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.

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 37: Family Table

Our family loves to gather around a table. Cooking beautiful food and sitting down to enjoy a leisurely meal is one of our favorite ways to spend time together and mark special occasions. We recently hosted a seafood feast, served outdoors in our backyard, in honor of Grandma (my fabulous break-every-mold mother-in-law) who just moved here to Virginia all the way from California. The meal featured grilled shrimp and calamari, homemade aioli, clams with fennel and pomegranate, seasonal salads, a whole grouper baked in rock salt, and of course, some great wines. I wish I could take credit for the cooking, but it was master-minded by two dear friends who are so much like family that they can take over my kitchen as if it were their own!  Uncle Rick was another special guest, really the hero of the day, who had driven Grandma (his sister) across the entire country with all her stuff in a Penske moving van, delivering her safely to her new home. There was a lot to celebrate. Having Grandma here to share in our lives is a wonderful new era for our family.  Loved ones gathered around a festive table on a beautiful crisp Fall day makes for one great party.

Family Table, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Detail, Family Table

Week 33: California Trip Part IV

Up a long winding mountain road above Santa Cruz, and into the forest of redwoods and manzanita, there is a special gathering place for our family: Grandma’s House. Set into a hillside that slopes down to the ancient forest, the house feels inseparable from the land, welcoming the filtered sunlight, fresh air, and quiet presence of the towering trees. Multi-level decks and garden terraces look out into the woods, where some mornings you can watch the fog soften the peaks of the evergreens and roll its billowy blanket across the landscape. There is a blueberry bush loaded with fruit, and beds overflowing with rosemary, thyme, and roses. I delighted in the cool and peaceful mornings here, when we would take our hot coffee mugs outside to the terraces, pick some blueberries for breakfast (with a pinch of rosemary!) and enjoy the view and conversation with a house full of loved ones.

Our time at Grandma’s house was bittersweet on this visit, as we were not sure when we would return to this special place. Grandma is renting the house and moving to Virginia to be with us! We are so excited about this wonderful change for her and our family. We will miss our California retreat, but we hope to one day spend time together there again. In the meantime, we await Grandma’s move in a couple of weeks!

In creating the collage, it was most important for me to capture the atmosphere and sense of place that I feel here.  I chose to leave figures out of the composition, instead suggesting a human presence with the coffee mugs, chairs, and bowl of just-picked blueberries. In this way, the viewer is freer to project oneself into the picture and imagine the special places that they too may share with their families. The foreground plants are cut paper drawings made with pencil, charcoal, India Inks and acrylic paint. The roses are paper cut-outs from one of my digital pattern designs. The trees in the background are painted with acrylics, then collaged over with a wispy transparent paper to create the effect of drifting fog.

Grandma’s House, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Blueberry Bush

Detail, Blueberries for Breakfast

Detail, Garden Path

Detail, Forest and Fog

Week 28: Eat Local

Paper elements ready for collaging.

This week’s collage is inspired by our local farmers market. We spent a delightful Saturday morning there browsing the stalls and feasting our eyes on all the different colored tomatoes that are now in season. My father taught me to love tomatoes, and I have great memories of the big juicy specimens we would buy at a roadside stand on the way to our beach house in the summertimes of my childhood. We always enjoyed them simply prepared, just sliced out on a platter with salt, pepper, a sprinkle of fresh herbs and maybe a drizzle of olive oil. My family had such reverence for peak season tomatoes that they could almost be considered the main course, but were usually accompanied by corn on the cob, zucchini and onions, and the fish or crabs that we had caught that day on the Little Choptank River. The taste of a good tomato will always remind me of those happy summer days.

Farmers Market drawings

My process for this collage involved some new ideas and inverted techniques. Normally I draw by hand with ink pens on paper, then scan the drawings into my Mac, and manipulate them in Illustrator. I may re-size the drawings, and multiply the images. The drawings are then printed out onto collage papers with an ink jet printer, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel in combination with acrylic paint and additional hand-drawn pieces.  This week I scanned only one drawing (the cluster of cherry tomatoes.)  The rest of the tomatoes and the market stalls were all drawn directly into the Mac using my Wacom pen tablet.  It is a little odd to say these are not “hand-drawn,” as I drew them with my hand, while holding a pen… the only difference being that the drawing first shows up on a computer screen instead of on a piece of paper.  I also colored the tomatoes using the pen tablet and digital tools in Illustrator.  The images were then printed out, torn by hand, and collaged onto a panel with acrylic paint. If you looks closely at the market stall drawings, you will see that there are only a few unique drawings. The rest are simply re-sized or reversed versions. When collaged together on the panel and individually colored, you get the impression of a large and varied market scene.

Farmers Market, acrylic collage, 12 x 12

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Detail, Farmers Market

Farmers Market

Local Produce

This morning my family enjoyed an outing to the City Market, our local downtown farmers market. It was drizzling and unseasonably cool, but so enjoyable nonetheless. I love wandering down the aisles, browsing the bounty of the Shenandoah Valley. There are free range meats and organic eggs, tempting baked goods, fresh coffee, lemonade, local cheeses, jams and preserves, arts and crafts, and of course a rainbow of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. We brought home a taste of summer: golden tomatoes, slender Japanese eggplants and round yellow squash. I find creative inspiration in their colors and shapes as well as their anticipated flavors.

Here is a sketch inspired by the Farmers Market that combines both hand-drawn elements and digital images created using the “brushes” in Illustrator.  I pulled a color palette from the photograph above to apply color to the sketch.  Some motifs were created by hand using traditional materials, then scanned and digitized. Others were created entirely with digital tools. This was a fun experiment for me. Can you tell which parts of the picture where done by hand and which parts were created in Illustrator? Tomorrow I will print out the sketch onto collage paper, tear it apart, and recombine it with other drawings to create a hand-made collage. I love this kind of mash-up, allowing my work to flow through multiple channels.

Local Tomato Sketch

Hot Air Balloons

We often see hot air balloons drifting over our neighborhood. Sometimes we can hear the faint whoosh of the burner flame when they are flying low. One morning a balloon unexpectedly landed in the middle of our street. We all rushed out of our houses to see the amazing spectacle. It was much larger up close than I imagined. This was quite a sight, as the basket touched down and the rainbow of colors deflated into a puddle on the road. Even though the hot air balloon sightings have become commonplace around here, they never seem to lose their exoticism. For me, the balloons are a reminder that even here in our ordinary suburban neighborhood, there is the possibility of strange, wonderful and even magical events taking place, perhaps at this very moment. Spiders spin their intricate webs, a perfect blue egg sits in a nest, flowers turn their heads to the sun and open into dazzling colors. Behind each familiar facade of our peaceful street, we perform our own small miracles: leaps of faith, daring deeds, resurrected dreams, and acts of kindness, courage and forgiveness.