Reflections

My workspace in the studio.

My workspace in the studio.

Reflecting on my year of weekly collage-making, the one realization that I keep coming back to is this: When I am too tired, too busy, totally lacking in inspiration or over-whelmed with too many ideas at once, I just need to sit down to work, and something will happen. I must simply pick up the pen and move my hand across the page. It’s like turning on a tap and waiting for the water to warm up; it always does. Learning to trust in this process has been the greatest gift to myself. Just begin. Take the first step, then the second, then the third. Baby steps evolve into long strides, then big leaps. At the beginning of 2012 I asked the question, “What is achievable in tiny increments over time?” To answer this question it was necessary to make a commitment to create each week, every week. This process continues for me, and commitment is the foundation.

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel,12 in x 12 in

Hold On, 2009, oil on panel, 12 in x 12 in

Another important challenge of the project was to open up my subject matter to the real stuff of every day life. My previous body of work portrayed imaginary landscapes that provided me a kind of escapism. A small boat navigated a world of high seas and safe harbors, open vistas and dark caves, dense forests and lonely islands. These paintings were my vehicle for exploring different ways of being in the world, and creating visual metaphors for a continuum of emotional needs: the desire for community and solitude, contentment and ambition, safety and risk. In my collage series, I wanted to confront these themes more directly, pulling back the curtain on the imaginary landscape and allowing myself to find imagery directly from the details of everyday life. The imaginary landscapes had no cul-de-sacs and tidy yards, no family members or week night suppers. But this suburban landscape was the reality behind my invented worlds, and their true source of meaning. I wanted to get closer to this truth and see what I might find.

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Detail, Everyday Miracles, Week 35

Once I had decided that anything in my everyday life was potential subject matter, my days became infused with a new curiosity and constant observation. I experienced incredible joy in allowing myself to be fully present long enough to capture an image in minute detail. I became enamored with the practice of painstaking drawing. It could be something as mundane as a pile of laundry, or as beautiful as a rose blooming in my garden. I began noticing spider webs and mushrooms, birds nests and clouds, and I couldn’t wait to draw them. I began thinking more deeply about the people I love, and the kaleidoscope of color and imagery that each person conjures for me. Everyday routines like reading to my son at bedtime became as precious and important as recording events like birthdays and holidays. I gave myself permission to explore both humor and sentimentality, allowing the cute and the silly to sit comfortably with more serious and even melancholy themes. This attitude of openness and curiosity brought a new breadth and richness to the playing field of my work, where all emotions and all parts of myself were allowed to play.

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

Detail, Winters Past and Present, Week 8

As daily observation became an habitual practice, I found myself more able to enjoy being in the present moment, rather than constantly fixating on the past or worrying about the future. At the same time, however, I continued to explore my long time interest in the role of memory in image-making. A close observation of the present often brings with it vivid memories of the past. Allowing themes from the past to bubble up into my work enriched my experience of the present. Images from my childhood surfaced throughout the year, and took a place right beside the images of our present life: my sled and my son’s sled, my childhood home and our home now, my late mother and my own motherhood, and of course, the Christmas ornaments that each tell a story from a different time. Similarly, images of the future were conjured: the black gum grows big enough to hold the swing I dream of having for my grandchildren, and the fantasy of a hot air balloon ride in July becomes a reality in December.

I extended my attitude of openness and inclusion to stylistic choices as well. I allowed myself to make things that I enjoy making, freely combining aesthetics from such divergent genres as scrap-booking, painting, design, and children’s book illustration. It was important for me to break down those divisions and allow all of my influences to come together in my own way. I embraced my love of picture-making, inspired by such diverse influences as Islamic Miniatures, 14th century Sienese painting, Bonnard and Vuillard, Miró, Bemelmans, and E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations for Winnie the Pooh. Collage was the best medium for me to explore the layering of diverse imagery and multiple techniques, fusing the parts into a unique whole.

Grid installation in the studio.

Grid installation in the studio.

The most dramatic change over the course of the project was my idea of how the finished piece would look as a whole, and how it would be presented. My original intention was that the 12 x 12 inch panels would be displayed in a large grid, four panels high and thirteen panels across. I planned on a tightly controlled palette that would read as vertical bands of color that changed with the seasons from left to right as the months progressed. But as I got deeper into the project, I began thinking less and less about the appearance of the panels all together. Each panel became its own intricate world, and I allowed myself to fall deeply down the rabbit hole of each work. Creative decisions were made more in service to the needs of each small panel, rather than forcing it to fit into the larger scheme of the grid. The imagery became so tiny and detailed, I realized that the top rows would not be sufficiently visible if displayed four panels high! Each work begged to be seen close up and at eye level. It became more about viewing each panel at close range and less about how the group appeared from a distance.

Detail, Holly's Escape, Week 38

Detail, Holly’s Escape, Week 38. She makes many appearances in the collages throughout the year.

