Process Problems

At the beginning of 2017, I started a new newspaper mosaic piece and I quickly became aware that I’d unintentionally given myself some new challenges to work through. Every artist deals with challenges, that’s nothing new. The task we’ve taken on is one of expressing our truths, and since we each have a unique perspective, how could it be otherwise that we as artists find new ways to express it and thus encounter new issues along the way?

How the artist reacts to the challenges plays a huge role in the process of making art. For me, personally, sometimes, such challenges are a welcome opportunity for growth and learning. And yet, at other times, they’re speed bumps that thwart progress and bruise my self-confidence. The difference is largely my own emotional state, though occasionally a lack of free time to address the challenges can be an additional hurdle.

Lack of free time wasn’t an issue for part of this past year, as work was slow, so the goal was to try to be disciplined about consistently putting in hours several times a week on the new piece.

If you’re not familiar with my other newspaper pieces, like Nolan’s Fireplace and Face It, those will links will show you some examples of my work in this style. This new piece, whose working title is Frida’s Broken Column, is a reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column. I’ve been drawn to Frida’s art for a long time, and found her biography to be a fascinating read. I chose this piece in particular to reproduce because I feel it intensely expresses her strong, brave outer shell while revealing and emphasizing her pain and vulnerability.  That contrast is awe-inspiring to me. Also, from a technical standpoint it’s simple enough to (in theory) finish in a reasonable amount of time (ha), yet it is dynamic, with its contrasting textures- the flowing fabric, the bare skin, the harsh rocks and the pits, etc.

So what new challenges have I encountered while working on this piece, and did they stall my progress?

The biggest problem that has arisen that is unique to this piece has to do with the surface I chose. My previous newspaper mosaics were done on either paper or untreated wood. For Frida, I selected a canvas that I’d picked up somewhere (part of a larger Stuff Magnet haul, I’d guess), and I laid gesso over the existing painting to create a fresh blank surface.

Soon after I began to glue newspaper to the canvas, I noticed that at times I could see the ink from the backside coming through the paper- something that hadn’t happened to me before. It turns out that in the past, the glue had absorbed into the paper or word. The gesso was preventing the glue from absorbing, so it went the only other way it could- back towards the surface.

It’s challenging enough to find pieces of newspaper that match in color hue and texture that are also devoid of conflicting lines- there was no way I could try to use the images and text on the back of the newspaper to enhance or modify the fronts as it bled through. After some analyzing, I came up with a new plan of attack: I’ll work on small chunks of the piece at a time and cut out blank paper in the shapes of those chunks, then glue the newspaper pieces to the shapes, so that the glue can absorb into the blank paper. After it dries, I’ll glue the smaller piece to the larger canvas.

I could, truth be told, scrap the whole thing and start over on a large piece of paper, but I am nearly halfway done with the background and would prefer to try to salvage it. Below you can see how far I got before I stalled out (along with a printed copy of her original painting as source material):

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A second, smaller problem was also created when the glue soaked back up through the paper: to begin working on an adjacent section, I would hold up pages or large pieces to determine position and shape, and trace out what was needed. But the back of the new pages would leave inky residue on the previously finished sections! That’s because since the glue had soaked back through, the pieces were tackier than I was used to. At first, once I became aware that it was happening (and that it wasn’t just my inky fingerprints being a little messy, which has happened in the past), I became discouraged from working in long stints and wanted longer drying periods in between working periods. But that was before I connected this problem with the larger problem of the glue having nowhere to go.

Now that I realize that the two issues came from the same stem issue- the glue needing an absorptive bottom layer- I am hopeful that my plan of gluing the newspaper to another piece of paper first before attaching it to the canvas with address both problems.

And now for the second question: did this new challenge cause me to stall my progress? Did it kill my momentum and take the wind out of my sails? Did it cause me to second guess, and to fall victim to my own Impostor Syndrome? Yes, it did. Almost ten months after first identifying and diagnosing the problems, and coming up with a plan of attack, and yet to this day I have done nothing else to move it forward. Writing this blog post even took way longer than it should have (I started it in April and it is now November), in part because of my self-guilt about allowing myself to delay. I had promised myself not to let huge gaps go by on this piece, as I did with the other newspaper pieces (the lesson I was supposed to have learned from doing those).

I could blame a small portion of the delay on adopting an injured cat right around the same time as this process hurdle’s discovery. Another, larger portion could be blamed on the employment/income-based self-esteem slump I experienced at the same time due to losing some freelance gigs, and the scramble that comes with trying to hustle up new work as a reaction to that. Work did eventually pick up and I became busy again (and now, in the holiday hectic season, there’s little chance of being able to carve out the time), which of course justified further procrastination.

And way too often I make the excuse to myself about not wanting to make the necessary mess that comes with doing the work (taking over part of the dining table with my newspaper scraps), because of various reasons like upcoming game nights, etc.

And it certainly doesn’t help that my studio space is in my apartment’s dining room and I have a very toxic relationship with my roommate, which means it takes even more motivation to work on the piece because it comes with having to interact with her.

But if I am honest with myself, the largest thing holding me back from starting again is the fear that I will start with this new approach, it won’t work, and I will have to start over. And the deeper fear that whether I start over or not, it will look like amateur crap that ends up in somebody’s trash bin someday.

And that’s a fear that I can conquer. I know because I have done it before and the world didn’t end. It won’t matter if it looks like crap, because it will be finished and I will have done my best, and life is too short to need anything beyond that to judge something a success.

Being vulnerable is an important part of what allows us to move forward. Saying, “here I am, take it or leave it, but I hope you take it” is a really hard, really necessary thing to do. I recently reread Amanda Palmer’s The Art Of Asking and was reminded of that both by her words and those of Brené Brown, who wrote the forward to that book in addition to her own wonderful books. I recommend them, both Palmer’s and Brown’s books, for anyone feeling even remotely stuck, stifled or in need of a lessons in empathy and love and giving.

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