Memoir on Canvas: Part 1

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” — Thomas Merton

The first week of the new year always invites introspection, making it the perfect time to start the mixed-media self-portrait I’ve been putting off for years.

I enjoyed it so much that I hope you’ll be inspired to try a self-portrait too. I can promise this much: Youll unearth buried treasure in your own heart — if not your junk drawers — as you cut, paste, paint, and dabble along. Consider it art therapy, if you must, or a chance to re-imagine your goals and dreams.

So what possessed me to give this project a whirl?

Throughout my writing career, Ive specialized in memoir, telling my “story” in bits and pieces through newspaper columns, magazine essays, and blog posts. And while the mixed-media artwork I do is another form of self-expression, Ive never attempted to do anything quite as personal as a self-portrait. My assemblages, for instance, are typically focused on nature, my ancestors, spiritual themes, or even favorite authors. And I’ve never included a photo of myself in my work.

Inspired by the cover story of the November/December issue of Somerset Studio last year — featuring an awesome mixed-media self-portrait by artist Anna Dabrowska-Pecocka — I fetched a fresh 16″ x 20″ canvas and got to work on my “Memoir on Canvas” project.

Youll unearth buried treasure in your own heart — if not your junk drawers — as you cut, paste, paint, and dabble along.

In the process, I discovered that creating a self-portrait has a great deal in common with writing a memoir. Collage is another form of storytelling, of course, but it relies more on intuition than literal memories. Like life itself, a mixed-media piece is assembled one layer at a time. I prefer clean, uncluttered paragraphs in my essays, but tend to go for a richer, more complex “vocabulary” in my artwork. Best of all, artwork wakes up the right side of my brain and urges me to put my inner editor and critic to sleep.

Over the next few days, Ill be posting a mini tutorial on this project, showing you photos of my portrait in its various stages. What you’re viewing here is only the start. Please remember to click on the photographs for a much larger view.

Step 1: An intuitive background layer

This step is a chance to play freely. Like a child with a new box of crayons, you grab all materials that immediately appeal to you. Never over-think what you “should” use for your base layer. The possibilities are limitless, although it’s important to ensure that you can adhere everything securely to the canvas. Explore the variety of strong adhesives at your local craft store.

Tissue, wallpaper samples, newspaper photos and clippings, fabric or magazine scraps … I chose intuitively, for the most part, although I did make a point of including letters of the alphabet to honor my love of the written word. At the same time, I deliberately included a print of a Renaissance painting of an auburn-haired child, to represent my much-younger self and to serve as a nod to a period of history that always appealed to me — a period of creative discovery in art and science.

For this step, I also added scraps of fabric as well as vintage lace Ive collected from thrift stores. These choices reflect my interest in textiles and fashion, and will do their part to add some interesting texture when paint is added later. After using Golden Gel Medium and Mod Podge (matte finish) to adhere my base layer to the canvas, I put the project aside for a day to dry thoroughly.

Though I hadnt even added my own photograph to the center of the piece yet, I was tempted to leave the background layer “as is” because I liked its composition. But this first layer is merely the rough outline (or draft) for my “story” – and, as you’ll see over the next couple of days, it still needs a narrative.

Tomorrow’s post: Adding more texture, color, and a photograph of me.

“The Journey”

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of developing a “voice.” Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s truly essential to us.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

THE JOURNEY
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo “Journey” by Cindy La Ferle —

Poems to inspire

You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.” — David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

I often read favorite poems aloud in my writing workshops. I do this not only because I love good poetry, but because I believe everyone will benefit from exploring it. The right poem can work magic, and even change a life.

Typically, I select poems that remind us to honor our true nature — or encourage us to keep working even when we’re blocked or discouraged. Some, like David Whyte‘s poem, below, ponder the loneliness of being an artist or a creative outsider. Others, including a Billy Collins poem I’ll share later on, offer writing advice with a sense of whimsy and humor. My students seem to enjoy discussing the poems — even the ones who claimed they never cared much for poetry — and many ask for copies to take home.

It’s important to read a poem several times, listening for new meaning to reveal itself.  Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” is a longtime favorite of mine. But after rereading it in the new year (with middle-aged perspective) I find that different lines touch a chord in me now. This time around, the poem reminds me that life is short. It urges me to fill my days with non-toxic, supportive people — and to get on with the work I was meant to do.

Today I’m excited about launching a new series for this blog. Every week or so, I’ll post a poem here that speaks to the creative process, or inspires me in some way. At the end of each poem I’ll include the name of the book in which the work originally appeared — in case you’d like to read more of the poet’s work. I’ll save all of the poems in a new category titled “Poems to inspire.” I promise they’ll be accessible — and appeal to everyone who dreams big and deep. — CL

SWEET DARKNESS
By David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

–Reprinted from The House of Belonging, by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press); 1997

— Top photo, “Winter Sky” (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —