The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Words + Images = A Manic But Sensible Infatuation
When scissors hit paper, there are several aural possibilities and each collision reverberates in the artist’s hand differently. The paper, if of a certain thickness and texture, may make a satisfying crunch. If thinner and slightly damp, the paper may tear stealthily in near silence. Cutting damp paper feels like petting a plush animal left out in the rain, while cutting cardboard may strain the palms and wrists. These are just a couple of examples from the whole spectrum ofzips and whispers and flops in the scissor-paper dance.
As a child, I learned the many sounds and sensations that scissors and paper make. But it was in high school that I rejoiced in their strange rhythm. It was then that I went through a phase of collage-making obsession. It was also then that I started to understand my habit of combining words and images.
I’m not sure what prompted the obsession, though I’d guess it was my middle school art teacher, Monica Stroik, introducing me to the works of collagist Romare Bearden that helped me unpack my interest. Something that drew me to Bearden’s work was his use of multiple layers. (This was before I’d ever explored Photoshop.) To quote the National Gallery of Art’s description of Bearden’s work:
“…his practice involved altering the surfaces of these papers and other collage elements in a variety of ways: adding painted areas using both spray paint and the more traditional brushed application of color; using abrasion and sanding to roughen and interrupt the plane; and removing color from both painted areas and collage papers by means of a bleaching agent.”
Around this time, I started listening to a lot of jazz. I read a lot of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. I dreamt about the Harlem Renaissance. And I started making collages with words. To me, the words were just another layer in a collage’s composition, just like Bearden’s dabs of paint on paper. I would tear through magazines and newspapers on the hunt for pictures, swaths of solid color or texture, and, increasingly, words. Sometimes I chose a word for its meaning. Sometimes I chose it for its color, size, or typeface. Sometimes I had a vision. Other times I simply liked what I saw.
What with my appreciation of poetry, pairing words with images seemed like a natural combination. I knew how central imagery was to poetry. Why not merge poems with literal images? Comics and advertisements merged words and images all the time—and my sisters and I relished making and exchanging comics. Collage is all about mixing media, and words are simply another medium. So I introduced my media to each other: Construction paper, meet Cellophane. Cellophane, this is Construction Paper. I’ll let you two enjoy your drinks… Sometime in late high school, I started crafting hybrid collage-comics, digital and handmade. The images came from all over—my own hand, found pictures, photos—but the words in these collage-comics were always purely my own.
By the time I started my first year of college, I had amassed an entire collection of collages, some having been published in university literary journals like George Mason’s So to Speak, others in ‘zines distributed in prisons like Stockton, California’s Poet’s Espresso. I also had my stash of comics, spurred by an early love affair with Betty and Veronica and always an homage to the many instances of word and image I encountered in daily life.
But despite the awards and publications, the real validation for my word and image frenzy came in Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, New York, Paris, a 2006 exhibition at the National Gallery Art. The exhibition featured works from Sophie Taeuber, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and other artists. Plenty of these artists explored the relationship between words and images, especially by juxtaposing newspaper headlines with found pictures. To a junior in high school, seeing such work in a respected museum affirmed that combining words and images was not only interesting; it was important.
I recently screened my film, My Jenny Goes to California, at Southside Cinema’s “Celluloid Residue” in Richmond. A 2009 winner of RVA Magazine‘s “director’s choice” award, I often prefer to call the work an electronic poem. I made it right before taking Belinda Haikes‘ course on the history and form of the book at VCUarts, where I learned the versatility of and power in text. A book is what you make it. And a story is as much what you tell as what you hide.
My Jenny Goes to California waversback and forth between subtitling the images of the young prostitute Jenny (Hilary Stallings) with lines from my poem. The poem tells the story of a Southern girl who goes to Hollywood to become a starlet but ends up a streetwalker instead. I directed the film at age 20, long before I had done as much research into prostitution as I have since through projects like Guadalajara in 35mm. While there are aspects of the story, the poem, and the images I would change today if I were to remake the film, I would not remove the subtitles. They inform the images and introduce the audience to two realities: textual reality and visual reality.
You don’t have to make collages or comics or films to integrate words into images. You can add captions to family photos in an album. You can illustrate your memoir. You can produce a pictorial history for your church or neighborhood. No matter how you combine words and images, the result has an aura and a presence that the words or images alone do not possess. That presence is a marriage you can interpret in many ways from the outside, but only the insiders know the true power and challenges within. Therein lies the magic of the almighty Word & Image combo.
This piece was originally written for the WriterHouse blog. egister for Christine's WriterHouse seminar, “Documenting Memories with Words and Images,” here.
#WriterHouse #MonicaStroik #RomareBearden #BelindaHaikes #WritingSeminar #WritingWorkshop #WordsAndImages