Inspiration for art comes from unexpected sources. I’ve long since given up on directing the flow of my work. It has become much more fun—and freeing—to relinquish control to the creative gods and let them have a little fun.
In 2017, I enrolled in my first class at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. Preparing for the first day, I poured over countless images, photographs, and miscellaneous artifacts. I was certain not knowing what I would create or how I would create it was certain to result in abject failure.
The workshop, led by visual artist Holly Roberts, challenged this mindset. Artists with as much experience as Roberts appear accustomed to—and comfortable with—the free flow of ideas and trial and error (everything that messes with my organized self). Holly wasn’t opposed to becoming waylaid, but instead urged us not to view challenges as an insurmountable detour to ‘perfecting’ one’s art.
It was during this class I took Roberts’ advice and looked at materials differently. Instead of pouring over files of images and ‘making them work,’ I found a single image and let that speak which led to the next image/idea, and so on.
I searched through photo albums, plastic bins, and a 1912 scrapbook my father had inherited from my great aunt Josephine (Johnson) Wetter. Aunt Jo hailed from Illinois, later attending college there, and became a teacher and suffragette. Interesting what we don’t know about family when we’re young and don’t know enough to ask. I had looked through her memorabilia before but now it seemed part of a much larger story.
I admit I’m a sucker for vintage birthday cards, travel brochures, yellowed napkins and coasters from restaurants that have long since closed, or airline promotional material showing passengers sitting down to a three-course meal or enjoying a drink at the in-flight bar. I discovered my Aunt Jo was a collector, much like me. She saved tidbits from high school, college, and later Valentines from her students. Tattered envelopes bearing the words Dear Miss Johnson stirred my own memories of decorated shoe boxes and homemade cards created for teachers and classmates. These love notes were stunning. Some with pop up inserts, others delicate lace, but all with the penmanship of elementary school pupils.
How long had it been since these notes had seen the light of day? How long had it been since Aunt Jo placed them in her “hope chest” for her keepsakes, so important as to be preserved for others to one day see? I asked myself these imponderables as I repaired and made transfers to preserve these precious images.
I prepared the 4x4 gesso boards with Eastern paper to give the worn Valentines consistency and the look of vintage; then worked to restore the vibrancy of these one-of-a-kind treasures. Modern day cards are nothing compared to these gems. And after several failed attempts, I preserved an original envelope (made difficult by its fragile state and adhesives that made it discolor). These seemed the perfect remembrance of my dear aunt and an important part of her life story.. now mine.
Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.
I used to think my writing and art held little translatable value to others. But I have found that people have a fascination with collage (I know I do), and can create their own dialogue with the piece based on personal experience. When I first met with Deborah Keenan, former Hamline professor, revered poet, and master collage artist, we talked about her work, the process, and her relationship to her collages. I was intent on doing an independent study during my final semester in the hope of incorporating images into my forthcoming chapbook. She suggested I sit down with my collection of poems, not just glance over but ‘be’ with the words, get to know the imagery and intention, and use it to inspire the art I hoped to create. I secretly thought, “How hard can this be? You look through magazines, pick out a few images, and away you go.” I should have known by her Buddha-like smile that she knew I had much to learn about this process. It didn’t take long.
“Late at Night My Mind Goes Walking” (featured in my previous blog), is a perfect example. Deborah said to pick out images that spoke to me. Don’t overthink it. Act on instinct. Let your mind and imagination go. I sat down with a stack of magazines and did what Deborah suggested, only to find that the images I had selected were in stark contrast to the story my poem conveyed. ‘Too pretty, too golden,’was my initial reaction. How could it be? I followed the suggested steps, and yet the collage fell short. Ah, here’s what Deborah was talking about. While the images were certainly beautiful, I was faced with the same challenge I’ve experienced in writing poetry; the tendency to ‘wrap things up with a bow’ in an attempt to keep the reader (and myself) from having to go ‘there.’ I admit it. Pain, vulnerability, and putting it all out there are necessary if the reader or viewer is to have meaningful engagement with the work. So I circled back to Deborah’s suggestions, revisiting the poem and literally closing my eyes to imagine myself walking late at night in unfamiliar surroundings. What did it look like? Was I, or anyone else in the images? How did it make me feel? What tone/texture/colors/themes were essential to making it ‘real?’