While the concept of the giant grid fell by the wayside, new ideas about continuity emerged. I still thought of the 52 panels as essentially one large work that needed to be seen together, like a collection of short stories that could be read individually or even out-of-order, but would have the most impact when read from beginning to end. Visual motifs emerged that would be repeated throughout the series: the Lego Spaceship, our dog Holly and Olivia the cat, the mockingbirds, the wild geese, the dogwoods and the rose bushes, my husband and child. I found different ways to make the individual panels relate, connect, and lead the viewer through the narrative, by repeating motifs, extending color palettes across multiple panels, or by using the same textures or collage materials multiple times throughout the series.

Whether displayed in a grid, hung in small groups, or spaced out singly along a wall, the fifty-two collages tell a story that reveals itself slowly, over time. When I look at the panels all together, I quite literally see a year of my life. I see my child growing up and my life evolving. I see moments that I will never experience again. I feel grateful that I have managed to “capture” this year of my life, and yet I also feel more able to accept the passing of time. I know exactly how long a year lasts, in a way I did not know before. I know how many hours of art-making can be gleaned from seven days. I know how the seconds pass when the tiny point of a pen touches the paper, stretching into hours and days, weeks and months, square foot upon square foot, adding up to a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.

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Week 52: Endings and Beginnings

I have reached the end of this journey, and my 52nd collage is complete. For this final work in the series, I decided to pull together some of my favorite imagery from throughout the year, and create an essential distillation of My Suburban Life. This is my place and the things that I treasure. There is the map of the neighborhood, and images of the surrounding landscape where we live. I included the dogwoods, the rose bushes, and the pear tree in the front yard where the mockingbirds sing. The wild geese fly overhead, while seedlings sprout in the garden. There are themes of growth and flight, both appropriate metaphors for the work of the past year. My husband and son walk close by while I lean over my drawing board, secure in my place in the world, my love of creating, and my commitment to my work. This is a very different feeling from when I began the project, with that strange ambivalence and unease of living in the ‘burbs. Now things are different. I have not only made peace with my suburbia, I have made it my own. My identity as an artist is not defined by where I live, but how I live a creative life.

The Lego Spaceship was featured in the very first collage, and makes a final appearance here as well. This was from a small drawing that I made back in January 2012, when I first began the project, and had saved to use in a future work. Ever since my son Max flew his Lego Spaceship into my studio last January, it became a symbol of Art meeting Life. The spaceship hovers above the earth in the realm of the imagination, while simultaneously being a tangible domestic object, embedded in the material world. This magical child-like ability to bridge the gap between imagination and reality became my inspiration. My previous body of work had conspicuously avoided the realities of everyday life, preferring the escapism of imaginary lands. One year ago I asked new questions: Can I come down from my Ivory Tower and welcome the Lego Spaceship into my creative domain? Can I take the stuff of everyday life and transform it into art? Can I move freely between those two realms, with an openness and receptivity to both my own imagination and the intricate details of My Suburban Life? These questions led me to a place of greater awareness and compassion towards myself and my world, while continuing to challenge me to strive towards my best, most authentic work.

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

Endings and Beginnings, acrylic collage, 12 x 12 inches

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

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Detail, Endings and Beginnings

Week 27: Balloon Landing

Panel with under-painting of the balloon.

In this week’s collage I tried to capture the odd occurrence of a hot air balloon landing in our neighborhood. This was an actual real life event, although the collage depicts an imaginative version of it. The balloon landing has become a part of my own personal mythology, serving as some sort of proof that strange, wonderful, and even magical happenings can enter our reality.  The balloon holds all of my dreams, and I know that it is real, even when it is drifting high above and out of reach.

Paper elements ready for collaging.

I decorated the balloon with collaged paper torn from patterns that I designed in Illustrator, as well as leftover motifs from previous collages. Many of the digital patterns are based on scanned drawings that were originally created for my collage projects, so there is a closed loop of recycled and adapted imagery that propels both my fine art and design work. Using elements from my patterns seemed appropriate, as so many of my dreams right now are wound up in launching my fabric designs. As the balloon makes its descent, the little houses look on with varying expressions of shock and delight. The balloon is landing!

Hot Air Balloon, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Hot Air Balloon Detail

Week 26: Made in the Shade

Drawing with ink, oil pastel, and charcoal

Seeking relief from the 100 degree temperatures outside, I made a collage this week about shady places around the yard.  Our sun-soaked patio is hot enough to burn your feet, but there are small pools of shade to be found beneath the trees and tall shrubs. The arching stems of the red twigged dogwoods create a shady cave-like retreat, where we discovered a turtle had taken up residence. My aim was to contrast these areas of light and shadow and capture the sense of place of our backyard in the heat of the summer.

Detail of foliage: pencil, charcoal, and india inks

I decided to shake up my process a bit this week and experiment with some different materials. I embellished my usual ink pen drawings with colored india inks as well as oil pastels. I allowed the drawings to remain open, loose and sketchier than usual, just right for a lazy summer afternoon. I also worked out the shady shrubbery with pencil and charcoal, adding watered-down india inks on top for color. I enjoyed the broader strokes and messier outcome of the charcoal drawings, which seemed to work well for this type of subject matter.

