Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Looking Back - OR - Catching Up in Three Easy Installments: Pt. III

Almost there, gentle readers!  This post provides a 'behind the scenes' look at my latest (and largest, to date) creation:  "Ode to Cornell in A Minor" -- currently on display at Artist Alley in Southern Pines, NC as part of the Carolina Mixed Media Art Guild's Take 25! challenge show.  For the third year in a row, we have returned to March Mixed Media Madness with a new take on the "artist's scavenger hunt."  In years past, we have received:  (1) a box filled with the ingredients that we must use to create our works, and (2) a listing of items that we might interpret as we like to reach that end.  This year, each participant added an item to the list of goodies that could be used as creative fodder, up to the limit of twenty five.  To make them easier to find, I have made each of the required elements bold and blue throughout this post (there is an actual list on the postcard for the Opening, at the bottom)  ;-)

My Ode
Mixed media assemblage on wood panel

In accordance with the rules of engagement, participants are allowed the use of any and all colorants (paints, pastels, inks, etc.), adhesives (tape, glue, resin, etc.) and connective devices (screws, wire, thread, etc.); and may add up to two additional items (i.e. substrate, 'accessories', etc.).  One also had the option to delete up to two items from the list.  After receiving the list at the beginning of February, my wheels started turning.  Trying to figure out how to combine all of these elements into a cohesive piece of work is really at the heart of our challenge events; and this year was no exception.  Snatches of ideas, whirling thoughts, snippets of dreams -- you never know from whence your inspiration will come; and there were times when some of us felt that it might just not show up, at all!?!  I was fortunate, in that I have had the notion of a series devoted to Joseph Cornell kicking around in my head for quite some time.  In light of the disparate items on this list, it was almost like being given the charge to "make it be so!" 

Having been an admirer of the shadow-box assemblages of Cornell for many years, in addition to being quite the collector of ephemeral bits myself, the choice was rather easy.  The implementation of that choice, however, was downright nerve-wracking at times!  I have a tendency to work 'inside my head' in the early stages of any creative endeavor -- I often need to be able to see it to make it happen.  Such was the case with this years challenge...  I consumed *some might say 'wasted' - but I say "Nay! Nay!"* the first couple of weeks by filtering ideas through the winding paths of my Swiss Cheese brain.  The only way for me to make it work was to figure out how all these pieces fit together to tell a story worth 'hearing.'  The final telling was an interwoven tale of Cornell and me (with nods to special people and things, and events in my own life).

It all started with the perfect work surface.  Using an 18 x 24 in. cradled panel, I applied a thick layer of gesso with a palette knife.  The end goal was to create the look of old plaster.  I had read that Cornell often put his boxes in the oven to speed the drying/curing of the gesso (and encourage the cracking of the surface treatment) -- which is all well and good when one is working with a cigar box or a bureau drawer; but not so much when you have a two foot board!  *surprise!  it didn't fit in my oven - ha!*  I took advantage of a bright sunny day, and prayed that the outdoor critters wouldn't be too interested in what I was up to ;-)  Once the base layer was dry, I added dimension with a glaze of Burnt Umber and Matte Medium -- working darker around the edges, and wiping away portions across the surface.  TA-DA!  Instant aging!  It looked a little 'flat' tho' -- so the next wash was a tiny bit of Payne's Grey and Matte Medium to grunge things up a bit; and bingo!  ...that worked like a charm.  I could have been looking at a section of wall from an old villa in a far off land - happy was I, indeed!  Background elements were then added from dictionary pages (wording and illustrations), and map legends/notations - placed to accentuate the next layer of the story.  These bits and pieces were somewhat obscured from view by an additional wash of Matte Medium very lightly tinted with Burnt Umber -- just to knock them back a bit.  To draw the eye around the canvas, the various definitions used were highlighted with silver paint (applied with the curious ingredient of a toilet paper roll).

