March 22, 2020. It was a week since I’d lost my job at Guero. Five days since my school had closed. Two days since Mina’s school closed. I felt stunned, disoriented, reeling. After seven months of being incredibly busy in a tiring but fulfilling kind of way, steadily plowing my way through Cosmetology school to get my haircutting license and working two to three days a week, I was suddenly back to being a stay at home mom. But this time it was much more challenging because, 1. Even during my stay at home mom years I’ve always had a part time job that I can escape to, 2. No libraries, 3. No playgrounds, 4. No OMSI or Children’s Museum, 5. No trips, apparently? and 6. NO PLAYDATES!!! I was trapped at home with my kid, indefinitely, with nowhere to go. How long was this going to last?? Why hadn’t I made her some siblings?? Why did we not have a backyard??
I knew that now my days would be now be filled with Mina: playing with her, reading to her, coming up with craft projects, taking her to the park (but dear god, not the playground), building with Legos, getting something educational in there somewhere- and then just regular stuff like making meals, housework, and other chores. I knew I was going to need something to keep my independent, creative self alive.
I had already been thinking about doing a collage a day since I spent February committing to a write-every-day challenge. I wondered if I could still find time to write if I was doing a collage a day, and it seemed unlikely that I could do both, with my busy schedule. But now that I was quarantined it seemed a good a time as any to start a creative endeavor.
I decided to make it real easy on myself. I chose a small spiral bound sketchbook to make collages in. I kept a cardboard box filled with scraps and magazines, tape and glue, by the kitchen table. “I will make a collage every day until quarantine is over,” I said to myself. And I began.
I found that I tended to do my collage in the late morning, in the hour before lunch. After Mina and I had played or read books for a few hours, we would get dressed and then have art time. I tried to include Mina on the first few collage sessions but she lost interest pretty quickly. I decided that my collage time could be her educational video time. I made this collage while she was watching a video on tornados. I included the line, “even whole houses can get blown away.”
I wasn’t trying to make collage about the experience of being quarantined during a pandemic, but sometimes my reality was very evident in the finished piece.
Sometimes I would create a collage that I consider a “breakthrough” piece. These would happen when I was in a specific state of mind. I had to be relaxed, open, aware. I had to be willing to be patient with it, letting it come together in the right way when it was ready. This one I made when I was alone in the room, Mina and Benny playing video games upstairs. That was when I knew I couldn’t do these collages with my family around me; I needed to remove myself for the hour I was making art.
But apparently it took me almost another week to take action. This was the first collage I made at my art desk, with the specific intention of staying there, focused and uninterrupted, until I was done. Sometimes I would get help watching Mina from my mom or from Benny who by this time was working from home. So I was able to extract myself and say, “I’m going to go make my collage. Bye!”
Collage became my meditation. For one hour a day I would commit to be being present with shapes and color and images, and present with myself. I would listen to the subtlest of impulses, connect deep in the hopes of making something true. I would turn off my thinking by listening to a podcast, keeping my left brain occupied. I would dip down into my subconscious.
This is another one that I consider a breakthrough piece. I had been looking for how to make a collage simpler, with less elements, and still feel complete. This one felt like it was on another level. By using the discarded element from a previous collage, I had created an external frame and also an internal frame using negative space. This one also has an echo of another technique I discovered later on- collaging on top of photos.
Breakthroughs were rare, though. Most days my collages came out fine- not great, not bad. Not that I was necessarily in it to make “good” art, because I don’t even know what that means, but I was looking for something specific in the process and outcome- I was searching for harmony between elements, evidence that I had been present with the art and in touch with my intuition. Once in a while I made a collage that I almost hated, the result of feeling rushed or uninspired. This is my least favorite collage. I almost can’t even look at it.
This is another one that clearly conveys how I was feeling at the time without specifically intending to. I felt lonely, missing friends, sensing that other people were getting together for “distance hangs” but I was home with my family like always.
I kept looking for ways to make the collages simpler. I had started following other collage artists on Instagram and I noticed I was drawn to collages with a lot of space. Minimalism. I wanted to let it breathe, be calm and gentle. This one is one of my favorites. It was one of the few where I started out with an image in my head, of a hand reaching out and zapping something. I’d had sort of an electrifying day and it came out in the collage. What a thrilling moment when I was flipping through my magazines looking for the right kind of hand and there it was. I almost never look for a specific image. I’m not sure what led me to this impulse but one day I grabbed one of the old black and white photos I have in my scrap box and decided to collage over it. I’ve had these photos around forever and they always seemed too special to use. On this day I thought, “to hell with it. You’re going in.” I also kept getting a mental picture of a wrapped up package, something bundled and contained. I kept thinking about a pen pal my mom used to have when I was a teenager, who would send incredible collaged mail art, covered in green tape and string and had packages contained inside other packages to the point where unwrapping it was a long and strange process.
This one was fun. It was so gratifying to make a teeny tiny collage- it’s only about 2 by 3 inches. And then I had some nice little scraps left over. One of my favorites in the photo series. The colors have kind of a tropical feel to them. Silent and bold is an interesting combination. Back to the impulse to wrap something up, mail art style. There’s still a photo in there behind everything. After thinking more about this desire to package something, I realized there is some symbolism there- in quarantine, you’re contained, enclosed, your edges defined. And of course packages are even more a thing these days- getting your groceries delivered, buying things you need online, and hopefully, exchanging letters with friends. This is the house where Walt Whitman grew up. I like the earthy colors in this one. I had a little trouble covering up the woman’s face in this photo, so I compromised by letting her body show. I like how when her face is covered her body becomes almost an abstract shape. For a while I was just using the photo technique for the purpose of having a frame, a focal point. But at this point I started using more of the photo image. Then came George Floyd and the wave of protests against police violence and systemic racism. These issues were on my mind when I made these collages.
On June first my hair school reopened, with many new guidelines and restrictions. I started going back to school three days a week. By that point I had been making a daily collage for ten weeks. Quarantine still wasn’t over so it didn’t feel right to end the project but I decided to cut down to four collages a week, one for every day I wasn’t in school. My new vow was, “I will keep making collages until it no longer feels necessary.” Lately I’ve been doing one of my favorite things- making a big collage and cutting it up into smaller collages. I wanted to make some postcards to mail to friends so I did this one day and then couldn’t stop. It felt like a relief, after all that careful arranging of images in a harmonious composition, to just glue everything down haphazardly and then cut it up into satisfying and simple mini collages. This is the most recent one I’ve made. All my life art has been a fun hobby; this was the first time I felt like art really saved me. My daily collage practice has been a life raft and an anchor- keeping me above water and also tethering me to a spot so I don’t float away. In such a time of shifting realities and ever changing facts, explosive change and toppling systems, I needed this one consistent thing. A small chunk of time that I could look forward to every day, a space that was just mine, where I didn’t need to do anything but flip through magazines, cut out pictures, glue, tape, paint, breathe. And then sharing the image online made me feel somewhat connected to others, in a time when I felt so distant.
My collage practice has been feeling less necessary. I have places to be now, reasons to be outside the house and interacting with people other than my family. Times are still chaotic and uncertain, but I’m feeling the pull towards something else to keep me well- after all this sitting still my body wants to move. I need to make more time for yoga and exercise, so that will be my new phase of daily practice.
You can see all the collages on my website Serra’s Art Site Click on the tab titled Collages.