My Fantastical Imagination

Purposeful studio chaos.

I threatened to someone that I would post a picture of my work table. Now I’m getting around to it.

Along with it, some background. It’s been an interesting time. I have a show coming up next year, and need to be productive in the studio. I also have been dealing with health matters that make that difficult. I used to spend a lot of time cutting paper and creating intricate collages. Over the last decade or so, it became impossible to continue doing that.

Getting a diagnosis has been a long struggle. One neurologist years ago told me that my problem was that I was an artist. He informed me that the same “fantastical imagination” that allowed me to create my artwork would lead me to have “a fantastical interpretation of my bodily sensations.” This neurologist also, by way of emphasizing how funny and crazy we artistic types are, told me that one of his patients was the musician and painter Don Van Vliet, popularly known as Captain Beefheart, who, incidentally, lived in my small town and died just a few days ago at the local hospital. To emphasize his point, the neurologist, while laughing, impersonated Don’s distinctive Multiple Sclerosis-related movement difficulties with what I’m sure he thought was a comic flourish. I didn’t know Don, but had heard that he had a reputation for fiercely defending his privacy. We wild and funny artistic types.

I was also told that I’d caused my painful problems myself through my artwork (too much fine hand motion, even though I had other symptoms that clearly had nothing to do with my arm pain). I am now careful to avoid mentioning art to medical people, lest it bias my care.

This past week has been bittersweet. I finally found a decent specialist out of town. I now have a name to put to this (it’s basically M.S.). It’s degenerative, but the decline won’t be all that quick. But I can shelve any fantasies I might’ve still been harboring that things will get better.

I recently started a new medication that has helped with some of the more distressingly mind-numbing symptoms. A few days after starting it, I had a sudden urge to pull out some of my old collage things, including a little 4 x 6″ picture I hadn’t worked on in almost 6 years. The picture above is my chaotic worktable when I had it out. It was wonderful to be immersed in my old work again. My recent trip put a damper on my stamina, but I’m hoping to get back to it. I’ve also been working on some book-related projects (pictures to come).

I’m always torn over how much I should post about medical things. There is a sense that one should maintain one’s privacy, and other people’s medical problems are boring. On the other hand, I don’t like that vague feeling of stigma. Being ill or having a disease isn’t a source of shame. I’ve also long been using my experiences with the medical establishment as creative fodder. I can’t pretend this aspect of my life doesn’t exist.

Product of creative fodder?
(As I wrote out those last few lines there was a sudden massive flash of lightning and a thunderclap outside the window. A sign?)

Paper Mosaic Collage Sighting

All Trains Go to King’s Cross St Pancras ©2001
The other day I discovered that one of my old Underground paper mosaic collages is being used in an interesting online exhibition at the musée historique environnement urbain.
This link will take you to the beginning of the London section of the virtual exhibit. If you roll your mouse over the pictures and follow the arrow that appears on the right, you’ll eventually get to All Trains Go to King’s Cross St. Pancras. It’s being used to illustrate the tube-like nature of the deep level tunnelsThe main site  for the virtual musée (in English or en Français) has links to all kinds of exhibitions on aspects of urban life.
By way of background, the picture was based on a photo that I took several years ago at Manor House Station on the Piccadilly Line. The title comes from the announcement on the electronic sign. They’ve since “refurbished” the station. I haven’t seen the cleaned up version in person, although judging by the glossy, bright pictures, I suspect I wouldn’t actually like what they’ve done.

Comet Pictures

This is only related to paper in a loose sense. I often used to use 35mm photos as source material for my collage work. I have quite a few photos in boxes, books and piles. Every once in a while I scan a few. These are of the comet Hale-Bopp from 1997.

This one on the left was taken at a mountain pass off of Highway 299, a twisty road that heads east from here. I had gone inland, because here on the coast it’s too foggy most of the time to get a decent picture of something in the sky.

There were quite a few other people skywatching there as well. After I’d set up my tripod, a truck pulled up and parked behind me. Whenever it became dark enough between passing cars to take a picture, its driver would beam his headlights on me, ruining my exposure. I suspect he thought he was being helpful, providing light. I wanted to go tell him what he was really being, but felt intimidated. Eventually, though, I did manage to get a few snaps and was happy.

That general time when the comet was around provided a few strange memories. One night that March there was also a lunar eclipse. It was an unusually clear evening, and I was driving down the highway with my husband just after dark. The sides of the road were lined with parked cars where there normally would never be any. People stood all around staring up in a daze, gazing back and forth from one part of the sky to another, from the huge comet to the eclipse and back again. It looked like a scene from a Sci Fi flick. The aliens are landing. Or the Apocalypse is about to begin.

