Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.
Stephen Sondheim

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


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