This collage is inspired by my 20+ year friendship with my dear college friend, J. P. I went to visit her recently in New York City, planning to help out after she underwent some major surgery. She is recovering beautifully, and as it turned out, her humor and spirit lifted me up as much as my cooking and caring was comforting for her. She is a city-dwelling actress, writer, and musician, while I am a suburbanite visual artist. We have always enjoyed sharing our creative ideas, finding parallels between the performing and visual arts, and cheering each other on as we follow our own paths throughout our careers. As I worked through the collage, the image of diverging and converging paths emerged, sometimes going in separate directions, but often doubling back to intersect or follow the same curve, at least for a while, before taking off again on a new course. We have had very different journeys, but can appreciate and enjoy our differences as much as our similarities, celebrating our friendship on our own unique common ground. She is one of those special friends that makes me feel like no time has passed since we last got together. We talk about food, art, politics, relationships, family, and careers, and always seem to be on the same page. Did I mention she is also one of the funniest people on the planet? I am so grateful for my friend.
This collage is in celebration of our 11th Wedding Anniversary. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull imagery from many of the previous collages to create a montage of our journey together in life. I used motifs from our garden, home and neighborhood, but also added references from our travels and other important life passages. It is a difficult task to create a visual summary of eleven years of marriage! So rather than being too concerned with hitting every highlight, I allowed a free-association of favorite memories. The sprouts and garden imagery suggest the idea of personal growth and the beautiful rewards of a carefully tended relationship. I wanted to explore the idea of ‘home’ as being not just one defined place, but an evolving experience that may find its physical reality in our own backyard, or in faraway lands. Home is not a place, but how we feel when we are together, and connected to our most authentic selves. Here is the finished collage, followed by favorite details.
Taking inspiration from our neighborhood cherry blossoms, I am using this imagery to develop some patterns. While I normally work digitally for pattern design, I decided to try playing with hand-drawn shapes and collage. I have also scanned my drawings into the computer to be colored and manipulated in Illustrator, but working manually is a great way to experiment with different ideas. The various physical textures and materials of collage, as well as the hand-drawn motifs, may inform the digital work in a new way. Or maybe the digital work will inform the hand-made work in a new way. I am so interested in bringing the two worlds of fine art and design together, rather than thinking of them as separate creative realms. The world of my work is one world, with different avenues of expression. Sometimes I feel torn in two, trying to divide my creative time between the wonderfully messy painting studio with its blobs of paint and torn paper, and the tidy desk for my Mac, its screen glowing with clean repeating shapes and digital swatches. The fact is that I love both of these modes, each perhaps a necessary part of expressing who I am and how I see the world.
Here are some of my ink drawings, intended for pattern motifs. For use in collages, I like to actually tear the paper rather than cutting out the shapes with scissors. This creates a nice soft edge and a more organic form that blends onto the background surface when glued with acrylic gels. For use in digital work, the motifs can be scanned and converted into vector images while still retaining a hand-drawn feel.
Next I painted a background color onto my panel and began playing with the arrangement of shapes. More color was added with scribbly pastels, colored pencils and thinned acrylics.
While I am determined to explore the intersection of fine art, illustration and design, this kind of integration in my work (and in my identity as an artist) is not an easy one. Back in art school, we were “painter’s painters” and the word “illustrative” was considered an insult. It was implied that illustration was perilously dependent on words, didn’t speak for itself, was limited in meaning and profundity, or was corrupted by commercial purposes. I see now how narrow that perspective is, based on ego, fear, and a lack of imagination, more than any real critical evaluation.
I will always be the person who will match the sofa fabric to the artwork, rather than the other way around, but have grown to love and appreciate the incredible breadth of creative work out there in design and decorative arts. While drawing and painting will always be my foundation, my goal is to expand my creative work to include illustration, fabric and surface design. I want my imagery to find new homes out in the world, reaching a larger audience than is possible when limited to a white wall in a fine art gallery. Can I make a very personal handmade artwork, lift and scan a motif from that piece, and rework it into a design that might aspire to wind up in a picture book, a piece of fabric, or a shower curtain at Target? Does that cheapen the original artwork? Or does it just spread the love? I prefer the more expansive approach. I want to stop being afraid of labels, and just make the things I like to make. Integration will require the honesty and courage to embrace all sides of myself and my work with an open mind and a generous heart.