Placing torn charcoal and ink drawings onto the panel

Next I tore out sections of the drawings and began placing them on the 12 x 12 panel, which had been prepared with a background of acrylic paints. As I built the collage, additional layers of paper and paint were added, including tiny portraits of my dog Holly and the turtle. The perspective changes across the panel from a bird’s-eye view at the top, to a more intimate view inside the turtle home at the bottom. The final piece depicts our small corner of the world, in the hot sun and the cool shade.

Made in the Shade, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Sun-drenched Patio

Detail, Holly rests in the shade of the maple tree.

Detail, foliage

Detail, Turtle

Week 25: Happy Birthday to Me

The birthday collage in process

I made myself a birthday cake. There is no egg, flour, or sugary frosting… just paper, ink, and some fluffy white paint. I painted the basic form of my cake directly onto the panel, then began playing with paper collage elements for all the decorations. I drew forty-one candles, and carefully tore out each one, adding some color with a liner brush and India inks. I searched back through my piles of drawings from previous collages and pulled out some of my favorite images for decorating: roses, dogwood blossoms, garden seedlings, olive branches, a mockingbird or two.  I also re-used some of the most personal motifs from past collages such as my little white cardigan that I wrote about in Ode to My Mother.  A Secret Doorway makes another appearance, as does the Dream Boat and Lego Spaceship.  Since it is my birthday cake, I allowed it to be as self-indulgent as I dared, getting into all the nooks and crannies of my life. It became a celebration of not only my birthday, but the world of imagery and meaning that has evolved over the past six months of this project. The final cake holds many contradictions, but makes perfect sense to me. Can a birthday cake be both silly and sincere, light-hearted and full of striving, as unreal as a dream and as concrete as the cul-de-sac of My Suburban Life?

Birthday Cake, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Birthday Cake detail

Birthday cake detail

Birthday Cake detail

Birthday cake detail

Birthday cake detail

Birthday cake detail

Business and Pleasure

Olive Oil Doodle

I’m back from my business trip to the Fancy Food Show, a trade show held each year for the specialty food industry.  The company that I work for distributes beautiful products in a broad range of categories: artisan cheeses, charcuterie, olives and antipasti, chocolate, bread, meat and seafood. One of my very favorite product groups is the olive oils. We feature olive oils from Greece, Spain, Italy, and the south of France, and each has its own unique landscape, culture, and people behind it. One of the best things about the show is the opportunity to meet the producers and hear their stories, in addition to tasting their products. Flavors and images overlap in my mind: some real, some imagined.  Having once visited the Arbequina olive groves of northern Spain, my memory of the majestic thousand-year-old trees overlays the warm buttery oil on my tongue. Others are new to me and my imagination takes over as I conjure the silvery leaves sparkling in long rows, soaking up the Mediterranean sun.

In my olive oil doodles, I was very interested in the shapes of the bottles, which are concrete, observable objects. (I couldn’t resist including a few Balsamic Vinegar bottles in the sketch too!) But I was also exploring the story of the landscapes, trees and fruit behind each bottle, stemming from both memory and imagination.  One more important point about this post: I am using my art to make friends with my day-job. While it’s true that I do enjoy my work, my day-job has often been cast in my mind as the enemy of art, taking up my precious creative time with the frustrating necessity of earning a paycheck. But in the spirit of My Suburban Life, I am making the choice to stop fighting against what is. Yes, I am still pursuing my dream of one day making a living as an artist and designer, but for now, quitting my job is not a reality. So why not stop complaining about it and appreciate what it gives me? Health Insurance, a good paycheck, relationships with wonderful co-workers and vendors, an education in fascinating artisan foodstuffs, inspiration for both my kitchen and my sketchbook, and a taste of delicious olive oils…

Olive Oil Doodle 2

Week 22: In the Vegetable Garden

Assembling the collage materials

This week I created a collage about our newly planted vegetable garden. I didn’t want it to just be a pretty view of the garden, but rather depict the more intimate experience of being in the garden- digging in the dirt, closely observing the plants, or hiding under a squash leaf (if you are a bug or a bunny.)  I began the process with lots of little drawings of all the plants in the garden: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, peas and beans, zucchini squash, marigolds, and sprouting seeds. I scanned the drawings and printed them on Gampi paper, making several copies to yield more plants. Then I tore each drawing out by hand and laid them all out. The panel was prepared with a nice rusty clay dirt color.

Drawings torn from Gampi paper

I painted a few rows of stones that divide the terraces into curving beds, in the spirit of my actual vegetable garden. Then I began laying in the plants. I was interested in playing with scale, so that the foreground plants loom large, and sprouting seeds are sometimes ridiculously gigantic, while other plants settle into the piece with more realistic relationships. I did this to express the garden from different points of view, whether human or critter. The really fun part was to then draw the critters and tuck them in amongst the rows. All the creatures were drawn with ink on thicker paper than the plants, so as to create little pops of visual surprise. Here is the final collage with favorite details:

In the Vegetable Garden, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail: Bunny, sprouts and marigold

Detail: Olivia the Cat

Detail: The Mocking Bird

Detail: Turtle and pea shoots