A Magnificent Array of Metals
...all embossed, and ready to go!
Then, the individual components of my story needed to be constructed...  Ain't it always the way:  you figure out the perfect approach; but grossly underestimate the time it takes to bring it to being!?!  As my very wise Mammoo often intones:  "It always takes longer than you think!"  *ahhh, truer words were ne'er spoken!*  Since it was I who suggested the use of "a shot of the hard stuff - METAL(S) - any and all," I was well set to utilize one of my favorite things on the planet:  the deliciously colored art metals from Ten Seconds Studio!  I managed to incorporate NINE different colors of their metals, which were embossed using their molds and other texturing tools.  Since I wasn't actually working within a box, having all of these different 'vignettes' within my piece was key to giving the work the depth that I wanted.  Enter the next curious component:  cardboard!?!  With my trusty Stanley No.199 utility knife in hand, I went to work reducing a DHL Express box to customized platforms of various thicknesses on which to "float" the various pieces of my artistic puzzle!  The actual letter C was nestled on an embossed metal background that allowed me to highlight my own first initial, to boot!  Additional metallic goodness came in the form of:  old, rusty keys, antique pen nibs, star frame (actually a promotional ashtray lid) for photo of Bacall, the compass on the book cover (both metal and glass), and more *read ON!*

Key Element:  Cardboard
(used throughout as risers and supports
for various components
Select items (portrait of Cornell, bees wax background, Rose Breasted Grossbeak mini assemblage) were housed in metal tins and/or lids; thus providing additional layering elements.   I had the great fortune to stumble upon a North American Bird Migration Map (ca. 1974), which allowed for the inclusion of a very 'Cornellian' element in the mini-shadow box tin housing the Rose Breasted Grossbeak (along with a downy, white feather) -- birds were a common feature in both his collage and assemblage works.  Highlighting the years our kids were born using the page numbers from an old dictionary added the 'old school' archeological feel to the bird eggs, which were meticulously crafted from polymer clay.  The paint job on those eggs was one of my finest moments in this piece -- they are spot ON representations of the actual eggs of the Rose Breasted Grossbeak!  *and I fully realize that that probably matters to no-one but me - lol!*  Placement of the three Walnut halves made for a logical tie-in to the whole birds/trees part of the story; and let me check "nut" (organic or otherwise) off the list!

Nekkid Eggs
Did You Know?
The average clutch of Rose Breasted Grossbeak
eggs contains four (4) eggs.
 Cornell often used imagery that evoked the constellations in his backgrounds.  That knowledge informed my use of a map of the night sky over New York, NY on December 24, 2010 (12/24 being his birthday) as the background to the vignette featuring a photo of Lauren Bacall.  He was quite infatuated with LB; and created one of his signature shadow boxes featuring her image as part of his "penny arcade" series.

As I have done each year thus far, I managed to incorporate a book into the construction of the final work.  I created a spiral folded book from a coast-to-coast cross section of a US map -- the end-leaves of which were maps of Hollywood, CA  and Queens, NY (a wink at Cornell's near-obsession with various starlets over the years - in spite of his rarely leaving the state of NY).  A pair of vintage, aluminum coasters covered in embossed metal became the covers. This book is an interactive element; and is attached using Velcro (which was also used to create the closure for the book, accented with a tiny, metal hinge).

Full Metal Jackets!
Man, oh, man - I love some metal
The photo of an elderly Cornell was framed with a mirror, after a portion of the backing had been 'distressed away' with a wire brush and 000 steel wool.  The brackets that housed my trio of bottles (glass) were a fortuitous discovery on a recent hardware store romp -- they were given an industrial finish using a metallic under coat and a patina solution.  The corks in the bottles are actually tightly rolled strips of cardboard from a Starbuck's cup sleeve; and each was sealed with tinted bees wax.  The bottles contained:  (1) brightly colored, dyed seashells, (2) a lock of hair *which totally freaked out the poor dog - even tho' she leaves way more than that on the floor, every day!*, and (3) a single, natural seashell with glitter as sparkling sand.  I looked long and hard to find glitter that didn't look like glitter; and was thrilled to discover "glow in the dark" glitter that actually looked like sand *bonus!