The next time I sat down to work on the collage, I set aside the original ‘pretty’ images and allowed my mind to go to darker places; to the thoughts and feelings suppressed during this difficult period, those that captured the essence of how I ACTUALLY felt versus the face we all put on when trying to be brave. What appeared on the story board came as a complete surprise yet perfectly captured the voice in which the poem had been written.
Each time I study this collage, I come away with new insights; decisions which weren’t deliberate or even conscious at the time but gave me insight into the nature of my struggle.
One of my favorite things to do now is to get feedback from those I trust as to their experience with the piece. While there are certainly common threads, each person I’ve talked to interacts with it in their own way, and that’s my goal as an artist. The relationship between creator and viewer is a special bond. When someone finds a connection with my work, it makes the process even more worthwhile.
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.
— Henry Ward Beecher
In order to write about life first you must live it.
My wonderful webmaster, Christine, reminds me often of the importance of blogging regularly. Unfortunately, consistency and I have been at odds this past year. Since February 2016, when my husband and I made the decision to sell our home, we unwittingly propelled ourselves into an unknown future which would reverberate for months to come.
No sooner than the realtor planted the sign in the front yard—with reassurances it might not sell for at least a year—that we began the slow, often painful process of putting the past in its place to embrace a future that was, as of yet, uncertain.
That’s a flowery way of saying the decision we made would pretty much make our lives suck for a solid year. In the short term, we dealt with massive paperwork, an onslaught of housecleaning and showings and more showings and realtor demands. But in less than a month the thought of this overweight monkey off our backs became reality. Honestly, it seemed as if things were looking up.
But for anyone who has ever sold a home, you know this is just the beginning. We spent months navigating family dynamics and emotional drama until the day we pulled out of the driveway for the last time, moved into a one-bedroom apartment, and a second three weeks later. There is something about having most of your earthly possessions in storage that is both exhilarating and terrifying. Where were the photo albums, the box of poetry rough drafts, my recently purchased sweaters from Ireland, the wine opener? Mislabeled boxes in the closet, the apartment parking garage, the back of my Jeep. Boxes, boxes everywhere, life reduced to boxes. After our move to a second apartment, I became obsessed with finding things; unpacking and repacking boxes and visiting the storage unit for reassurance everything was still there. I frequently woke from nightmares; recurring dreams of wandering aimlessly through unfamiliar streets and alleys in search of home. All this while packing up for a third move (this one cross-country) and finishing up fall semester of my senior year at Hamline University. During one particularly trying day, I sat on the floor of a nearly empty apartment making last minute changes to my end-of-semester project while movers grudgingly packed, unpacked, and re-packed my computer/monitor/printer. “But I just have one more edit!”
As I presented my chapbook that evening, I realized the months of transition, stress, and upheaval had indeed found its way into my writing, echoing the words of Mark Twain, “Write what you know.” Poetry (and later collage) became an outlet for dealing with psychic trauma. One of the poems in this collection, “Late at Night My Mind Goes Walking,” came as a complete surprise and soon manifested itself in collage. Why the woman on a ladder with flames licking her ankles? Or multiple images of owls? Unbeknownst to me, my subconscious was hard at work making sense of circumstances I could not.
As I sit writing this blog, I look back with amazement at how my art and plans eventually came together. Our third and final move to the mountains materialized, the life we had envisioned came to pass. If you are reading this blog, swamped with difficulties or in the midst of major transitions, take heart. Let the temporary challenges provide fuel rather than frustration for your art. By the time you find yourself on the other side, you will be amazed what you’ve produced and learn so much about yourself in the process.
Making a big life change is scary. But know what’s even scarier? Regret.
In Ireland, people don’t say ‘How are you,’ they ask, ‘What’s your story?’
I’m writing this blog while sitting at O’Hare after an eight-hour flight from Dublin. I, along with nineteen fellow students, two professors, and one advisor, left for a literary study experience on the 23rd of May. Nearly three weeks later, we’re back in the states with a whole lot of sensory overload, electronic devices drained of battery, and suitcases full of dirty laundry.
