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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.