often unhelpful. To create a piece that is alive one must be open to what it is and what it is becoming, and then help it to become that.
11. Courage is essential to creation.
Here is a poem I found in a list of words I made out of letters of the word “refrigerator.”
To get fire: rare.
To free fire: rarer.
To err: oft.
Tiger at gate: go
Forge art or fear.
Great gift after grief.
I sometimes fear that too much struggle in the creation of a work will violate its purity and integrity. Time and experience have shown me, however, that each artwork has its own story and character, and that a piece born smoothly is not necessarily better than one over which I have worried. Sometimes it takes me a long time to learn to like a work simply because it is so different from my expectation, unlike anything else I have made. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes “We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.
In Queen of the Heart, the struggle for art and love unite. I created the piece in 2009, near the end (of course I did not know that then!) of a four-year period of living alone without an intimate partner. During that time I encountered many individuals who were cynical about the possibility of loving relationships; I myself sometimes struggled to keep my faith. This mandala incorporates an earlier collage which I had to seriously refashion in order to create an aesthetic harmony in the piece. It also incorporates texts that encouraged me to trust love, even in its winter; those include a stream of consciousness meditation on excerpts of 1 Corinthians 13, part of an e. e. cummings poem:
love is the voice under all silences,/the hope which has no opposite in fear;/the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:/the truth more first than sun more last than star
and the important words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, a book that has become like a bible to me. Wisely she writes: “Three things differentiate living from the soul versus living from ego only. They are: the ability to sense and learn new ways, the tenacity to ride a rough road, and the patience to learn deep love over time.”
Shortly after my partner, Steve O’Keefe, and I moved to Staunton, Virginia, in May, 2010, we discovered an abandoned cemetery behind a campus of old institutional brick buildings that once served as a state prison. The graves, set in straight rows, are each marked with upright concrete slabs. Over time the headstones have assumed various angles of repose, and are textured with moss and erosion. Remarkably they carry no other distinguishing symbol–not a name, not a number.
Although I would probably not have wished to associate with any of these souls in life, I nonetheless felt a “nagging compassion” for them in their oblivion. Several years ago, in an exchange of e-mails with a friend, I wrote, “It is interesting and mysterious to me, even strange, that we seem to have duties to the dead, and that in performing them something in ourselves may be completed and put at rest.”
Recently I returned to the cemetery with my friend, Lisa Ayres, a Louisiana artist, and we photographed the site. This small mandala, Benedictus, incorporates pieces of my photo of a section of the burial ground. The artwork embodies my consideration of human beings anonymously buried, as was Mozart, and the constancy of nature, in particular the trees standing over the forgotten ones in their rest.
“GigaLuna” (“Giga” is Italian for “jig.”) 12″ x 8″ altered book, wallpiece. Paper collage applied to discarded books, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. $185.00.
For a complete, up-to-date listing of my show schedule, click on the page entry “F. Upcoming Shows and Exhibits.”
“The Gracious Circle.” Exhibit of mandalas in the Side Gallery of the Jung Center, Houston, Texas, January 5 – 29, 2011. Opening reception Saturday, January 8, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. Jung Center, 5200 Montrose Blvd., Houston, TX 77006. http://www.junghouston.org; 713-524-8253.
American Craft Council 2011 Baltimore Show, AltCraft Section. February 24 – 27, 2011, Baltimore, Maryland. For more information visit: http://insidecharmcity.com/2011/01/05/local-artists-participating-in-american-craft-council-show/
Virginia Festival of the Book, Annual Vendors Book Fair. Saturday, March 19, 2011, 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Omni Charlottesville Hotel Atrium and Meeting Rooms, 235 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, Charlottesville, VA 22902. For more information visit http://www.vabook.org.
Group show at Gallery 549, Lafayette, Louisiana. April 2011. 549 Jefferson Street, Lafayette, Louisiana. Open weekdays, 1:00 – 4:00 p.m., by appointment, and monthly during Second Saturday Artwalk (second Saturday of each month, from 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.) For more information, and precise gallery hours, call 337-593-0796.
United Bank Bloomin’ Wine Fest, Winchester, Virginia, April 15, 16, 2011. www.thebloom.com.
Flint Art Fair, Flint, Michigan. June 11, 12, 2011. Presented by the Friends of Modern Art at the Flint Institute of Art. www.flintartfair.org.
Wyandotte Street Art Fair, July 13-16 (Wed – Sat), 2011, 10:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. daily near intersection of Biddle and Maple Avenues, Wyandotte, Michigan. For more information visit http://www.wyandottestreetartfair.org.
16th Annual Crafts at the Cathedral, New York City. December 2-4, 2011. Sponsored by the Congregation of St. Saviour, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY. www.craftsatthecathedral.com.