“No, no, no. You’re still looking at Mod Podge!” said Elliott as I was trying to lure him away from the Mod Podge section at Michael’s. My sweet three-year old uses “you” to refer to himself, which actually makes so much sense given that we say things like this to him: “Do you want this leftover sandwich? What are you doing inside the closet? Elliott, why are you trying to vacuum the pug when I asked you not to?”
I honestly don’t think that I’ve forced Elliott into loving some of the same things that I do, but you might not know that if you saw the many ET’s in his room (Elliott from that film is our Elliott’s namesake), or if you knew that his comfort object is a stuffed Piglet—also my favorite Winnie the Pooh character. And lately, Elliott seems as obsessed with Mod Podge as I am. But why wouldn’t he be? Why isn’t everyone?
Mod Podge, created in the 1960s by Jan Wetstone, is, in my opinion, a miracle product; it acts as a glue, glaze, sealant, and more. They even have a glittery version. And I checked, it’s vegan. I have used it for decades to make collages, which I have come to realize is not only my art form of choice (or better yet, the form that chose me), but is also for me a spiritual and contemplative practice, a discernment tool, and a medium through which I come to know myself more deeply. And just as the personal is political, collage opens a space to connect my internal work with political and social resistance.
Still, even with these realizations, the voices of self-doubt and judgment try to tell me that it is frivolous to be writing about –or making–collage specifically, or even art more generally, when the world is burning (literally, in fact, as parts of the Western U.S. are on fire, no doubt exacerbated by climate change) and when my own anger and rage at the long list of current injustices blazes red hot.
Get out into the street. Get on the phone. Organize something. And if you aren’t going to do those things, if not the visible and Facebook-able action things, then get. back. [again] to. the. work. you. are. getting. paid. for. Taking several long and deep breaths, I respond to those voices from a wiser place: Art saves lives, both individual and collective. It always has and it always will. And this is work that needs to be done, not least for my own healing and sustenance as I discern how to live in more sustainable and self-compassionate ways .
In her book, Your Art Will Save Your Life (Feminist Press, 2018), written as a “love letter” to artists during the Trump presidency, author Beth Pickens articulates the need and urgency of making art, regardless of political changes and shifts:
“After the 2016 presidential election, many of my artist clients said things like, ‘Maybe I should quit making art,’ ‘It’s kind of selfish for me to focus on my art now,’ and ‘I should help people in a more effective way.’ These are expected grief responses to the shock and horror of our times, but I beseech you: DO NOT STOP MAKING ART. I need it profoundly. We all do.”Beth Pickens, Your Art Will Save Your Life
In an FAQ section at the end of the book Pickens responds to a question about whether making art is trite or self-involved in the midst of political oppression. Her answer: “No way!” It helps us process what is going on around us and to continue to live our lives, and it also helps others do the same. “When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.”
Art offers another form of dissent, even when it is born in private and remains there. Through the very act of claiming space and time to create, the artist takes a stand–saying a “yes” to this something that needs to be born. It’s a “yes” to these words, this idea, this canvas, this project, this vision. In taking this stand, in making this claim, the artist provides their art the opportunity to exist.
Here I can’t help but think of this word in the context of its Latin root, existere–to “stand out.” I’d read twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich’s mention of this decades ago, and it’s stuck with me. “If we say that something exists, we say that it has left the state of mere potentiality and has become actual. It stands out of mere potentiality…” (Systematic Theology Vol. 2)
There is something powerful about the idea of “taking a stand” in order for new creation to “stand out,” to become actual. There are all kinds of ways to play with this image of standing. “Taking a stand” is of course a metaphor for taking a position about an issue, but it’s also literal and fleshy; to stand is to rise to one’s feet.
Wary of ableist metaphors, perhaps we could think about standing as something more physically inclusive–suggesting that this “saying yes” is an embodied movement of whatever kind our particular bodies can and desire to make. We bring art into existence through those bodies, through hands, mouths, eyes, ears, our breath. And while the phrase “taking a stand” suggests movement, it also conveys a sense of stopping, resting, pausing–as in a stanza of poetry defined by its stopping place, being set apart.
