Taking Back What Is Twisted

A little more than 10 years ago, when I still lived in New Jersey, I attended a two-day workshop with collage artist Jonathan Talbot. It was a wonderful class and the techniques I learned have become staples in my art methods.

But there was a lesson he taught that has followed me even beyond art making.

In the early part of the class, he showed us a page torn from a book. He explained that he would pass around the sheet so we could each tear off a piece to use in a collage. Everyone must tear off a piece, he explained, it was not optional.

When the page came to me, I immediately recognized that it was rag paper–very old rag paper. Plus, the print on it (was it letterpress?) had those funny ‘s’s that look like ‘f’s. I held my breath, tore off a piece, and passed it to the next student.

Once the sheet had made the rounds, Talbot asked us if we knew how old the paper we had just destroyed was. “One hundred years old!” someone guessed. “No, more like 500,” I said, my heart simultaneously racing and sinking. What had I done?

“Yes, 500 is a good guess,” Talbot responded, and everyone in the class groaned. But then he continued, “Ok, before you get too upset, answer this: What language is that on the page?” I looked down at my scrap and saw the phrase, “Gracias al SeƱor,” or “Thanks to the Lord,” so I said, in practically a whisper, “Spanish…”

“Yes!” he told us. “Anyone hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Good. So what you just tore up was a set of instructions for burning heretics. Now do you all feel better?” Relief passed through the class. “Nothing is too precious to be destroyed,” he concluded, and we went back to our works in progress.

The collage I made that includes that scrap hangs in my living room. I think about Talbot’s point often, and have reached an understanding of what he meant, and also what he didn’t.

That’s because to me, the lesson is also that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. There is nothing that cannot be used as the raw material for art. Nothing is beyond hope.

In Letter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one devil explains to another that only God can create, and all tempters can do is twist His creations so that they are used unnaturally. (Devils did not create wine, for example, but they can tempt people to drink too much of it too often.) So I like to remember this: Art allows us to take back what is twisted, to take our own fires of The Inquisition and use that heat and light to restore beauty.

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Trying It Out

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
Twyla Tharp

My first try at oil pastels!

A friend and I recently had a conversation that wandered to the topic of how younger women dress. We wondered out loud, “What does it mean if they are dressed provocatively? Does it mean they want attention? That they want to be looked at?” (Of course, we asked with curiosity, not condemnation.)

I tried to remember back to my own time in college. What did I wear, and why? What was I thinking when I dressed each morning? After all, from what I recall, my outfits could range from worn-out jeans and a tee to skirts, blouses, and blazers. The jeans might be tight; they might be loose. The skirt could be any length. Surely everyone around me, including me, was confused about what I was doing and who I was.

And you know what? That’s ok. That’s what you do at that age–try out roles, identities, and personalities. (Some of us do it with more than clothes!) How else can we decide, as women, if we are comfortable being looked at? How else will we know if we would rather others make assumptions about us based on the careless or meticulous way we present ourselves? All we are doing is trying something on to decide if we like it enough to keep it. There’s no right or wrong answer.

I realize I still do this today, but with art. Sometimes I’m working on a gesso panel with acrylic paint, sometimes I am creating a collage in a journal, sometimes I’m relaxing with a pencil and a sketchbook. Maybe the results are something cute, or not. I wonder if I should be more consistent–pick one thing and get good at it–but now I realize that it’s all ok. I’m trying different things to learn what I like, and I might like them all. It’s fun. And a fun discovery–whether about art or about myself–is the whole idea.

Too much?

I wonder about an alcoholic taking his or her first drink. Do they know, immediately, that what they just tasted might own them, control them, take their life? Do they know right away, and do they already feel that it is too late to turn back?

Yes, I have written about creating with feeling. I have written about my efforts to think less while making art. And I don’t take any of that back–and yet–I also wonder about the power of raw emotion. It’s uncontrollable power. Can it be destructive?

Sometimes when I am finished with a drawing (it might or might not be a good one), there seems to be such an amount of direct feeling in the lines on the paper that it defies the effort I used to create them. I wonder where that amount of emotion came from, and it scares me when I don’t know. Why? Because, somehow, it seems like a lack of effort to control my drawing, or to discipline myself, and that seems both irresponsible and dangerous.

I think of, years ago, watching Nirvana give their Unplugged performance on MTV. Anyone who saw the performance of the last song could have guessed that Kurt Cobain’s death would be tragic. Watching it, you see him express raw emotion that escapes him and will take control and torture him until he succumbs.

Maybe, being less talented that Kurt Cobain was, I don’t need to worry. Then again, I think I might strive for balance, just in case.