Best Laid Plans

After I wrote about mess and looked at the art supplies taking over the dining room table, I cleaned up. I sorted out, put away, neatened up. Started over. It looked much better, more organized.

It occurred to me that I had no real structure for my collage projects, no goal beyond just sitting with the materials and doing stuff.  So I took out a book that I’d picked up somewhere ages ago, The Collage Workbook by Randel Plowman. He even has a class you can take to make a collage a day.

The Collage Workbook, by Randel Plowman

The pictures in the book are cool, and there are great tips about useful materials and supplies for collaging. Some of them I actually purchased when I first bought the book, and I am glad that I have them.

Then I decided that I was going to try some of the suggested projects/ideas. I read a few. No inspiration whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great book. I love the ideas (or at least the idea of the ideas), and the collages look interesting. But it just didn’t do anything for me. For example, the idea of “going monochromatic” – maybe taking one color to focus on for a collage – sounded good, but I couldn’t get myself to do it.

My approach, my process, is random and chaotic. I randomly choose a few different items – papers, cut-out photos, books I’m planning to cut up cause they’re old, or photocopy if I’m not ready to cut them up. I look at them. I randomly choose a format – bigger or smaller, square or rectangle, this book or that piece of cardboard. Then I just start coloring the background with paint or crayon, or maybe I start gluing first.  Sometimes I change the format if I can tell that I’ll need more space, or if I want a surface that’s more horizontal than vertical. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I couldn’t explain why I made my choices if you asked me.

I’ll show you my process through a few of the things I made this week:

First I just scribbled with a pastel crayon and then glued on pieces of brownish craft paper that reminded me of rocks. Then I glued on a cut-out piece of photograph of a lady from ca. 1915. My web designer friend Margaret Bossen gave me a bunch of old photos that I’ve used in some collages. It’s mounted on cardboard so it sticks out from the paper quite a bit.

Used pastel crayons, then some crafty art paper, then an old photograph



I wanted something to grow out of the rocks, so I cut the curvy strips from the brown craft paper. I liked when it overlapped and grew up over the photo, so I did that a couple more times. Then I cut larger wavy strips from the purple patterned paper to have that grow also, from the “ground,” and added the flowery looking blobs that I cut out from different paper.

I just kept adding stuff

I cut the sky out of a desert photo from an old world atlas and used that for the top of the frame.

At this point my boyfriend Jacques came over and said that it looked like the lady was in a bubble under the water. It did! That inspired me further. I thought of calling it “Titanic,” though perhaps “Lusitania” would be less cliche. The time period of the clothing looked about right. Then I added blue and greenish paint to tie it all together.

Finished “Titanic”

Another day I made a piece that used mostly pictures from a women’s art calendar book that my poet friend Suzette Bishop gave me back in 2009, but I couldn’t bear to throw away because it had so many great pictures in it. I felt ready to cut it up. I also used photocopied Hiroshige prints and a piece of origami paper, along with paint.

Here’s an early stage. I’m not sure what made me cut out the parts of the paintings/prints that I did, except that I liked the way they looked.

Here I got the idea to cut ducks out of the Mary Cassatt painting and made them swim in the Hiroshige print. There’s also pieces of work by Grandma Moses, Elizabeth Murray, Kay Sage and Laura Johnson Knight.

For some reason I started on the left side, then the right side, leaving the middle blank. Probably not the way you’re supposed to do collage (or lay floor tiles).

I decided I was done gluing here

Added paint before I decided I was finished

This is one where I kept cutting so many pictures that I knew I needed a slightly bigger surface to work with.

I’m not making order out of chaos, or even chaos out of order. I’m making chaos out of chaos. Different chaos, anyway. Maybe that’s all art is?

But a cool thing came out of my collages this week. My friend Laurie Etchen, who is a great designer as well as singer/keyboard player in many of my bands, decided to use one of my collages as background for an event poster! This was the original art:

She manipulated it digitally to create great art for our upcoming Santana tribute gig (I’m playing extra percussion for it). She did two versions, one using mostly the original orange, and another using blue hues:

It made me feel great, knowing someone liked my work enough to incorporate it into a design of her own! It does feel good when others also find something interesting, intriguing or even beautiful in what I’m doing.

