Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fragments of the Self

Drama queen that I am, I’ll say this: collage saved my life.

Six years ago, when I was up to my monkey mind in unresolved grief–over my mother's death, over the collapse of a relationship I'd expected would continue the rest of my life–I opened my friend Sara Norquay’s e-mail. Packing up for a stay in Paris, she made her modest proposal: I'll send you the first sentence of a story. Illustrate it, she said; then send me the next line. You won't see my pages. I won't see yours. The words we'll share in common. At the end, we'll find ourselves in the bargain we've struck with each other.

Great, I thought. Now I’m an illustrator who can't draw for shit. I'm in, I said. Hit me. Sara threw me a line. It became thread through the labyrinth, clothesline enough to hang myself with, fragments shored against my ruin, an unfamiliar garden long seen but known for the first time.

As I struggled to make Sara’s words mine, I sat with a miscellaneous pile of scraps: haiku my ex-partner and I had written for each other on paper napkins in the teahouse of a Japanese garden. Banknotes in European currencies no longer accepted as legal tender. A wasp’s nest collected on the campus where I teach. Playbills and invitations to exhibitions. Notecards I’d received. The wings of moths. Ticket stubs for Götterdämmerung. My own sketches, now cannibalized as raw material for this new project. A tourist map of Venice. A page torn from Remembrance of Things Past, partially burnt as the paper in which I’d rolled a joint.

The private associations of all these materials jostled with what they could possibly mean to anyone else. I found the freedom to lay these shards of memory out on paper precisely because they were neither wholly part of me nor wholly separate. Veiled safely in enigma, I spilled my guts.

Who wrestled with whose angel? Over the course of twenty images, I became Narcissus at his well; Icarus at take-off; Orpheus in the Underworld; shaman; fool; slut; Destroyer of Illusion; Brunhilde at the pyre; Blake’s tyger in the forest.

Collage is a natural medium of expression for a self always in process, always gleaning fragments from the treasure-house of experience, always asking, “What do I do with this?” Think of your deepest self as a sheet of flawless paper: perfect, receptive, awaiting transformation. Your experiences are the materials that you're given. Every day, you are the artist; every day, you are the work of the Artist. To sit with a sheet of paper and the scraps of your life, the images that lie to hand; to wait patiently until they’re ready to arrange themselves; to enter into a dialogue with what’s emerged and then to move it further along: this is a point where the material world can rub up against the evidence of things not seen.

My collaboration with Sara, “Mouffetard’s Week: An Unfamiliar Garden,” will be on display at Sage Café in Toronto during the month of September. Meanwhile, next week I head to Easton Mountain’s Gay Spirit Camp to lead two collage workshops, along with three on Queer Midrash as a response to Judeo-Christian Scripture.


  1. Wow, so now I learn that in addition to being a brilliant Latinist that you are also a gorgeous artist? These images are wonderful.

  2. So good to see traces of your path since we last met at the Centre--these look sumptuously mid-struggle, responsive and challenging response. I look forward to seeing them "in the flesh."

    Jenifer Sutherland