For me, some pieces of art start and develop spontaneously — by an act as simple as taking a marker in hand and moving it across a blank page, or by focusing on a photographic image and improvising on it. But others are like tiny seeds that lie beneath the soil for a long time until a ray of light hits them in just the right way. In the case of “City Life,” a mixed media collage I just completed, it was the latter.
One night, maybe a year or so ago, I sat down with a scissors and a stack of magazines and began to cut tiny squares from the pages. I cut from a variety of sources, including catalogs for silk clothing and interior decor magazines with textured fabric images. I thought that one day I’d use these little squares for windows in a collage with a city scene. For a long time I had held an image in my mind of lighted windows in buildings at night. So I cut them to a size slightly smaller than my own thumbnail, but I didn’t worry about them being exactly uniform or square. I thought the slight irregularity of their size and shape would give my imagined buildings a pleasantly soft off-kilter look. Once I had my fill of this meditative exercise, I poured the squares into an envelope, labeled it, and promptly forgot about them. It wasn’t until I came across them again recently that the image began to take more solid form in my mind.
I began constructing buildings one by one, finding magazine pages with large sections of one color. Sometimes I picked sections of color that had a slight metallic look to them. Others sections I picked for their quality of surreal-ness as a building material, like the building near the forefront made of cloud-streaked sky. Sifting through the packet of squares, I picked out windows for each building to contrast with the exterior. The tall, sleek glass-paned building representing the Hancock Tower (here in Boston, where I live) was made from cutting out a section of pale painted wall from an interior design magazine, leaving a little bit of the ceiling molding at the top. It had just enough sheen and translucence to mimic the outer surface of the Hancock Tower. With a ruler and dark colored pencil, I drew grid lines to create the windows.
For a backdrop, I had glue-sticked some torn sheets of purple tissue paper to a 9″ x 12″ page in a sketchbook. Some of the torn edges of the tissue paper overlapped each other, and I left them that way thinking that when I finished the paper part of the collage, I might photograph it and take it into Photoshop, and those ragged overlapping tears might become part of an interesting sky pattern. Really, I had no idea — that part was purely experimental. As I constructed each building, I moved them around on this backdrop, slipping them behind each other and moving them up and down to decide where exactly to place them. I didn’t want any of the buildings competing with each other, so it was important to place them in complementary relationship to one another. Once it was determined where a building should sit, I’d glue just a part of it down with glue-stick so that I could still lift the edges to slip other images behind it.
The buildings had a flat look to them, which I liked, but I wanted to add some images with depth as well. I started looking through other artwork of mine to see if there were any elements I could borrow. I found a photograph I had taken of a street in my neighborhood, with old brownstone homes and trees. I had put the photograph through some coloring filters in Photoshop, and had achieved a stained glass look for the trees that I really liked. I printed this image onto photo paper and then cut out some of the trees and buildings to insert into the paper collage. I found another piece of digital art I’d created (Winter, Five P.M.) from a photograph I’d taken of a sunset in Harvard Square, and I cut out the glowing streetlamp and part of a silhouette of buildings behind it to add to the collage as well.
As I added buildings, I added plant life. I was stumped about where I was going with this piece, though. I had originally thought I’d keep adding buildings, moving further into the sky with them, but now that wasn’t feeling quite right. As I contemplated the skyline, it occurred to me that a sky full of plant life would bring this city to life and create upward movement.
The plants were made by cutting out leaf-like and petal-like shapes from paper. And then the butterflies, cut with an Exacto knife and colored with colored pencil. I use a self-healing cutting board for cutting shapes with an Exacto knife. If you’ve never used this kind of cutting board, the cut marks are visible in the board but they don’t leave grooves in the surface. So you always have a smooth surface to cut on.
When the last butterfly went on, I knew it was done. It conveyed the happy, magical feeling I have about living in the city. For me, it is a place of ongoing surprise and discovery of beauty.
I wasn’t happy with the tissue sky, however, which had rumpled and bubbled up from below. And when I photographed the piece, there was too much reflection off the pieces of black paper. Bits of dust and cat hair had slyly found their way into the photograph even though I’d taken care to dust it. I’d suspected I’d end up doing some digital work to this piece, but now I knew it. In Photoshop, I took a color sample from the darkest purple of the sky, then painted it in. I did the same with the black buildings, to get an even finish. At one point, I realized that a window on one of the buildings had slipped loose and was dangling a floor lower than it should have been. I had already done so much work cleaning it up digitally that I didn’t want to re-photograph the piece and start over. Instead, I rebuilt the window using the “clone” tool. The digital work took a long time but I was really happy with it when it was done. It represents the city of Boston to me, but it definitely carries influences of my former life in Miami, where I lived until 1993.
May you find wonder, surprise, and beauty where you live.