However, ultimately, I’m not creating any of this art for a purpose beyond my own satisfaction. When I make something I really like, I find myself staring at it a lot. Is that weird?

And by the way, the dining room table is a mess again.



Enough is Enough

After visiting my friend Paula Cisewski’s place last week and looking at her wonderful Brie-box collages to start this month’s blog project, I was so inspired. I really admired how she used minimal images – sometimes just one, or a couple of related images – and a short phrase or couple of words to get her point across. That kind of minimalism always impresses me – I like its brevity, its wit, its purity.

Then I went home to make collages of my own, thinking to emulate something of that minimalist spirit. Hah!

It’s like when I go to a friend’s house, a friend who keeps a very neat and tidy space. I feel so relaxed and free in a nice empty space like that. I think how great it must be to look around at this restful, calm atmosphere. You can see where everything is. One, maybe two at most, colors dominate the space. A few carefully chosen objects are artfully placed just so. I marvel at it.

Then I go home.

I do not live like that. And apparently, I do not art like that either (if art is a verb).

I grew up in a house with lots of stuff. Eccentric, erratic, eclectic stuff. I thought that was normal. Not exactly Hoarders territory, but verging on it. My house as an adult is not exactly like that, though it tends much more in that direction, despite my best efforts (which, granted, I don’t often make). Minimalism is not my thing.

Art needs stuff

And minimalist art is not my thing either. In many of the collages I’ve made, I just didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was enjoying myself immensely, and I just wanted to keep putting stuff on the page, or adding more paint. If a little was good, more must be better!

I kept adding triangles cut mostly from origami paper (sacrilege I’m sure)

Maybe I just need to get it out of my system, to let myself enjoy the sumptuousness of all the colors, all the textures I can slap on a canvas (or book, or page).

Maybe I need a bigger page.

First I glued cut outs from cool art paper.

I just kept gluing then painting, and painting and painting. So very orange.

The other thing I admired about Paula’s collages was that they all seemed to be part of a collection. They all went together. You could tell that one artist made all of them.

All these things look like part of a set

Not so with mine. Here are some other things I made over the last couple of weeks:

Inspired by July 4 though I didn’t attend fireworks. I could hear them.

I photocopied a Hiroshige print (2 copies on different paper), cut them in strips, then somewhat randomly reassembled them



No idea what this is. Just cut shapes from each paper that the patterns on the paper made me think of.

I made this from cut-up old coloring book pages to add to a 2012 art journal I’d stopped writing in

Can you tell that one person made them all? I can’t. Maybe it means I’m not really an artist; after all, I’m just playing around. I don’t have a clear artistic vision.

I used to think you HAD to have a clear picture in your mind of what you wanted to create before you could make anything — which was perhaps why I rarely made anything. But now I’m just playing around with the materials, sometimes in a completely random way. Sometimes I let the materials “talk” to me. Sometimes I don’t listen to them. I don’t know what I’m doing at all, and I’m certainly not emulating anybody else’s style.

But the truth is, it’s really fun. I’m enjoying just making pictures out of stuff, even if afterwards I don’t think the results are meaningful, or pretty, or even interesting. I’m just enjoying the process.

For now that’s enough for me.


A Bird by Any Other Name

Did you have a teacher you always remember, and not in a good way? I don’t mean a traumatic way, but just – a memory that’s perplexing. You can’t imagine, now that you’re an adult, acting or talking that way to a child.

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Miss DeSchmitt. I didn’t like her for a number of reasons. She chided me for not shutting my eyes during nap time. We had to lie down on mats for half an hour (an eternity, really), presumably to sleep. Or to give our teachers a brief respite. I could never sleep on those hard mats, surrounded by other children, and I knew it. I would lie there quietly, eyes open, looking at the light in the room, the ceiling, the dust motes; I was daydreaming. Miss DeSchmitt wanted us all to close our eyes. Why? I wasn’t doing anything bad. I wasn’t making noises. I was always one of the good students.

