Memoir on Canvas: Part 3

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.  ~Henry Ward Beecher

This the last of a three-part series on this project …

At this point, the portrait finally gains a three-dimensional layer. It’s the most enjoyable step in the process, giving the imagination free reign and a permission slip to have fun.

For this step youll need an industrial-strength glue to secure the heavier objects to the piece. I use E-6000 on most mixed-media projects.

To create the headdress, I combed through several boxes of treasure Ive collected from thrift stores, garage sales, craft stores and flea markets.  Old rhinestone jewelry, vintage hardware, buttons, sewing notions. … You name it, I collect it. And when Im out walking or riding my bike, I often stop to pocket bottle caps, gears, and rusted can lids. Finding soulful beauty in these found objects, I often make a home for them in my artwork. To me, the broken or damaged items have more character — their own backstory — and I love how they add an air of intrigue to any piece of artwork.

For this self-portrait project, I let my mind wander as I selected items to build the headdress. Think of it as free association.

It struck me that the headdress could double as an expression of whats going on inside my head while Im dreaming or working out a problem, for instance. I thought about the goals I‘d scripted for my life when I was young — and where the journey has taken me since.

Rust and rhinestones

Picking through my button collection, I found a small copper button engraved with a locomotive. This item appealed to me instantly, reminding me of my sons boyhood fascination with trains and all the lovely times we spent walking the railroad tracks at a local park. (Some of the rusty iron and tin scraps used in this piece were collected near those same tracks.)

Likewise, the old fountain pen nibs honor my writing career, so I inserted them at the lower right side of the headdress. The weathered faucet grips (pilfered from my husbands hardware stash in the basment) and the twigs (from our back yard) salute my interest in gardening and the natural world.

Because I was born in Detroit — and my Scottish-immigrant grandfather had a tool and die shop — I wanted the headdress to have some edgy, industrial components. So, I included small gears and rusty machine parts along with the sparkling rhinestone jewelry. The Celtic knot triangle at the top of the headdress represents my beloved Scots-Irish heritage, while the stars sprinkled in the background suggest the night sky, when we’re all dreaming.

Most important of all, the butterfly – floating in three different places – has been my personal totem for many years. During the roughest times in my life, including my two hip-replacement surgeries, the butterfly served as a reminder of transformation, hope, and recovery.

Lastly, in the “necklace” I created, youll see a remnant of costume jewelry, missing its original stone, which I refashioned to contain the photograph of an eye. Flipping through a fashion magazine, I found a photo of a female celebrity whose eye color looked fairly close to mine. (Can you guess whose eye it is?) The eye detail borrows from the mythology of the “all-seeing” eye, but also plays as a pun on the word “I” – all in good fun and just right for a self-portrait like this.

Once I adhered my chosen objects to the canvas, I applied another wash of black paint and antiquing glaze around the items that needed to be toned down.

I can hear some of you asking: Why bother with the background layer, given that it barely shows beneath the other layers? In a nutshell, making a collage is a process of trial-and-error. It’s all about discovery and surprise — a lot like crafting a life. The past – our base layer – informs the life we have now, no matter how much we’ve morphed and changed in the process.  Along the way, we keep adding little gems of experience and a few hard-as-metal lessons. – Cindy La Ferle

— For a larger view, please click on each photograph; it will enlarge a couple of times if you click on a section of interest. If you missed the first two parts of this series, simply scroll down to the posts following this one. — 

All photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle

Memoir on Canvas: Part 2

“Creativity always takes courage. — Henri Matisse

This is part two of a three-part series …

Bring on the acrylic paints! Adding more texture and brighter color to the background layer is the next step before adhering a photo of myself to the center.

Not unlike adolescence, this part of the process can be a little scary, not to mention messy.

As Matisse pointed out, creativity demands our courage. Having learned this lesson the hard way over the years, I keep trying to push myself out of my comfort zone, whether I’m working on an article or an art project.

You’ll recall from yesterday’s post that I was pleased with the fresh look of my first background layer — and was tempted to leave it alone.

Instead, I asked myself which areas of the layered canvas I wanted to show through – even slightly – in the final piece. From the start, I wanted the red-haired Renaissance child to show through the additional layers of acrylic paint and stain — plus I wanted to retain a few letters of the alphabet. So, I made sure I didnt cover too much of those areas when I layered more paint on the canvas.