This picture on the right is especially for my friends D. and M., who weren’t yet born in ’97. D. loves comets and all things astronomical. This was taken in McKinleyville, not too far from where they live.

I happen to like comets too, although not with such a scientific bent. By coincidence the year before Hale-Bopp appeared, I did the paper mosaic collage Sleepers Awake (below). This comet was actually constructed from pictures of a galaxy from an old book. I cut them up into little bits and rearranged the bits into a comet.

I guess, in the end, I did manage to make this somehow be about paper.

Victorian Cutups

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been looking at Mrs. Delany and Her Circle, the catalogue for a recent show about the 18th C. collagist that was at the Yale Center for British Art and is soon to be at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (14 Feb – 1 May). Another exhibition catalogue I’ve been browsing is Playing with Pictures: the Art of Victorian Photocollage. The related show started at the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY through May 9. The book is quite enjoyable. I wish I could see the exhibition, which was just favorably reviewed by Roberta Smith in the NY Times. She says:

Breakthroughs aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Collage, one of the riverheads of modernism, is usually thought to have been introduced around 1912, when Braque and Picasso began gluing pieces of newsprint and wallpaper to their Cubist drawings. But what if it turns out that at least one form of collage was practiced decades earlier, not in Paris in the teens but in Victorian England in the 1880s and ’70s? And not by ambitious your-body-my-art macho geniuses but by women at the highest reaches of society, including the Royal family?

She ends the review by noting how modern the concepts behind so many of the pictures in the exhibit look. Many are strikingly reminiscent of work by well-regarded artists of the later 20th C. through today. “May this exhibition serve as a reminder that the most interesting thing about such distinctions [between the Victorian works and modern fine art] may turn out to be the inevitability with which they fray, as more kinds of visual play, by women and others, comes to light.”

Well-promoted exhibitions such as this make me hopeful that perhaps, finally, we’ll get rid of the irritating notion that Picasso and Braque invented collage.

Mrs. Delany, Part II

It was in the mid 1990s and we were getting ready for a trip to the UK. As I compiled a list of places I’d hoped to visit, I showed my husband a picture of one of Mary Delany’s 18th C. “paper mosaics” (as she called them) in an old book. How nice, I said, if it turned out that I got to see one at the British Museum (which houses her work). He, a university researcher, told me to write to the British Museum and request to see the collection. I think I laughed. I had no academic affiliation. But I wrote anyway. They replied that I should call to arrange an appointment after I’d arrived in the UK, and to be sure to bring my passport when I came to the Students’ Room in the Department of Prints and Drawings.

I’d expected to spend a couple of hours looking at the Delanys. Given the context in which I’d only ever seen pictures of her work — old black and white crafts books and the like — I’d been under the impression that the paper mosaics were quaint little flower pictures — probably a curiosity, really.

Then I saw them in person. I was astonished by their intricacy and ingenuity. They had just the right kind of balance that collage work should have. They weren’t pictures of flowers that happened to be done in cut paper, but, rather, the cut paper aspect was an integral part of their being. It provided a texture and blending of space and a sculptural element that another medium simply could not provide. How, I wondered, could these amazing, botanically accurate plant portraits in paper not be given more credit for their place in the history of collage?

But then again work in paper, in general, has traditionally never been taken all that seriously in the art world. It has been considered the stuff of commercial displays and folk crafts, unless, of course, it was taken up as a side venture by an established male painter, á la Picasso or Matisse. Then it’s been innovative. If it was done by an 18th C. female amateur and the subject matter was flowers…

What was originally supposed to have been an hour or two in the Students’ Room turned, instead, into days of complete immersion in the Mary Delany collection. It was hard to pull myself from these incredible bits of cutting and pasting history.

And, it should be noted, history is a key word here. Mary Delany herself was an interesting person. She was an 18th Century aristocrat who knew the King and Queen and their family. She mingled in circles with Handel and Swift, among others. The letters she wrote have been collected and published and are famed to this day. Many of the paper mosaics have, I discovered, notations on the back recording events that occurred as she worked on each piece. These include such things as visits from members of the Royal Family. These dated to around when the American Revolution was happening. She began to make the paper mosaics when she was 72, and continued until her eyesight failed ten years later. She made nearly 1,000 of them.