While this project began with the intention of embracing the present moment, I have found that confronting the here and now often pulls me back into the past. Understanding who I am today has a lot to do with where I came from, how I got here, and what I learned and came to value along the way. Watching my son rejoice in the snow brought back so many memories of my own childhood: the big slope in the front yard, my old wooden sled, and building a snowman in the shape of Winnie the Pooh with my father. For this week’s collage, I created a montage of two places– the home I live in now, and the childhood home of my past, coexisting in the same space as they often do in my consciousness. Here is the collection of small drawings I began to work with:
I take extreme delight in recalling the specific details of my childhood: the snow sliding down the slate shingles of the cottage roof, the soaring poplar trees in the yard, the feel of the wooden sled and the crisp sound of the runners in the snow. It was a time in my life when everything made sense, there was no uncertainty, and all I knew was wholeness and love. There is a slippery slope to this reverie, and the fear of falling down the rabbit hole of nostalgia with all its mixed emotions… clinging too hard, wanting so desperately to remember something that was once perfect, then prying loose the fingers to let go. If there could possibly be a disadvantage to having an idyllic childhood, it would be the difficulty of growing up and letting it go. One of my biggest challenges as an adult has been learning to balance that yearning for security and safety with the rewards of facing uncertainty and mustering the courage to take risks. Here is the finished piece:
I love drawing with fine tip ink pens, the way this medium allows me to dig into every corner of a memory, or explore the finest details of a subject observed. At the same time, I love painting loosely with thick paint and sticky gel mediums, smoothing and scraping the snow down the hill, or layering the light into the trees. Acrylic collage allows me to combine these two modes of working. I enjoyed juxtaposing my old wooden sled with my son’s contemporary snowboard. Two parallel universes? I hope my son will one day look back on his own childhood with the same fondness I have for mine, while at the same time having the strength and courage to say goodbye, and live fully and joyfully in the present.
While I admit there are some evenings when our 8-year-old son and I fall into an exhausted sleep on the couch in front of the TV, most nights we prepare for our special ritual of Story Time. We “jammy up,” brush our teeth, and climb the ladder up into our boy’s cozy loft bed. Stuffed animals surround us on all sides, and Olivia, our cat, disappears among the audience of fury friends. We turn on the reading lamp, snuggle down into the waves of Pirate sheets or polar bear themed flannel, wrap ourselves up in the warm blankets, and settle in for Story Time. This ritual has been a part of our routine since my son was a baby. We worked our way through board books and picture books, from Elmer to Dr. Seuss. Then we moved on to beginning readers and chapter books, from The Magic Treehouse to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My husband also enthusiastically participates, having unearthed favorites from his own childhood, like the incredible Phantom Tollbooth. I am so grateful to have passed on the love of reading to my son, who now greedily devours a 350 page Percy Jackson book within a week or two. But even though he regularly reads novels silently to himself, there is still a wonderful enjoyment in sharing a story read aloud, preferably one with fantastic pictures.
We are currently making our way through D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I am particularly thrilled that my son has enjoyed this book so much since it was one of my dearest favorites from my own childhood. I didn’t own the book, but would check it out of the public library again and again. I love both the stories and the illustrations, which include detailed maps, dynamic adventure scenes, and family trees of the Greek Gods and Heroes. As we continue through the stories, I am remembering long forgotten favorite episodes, (“Spring comes when Persephone returns from Hades!”) while my son recognizes monsters from the contemporary Percy Jackson books (“I know this one! Percy fought the Calydonian Boar!”) We just finished the dramatic tale of Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. As the Sand Man creeps into the room and sleep overtakes us, I imagine boarding the great ship Argo with its magnificent sail and setting off on our own adventures…
I have completed the first month of my 2012 project. Some curious things have happened. I had anticipated more cynicism and wry humor from this project, as an artist marooned in suburbia, trying to make sense of my identity and my place in this often ill-fitting context. But in the process of drawing, writing, and making art about the simple things in my daily life, I have been overcome by a tidal wave of gratitude for all the good that is around me. I have surprised myself. The daily habit of scribbling on bits of paper, accumulating small creative acts with a focused intention, and holding myself accountable each week to observe and respond to what is happening in front of me has yielded unforeseen rewards. In the spirit of physics formulas (happily re-discovered last week while reminiscing about my Dad helping me with my science homework,) I have discovered a natural law for my life:
(a + g)c = H
a= Awareness, g= Gratitude, c= Creative action, H= Happiness
In words: Awareness plus Gratitude, multiplied by Creative Action equals Happiness.
In the process of writing this blog, I have reached out to old friends, and made new ones. I have something positive to talk about when I meet new people. With a creative structure in place in my life, I wake up knowing I will have a creative day, instead of regretting all the unfocused, unfinished, or undone projects of the past. I remembered how much I enjoy writing, and find myself saying things I have always wanted to say. (See Ode to My Father.) When I have ideas, I have somewhere meaningful to put them: in a new post, on a piece of paper destined for a new collage, on a painted panel. I am discovering there is always enough time for these things, and the old excuses and imaginary barriers have crumbled away. It is not always easy or comfortable to maintain this flow, and sometimes there is a tricky balance between just living my life and creating things about living my life. But so far, it is working.