When Molehills Are Actually Mountains

This month I have been considering small things that have had a big impact.

We’ve all had them – those seemingly unimportant encounters that ended up making such an impression that they influence the way we move in the world.

For me, there is one particular encounter that vastly shaped the way I work and create art – a molehill that was mountainous in its effect.

In my final year of studio classes I took a drawing elective that focused on collage. The name of the faculty member who taught the course was Rick Williams and I’ve always regretted that I hadn’t taken a course with him sooner.

Two important take-aways from his class have stuck with me. Here is the first one (totally paraphrased, of course):

“Collage is about creating a visual surrogate. Aim to capture the essence of the mood, pattern and colour of the object. Don’t try to replicate what you’re seeing in a photographic way but rather try to approximate.”

This advice may seem antithetical to the extremely detailed way in which I work but I do adhere to it, I promise 😉

I continually simplify shapes, pattern and color in my work, giving a suggestion of what it is I’m striving to convey and letting the viewer mentally fill in the blanks. If I were to try and replicate clothing and accessories exactly to scale – especially at the size I’m working – it would (if it were even possible!) result in a clunky, static, and “overstuffed” piece of art.

Here are a few concrete examples of when I’ve put this theory into practice…

A little paper, silver paint, wire and some very small nails made for an adequate interpretation of the flint lock mechanism on this wee Brown Bess rifle featured in Wardrobe 1755.

I used more than one simplification in this vintage British uniform (also from Wardrobe 1755): the leather gaiters (middle), received no stitching around the buttonholes and the calf strap was honed down to a sliding buckle and narrow piece of elastic. In reality, the turnback coat on a human scale contains much more fabric in the bottom of the garment. Copying the fancy box pleats in miniature would have added too much fullness so I opted for a streamlined version instead.

From the piece Chestnut Complex. If you knew your canoe physiognomy you would tweak to the simplification of the latticework seats and their integration into the canoe interior.

The second seed of wisdom that Rick Williams imparted was this (and I remember him telling me this so clearly that I feel like these words are verbatim):

“Your work has a lot of humour. Don’t ever lose that.”

I took these words to heart.

The advice was easy for me to follow. It feels completely natural for me to infuse humour into my work, even – and especially – when I explore seriously weighty subject matter.

The humour I use is often dark and slanted toward satire, offering a cutting commentary on the issue I’m exploring. Working on the theory that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar, I try to attract viewers with a sharp whimsy that I hope will cause them to pause and consider what I’m presenting.

Here are some works where I’ve used a playful veneer to coax viewers into an intimate relationship with my work:

L: “Hey, look at those colourful circles! Is that a clown? Oh…wait a minute. That doesn’t look healthy.” (BioHazard); R: “Awww – look at the cute bunny! So adorable! Umm…what’s that around it’s neck?” (Bad Snare Day)

The Survival Games series uses humour to critique the shifting of unequal power dynamics within relationships – with rifles, of course.

How To Be A Klansman, from the How To Be… series which explores the business of self-improvement. Unlike the lengthy tomes of contemporary self-help gurus these pithy text and image sketches present a shorthand quick fix. However, rather than striving to bring out the best in people, these sharply satirical mini-mentors offer instruction in developing identities that are often undesirable.

When I’m making art in my studio these days I feel it’s less like a solitary undertaking and more like a massive collaboration with everyone I’ve ever come into contact with. I’m grateful for all the moments – from lifelong associations to the briefest of encounters – that have made me into the artist I am.

What seemingly small molehill has had a mountainous impact on your life? Please share in the comments below!

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