November 4, 2009

Retrospective: Stumbling Towards Grace

Stumbling Down the Path (2006). Paper, fabric, 
and found/collected objects on plastic and wire armature.

Once upon a time, the story goes, a seeker
asked a monastic, “What do you do in a monastery?” And
the old monastic said, “Oh, we fall and we get up, and
we fall and we get up, and we fall and we get up again.”
—Sister Joan Chittister

The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, a year-long exploration of spirituality through making art.

For the past year I have been collecting small found objects—seeds, feathers, leaves, coins—anything that caught my eye made its way to my studio to live on the windowsill or on my makeshift altar. And for most of my life I’ve collected interesting small objects, unique paper scraps, fabrics, and magazine clippings, some of which have made it into collages or pages in my art journals, but many of which still live in boxes and folders. I’ve been wanting to use some of these found and collected materials in a collage for this project, and I’ve talked about doing so since last fall, but it’s February and I’ve made no progress toward beginning the piece. Finally I spend a couple of hours sorting through all of these materials, looking for ones that might work together. I create piles on my work desk, by color or by type.

I’m ready to begin. But am I? When I think about buying a large piece of heavy paper to use as a support for the collage, I resist. It shouldn’t be flat. It should be sculptural, indicating strong movement. I want it to be dynamic, not static. But what does that mean? I have no clear image with which to proceed. All I really know is that I want the piece to convey that the spiritual path is difficult.

I have a Rosanne Cash song in my head: We’re falling like the velvet petals / We’re bleeding and we’re torn / But God is in the roses / and the thorns. I’m walking from my studio to a nearby parking lot, thinking about how people can be so inconsistent in their actions despite their beliefs, how no spiritual practitioner is perfect at it and many spiritual gurus have had well-known character flaws. I remember what Thich Nhat Hanh says about practicing imperfectly: “If we want to head north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only to proceed in that direction.”

Suddenly I come across a small tree branch in the path. I pick it up and examine the way that it twists and turns, changing directions again and again. My spiritual path is like this, I think—not a clear progression from one point to another, but a stumbling path with twists and valleys. This is how the canvas for my collage should look.

So I use the twisting branch as a model for a chicken-wire armature. Two layers of papier-maché go over the chicken wire; when this dries, I carefully pry the dried paper sculpture away from the chicken wire, which I discard. Next comes two layers of plaster strips to add strength and stiffness to the piece to prevent it from breaking at the thinnest point. Finally, I add a coat of gesso to both sides. Now I have a canvas for my collage, a sculptural support that twists and turns and even rises off the wall. Now the real work begins: the collage itself.

I want the collage to look simple from a distance, a progression of colors from dark to bright and back to dark again, but also to contain intricate embellishments that can be noticed only on close inspection. The darkest areas will anchor the piece at the top and bottom, with the brightest area occurring at the point where the canvas rises off the wall. I begin choosing materials by color, laying them out in a progression alongside the canvas—fabrics, papers, buttons and seeds and fibers, all remnants of my life experience over the past five years. And then, working very slowly, I begin to place and glue each piece. At first I think I should get the basic color variation in place, to cover the canvas, and then come back and embellish with small objects.

But that isn’t how the piece unfolds once I begin working; instead, I finish each area completely before moving on to the next. Although the work is very slow, it’s satisfying. It’s as if I am ordering and assembling elements of my already-lived life, making sense of them in hindsight, seeing patterns that I could not see at the time. I am feeling very at home with this collage piece. It and I have an understanding, a cooperative spirit; we are together without pretense, just getting things in order. Once the detail work of the collage begins, I am working intuitively. My hands and my heart know what to do.

By the time the collage is nearly finished, a week later, I understand that it is the culmination of these months of spiritual searching, a kind of visual summary of what I’m trying to accomplish by spending a year making art about God. The collage presents not only a gradation of color—from light brown to orange to red and purple—but also a visual trail of small personal remnants from tip to tip. Every piece of fabric or paper, every embellishment, contains its own story. The collage process echoes the life process. I choose what to carry forward and what to discard; I choose what is important in each new moment.

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