Why the bright splashes of red and neon pink? I wanted some color to warm up the darker “antiqued” palette I’d planned for the portrait. These colorful, random splashes will almost disappear once I layer a thin wash of sepia-toned acrylic stain over the entire background layer. (Please click on the photos for a larger view.)

I’m drawn to things that have a patina or a worn, “aged” appearance — they carry a certain mystery and romance. Of course, that’s simply a matter of personal style and taste. This might not appeal to you, so it you prefer a brighter palette, go for it. There’s not a “right way” to do this, so it’s best to leave any trace of perfectionism at the back door.

Next, for heavier texture, I squeezed generous amounts of tacky craft glue (Elmers is one choice) on the corners and swirled them into circular shapes. My goal was to imitate the look of an ornate picture frame at the edges.

Later, as you will see below, I added touches of metallic gold and bronze paint to these areas after the glue dried.

Next step:  Toning it down, adding the photograph

Once the glue dried, I began the process of toning down the background layers, to make them recede behind the photo to be added at the next stage. To do this, I thinned deeper shades of brown and charcoal paint with a glazing medium, then dabbed it over the canvas with a sponge or paper toweling. Again, my goal was to create depth and texture; to make the piece three-dimensional.

Now, to make this a real self-portrait, I placed a copy of a vintage black-and-white photograph in the center of my layered canvas. (I was about 25 years old in this photo, so it qualifies as “vintage” — right?)

As noted earlier, I wanted the painting of the Renaissance child to show in the portrait, so I positioned my own photo in such a way that the child appears to be looking over my shoulder.

I liked the way this plays on the idea that “the past” is always behind as an influence, and that my younger self is still part of me.

Again, I used gel medium to adhere my black-and-white photo, then let it dry. Then — using a lot of Mod Podge — I added a few scraps of old lace at the neckline to create a collar. After it dried, I layered several washes of stain over the lace.

While I wanted to “tone down” the background layers, I decided not to antique the photo of myself. With the darker palette I envisioned for the final version, I knew that I’d want the face to “pop” from the background. But my “Memoir on Canvas” is nowhere near completion here — and the fun part is next. Stay tuned …

TOMORROW: Adding found objects and finishing the portrait

 — All photos and material copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle —

School supplies for Mom

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver

I have a hunch that fall will arrive early this year. Maybe its the angle of sunlight on the black-eyed Susans in our perennial garden. Or maybe it’s the snap and crunch of acorns under my tires when I bicycle around the neighborhood.

Whatever triggers it, I cant ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies — even though I dont have a student anymore.

It’s been four years since my son moved to his own place in Chicago. Yet I still struggle to wrap my mind around the fact that Im officially an empty nester.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood — the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch boxes — I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my little boy started school each year. Id thank the Blessed Mother every time I dropped him off at the local Catholic grade school, believing it was a miracle to have several kid-free hours a day to meet deadlines and run errands all by myself. In those days, the calendar on our kitchen wall was a perpetual list of music lessons, Cub Scout meetings, school conferences, field trips, baking marathons, and rotating carpool schedules. (And I was the mother of an only child.)

Even now, I cant fathom how any parent finds the time to juggle it all, no matter how many children she has.

Spreading my own wings

In retrospect, Im surprised at how long it took to adjust to the void my son left when he moved into his freshman dorm at college. His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping its door shut. Up until then, I hadnt fully realized that the vocation I’d enjoyed most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was mothering.

Determined not to become a long-distance helicopter parent, I had to figure out where to devote my maternal energy during this uncharted phase of my middle age. I needed to explore something different — something just for myself. Was it time for a puppy or a brand-new hobby? The late-summer ritual of buying school supplies provided my first clue.

The week before his big move to college, my son and I headed for the nearest office supply store. While my son made a beeline for the computer supplies, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored markers, glitter glue and drawing pads.

And thats when my inner artist — whod been banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college — finally reasserted herself. I had no idea what she planned do with all the tubes of glitter glue and Magic Markers she tossed in our shopping cart, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think author John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Which is exactly what I needed at the time.

A month later, I went shopping for real art supplies at Michael’s craft store, where I also discovered several art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. By the end of that fall, Id started clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. While my son studied (and partied) through his freshman year at college, I happily painted, cut, and pasted a whole new path of my own.

