I’ve been working on a large, papier maché doll during the past week or so (Actually around ten days). I tend to lose track of time while working on a piece. It’s flow state in action. Social distancing and being isolating has just meant that I have had even longer stretches of time in which to immerse myself completely and totally into the artwork that I am making. It’s also that time of year in which I look out the window and think, “Oh. It must be around 18:00 or 19:00.” when in actuality, it’s closer to 23:00. I usually start work between 9 and 10 and only break for meals. I’m insanely fortunate as I have a husband who does all the cooking. He’s the one who makes me stop and eat a real meal. (Lunch today is left over sweet and sour pork!)
While working, I’m not only actively working with, and reacting to, the tools and materials directly in front of me. I’m talking to my work and myself then entire time. This on-going dialogue is an integral part of my entire creative process. I cannot imagine creating artwork without it. These artist journal posts are more or less a neater and tidier second draft of the dialogues going on in my head while I am actively creating artwork.
Many of the questions I ask myself are fairly easy to parse out and resolve either on my own, or with the help of a discussion with my husband or a fellow doll artist online. Talking to others when I cannot come to a conclusion myself is a much needed element. Without it, I would become what my husband calls “axel-wrapped” and make myself miserable. Sometimes, there are questions that I have to become a little axel-wrapped over, before I talk to anyone. I think the questions that have been coming to the forefront of my thoughts over the past week or so are those kinds of thoughts. I think because they each speak to the uniqueness of each artist. And that sometimes, there just may be no easy, clear-cut answers to some questions.
Here are the questions that have been banging around inside my flow-states while working:
What do my choices of materials say about me as an artist?
If I were being cheeky, I’d say that my choice of materials says, “Yes. I’m poor.” but I don’t think it’s quite as easy as that. These larger dolls are made with papier maché, using newsprint and PVA glue instead of wheat paste. I use a lot of corrugated cardboard and carton board. I make my own gesso. I use inexpensive things like bamboo meat skewers and toothpicks. I use paint and pencil to decorate the surfaces, along with embroidered elements on felt.
I often wonder if my artwork would be taken more seriously if I just stopped after creating the cardboard substructure covered with newsprint and glue. Or what if I just stopped after covering the components with gesso and sanding them. Maybe if I carved words in surfaces? What if I covered the surfaces with used bits of trash I find when out walking? Maybe I could light the piece on fire and then film it? Perhaps I’m just thinking too much. Maybe I should just make the entire doll out of wood, like a puppet? Or stone, make it a “Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy” kind of homage?
The short answer to that is, “Because I don’t want to.” I’ve had some people tell me that they like my large papier maché dolls when they are left white, with no further work done to them. I’ve had others tell me that they don’t understand why I make them moveable. I should just make them static, like a statue. Some have said that the large dolls are a bit of a visual overload for them, and maybe I should just do less embellishment work on them. When confronted with these sorts of comments or unsolicited advice, I remind myself of Bowie Rule #1 for Making Art: Make your art for yourself and no one else.
So. No. I won’t do any of those things, because I’m making my artwork for myself first and foremost. This still doesn’t answer my question though. What do my choice of materials say about me as an artist?
Let’s start unpacking it.
The first thing they say is that I’m resourceful. I cannot work in ceramics right now, or in woodworking, both being mediums that require more expensive materials, more space and more tools that are all way outside my ability to pay for them at present. I’m resourceful because I’m not looking at what I don’t have to make art with and being depressed about it. I’m looking at my environment and see what I do have and designing ways to make it do what I want it to do.
My choice of materials says that I can look at the potential of seemingly unrelated items and imagine how I can bend them to my own creative will to make art. In the creation of the large papier maché doll I’m currently working on, I needed a spheroid piece for the upper part of the leg where the legs are attached to the torso. I had nothing on hand that even remotely fulfilled my need. I could have altered the structure of the torso and created flatter joints, but I didn’t want to. Instead, I created two cubes of corrugated cardboard and carved the spheroid forms with blade. The other option I had was to create the spheroid forms using a paper fiber and glue. I thought that the form I needed was too large for it to dry completely, so I went with the corrugated cardboard option.
