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 2018, I enrolled in a three-week January intensive 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 artist Kate Leonard, challenged this mindset. Artists with as much experience as Leonard appear accustomed to—and comfortable with—the free flow of ideas and trial and error (everything that messes with my organized self). She 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 Leonards’ 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 4×4 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.