Taking a stand, in the way that I’m thinking of it here, is to move, to pause, to move again. Sometimes slowly–very slowly.
Saying yes to our art, then, is simultaneous “no” to forces that seek to nullify, paralyze, or prevent new life from coming into being and flourishing. It’s an intentional and embodied stop to the pressures of speed and rush and production that feed the “white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy” which Beth Pickens describes, which has, unfortunately, shaped academia, the institution in which I currently do most of my work.
Of course, there is much to say about the ways that art has been used to serve that capitalist machine, and how artists are not immune from the pressures of productivity. We can’t escape the system entirely. But our art–both as process and product–can provide us with visions, tastes, smells, and sounds of a different way to live individually and together.
And there is something else, too. Art is a “yes” to joy and pleasure; it can make weary (and wary) hearts and bodies feel again, breathe again. I’m currently reading adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (AK Press, 2019), which has heightened my awareness of our need for pleasure and its connection to social activism. I’m thinking about what it means for me, with all my privilege, to claim (take a stand) for my own pleasure and ease as a birthright, while also prioritizing “the pleasure of those most impacted by oppression” (see brown’s introduction to the book).
These are questions that I’ll be dancing with for a while. To do so, I know that I’ve got to honor pleasure, art, and creativity as non-negotiable and essential as food and water. One morning last spring I was on a run when I happened to discover that the Austin Creative Reuse Center less than a mile from my house, was open. It had, I learned, moved to this new location in March of 2020 and 11 days later had to close because of the pandemic. But that morning, the doors were open. I ran home as fast as I could, sweating and hot, I grabbed my wallet and hopped in my car to go check it out.
I didn’t know what to do with myself when I walked in. I couldn’t take it all in. Aisles of paint supplies, fabric, paper of every kind, beads, buckets of plastic jars, tiny dinosaurs, parts of board games. Wood, glue, exquisite bags of miniature somethings. Old photography equipment, some viable, some not. Shelves of National Geographic magazines. I couldn’t have asked for anything more satisfying–more pleasurable–in that moment.
In my efforts to care for my mental health last spring, I’d been making small shadow box displays using “found objects” discovered in my teenage stepson’s bequeathed collection of legos and related associates. I’d thus been on a mission to find small wooden boxes and, in stretch beyond the lego box, I’d been searching for (a lot) of tiny plastic animals.
I found them, alright. And so much more. How did I not know this place existed? ACR was founded in 2009, so they’ve been around for a long time even before they moved to my neighborhood. ACR’s mission is “to foster conservation and reuse through creativity, education, and community building” as they “save the WORLD…one pencil at a time.”
Not only is the Austin Reuse Center a wellspring of affordable recycled resources for creative projects of all kinds, but it’s also a community center for sharing and envisioning art. Each time we go in, we see people inside gathering and sifting through materials for whatever project they are working on. Even when I can’t possibly imagine what that might be (what might they be making with that box of of plastic spools, doll arms, and a half dozen plaster of Paris bears?), I find it so exciting.
Elliott always visits the paint and drawing sections, and we always check to see if new donations of Mod Podge have come in. Last week, our trip yielded five (semi-full) containers! Elliott also wanted to test out whether some plastic storage bins were up to par. They were, so we bought the ones we could fit in our very mini Mini Cooper.
In my next blog, I’ll share some thoughts about why I love the particular art of collage so much and what I’ve learned recently about its rich history and diverse contemporary forms–especially by women. There is, I think, a theology of collaging, and it’s not unconnected to the title of this blog: smuler (“fragments” in Danish). I’m looking forward to sharing much of this soon. In the meantime, I’m going to organize my art supplies, which may not directly counter climate change or white supremacy, yet feels like a small but important movement to take in the service of my own health, healing, and pleasure–and that’s something I’ll take a stand for.