The skirt on the embossed metal dress form allowed me to incorporate the required fabric element; and it was finished with a hand beaded waist-band of fine-gauge, copper mesh. I aged some cotton lace ribbon with super strong instant coffee, before threading an old, metal tape measure through it's central openings -- which had previously housed a solid satin ribbon.  This component was attached with copper tacks, and embellished with a 'pull-tab' fashioned from a decorative hinge.  Additionally, the horizontal line of beads on a wire allowed for the handy inclusion of necessary hardware bits -- how could I not embrace the opportunity to employ the use of a wing-nut!?!  *besides, I just love saying it -- WING-NUT!

I incorporated the broken piece of jewelry by creating string of watch faces and tiny brass gears that mimic the path of the sun through the sky -- highlighted by an additional metal treasure:  a Claddaugh fashioned from pewter.  A piece of metal filigree served as a breast plate on the dress form, and was adorned with an additional, rose-bedecked watch face.  The old paint tube was distressed with a layer of copper antiquing solution; and blended nicely with the overall palette of the piece.

Whispers of Other Places
Maps add loads of visual interest,
and beautiful colors without paint!
I was thrilled that "a map or portion of a map" was on the list of allowed items.  I love maps!  I have used them in loads of other work and had lots of fun with varying types of maps in this piece.  Using a coastal current map, an aerial navigation map, atlas pages, and various scales/legends added details and visual texture throughout.  This made for a very, very happy me!

Finally, the placement of three puzzle pieces painted with Metallic Bronze and accented with silver question marks invite viewer to ponder this visual tale -- while, at the same time, adding another visual cue to help guide the eyes.  On the lower left hand corner, attached with copper tacks, is an old metal file tab frame with a snippet from a map legend reading "Explanation."

So, in the end, I managed to use all but one of the listed items *I just couldn't comfortably find a way to include the fringe (?);* and only added one additional item:  the panel on which it was all married together).  Try as I might, I have yet to be able to get everything in!  Maybe next year...  

Opening Event Postcard
It's not too late to take in the show!
The Take 25! Exhibit will be on display until April 16, 2011 at
Artist Alley - 167 E. New Hampshire Ave. - Southern Pines, NC
Visit anytime, Monday - Saturday from 11:00 - 5:00

I am extremely pleased with the final result!  I'd love to hear your thoughts, too (?)  Who are your creative mentors?  Do you find yourself working in the style of any particular artist?  While this piece was envisioned as a tribute to Cornell, I don't feel that it is merely mimicry of his work and/or style.  The process of creating this years Masterpiece was a wonderful experience.  It has my creative juices flowing, again!  ...and visions of paper-love dancing in my head.

Onward & Upward!
 - pla

Words of wisdom for today:

"All art is autobiographical;
the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."
                                                          - Federico Fellini

   Photo Notes:
   All photos taken with my trusty Panasonic Lumix (DMC-ZS1) - set to natural light, with slow sync/red eye flash.


  1. Penny, as always your work is so inspiring. You are such a classy artist. Ever to be remember for your funky style and cool art. Keep rocking it out, chickie!

  2. Thanks, lady! That's might high praise, coming from you ;-) I appreciate your checking it out, and the kind words!
    - p

  3. wonderful composition!

    as far as my skectch art goes...danny gregory, gay kraeger,
    and cathy johnson are my influences
    i want to be like them when i grow up. :-)

  4. Thanks, Amanda!
    Glad to 'see' you here :-) I have been contemplating Danny Gregory's book for a while now -- you may have nudged me off the fence ;-)
    - p

  5. I don't know how I missed this post. This piece is FAB-U-LOS! Love how you put this all together and made it so "you". Now I know what you can teach us next time...or hell, we could do our own mini version of this next time we're all together? Hmmmm.

    Love it & you!

  6. well... i am glad you found it ;-) thanks, sweets! this piece was pure joy to complete -- the more i poured over the list of 'ingredients,' the more ideas spilled into the margins! the only reason this wasn't built into a box a la Cornell, was down to the inability to incorporate a box and cover within the guidelines -- i have several other "cornellian" works rolling around in the Swiss cheese labyrinth of my brain... time will tell, i suppose ;-)


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