Paper and digital collage by Oklahoma artist Julia Lillard.
I was sitting in the parking lot of a Barnes & Noble yesterday. My best-friend and co-editor, JoAn, had just called. We hadn't talked for a couple of weeks, and I felt I needed to listen intently to what she had to say. We had a long conversation that flowed from short stories to haiku, from family to religion.
What stood out for me was her saying that she had just read two short stories in a journal out of Sacramento, and both ended poorly. In fact, neither even got off the ground, and both were contest winners. She said she enjoys the freedom of a non-specific literary direction, but these stories said little.
Her comments reminded me of what I have been questioning about visual art, the recent excitement over collage and mixed media. Is the art representative of anything? Is it enough to create randomly juxtaposed images? If the work says little to me, did it ever say anything to the artist?
The leading “outsider” art magazines often feature some form of a woman’s head atop a pink flamingo body, her gossamer dress on fire, her flamingo feet hovering aboveground. It occurs to me that our artistic boundaries have widened considerably, and within our boundless artistic freedom we may have lost something vital.
But then I remind myself that both JoAn and I are older, our worldview is different than someone 20, or even 40. A millennial may not care if a short story has a theme or if the flamingo-woman has meaning. It may simply be a flamingo woman with a gossamer dress laced with fire. Or the artist may be making allusions to her life, or possibly interpreting societal norms in her own way. Whatever the mixed media or digital artist is attempting to convey, most likely the work makes complete sense to him or her. Like in a fragmented poem, the artist can jump from one image to another and come full circle having traveled somewhere unexpected.
Still this discomfort of mine may speak to a desire to make metaphors, to create stories, to create order. I am uncomfortable with too much chaos. You wouldn't think so, I had five kids and now have 14 grandkids. I move frequently.
So why is this chaos different from the chaos I've chosen to invite into my life?
What if my poems and my tepid attempts at visual art, are my way of creating order in a universe of seeming chaos? When I write a line that describes an aspen, am I not capturing that tree? Am I not stalling it in time? Am I not comparing it to some other tree in some other season on some other mountain in an attempt to control the uncontrollable?
To pull the lines of the aspen poem together in order to construct a satisfying ending, has been the literary norm. Not to tie a bow on the tree, but to have said something meaningful about nature or aspens or the comparison of the summer aspen to the winter aspen, it's distinct bark the more stunning for not being hidden by wavering silver dollar leaves.
I am conflicted.
I like collage and mixed media art. I just took a mixed media class. I love the freedom to create at-will, without specific expectations or boundaries. But sometimes when I'm searching for inspiration, the series of birds on watercolor paper is more appealing than the random words pasted sideways on a flower than is growing straight out of a man's cranium.
And this discomfort with artistic ambiguity (that is my own) is worth investigating. What if not having distinct boundaries, artists and all creatives are developing a new reality? What if brave artists and poets, no matter their age, are perfectly equipped to set aside tradition, to experiment with undetermined juxtapositions?
What if women really do have flamingo heads, and I've been too stubborn to see?
I am caught between loving the voice that tells me to create without boundaries and that other voice that urges me to use lines from poems in mixed media, possibly even use the visage of the poet who spoke those words, i.e., Emily's face with interwoven strips of lines from "Nature" is what we see--
"Nature" is what we see--
The Hill—the Afternoon--
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee--
Nay—Nature is Heaven--
Nature is what we hear--
The Bobolink—the Sea--
Nay—Nature is Harmony--
Nature is what we know--
Yet have no art to say--
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
I fall back on the lines, "Nature is what we know--Yet have no art to say-- ..."
In these words I find the crux of my discomfort, the very reason I write, the tension that insists I create something, anything to make sense of my world. I will never have the perfect metaphor or painted line. If I do create a traditional work or something unbound, it will be specific to my aesthetic, not yours. You may be creating wildly without caution, or carefully developing a botanical drawing. In the end, it is personal, particular, and up to each of us to choose our venue, to dance with our own demons, and to share only what we are ready to share.
We ultimately have no art to say-- about nature or anything else, but we keep attempting to say it, each generation building on and stripping away past attempts.
My writing often deals with the environment, my poetry filled with allusions to natural and man-made disasters. I have unlimited hope though, there is just too much wonder in this world to become a defeatist. As Margaret J. Wheatley said, Hopelessness has surprised me with patience.