Fashions change, in art and opinion, and these days I’m beginning to feel vindicated. Mrs. Delany’s reputation in collage, and, indeed, the status of art made from paper in general, is rising. I’ve been enjoying the recently released — and rather lush –companion book/catalogue for Mrs. Delany and Her Circle, an exhibit that ended this month at the Yale Center for British Art. 

What a joy it is to read lavishly illustrated, serious essays about Mrs. Delany’s place in paper art history. Among other things, it includes chapters devoted to the technical aspects of how the collages were made, including analyses of the papers and tools she used. It also includes top-notch reproductions of her work, not just of the collages, but of her drawings and of the embroidered court dress she made as well.

The dedication in Mrs. Delany and Her Circle is to Ruth Hayden, a descendent of Mary Delany’s sister and the author of another recommended book, Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers.

International Postcard Project

A while back I was sent an intriguing call for entries for an international mail art project that Helen Allsebrook was organizing in Bristol, England. I decided to sign up. Several weeks passed and I forgot about it. Then a mysterious packet arrived at my post office. It was from Bristol.

The format turned out to be a set of three postcards to be completed by sets of participants. The first person chooses a postcard to do, then passes it on to the next person on the list, who then picks one of the remaining two cards to work on. The third person finishes up and sends the accordion of postcards back to Helen, who will be combining all the submissions into an April exhibit at the University of the West of England. The show might, after that, be traveling to Rochester, New York.

I was the third person of my group, the last to get the cards. The back side of my postcard came preprinted with a text about monkeys in a botanical garden:

“Monkeys in Botanical Garden…These evergreen gardens are situated at Cluny Road, less than two miles from the town. A well known beauty spot that has never failed to attract a cosmopolitan crowd of visitors.”
Since my own garden happens to be carnivorous, that is what came to mind. It was to be a collage using, partly, inkjet printouts of stock pics and my own photos. Then my printer died. This must be something karmic to do with me and international art projects based in Bristol. My last two printers each went gears up while printing out bookmarks for the Bristol-based Bookmarks VI and VII. That last printer fiasco happened a mere 5 months ago.
And so, I spent a hunk of the last week waiting for a new printer. In the end, it was fun. I look forward to seeing pictures of the resulting show (or two). Thanks to Helen for organizing this massive endeavor involving 240 participants. She also passed along a few links to others who’ve posted stuff about their submissions: Debra James Percival in Ottawa, Jackie Batey of Damp Flat Books in Brighton, Steve Hanson in Wales, and Rose Enright in London.

Mrs. Mary Delany

Art historians annoy me. Nothing personal if you happen to be one, mind you. It’s just that I get ticked off whenever I read an official art history version of how collage came to be. The Cubists, we are told, invented collage. When Picasso and Braque decided to paste some scraps to their paintings, this became a brilliant revelation that changed the course of modern art. Bleh. People had been doing things, some of it quite interesting, with cut paper for centuries before the Cubists. But generally these people were women or peasants or their day jobs didn’t involve working in a traditionally accepted fine art medium such as oil paint, so they don’t count.
The Georgian aristocrat Mrs. Mary Delany (1700-1788) was one of those interesting characters in collage history. I wrote about her on my website:

Beginning at age 72 and continuing for ten years until her eyesight began to fail, she created almost 1,000 botanical illustrations from cut paper. Her pictures were made with incredibly intricate detail. She would cut out with exact precision each tiny detail of a plant—individual stamens, bits of pollen, cactus spines… She called her works “Paper Mosaicks.”

One of the great joys of my life was getting to study a majority of these in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. They have now scanned the entire collection of nearly 1,000 of these works and made it available online.

And while I was browsing on the web, I discovered that the Yale Center for British Art is currently having a show about her. It even got a mention on a NY Times blog, and a nice review of it was in the Hartford Courant [update–since deleted]. It ends by saying “…Delany, in her quiet way, continues to influence artists hundreds of years later.” She certainly has influenced me.

Joan Gold’s New Blog

My painter friend Joan just launched her first blog. Joan is a master colorist. Color and composition are what her works are all about—pure, joyful color. Imagine being in a room surrounded by big paintings that look like these, and tell me it wouldn’t afterward make you want to race straight to your own studio (or other preferred art-making space). It’s like listening to music that compels you to dance. Even though my own work is so completely different, and even in different media, I find Joan’s studio and her shows quite inspiring. They connect to that primal part of my brain that lusts for texture, color and the smell of paint.