Slowly, with Much Expression
In New York I worked in publishing from 1987 to 1995, managing a small satellite office across the street from Grand Central, around the corner from the New York Public Library, for the University of California Press. By day I worked on books by other people. At night and on the weekends, I read and took long walks and wrote in my notebooks about my walks and my reading.
Around 1992, I met Susan Wheeler, a poet who made subtle, elegant collages, and we started a postcard correspondence, though we lived just a few miles from each other. My collages were decidedly inelegant, and that was liberating for me. When I wasn’t at work, I was surrounded by seriously good painters (the pioneering cohort in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the 1980s); their materials were expensive (as were their Ivy League educations), and then there was rent for studio space and storage for big paintings that might or might not sell. I, on the other hand, was all about low overhead and making something with nothing much.
At night that spring, on the way home from work, I’d walk down Fifth Avenue and stop at tourist traps to buy postcards, ten for a dollar. I used office supplies (Wite-Out, ballpoint pens and markers, glue sticks) to doctor them, and I did some erasure, too — black outs with Sharpies. My notebooks were, to quote Walter Benjamin, a “tissue of quotations”; sometimes bits of my reading would appear in the postcard collages.
The Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Building inspired me, which was good, because most tourist postcards depicted these three places. There were endless shades of blues and greens in those pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the water in New York Harbor.
In these palm-sized visual poems, I found myself channeling my preoccupations: my interest in the romance and propaganda of American immigrant stories (all of my grandparents were white immigrants); my Catholic shame and anger; my grief and rage (about my brother‘s death, especially) in the age of ACT UP; American history and lies; family secrets and my own secrets; and my love of music.
I had long been obsessed with the Great Depression and Farm Security Administration photos of that period. We published a book about them, and I visited the Library of Congress and looked into the cabinets of photos (thousands of them are online and in the public domain now). My father’s mother had been an Irish immigrant, an indigent domestic who was unmarried when she gave birth to him in 1932; in 1994, I got hold of a social worker’s report about her case. Much later, in 2014, as I prepared for a show of my work in Ireland, I started using those documents in my collages.
It’s uncanny to look at those 1993–1994 collages (and those I made from 2005–2016) and see how they read in light of events like the attack on the World Trade Center, continuous war, demonization of Black and brown immigrants, the rise of the carceral state, the KKK in the White House, revelations about the Catholic Church (particularly in Boston, where I grew up), and my own evolution as a woman and an artist. The materials themselves seem to tell a story as they disintegrate. (Wite-Out cracks beautifully.)
In 1993 and ’94, I made most of my collages in my office on 42nd St., which, for six years, I shared with a sign painter, a survivor of Auschwitz who became like a father to me. Stanley was about seventy when I met him in the hallway of our building (he had a studio right next to my office); he gave me a photo of himself as a young man, taken in the displaced person’s camp in Germany after the war, before he and his wife (also a survivor) emigrated to New York via Palestine. He wanted me to see how handsome he’d been when he was young. After a recession, he closed his studio to save on the rent and asked me if he could store his supplies in my office. I cleared some shelves in a breakfront cabinet (which I still have — I brought it with me when I moved to California in 1995). Stanley died at ninety-six in 2011. This week, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I found a list of supplies he needed for one of his jobs taped onto a page of my notes about a conversation we had on the phone that night in 1991. I also found an account of a sunny afternoon when I was walking up Madison Avenue and saw him up on a ladder, painting letters on the glass under the awning at the Custom Shop, snowflakes of gold paint on his shoulders.
In 1995, having exhausted the possibilities of Wite-Out, I started to expand my repertoire, going to the open-air Chelsea Flea Market to buy old photographs. In those days, they were cheap, just piled high on tables, and if it was about to rain, the vendors would sell them to me by the pound before they could turn to pulp. I brought home so many anonymous children. Most of them remained in my files for years, until I thought I knew where they might belong. I would cut up the photographs and move them around on my desk and then think about them all day while I was at work. It was like playing with paper dolls or puppets, but it was serious. At night I would go home and maybe move them a little bit. This could go on for weeks before I finally understood where they belonged. Mine was an art of excision and juxtaposition (not surrealism).
