Week 9: Mom’s Treasure Box

Mom dances the lead in Snow White, May 1959

This week’s collage is in honor of my mother, who passed away 20 years ago. Her birthday is today, March 4th.  In preparing for this work, I found myself returning to my childhood, searching for visual metaphors that could embody my memory of her. I began drawing bits and pieces of experiences we shared, toys she gave me, and anything that reminded me of her. She was a ballet dancer in her youth, and I was always fascinated by the graceful pictures of her performing.  This image of her persisted through my childhood and I always thought of her as a ballerina. I once had a jewelry box with a little toy dancer inside who would twirl to tinkling music when you opened the box. I imagined finding this box again, and opening it up to find a treasure trove of my memories of Mom. This idea became the basis for the collage.

As I began creating the work, I looked to my five-year-old self, reconnecting with the sense of security, play and discovery that I used to feel around my mother as a small child. I unearthed some imagery that surprised me.  I remember being more of a tomboy growing up, a Daddy’s girl, climbing trees and fishing, but there was a side of the younger me that strongly identified with ballerinas, Bambi, and the color pink. For me, there is something both appallingly sentimental and triumphantly courageous about putting these sugary little morsels in my painting. My grown-up analytical self tells me the work will be trite and ridiculous. My artist self tells me to listen to the naive (or fearlessly creative?) five-year-old inside and just go with it.

Since I was going so far out on a limb with the imagery, I decided to try some new acrylic techniques as well.  Rather than collage bits of drawings on paper, I created acrylic transfers of my drawings. The result is a transparent element that can be integrated into the painting in a new way.  After some experimentation, I settled on the best method of doing this.  Use waterproof archival ink for the drawings– my favorite is Sakura Pigma Micron pens. The best paper is a slippery vellum or heavy tracing paper. Allow the ink to completely dry, then paint over the image with Golden Clear Tar Gel in a thin layer. Allow to dry for at least 30 minutes until the gel forms a transparent skin. Then submerge the paper in water for a few seconds, and the acrylic skin will easily lift off the paper, taking the image with it.  You can then trim the shapes, paint color on the backside of the images, and adhere to the painting with soft gel medium. They are somewhat like plastic decals.

Acrylic Transfers with Tar Gel

I felt compelled to include Bambi because that was one of the first movies I remember my mother taking me to, and it really made an impression on me. During the most dramatic scene, when Bambi was frantically looking for his mother in the forest after hearing gun shots, a kid in the audience screamed out, “She’s dead, Bambi! She’s dead!” This little outburst certainly added some impact to the cinematic experience. After my own mother died, 15 years later, I actually flashed back to that moment in the theater, except this time I was the one looking for my mother.  I was a 20-year-old college student and a frightened baby deer all in the same moment, facing the unthinkable truth. Bambi eventually became a comforting symbol for me, both an innocent and a survivor.

Here is a close up of some transfers after they have been trimmed and colored. Their shiny plastic appearance seems appropriate to the content– each one a precious jewel-like object. Five-year-olds of course have plastic jewelry, but it is no less special to them.

Acrylic Transfers, Painted

The previous post, Ode to My Mother, explains much of the imagery used here, including the hot air balloons from Up, Up and Away, the castle entrance from the Enchanted Forest amusement park, and the central ballerina inspired by Degas’ sculpture, Little Dancer, which Mom took me to see many times in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  I added some turtles because my mother collected them, and often wore pins and jewelry with turtle motifs. The hyacinths are a reference to the garden from my childhood home, where my mother planted Spring bulbs. The fragrance of hyacinths always reminds me of her.  I also shifted the color palette to more Spring-like hues, inspired as much by the subject matter as the changing season here in Virginia.  Here is the final piece, and a close up of the central motifs.

Treasure Box, acrylic collage on panel, 12 x 12

Detail, Treasure Box, acrylic collage on panel, 12 x 12