When using materials that are not necessarily standard art-making materials, I’m required to use my accumulated knowledge of art production, including my time as an art teacher, as an art student in the early 1990’s to guide my art practice. Gesso in Finland is more expensive, so I make my own. I’ve found two of the required components that I can easily acquire for less than 8€, and they’ll make a lot of gesso. The white paint that I get at a local art supply store is a little more expensive, but since I’m saving money on the vast majority of my materials (some being free), I feel as though the expense is well worth it.
I also shop a lot at second hand stores. This again requires me to look at an object and not just see what it is, but imagine what it could possibly be made into. I also pick up a lot of threads, yarns, fabric and storage containers (so many tins!) at second hand stores as well. Yeah, the tin used to be for a Russian made loose tea, now it holds some of my art supplies.
What this all says about me is that I can take objects from my immediate environment and shape them to my personal creative will. I can imagine things and make them with my own two hands. So yeah. I’m poor as in, I have less cash to work with, but I’m certainly not poor in ideas for creating my own personal artwork with the things around me.
My second question (related to my first question):
What to the techniques I employ with regard to those materials say about my art?
I kind of addressed this above, through the, ‘Why don’t I just leave the large papier maché dolls as is with newsprint or gesso showing?‘ Again, uh…because I don’t want to…? No. That’s too easy. I paint the surfaces of the dolls, sometimes using different painting and simple printmaking techniques. I draw on the surfaces of the dolls. I add a significant amount of embroidery to the surface of the dolls. I add elements that move, or can be discovered. I hide things in the drawers of the dolls.
Why do I do all of these things?
The short answer is that I like to sew by hand. I find it exceedingly enjoyable to create my own embroidery elements to add to my the larger papier maché dolls. I come from a long line of women who sew, and I’m continuing this tradition, just in a slightly different way. I also have experience in fine art printmaking, and bookbinding, jewelry making, crocheting and knitting and other artistic mediums that require a modicum of knowledge and experience to utilize their techniques correctly. I love mixing my mediums and my techniques. I’m just not one static thing, so why should my artwork be one, static thing? I often feel as though my education and experience as a graphic designer and illustrator (largely two-dimensional) is just as important during the creation of my personal artwork as any of my experiences as an art teacher (working in two and three-dimensions).
The question of technique, brings me to craftsmanship. I know what the average person thinks of papier maché as a medium. It’s something that little kids do in elementary school. They make volcanos out of it. There is a ‘lesser than’ idea about it. I think part of the reason I like using papier maché is because of some of these erroneous beliefs. I want to show people what can be achieved with the medium through attention to detail and craftsmanship. Craftsmanship and technique go hand-in-hand I think.
Anyone can mix up some water and glue and apply it to a form, making it look the way that you want it to, that’s a different matter entirely. Getting the paper to lay flat and adhere to the layer beneath it. Do I use a brush or my fingers. Which fingers? Index? Middle? Thumb? How much glue do I use? Should all the newspaper go the same way, or should just paste it on all willy-nilly? Through time, and attention, and repetition, I have refined my personal papier maché techniques. I know when I should create separate components, and attach them at a later date with papier maché. Some components I create entirely separately, and only join them after painting and finishing the surfaces of them. Some components remain completely removable. No one taught me this. I learned it through my personal art practice.
That to me says that I like problem solving. I like being challenged. I love gaining the knowledge and experience through encountering these problems in my art creation so that I can keep building upon them as a practicing artist. I think one of the questions on the Proust Questionnaire is something like, ‘What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?’ Boredom always comes to mind for me (among many other things). I do not like being bored, and being that I’m a fairly self-contained person, I can spend endless hours creating artwork by myself. (Who am I kidding? I can spend weeks making artwork on my own.)
These two questions can be answered sarcastically by me, and dismissively by those who see my artwork. Those who dismiss me and my work perhaps are leaning on their own preconceived notions regarding what they think art is and isn’t. Perhaps they think my choice of theme is juvenile, or they think dolls are creepy, so they just don’t even stop to look. For those who stop and look and then think about my medium and technique choices, they will find that they each say a lot about who I am as a person as well as an artist.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next Monday.
Marcel Duchamp, Artist (creator of ‘Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy’) He’s one of my favourite artists. Dada and Surrealism shape a great deal of the artist I am today.