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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Golden Girls” (mandala). 13″ diameter. Paper collage on substrate of assembled compact discs, finished with polyurethane varnish. Hanger fixed on back. SOLD
“The One Tree.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $45.00.
My upbringing, along with a certain aspect of my nature, occasionally lead me to question why I do what I do, which is Make Art. On the face of it, a wood block with bits of paper glued to it seems useless, even to me. Certainly it would seem, although pretty, also pretty useless to the people who reared and educated me. Even now, some of the people who visit my booth at art shows must surely go away with that opinion when they pick up the block and discover that it does not even open; it is not a box. Although a box is not a complex technology, it does have a purpose–to hold things, to organize. If I were to make a box and make it large enough, it could hold an entire collection of useless things–even my collaged blocks–and that would make it useful, but with some futility to its usefulness.
And it’s not far, then, to the question, “If I make useless things, am I useful?”
I am going to abandon this line of questioning before I get mired in it because it is impractical in its practicality. Art, which masquerades as a materiality, is much more than that. So, frankly, are we humans, whether or not we are lovers or makers of art. The question “What’s the use?”, so delightfully musically elaborated upon in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, is too small for who we are. What we love is what we love, often for no good reason, or at least none that we
“Most This Amazing.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $35.00.
can articulate. Furthermore, what cheers and encourages us in life–even makes it worth living–can often be proved by some scheme of logic to be gratuitous. One could even say that life itself is gratuitous. But we are here anyway, and that is what we must deal with–practically. And here, also, is this collaged block.
Perhaps the puzzled visitors to my art booth, upon discovering the block does not open, are not really asking “What’s the use?” but “How shall I relate to this thing? How does it fit into my life.”
That is a personal question. I can’t answer that for another person, any more than I can tell them what their favorite color should be, or with whom they should fall in love. I like to see the art I make go home with people who have connected with it, even “fallen in love.” Personally, that is why I buy art. I can’t buy all the art I love, but I love the art I buy.
I cannot explain exactly how this works, but these apparently useless pieces I spend my days making do somehow, sometimes, in their abstractness and wordlessness, speak to people. I am always surprised when somebody seems to “get it” because I’m not certain I always get it myself. The thing I know is that I love to create and that there is nothing in the world I want to do more than what I am doing. Somehow, sometimes, that message seems to be communicated in the art.
“The Quixotic Imagination.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.
The thing about handmade things, whether or not they have an apparent use, is that something of the spirit of their maker is invested in them, whether or not the maker or receiver are conscious of that being the case. Every now and then I look around at the walls and surfaces of my home and realize that the many pieces of art I own are somehow challenging and comforting me, and also nurturing my own creative spirit. Furthermore, they are giving me pleasure.
That is no small achievement for an inanimate object.
I am a great appreciator of the work of the British sculptor, Henry Moore, who died in 1986 at age 88. In a 1964 article published in a French journal, Moore is quoted. “I believe that art in itself is akin to religion,” he said. “Art is, in fact, another expression of the belief that life is worth living.”
“Rest at the Center.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.
If I may borrow a religious term, art is “sacramental.” It does not just sit there, it speaks, it conjures connections, stirs our feelings and imaginations, surprises, delights, and moves us, and reminds us of how wonderful it can be to be a human being. An artwork conveys something of its creator when that person is in his or her very best mind, which is the creative mind through which the artwork came to being. Furthermore, it is emblematic of some sort of striving and triumph, the completion of a tiny heroic quest undertaken in order to create the artwork. A work of art presents us, then, with a living experience, perhaps stirring to life some beauty sleeping within us. Now I am not saying that any of the art images I’ve posted here are necessarily doing that for you, but I am saying that there is art that can speak to you like a friend, and that is personal and valuable. Maybe even, in the grand scheme of things, useful.
“La Balance.” 2.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″. Mosaic paper collage on wood block, finished with polyurethane varnish. $38.00.
“Makarios,” is an ancient Greek word for happiness, connoting in particular the happiness of God. This mandala is somehow, in my mind, emblematic of divine cheer, the revelling of a creator in his or her creation.
First I am a writer. My creation of mandalas, altered books, and mixed media assemblages grew out of that profession, and out of my practice of mosaic collage which has been evolving for more than a decade. Practically speaking, materials and my enjoyment of experimentation inspire me to pursue particular projects.
More profoundly, I am compelled by consistent conflicting energies in my personality, by my deep respect for the act of creation as a holy endeavor, and by the feeling of completeness and inner strength that come to me through the making of art. I am a fierce champion and great appreciator of the handmade. To personally create a piece that possesses its own original honesty and beauty takes me beyond the ephemeral experience of fun (indeed, the work is often tiring and tedious) to a more durable state of joy.
I work with materials salvaged and collected from nature, the street, demolition sites, thrift stores, and with papers I have salvaged or bought. These materials include old art calendars and catalogues, used books, rusted metal, pressed flowers and leaves, roots, bark, sticks, beads, and unidentified interesting small objects. My tools are scissors, pencil, eraser, art pens, ruler, tweezers, exacto knife, sewing needle, punching tool, knitting needles, pliers, screwdrivers, and a large heavy-duty stapler. I also use a fair amount of white glue, PVA, craft glue, and polyurethane varnish. The main part of my collage process involves a sophisticated development of the scissors-and-paste method I learned in kindergarten.
I work at my dining room table which itself is a piece I collaged with small squares cut from art calendars, then gave five coats of polyurethane. It is washable.