Painting and color became more and more important to the work and play. When I look at my work on canvas now, I can remember the underpainting even if I can’t see it. When I want to start a new series these days, I paint lots of boards and rework them for a long time before I start to work with cut outs. Doing things by hand still matters a lot to me. Sometimes now I use my own photographs, and occasionally I just work with language, juxtaposing those panels with others. The work on the wall looks like banks of votives, I think, and reads, perhaps, like an essay or a long poem.
I also take breaks from making work with political and historical allusions to focus on minimalist luxury. I’m not much of a shopper, but I enjoy items from high-end sales catalogs once they are abstracted from the context of marketing. A pile of little discs or cardboard squares from Creative Reuse in Oakland can spark a new approach to size and surface.
And in my series American Songbook/Passerines, there is the grace of arabesques and annunciations and bird song, perhaps because, when I made these collages, I was aging out of childbearing and watching my daughter and her friends come into young womanhood.
In 2005, after reading a biography of Walker Evans (“the master of the edge”) and re-reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I made about fifty collages using FSA photos. I started using better materials (no more Wite-Out): acrylic paint and canvas-covered boards and found photos (knowing I was not, as Teju Cole would say, “the ideal provenance” for some of these images. The ethics of appropriation are an inherent aspect of this work, of course). I have a cache of family photos that my son found in a dumpster in Oakland and gave to me. I have not figured out a way to use them (honor them) in my work; perhaps I never will.
Who are you who will read these words
and study these photographs,
and through what cause,
by what chance, and for what purpose,
and by what right do you qualify to,
and what will you do about it?
— James Agee
I became more ambitious as I prepared for shows of my collages in Ireland (curated by Alice Lyons) in 2014 and in Oakland (with support from the Creative Work Fund) in 2015. I still work small (no larger than 8 x 10), but now I use archival-quality materials. I make things at the same paint-covered desk where I made the first collages in 1993 in Brooklyn. I dry the paintings on the kitchen counter. It’s important to me to work by hand in my notebooks and in my collages. I like the fact that there’s DNA — fingerprints and stains, breast milk, blood and tears, lipstick and wine — in the paintings and the notebooks and on the letters, documents, and ephemera I find in them.
My friend Julie Carr has written about the politics of my work, my methods, and my materials (especially in the war collages in the Dark White series); Julie and other poets have adapted my collages for use on book covers, a form of collaboration I love.
Using language in collages, I also make poems in cento form (like this one, made from lines in a knitting manual).
Here is an ars poetica for what I do with paint and cut paper and canvas:
A blue peninsula, three sides and an edge,
the answer to triangulation, my issue —
frame and boundary versus
unholy trinity. This texture takes paint
well, this size is my size. One thousand
little things add up.
Saw yesterday at 5:15 p.m.:
a billowing cloud
moving across the suddenly
blue sky. A perfect
window, a SQUARE —
a word that should have
just four letters — opened up
in the body of the cloud,
a kind of stanza in air.
I didn’t gauge the distance from
the lip of the glass
to my own lip
and died laughing at what
fell in my lap.
The possibility of the personal
impersonal, the needle in my drink —
I can use it to scratch the surface.
The drone of radio rosaries
as I gouged a missalette —
Today I cut to ribbons
a list of “known abusers.”
One of those priests used to sit at our table
laughing with my mother,
eating cake. His thick cloud of hair
lit up the room. At his wake
my mother raved about it.
Pieces of men all over my desk,
two skies, you but never me,
the history of photography,
Wite-Out and varnish.
I like the precision of scissors.
Where is my pot of glue?
Where is my pen?
I should do something with this.
I dip my brush into my drink.
You with your lips in ruins,
saturated — I don’t do much with purple
so your windmill of a mind
may not show up this time.
The etymology of your soul is
When I was small but no longer young
I decided, building moats and dikes,
to use a neutral color, pale as a desert boot.
Even then I was famous for my values.
Now I mix glitter into cement.
You wouldn’t know me.
Remember my limited palette,
cracked panels and angels
entering frames like explanations.
Forgive my blue note, my halo, my
Forgive me, and look at me
while I am talking to you,
or at least picture my face.
Oh, Fanny Howe, thank you so much.
I felt like a morning full of roosters crowing at the sun. Magnificent pictures and prose.
Absolutely wonderful! I’m going to revisit these pages any number of times for insight and inspiration…