Collage is one of my favorite art forms, because it is so much like writing creative nonfiction, for which you assemble and gather words and stories that exists in other forms – in writing, this would be research from books, studies, extractions from people’s thoughts via interviews.
I’m of course not the first to notice the connection between collage and writing. From The Art of Assemblage, by William Chapin Seitz:
The arrangement of words, each carrying with it an image or an idea surrounded by a vague aura of associations, is close to the method of collage. The poet’s most important tool is the metaphor — the joining together of two things which are different…Because overtones and associations as well as physical materials are placed in juxtaposition, it could almost be said that a constellation of meanings can exist independently of the colors, textures and forms which are its carriers.
A few months ago, I went to the Strand Book Store to plunder the $1 and $2 remaindered books for collage materials. (This was an assignment for a design class I took at the School of Visual Arts.) When I found an old haggadah – that’s a guidebook for running a Passover seder — I immediately knew I’d use it. As a child, my first memories of Passover include passing around several different haggadahs during the meal –- to blend together the seders that the adults in the family remembered from their individual upbringings. No one haggadah did the trick. So although the word “seder” means order, the experience was not orderly, it was pieced together – more of a collage.
Many years later, when my then-husband and I staged a huge seder for family and friends I explained to any guest who was Jewish and might actually know how the thing was supposed to work the approach we took to the seder would be more along the lines of “fuck the rules.”
Continuing to browse at the Strand, found The Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book. It demanded to be joined with the haggadah –- the books were of the same size and approximate age, similar type of paper, although slightly different tones. The Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook gave directions for the culinary aspects of these traditions, translating into English, in the same way that the haggadah gave directions for the way the Passover meal was to proceed, operating under the assumption that translation and step-by-step directions would be necessary. “Lift the cup.” “100 pounds of ham (from corn-fed hogs.)”
When I was in my early twenties, I lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for nine months I have since referred to as long and dark. When I first went to look around, I felt comforted by all the Jewish-sounding names – Hofstadter, Petersheim. I figured I’d be able to get a good bagel, at the least, and that I would find some cultural similarities with the populace that I had not found living in upstate New York, where being Jewish even in my own vague way made me exotic. In my experience growing up in New York, German last names were Jewish.
Not in Central Pennsylvania, because the Amish were German and most assuredly Not Jewish. I learned about scrapple, did not find good bagels, and, my then-husband and I were lectured for mowing our lawn on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. This was the Eastern reaches of the Bible Belt, a place where for many of the people there, religion influenced daily life. (The Amish and their buggies, the Mennonites and their caps.) There was an order to things and I was outside of it.
So I had those two elements for my collage. The next day, I went to Jackson Heights, and came across an edition of the Pakistani Post. It, too, was a soft shade that would work with the papers I’d already gathered, plus, Arabic lettering is beautiful.
And of course, I immediately saw the cheek of combining all these elements, of representing three of the world’s major and most conflicting religions in one fractured piece. I know it’s a gross oversimplification, but I like to think we can boil this all down to shifting culinary allegiances. The pork prohibition connects Jews and Muslims, but divides from Christians. Alcohol unites Jews and Christians, but divides from Muslims. (Theoretically, or should I say, theologically, if not practically.)
I do mean for the English words to be read; I took care in their placement to make new sentences or sentence fragments. (Click each image to enlarge.) I can’t read either Hebrew or Arabic, so I don’t know what message I’ve included in this piece in those languages. Those words are just shapes to me. But I also like that aspect of it, since my creative material until lately has been only words. In some ways, this piece represents my first step to see words as shapes and images, and not agents of mere meaning.