No matter how old we are, school bells signal a change of seasons and inspire us all to start something fresh. For me, its time to put the garden to rest and head back indoors to discover where art will lead me next. In preparation for a new season of creative projects, Ive already swept the floor of the studio, which I now consider my classroom. Last week I made a list of the things I’ll need to get started — and I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

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School supplies for Mom

The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.” — Julia Cameron

Remember the late-summer thrill of buying notebooks, Magic Markers, and bright yellow Ticonderoga pencils for a new year of grade school? And who could forget the incomparable scent of a fresh box of Crayolas? For me, the ritual of buying school supplies softened the hard reality of summer’s end.

Even if your kids have flown from the nest, the beginning of the new school year still inspires personal growth and renewal.

Is there a dormant passion you’d like to rekindle? A hobby waiting for you to explore? My new column on Royal Oak Patch details the first season my son left home for college, and how I started a new “term” in the school of lifelong learning. Included with the essay are several photos of my art projects.  Please click here to read it. — Cindy La Ferle

School supplies

Midlife is a time to listen deeply to your heart, a period of transition and reappraisal.” — Carl Jung

I have a hunch that fall is arriving early. Maybe its the angle of sunlight on the last of the black-eyed Susans in my perennial garden. Or maybe it was the sound of berries and acorns crunching under my bicycle tires on the nature trails yesterday.

Whatever triggered it, I cant ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies – even though I dont have a student to buy them for.

My only child did exactly what all parents hope their kids will do. He grew up. He attended the university of his choice, then started a grown-up’s job just two months after commencement ceremonies.  His dad and I helped him pack up the car, headed with him down the expressway, and waved a tearful good-bye in front of a small flat in Chicago after we unloaded the last piece of stereo equipment.

That was two years ago. But sometimes I struggle to get my mind around the fact that Im officially an empty nester now.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood – the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch kits – I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my son started school each year.  In those days, it was a blessing to have six quiet hours a day to meet writing deadlines and run errands all by myself. At the time, the calendar on our kitchen wall was scribbled top to bottom with kid-related events and appointments – a perpetual list of band concerts, school conferences, homeroom baking marathons, and carpool schedules.  Not to mention all the medical appointments for my pending hip-replacement surgeries.

I still cant fathom how any mother finds the time to do it all — no matter how many kids she has. In any event, I’m not sure how I kept my own balance on the roller-coaster ride we call “the parenting years.”  But I did, and sometimes I really miss those years.

Retiring or redefining?

It took several months to regain equilibrium after my son first left for college in 2004.  His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping the door shut. Until then, I hadnt fully realized that the career I’d loved most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was being a mom. It caught me off-guard, like a thunderstorm on the freeway, or the tears that roll unexpectedly when you catch the lyrics of an old song on the radio while you’re driving.

So I had to figure out where to devote my enthusiasm in this uncharted phase of my midlife.

My relationship with my husband was (and always will be) at the top of my priority list. And yes, I’d have more time to devote to writing and long lunches with friends. But I also needed to explore something creative and different. Something just for myself.

The ancient ritual of buying school supplies provided my very first clue — and Im sharing it with the hope that every empty nester whos reading this will look for the bread crumbs on the path leading to her own passion.

The inner artist emerges

I was browsing at the office supply store with my son a week before he moved into his freshman dorm. While he wandered the computer aisles in search of an essential gizmo, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored pencils, and drawing pads. My inner artist, whod been hushed and banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college, pushed forward and made herself heard. At the time I wasn’t sure what she’d do with all those pens and markers, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Because that’s exactly what I needed.

A month later, I started shopping for real art supplies at the local craft store, where I also discovered several gorgeous art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. And by the end of that year, I found myself clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. My son reveled in his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame while I happily painted, cut, and pasted another path of my own.

So, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Time to get the garden ready for bed. Time to head upstairs to the art studio and see what art will teach me next.

I’ve already started making notes on projects I’d like to begin — a line of greeting cards, a mixed-media collage or two, and a deliciously creepy construction for an upcoming Halloween show. Preparing for the new season, I swept the floor of the studio last week and took stock of what I’ll need to begin again. I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

— Art studio photos by Cindy La Ferle —