One day we were doing art. I liked art, though I often found it frustrating. I had pictures in my head that I wanted to translate onto the page, and it was impossible. I was staring at the paper, crayon in hand. I don’t know if I made a noise, or raised my hand, or what – but Miss DeSchmitt came over to find out what was wrong. I told her that I didn’t know how to draw a bird.

She sounded exasperated. “Just draw a V,” she said.

I had no idea what she meant. I must have looked confused.

“You know, the letter V,” she explained.

Again, I was flummoxed. I knew what a letter V was. I was good at alphabet letters. But I couldn’t understand the connection between a V and a bird. I must have said as much.

“It’s the shape when they’re flying,” she said. “Here, I’ll show you.”

She drew one on my picture. I was appalled. It didn’t look like a bird to me. It looked like a V. She had ruined my picture.

This story was lost in the recesses of my memory. It came back to me tonight, when for some reason my paintbrush started making little v shapes on my paper.

First I made tiny Vs in very dark blue paint over squiggly pastel and watercolor marks

The idea of birds as Vs flooded into my head, and before I knew it I was cutting out weird V-like shapes from paper and gluing them onto the page.

This is my finished picture of flying Vs

I love birds. They are one thing I’ve tried to learn how to draw during my very few forays into visual art. Perhaps it’s because of that incident in kindergarten; who knows? But I do not feel it necessary to make things look real in art. In fact, I’m trying hard to get away from that in my next creative endeavor: collage.

Although I’ve dabbled a little in paper collage before, I haven’t given it my full attention for any length of time. I occasionally pick up interesting paper, or buy a collage book, or look at a collage website. I feel drawn to art that uses collage or mixed media.

It may have started when reading great story books using collage, such as the work of Ezra Jack Keats or Elisa Kleven.

I really enjoy pictures of things made from scraps of a lot of other things. I find it very intriguing.

So I do find that I want to make representational art, but then I get frustrated because, like kindergarten me, I still am not very good at making things look like real things. The purpose of this month’s experiment is to try to make a collage at least every other day, and to allow myself to play with different materials and just see what happens. I like looking at abstract art, so I’m going to allow myself to be abstract if I want.

I was partly inspired by a project started by a friend of mine in Oregon. Deb asked a group of friends around the country to participate. We were each mailed a small handmade book with blank pages and instructed to decorate 4-5 pages of the book any way we wanted, and then mail it to the next person on the list. At the end of the project, we’ll all have our own keepsake book with 8 different people’s creations inside. We had to choose a theme word for our book. I chose “Beginner.”

I like being a beginner.

It would be against the rules for me to post any of my photos of the pages I made for the first book I received until after the project is over. But I’m really enjoying the project so far.

My first act in the hunt for tips and further inspiration was to visit my friend Paula Cisewski, an acclaimed poet with two new poetry books out, her fourth poetry collection, quitter, which won Diode Editions’ 2016 Book Prize, and her third, The Threatened Everything, which was selected for publication in the 2014 Burnside Review Book Contest.

Poet Paula Cisewski

Paula also makes really cool collages, which she fashions on the lids of (and sometimes inside) Brie cheese boxes.

It’s a great canvas, really – a nice limited round space, which she first paints, and then uses cut-out pictures from magazines and books from thrift stores. Since she’s a poet, Paula likes to include words or phrases. She also has a cool set of drawers that I covet with things like stickers, googly eyes, etc. inside. She showed me a lot of her collages, which she has also been posting on facebook. They are hung around her house.

That visit was very inspiring, so I made this picture that very day.

First I used pastel crayons, then I cut up some paper

I glued paper “grass” first, then added “ground”

I just kept adding stuff. I didn’t know when to quit.

I found that I kept wanting to put lots and lots of things on the page, but the page was too small. I either need to use bigger surfaces, or learn how to edit. Or both.

Turns out I have a lot of stuff I can use

I made a couple other pictures during the week. I’m letting myself use paints, pastel crayons, etc. to color the background of the paper, and then I rummage through my collection of pictures and papers to see what grabs me. I’ve been just free cutting shapes to glue on with Mod Podge glue.

Who knows where this will take me? I may try to draw or cut out a real bird or two. Maybe. But maybe not.


If at First You DO Succeed . . .

Don’t assume it means that you know what you’re doing! It could be beginner’s luck.

My daughter once said that she wanted to skip the part where she had to practice something and jump to the part where she’s awesome at it. She somehow manages to do that with most things.

In reality, with most things you DO need practice. I blithely wandered into baking macarons (not to be confused with macaroons), not realizing they’re notoriously tricky to make. Macarons are French melt-in-your-mouth concoctions made from sugar, beaten egg whites, air, and magic. Or perhaps chemistry (same thing).

They’re so cute!

They had no added food coloring nor flavored filling (I forgot the food coloring, then decided to keep the filling simple). I used a recipe from They turned out remarkably well. They were small, as I’ve no experience piping and just made random blobs of different sizes, not using a template.

I got to use my beater’s whisk attachment


Yes, that’s my popcorn ceiling – I’m holding it upside down!


But they baked right, and the texture was amazing. I went easy on the butter cream filling, since I prefer less of that sort of thing. They were delicious. I’d beaten the egg whites like crazy, even trying the hold-the-bowl-upside-down trick to be sure they were beaten enough. Then I realized I hadn’t added sugar, so I beat them a bunch more. Maybe that’s why they turned out so good.

I jumped to the conclusion that I was some kind of Star Baker (see Great British Baking Show) and made more the next day. This time I tried a chocolate macaron recipe which adds a little cocoa powder. I created my own filling using leftover butter cream from the previous day. I added a little cocoa powder and some extra strong coffee to create a mocha butter cream. It was absolutely delicious.

Ok these look gross

Determined to make uniform sizes, I used a small glass to draw circles on the parchment paper. I think the circles were too big. And I probably shouldn’t have done a spiral design with the piping instead of a blob. They turned out weird. The texture wasn’t right. I don’t think they baked long enough. During the previous day’s bake I had lowered my oven temp a bit, since I’d been learning that it tended to run hot.

But I shouldn’t have messed with the temperature, and the macarons were too big – they did not have that light, airy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. I also made a batch of green ones, adding a few drops of food coloring (the liquid; I didn’t want to spend yet more money on food color paste since the almond flour was so darned expensive!). I made my own lime butter cream filling, with a little lime zest and fresh squeezed lime juice. It tasted good, though not as good as the mocha.

Edible but not great lime and mocha macarons

Overall, I learned not to be so darned cocky just because I succeeded from pure dumb luck the previous day! I am still impatient with long processes, and baking is largely about precision; one small change in the procedure can ruin the result.

I was still stewing about my disappointing bake when I came down with a cold. While home sick, I saw a segment of the Barefoot Contessa on TV; she was making salted caramel nuts. It looked fantastic! I had leftover nuts from previous projects, and I decided to use up leftover dates from last week’s Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The whole point of this Barefoot Contessa episode was making things that are notoriously tricky. I knew this going in, as I had tried to make my own caramel a couple times before, from white sugar, for flan (the flan turned out great; the caramel not so much), and the brown sugar caramel sauce that had been disappointing for my Sticky Toffee Pudding.

I watched her explain how to swirl the pan, not stir, as the sugar and water turned into caramel. It looked so easy! When I tried it, I had the same problem I’d had during my flan making. The sugar crystallized, entirely skipping the step where it turns nice and brown and looks like caramel! I was really frustrated. I was swirling my heart out. I kept adding water. I was swearing at the saucepan enough that my boyfriend came to the kitchen to see what was going on. Begging for help, I showed him the recipe from the Barefoot Contessa website and explained what I’d seen on TV. The short video online entirely skipped the swirling step. He seemed skeptical.

This is not working

After lots of heating, stirring, wrangling, swirling, more swearing (mine), he came to a number of conclusions about why it wasn’t working. Firstly, my boyfriend suggested that the pan might be at fault. It was a stainless steel saucepan with high sides, and the sugar kept climbing up the sides and crystallizing. He also thought I needed more water than was in the recipe. And he suggested that I wasn’t letting it boil long enough before I started swirling it around.

