I’m flipping through a copy of O, The Oprah Magazine from May 2018.
On page 40, there’s an image of Janelle Monáe’s album cover from that same year, “Dirty Computer.” It’s hard to believe it was all of two years ago that it first hit my Spotify account. I like her, so I take my scissors and snip-snap around the square image. Magazines are easiest to cut; the scissors just glide through the thin paper, making a satisfying little shearing sound.
There, an eye-catching red bunch of chiles on page 138, and on 139, a woman pouring tea in black and white, the steam rolling upwards. I cut it before I realize that cutting out steam is nearly impossible.
I start thinking of other red things, and involuntarily, they slide past my mind like a moving picture. The Fenty Beauty red lipstick I borrowed from my roommate that’s impossible to wipe off, almost like Rihanna is daring me to be eternally brave; red roses (that I secretly love — maybe I am a romantic); the song “Red Red Wine,” which I start singing softly under my breath; and garden-ripe tomatoes that are warm and bursting off the vines … chiles and tomatoes and now I’m thinking about salsa.
The mind wanders and floats through memory and meaning, and all of a sudden, I am surrounded by scraps of paper.
Collage. It’s simple, and I never feel dissatisfied with my ability to create. Other art forms make me feel less than competent, but collage is therapeutically tameable.
The act of pruning a page and recreating it makes me feel all-powerful. I am able to give the bird from my animal calendar four arms and make a kayak from the Boys’ Life magazine hurtle down the side of a mountain. It’s fast and creative and hectic. Careless and intentional. These magazine authors or page blueprinters didn’t write or design with the ambition to have their words or images taken and transformed. But collage gives me this incredible power to be grand designer, repurposer, Queen of Aesthetics.
There’s an image of a stuffed tiger on page 105 of a National Geographic issue from January 2010. For some reason, its glass eyes remind me not of hunting but of softness. Of how the breath of the animal must have felt when it was still warm. And suddenly I’m wrapped in my mother’s arms and am six years old again.
It’s Mother’s Day soon. I see a website offering photo gift collages, where I could piece together images of our family to place onto a phone case, a pillow, a mug, etc. … Look! Even a tote bag. A memento for life.
Kelly Richman-Abdou from My Modern Met tells me that “the term ‘collage’ comes from the French word coller, or ‘to glue’ … (and was) coined by cubist artists Braque and Picasso.” From what I can synthesize from Picasso’s images of disfigured, two-dimensional women in bright colors, cubism was a rupturing and then disassembling of the perfect physical form of the world. It makes sense that cubists would like collage.
Around the same time as the cubists came a similar but distinct art form called dadaism. Dadaists were the rebels of the art world following World War I. It was a movement born from a reproach of the brutality of war and included artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp (who signed a urinal and called it art) and Max Ernst. From the dada movement came surrealism and eventually, punk, whose long-haired kids with lip piercings, donkey kicks and angry music loud enough to drown out the world have collage to thank (in part) for their expressions of angst and anarchy.
According to the Salvador Dalí Museum, the dadaist movement was born in a satirical night club in Zurich, and its name — some believe — comes from the word “Dada,” which “evokes a childish and silly nature”: the antithesis of the seriousness of the time. Dadaists took collage to a whole new level. They started transforming the odds and ends of the material world into expression, evincing a bullish idealism. A desire to change the world, its parlor manner brand and laws of convention. Cubism and dadaism: the 20th century delivery of collage.
To me, collage is the textbook definition of multimedia. I could use anything to make something. Unused chicken wire, a sprig of cilantro, splashes of oil paint if I could afford it.
The spontaneity of choosing images can reflect inner mood and personal aesthetics. It almost reminds me, in a way, of social media — the scrolling and selecting and choosing the images I like best. But unlike the competitive atmosphere of generative posting, collage is entirely personal. There is no shame about what you choose and no one questions why, except maybe yourself. Also, unlike posting, there is the requirement that I have to take the time to carefully remove my chosen image or phrase. This takes time and concentration. It allows me to subliminally (or actively) let the image sink into the skin of my mind and take me on a journey into self. It stimulates my creativity rather than desire to please.
I’ve been spending a lot of time alone recently. The end of the semester winds closer, and the smell of burnout is running rampant in my nose. My friends are only one call away (and yes, I only know who Charlie Puth is because I looked up the lyrics to that song while writing this), but I feel more lonely than I ever have. I am antsy and impatient. I drink coffee like a fiend for no other reason than to have something for my body to do. I could be the only one who feels this way, but I doubt it.
Collaging helps, though. It gives my jittery fingers focus and my eyes pages to glide across, like a boat through rapids. My heart slows, and I am taken out of myself for an hour or two. When finished, I feel calmer, more in tune. It makes me feel better because I am giving in to the loneliness I feel. I am saying, “Yes, I am lonely, but I’m going to entertain these lonely feelings and have a one-person art party, and it’s going to be a blast.”
After the dadaists came the surrealists. The dream art. Where metaphysical imagination collided with the canvas. Surrealists included Joseph Cornell, who made three-dimensional collage pieces in boxes, evoking a physical manifestation of the dream jumping out at the viewer; and Salvador Dalí, whose greased moustache is no less famous than his Kafkaesque images of smooth and meticulous fantasy.
After recovering from cancer in 1941, Henri Matisse called his recuperation “une seconde vie,” or second life. He used this second life to get back to the root of color and design. Because he needed a wheelchair, he would form large-scale collages — gouaches découpés — with the help of assistants. Bright and organic, his renewed artistic expression reflected his renewed joy of life.
Matisse rejoiced in humble assertions of beauty and existence, and his art echoed that with resounding grace. “What I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” He called it “painting with scissors.”
I did a report on Matisse in the fourth grade. That’s also when I remember moving past safety scissors. Collage isn’t about being safe or tidy. It hurts to cut up pictures sometimes. I think, “Maybe I’ll make it look worse than it was before.” But I deal too much with perfection in life. And expectations. And production of. It’s freeing to let loose with the scissors. To haphazardly let your imagination take you whither it will. In and out of dream, into loneliness and back again.
But safety scissors are important for a while. Do not try this at home without them.
Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected].