Collage in the Closet

The manuscripts had collected in my bottom drawer. This verbal clutter consisted of poems, stories and film scripts, all fused into the genre of unwanted black ink on white paper; in short, words rejected by the eyes of editors.

And then in early December 2009, an idea struck me. I decided to try to create a work of art in another form, gluing the scraps of paper to a foam board to make a collage composed of cut-up manuscripts. I even had a title for the piece: “Unpublished Manuscripts.”

As a recreational artist I have taken photographs over the years with my Pentax K1000 camera. Some of the images have been exhibited in small galleries in central New York and also published in literary magazines.

However, I had never created a collage before, so I wasn’t familiar with the process.

But that December I had an exhibit scheduled at the Rome Art and Community Center in my hometown of Rome, New York, and I thought I would make the collage as an additional work to go along with the group of photographs. I purchased a 20-by-30-inch piece of foam board, several 3M glue sticks and a can of acrylic spray. 

I now felt ready to tackle the medium. Then time became a factor because I had one week to go before I had to travel to Rome to drop off the artwork for the exhibition. I worked feverishly several hours a night after work, selecting the manuscripts, ripping the pages into non-uniform pieces and pasting them to the board. 

And it was fitting because I received a rejection form letter from The Atlantic that week in response to some poems I had submitted. I added it to my collage.  

When I was finished gluing all of the pieces of paper, I sprayed a few heavy coats of acrylic spray on the surface. I remember being petrified that the release of the chemical spray would lead to spontaneous combustion in my apartment or cause the gas stove to explode. So just to be safe I opened my door to allow the frigid night air to dissipate the cloud hovering over my bed, as I had placed the collage on top of the green comforter covering my mattress.

A few days later I dropped off the collage, along with about a dozen of my framed photographs, at the RACC. I also made sure the unframed mixed media piece had wire attached to the back for gallery hanging.

Christmas came and went, and before New Year’s Eve I headed back to the RACC with my stepfather Bill to pick up the artwork.

As we went inside, trying to dodge the melting snow dripping from the overhang of the roof, a female museum employee was talking to the mailman outside. The lady told me the executive director, who approves and schedules all exhibitions, was off that day. Bill and I climbed the stairs to the second floor, turned down a hallway and entered the small community room gallery where my pieces had been displayed.

Bill helped me to pack the framed photographs into some blue plastic totes we had brought with us, but we could not find the collage anywhere. Fear consumed me, and I said to Bill, “I hope they haven’t thrown it out.”

We asked the woman who had been talking to the mailman if she knew where the collage was hiding. She did not have a clue, but she said the executive director would not have thrown it out because the director had too much respect for artists. I doubted this claim.

Bill walked downstairs with a couple of totes stacked in his arms, while I searched every inch of the white room, along with some of the other gallery spaces. I then came back to the community room and noticed the outline of a narrow closet door near one of the corners.

The door creaked as I opened it slowly, and I found my collage leaning against some shelving, still sheathed in the plastic bag I had put it in.     

I was crestfallen, as it seemed all my effort to create the piece was wasted. If I wasn’t so disappointed, I would have found the humor in it. The piece to celebrate a writer’s rejection was stuffed in a closet, hidden by the art museum and deemed unworthy for the eyes of visitors. 

Bill and my mother tried to cheer me up later in the day. In the evening, after going to Mass, they went to Wal-Mart and bought a large black frame. After they brought it home, Bill, who works as a contractor and possesses a craftsman’s magic when it comes to matting, framing and hanging pictures, set my collage on the kitchen table and put it inside the new frame.

And the frame looked attractive hanging on a wall in my parents’ living room. Since then, friends and family who have seen the work have complimented it; some have called it a “conversation piece” and also inquired about the time and effort it took to rip up the small pieces of paper and attach them to the surface.     

Truth be told, I am not a collage artist at heart. I have been raised with digital media, and photography and video are the tools I use to express myself visually.  

At the same time, I have discovered collage to be the most freeing medium. It seems there are no mistakes, as the wrong turns and “goofs” only make the work more interesting. Even the bubbling of the paper behind the glass of the frame gives the work a three-dimensional quality. In collage, all fear is banished and the artist is allowed to set his or her imagination free without regard to the consequences.

And what I love is the physical nature of the materials, which have no electronic components. There are no computers, no circuits, no wires and no Internet connections. No batteries are needed.

You take vestiges from the world, things that are discarded or items that no longer have use in their original form, and you add them to other small pieces to create something new and beautiful.    

I had salvaged something of merit from my piles of rejected manuscripts. Through collage, I allowed the writing to live in another form, as the manuscripts now had value in the appearance of the words, instead of in the quality of the content. 

And whether rejected by editors or the museum director of the Rome Art and Community Center, I had added something new to the world that did not exist before. I learned that art is in the creation itself, the expression of the artist, the sending forth of his or her vision; it is not dictated by the acceptance of others.

Perhaps this collage project also brought me some good luck. Because a few months later, many of the rejected poems included in the artwork were accepted by Flutter Press and published in chapbook form. 

And the joy I experienced when I first opened the cover of the publication matched my delight in seeing those same words hanging on a wall.