He was right on all three counts. I abandoned my crystallized sugar and used a non-stick flatter sauté pan. I added a lot more water. I put the flame to medium high heat as before and let it cook a good long time, watching carefully. The recipe had NOT indicated how long to boil before it would turn brown, nor do I recall the TV segment showing a long process (damn those editors!). I resisted the temptation to swirl it and waited. And waited.  It took a really long time, but by gum it worked! It actually turned brown. I was delighted.

That’s more like it!

I added the vanilla and swirled some more, plus kosher salt, then mixed in the pre-toasted nuts and dates. Then I spread it on a parchment-paper covered pan to cool, with a little final sprinkle of salt. It looked and smelled delicious. It is really good, though something you can only eat in small doses, for fear of breaking your teeth.

My final baking project for the month seemed the most daunting: croissants. I used a recipe by the Great British Baking Show’s Mary Berry for Raspberry and Almond Croissants. I’d never made pastry before. I recalled watching the bakers on the show pounding and rolling out the rectangles of butter to lay on the dough, folding, rolling, folding, chilling, etc. in several steps to create the flaky pastry you expect of a croissant. I was ready.

Wow did it take a long time. But it was fun. I enjoyed beating the butter with my rolling pin to flatten it into a rectangle. I tried to measure to the recipe’s specifications, but I wasn’t terribly precise about it (I’m a bit lazy and impatient). But overall I followed the directions pretty well. Until nearly the end.

Turns out it’s REALLY hard to roll out butter and dough that’s been in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. It takes a LOT of elbow grease to turn that into a large, thin rectangle. I was very tired by the time I’d gotten it about right, so tired that I wasn’t reading the directions carefully. I cut the rectangle the wrong way (what’s the opposite of “lengthwise”?). My triangles were clumsy and not uniform.

The raspberry and almond paste, I knew, would not be quite right. You needed to use raspberry powder, which I learned rather late was hard to find. I should’ve ordered it online weeks ago. It’s made from freeze-dried raspberries, which I might have been able to find at Trader Joe’s but didn’t bother. I looked online for substitutions and learned that raspberry jello powder might work, so I tried that. It mixed with the almond flour, almond extract, sugar and egg yolk to make a paste, which then had to be rolled into sausages (don’t have a picture of those; may have skipped because my hands were so sticky) and then put in the triangles to roll up into croissants. I’m not good at rolling, and too tired to take much care. It’s so much easier to pop open those tubes you get at the grocery store!

The croissants had to prove again before baking. I didn’t notice much growth this time, so I worried they wouldn’t turn out. When baking, the egg wash brushed on top of the croissants turned brown quickly, so I was concerned about them burning. I turned the temp down a bit and watched carefully. They were only supposed to bake for 8-10 minutes but now I worried that they were not baked inside. I let them bake a couple minutes extra before taking them out.

They actually looked okay, though not uniform. Some had puffed out more than others. Once they’d cooled enough to eat, I was pleasantly surprised. Some were not cooked enough in the middle or bottom, but others were better. There was a lot of really good flakiness created by all those layers of folding, rolling, folding … which made it worthwhile! The paste inside was less successful. Its texture was grainy. Next time I’ll just try plain croissants and take a bit more care. The taste of the pastry was actually good, and they were even better the next day, nice and buttery.

What did I learn from all this? You need precision, patience and care to make something really good. There’s also an element of luck. You can’t always control the level of heat or humidity or other factors. You can hedge your bets by paying attention to what you’re doing. And it helps to follow your instinct sometimes, instead of slavishly following directions. The trouble with something like baking is that if you don’t do something well, it can render your product inedible, or at least a lot less satisfying. I noticed the hosts of the Great British Baking Show using the word “perfection” quite a lot.

After all of this worry about precision and perfection, I’m going to shift gears for July. I’m going to try to get myself to play more, and NOT worry about perfection at all. Join me for my next arty creative endeavor!