09 October 2007

Scraps of Life

I believe in the power of images to tell stories. Sometimes when a person organizes and selects from images at hand, the images change their meaning, are transformed into a new, private language of symbols.

My mother, who is both a fine artist and professional designer, taught me how to create collages at a very young age, probably as young as four or five years. My first collages included dried beans, macaroni, rice, and buttons stuck to pieces of scrap cardboard with Elmer's glue or paste. My Mom carefully oversaw and encouraged my progress as a mixed media artist. My favorite collage object in the early years was the pasta shaped like spoked wheels or cart wheels!

Time and time again I return to collage techniques and dabble in this artform. I add and embellish my skills and my choice of materials each time. My production in collages and photomontages is not consistent through any one period of my life, but I often fall back on these techniques as handy ways of stirring up new meanings from a cauldron full of images. I most often make these artworks for myself or for a family member's gift or card. When I need to express myself through images, I find collage to be the most powerful tool in my arsenal of creative techniques.

In high school I loved cutting up fashion magazines to make outlandish and subversive symbolism. This phase of my creativity culminated in a three-foot high Stop-sign shaped collage piece made in my freshman year at Harlaxton College for my "fundamentals of art" course. I suspended this collage piece from the ceiling in our gallery area. The Stop sign was divided in half and each half faced a different direction, so that a view could see designs from facing all four compass points. The four surfaces of the sign were covered with collage elements from fashion rags and printed pop media. I was definitely approaching the end of my "Hannah Hoch" phase by the time I completed that year abroad and came back to study commercial photography at an art college in my hometown. Hannah Hoch, for those who don't know her, was a Dadaist artist from Germany who used fashion magazine images to subvert their power as exploitation and crass consumerist propaganda.

In photography school, I made photomontages and assemblages of photographs. The type of photographic assemblages I most often made are often termed "joiners," that is, the art of arranging photographic images in overlapping panoramic scenes to form a natural perspective view of the landscape or scene. This was my "David Hockney" phase, appropriate since Hockney coined the term "joiners" as a art photography technique involving his specific brand of photomontage.

Next, in my late college years and throughout graduate school, I entered into a "cubist phase," which is to say that I was highly influenced by Picasso and Braque and their famous critic and promoter Clement Greenberg, who helped the artists to popularize modern collage techniques. For me, this was a kind of serious "getting back to roots" phase where my collages often followed simply geometry. By this point I was well-trained as an art history scholar, so I knew the artists to look for when I sought inspiration. In addition to Picasso and Braque collages, I found German artist Kurt Schwitter's "merz" collage particularly meaningful. Schwitters picked up refuse off of the sidewalks and incorporated it into his collages. Joseph Cornell's mysterious boxes filled with collage elements impressed me when I first saw them at The Art Institute of Chicago, and later at other museums. Once I actually co-organized a spiritual collage workshop at a church retreat, and everyone who came from ages seven through ninety, had a great time expressing themselves through collage. Collage is everywhere these days with layer upon layer of visual media surrounding us in the urban landscape and cyberspace.

Now I am entering a new exploration in manipulating images for my own expression. In the past month, my collage output has taken an unexpected turn all because my colleague A. introduced me to the world of Victorian die-cut scraps during the summer. She organized two workshops on Victorian holiday ornament-making to help our volunteers plan and prepare for making authentic decorations for the museum's Christmas trees for two late nineteenth-century exhibit spaces. She brought in specialists who collect and reproduce the look of Victorian ornaments to teach us the techniques. Each of the presenters had her own favorite types of ornaments, but both utilized pieces of die-cut printed paper scraps that the average Victorian matron and her children purchased for craft supplies.

Suddenly a whole new world of collage imagery has opened up for me. I have long wanted to make "altered art" books or objects, like the ones I've seen in craft galleries and art shows. Yet I lacked the sense of where I want to begin and of what images to use. These die-cuts, printed to fulfill the needs of Gilded Age crafters provide me with a brilliant spark of ingenuity. I now on a quest to purchase Victorian die-cut examples and wheel in my mind are already turning on the possibilities for collage-making.

I've learned that many people used the die-cuts for paper cards and holiday tree ornaments, but they also applied them to pieces of furniture and other objects. There are many names for this. You might find a term arte povero, "poor man's art" in Italian sources, while it's called lacque pauvre, "poor man's lacquer" in France and jappaning in Britain.

What appeals to me about these printed faces, animals, floral arrangements, and holiday scenes, is their direct link to the cultural past -- to life a century ago -- in a period when printed news media dominated the intellectual culture of the day, as opposed to virtual media. I think I have found the tools to tell history of a period I know well from my art history scholarship as well as from a personal fascination. There is an inherent appeal for all things relating to Victorian antiquarian scholarship. Now that was a culture that appreciated (and exploited) other cultures past and present for their exotic qualities. A large part of my personality can relate to that sense of longing for something different, something other and, perhaps a bit strange and extraordinary.

Clement Greenberg's legendary essay "Collage" is now free and accessible online.

An online article about "The History of 18th Century Decoupage," by Studio D.

The Victorian Scrap Gallery by Dee Davis and Gail B. Cooper. The contents are featured in Google.com's online book gallery (follow the title hyperlink).
D. Blumchen is a treasure-trove of reproduction Victorian scraps and nifty crafting catalogue.


  1. Several months ago the UU Church of Lexington did a project called "Me Boxes," which were inspired by Joseph Cornell's work. Kids were encouraged to bring personal items and pictures to tell a story about themselves inside a box. I helped facilitate a few sessions with a variety of age groups, and I had the chance to make my own Me Box. It was so much fun; oddly enough I had never really pursued collage art. We combined all the boxes into an installation which is still on display at the church.

    Thanks so much for this post and for sharing your art experience in this area. And the links are great too!

  2. Natalie, I love the "Me Boxes" idea. It's similar to the "heritage box" project my friend's daughter did in her Montessori school class. The heritage box she described included geneology records, family photos, drawings of houses you've lived, keepsakes, etc.

    Another friend loved the idea of the heritage box and posted a comment here, responding to my description of the heritage box concept.