Learning to play with materials (all over again)

I’ve been working on a piece this summer that started out as an experiment in materials. I bought some Claybord by Ampersand a couple of years ago and loved the smooth surface. At the time, I also had some new water-soluble oil pastels to play with. Oil pastels used to be workable only with turpentine and linseed oil–just like oil paint. This new kind was made workable with water, so there was no turpentine smell and clean-up was easy. It somehow feels less toxic with no turpentine in use. I promptly went about smearing them all over my Claybord, spreading the color around using water and rags and stiff, wide brushes to spread it out. I had a lovely deep orange surface with layers of reds and yellows. I let it sit for a while.

The while lasted for about a year while I worked on other things. One day I read in Cloth, Paper, Scissors, a magazine devoted to mixed media art, about a way to transfer images using acrylic matte medium. I decided to try it out on this yellow/orange/red Claybord surface. For years, I’ve loved poring over old house plans, particularly those of bungalows with their inglenooks and built-in sideboards. So, I made a copy of a plan and transferred the image as directed by an e-book I had downloaded. Voila! It worked, but I had no idea where to go from there.

Several weeks later, I started playing around with some wonderful handmade paper I had bought. It was white, but when I tore it into pieces and applied it to the Claybord with acrylic matte medium (also a great adhesive), it became very sheer with strands of white and gold that made me think of fire and ice as I covered part of the orange/red background with it. I stopped and looked and kept looking for awhile. I wasn’t sure where to go next with it.

One day, while going through my flat file, I found an unfinished drawing I had started many years ago. I always liked the idea of it, but I got bogged down in the details of finishing it, and, burned out, abandoned it. There she was, a little girl, looking out over a field, but instead of seeing corn or crop circles, she sees the words “Surrender Dorothy” written into the field by a tornado vanishing in the distance. My homage to The Wizard of Oz.

I decided I really needed to find a place for this little girl. I decided to put her into this new piece I was developing on the Claybord. Drawing on the surface on top of the oil pastels proved to be a problem. So, I transferred her to other kinds of paper–origami paper for her print dress and some parchment stationary for her arms and legs. Her head was drawn onto another kind of handmade paper I had. I then developed her with gouache, watercolor, graphite and colored pencils.

Deciding to add my little girl from the “Surrender Dorothy” drawing opened up a multitude of other possibilities. I found some stationary that had a map on it (looks like somewhere in NJ) and started tearing it into shapes. Soon, I felt I had a narrative going. Here was a young girl far from home. Perhaps she’s homesick. I got out some stationary and composed a note she might receive. “Dearest girl, We miss you so much. Since you left, your mother has been keeping busy. She put up 20 quarts of tomatoes last week and 10 quarts of green beans.” It was the kind of thing my Aunt Mame might have written to me when I was away at college. I realized I needed to add this to my concoction. A bird came next. A bird delivering a letter. While looking for something in my supply cabinet, I came across an “AIR MAIL” stamp that I had. I added that. What could be more air mail than delivery by a bird?

The last thing I added was a framed poesy. It was from the same image the bird came from, an old postcard. I wanted it to look as though it were hanging on a wall. I have to say, this is the most fun I’ve had playing with materials in quite some time, mainly because I did not have a plan from the beginning.

To me, this little girl is a representation of how young and helpless someone might feel after leaving home and finding oneself far away. A letter from home always helps, even in this age of email and instant messaging.

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