I never could have imagined this experience for myself. After my husband encouraged me to return to college after a thirty-two-year gap, I slogged through countless hours of study time, papers, and projects, only to have this opportunity arise. I said no—several times—but life (and my husband), kept saying yes.
Serendipity: Luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.
One of these serendipitous moments happened my first week in Dublin. After my husband arrived, I stepped in as tour guide –– retracing steps from earlier in the week –– stops at Trinity College, Merrion Square, and Sweny’s Joycean Pharmacy (featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Sweny’s is a fascinating, if not magical, spot, preserved much as it was in Joyce’s day, with a vast selection of second-hand books and glass cases of original apothecary bottles as well as the lemon-scented soap which made the shop famous.
It was here we met PJ Murphy, a bit of a leprechaun and local legend who regaled us with tales of Joyce, fairies, and the mythical Land of Forever Young. After inviting us to return for a reading, we bumped into PJ later that afternoon in the median between Sweny’s and Kennedy’s Pub (formerly Conway’s), also mentioned in one of Joyce’s novels. PJ apologized, saying he had misspoken about the day of the reading but asked instead if we might join him at Kennedy’s. “I am meeting Bruce Springsteen’s photographer for a pint.”
Were we sleep deprived or was this some kind of hoax? If you met PJ, you would believe he was capable of this kind of magic. Inside Kennedy’s, we did indeed meet Swedish photographer Jan Lundahl and his agent Torvald Brannstrom who were in town to photograph Springsteen’s performance at Croke Park. Once we started talking, it was as if we were lifelong friends. PJ and the pub’s owner, Brian Donohue, kept inviting new members into this group so by the end of the evening, we knew pretty much everyone in the pub.
The following day, we returned to Kennedy’s and were surprised to find Jan and Torvald there. Over a steaming plate of Beef & Guinness Pie, we were excitedly chatting about the evening’s concert when Jan grabbed his camera and captured the photo (above).
So there you have it. That is my story.
“Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.”
– Pat Conroy
My husband and I recently spent an afternoon in Salthill, a seaside area in the city of Galway. It was a beautiful sunny day in Ireland, something residents repeatedly reminded us was a freak of nature. We strolled the promenade enjoying ice cream cones, felt the salty breeze on our faces as we watched brave souls fling themselves into frigid Atlantic waters, and squinted to catch a glimpse of the distant Aran Islands.
An amusement park across the street beckoned children and their parents with merry-go-rounds, bungee cord rides, and my husband’s favorite, the Ferris wheel. “Let’s do it!” he said. It is probably important to note here I am not only claustrophobic but also have an irrational fear of heights. “Imagine the view once we get to the top!” The ride operator, to my chagrin, enthusiastically agreed.
I, on the other hand, pinched my eyes shut and mumbled in agreement as my husband pointed out all he could see as our car climbed closer to the clouds. When we arrived at the top he exclaimed, “Look at this view!” I reluctantly opened my eyes and scanned the horizon. We could see for miles in every direction. The entire span of Galway, the coastline, and even the Islands came into view. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t miss it?”
Yes I am. I don’t want to miss a thing.
“Maybe the journey
isn’t so much about
Maybe it’s about
everything that isn’t
so you can be who
you were meant to
be in the first place.
I found this quote in one of countless writing notebooks I own (my version of shoe obsession) and have been thinking about it a great deal lately. As a “grownup,” I’ve been a radio announcer, an organic egg farmer, a toy store salesperson, hawked hardware, taught pre-k, worked behind a desk as a receptionist and legal secretary, and waited tables (short-lived thanks to an intoxicated diner and his propensity to throw a porterhouse too many drinks in).
They say to be careful for what you wish for but I think the opposite is true. I wished for a calling that would make me feel inspired, where I could set my own schedule and spend time collecting and telling stories. I found it in writing. My first poem, “What is Night” was my twelve-year-old self trying to make sense of a world over which I had little control. And I continue to write about things I can’t make sense of, and somehow that has brought me closer to where I need to be.
“So you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.” At least now I’m on the right path.