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“I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.”
— Abraham Lincoln, 1861
I am constantly experimenting, because I find it difficult to pluck a coherent idea from a “cold start,” and so I cultivate a habit of collage experimentation to preserve a state of receptivity and to invite the uncanny “synchronicities” from which a more rational concept can be refined. More often than not, there are no distinct memories associated with the genesis of an idea. It is unusual, therefore, to have a clear recollection of the creative lineage for I Must Have Kentucky, currently on display as part of 225: Artists Celebrate Kentucky’s History.
I was stumped about how to respond when a call to artists from curator Gwen Heffner announced an exhibition to observe Kentucky’s 225th birthday. I thought about the history of my own town (Danville, the first capital of the state), about the The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, about the story of tobacco growing families in Kentucky, and about the great Kentucky abolitionists. There were so many fascinating subjects, but none of them sparked a visual flame in my imagination. When I shared my befuddlement with Dana, my “partner in all things,” she suggested I consider doing something with Star of Abraham, an artifact I made in 2009 for the bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth. The bulk of my collected Lincoln images had been exploited to cover a salvaged metal star. To produce a collage tribute to the martyred leader with a folk-art quality seemed a technique appropriate to the occasion, and it was still in my studio, generating little interest from visitors. I liked the notion of using it as a “found object” in a larger assemblage, but there needed to be more to it than that. The solution finally hit me on a drive to our family farm, when I turned off the radio and focused on the rolling “knobs” that surrounded me: Lincoln’s famous declaration about his home state during the Civil War!
I got down a flurry of thumbnail concepts in my journal when I arrived at my destination. It was barely necessary to ever look at them again, because the development toward a final idea took on a momentum of its own. I realized I could enlarge my Lincoln theme with additional artisanship to include the importance of Kentucky in his strategic thinking. A design took shape in my sketches, and I searched my stash for images that would do justice to the “brother against brother, family against family” character of the conflict in a state that gave birth to the presidents of each warring side.
The expanded mixed-media construction is created from recycled materials — found ingredients include salvaged wood and metal, plus discarded books, magazines, maps, and mailed promotions. My lettering is hand painted with acrylics. Obviously, the dimensional star represents Abraham Lincoln. The five horizontal bands signify the final years of his life and the impact his decisions had on Kentucky and the United States during that time. Among the individuals featured are Kentucky native Jefferson Davis, Lincoln’s rival in war, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, his rival in peace, plus Lexington native Mary Todd, her sons Willie and Robert, Munfordville native Simon B. Buckner, Frederick Douglass, U.S. Grant, Clara Barton, John Hunt Morgan, and others. Also represented: soldiers, their ladies, Kentucky coal miners, and the decisive Battle of Perryville.
The artwork commemorates our Commonwealth during 1860 to 1864, the most tumultuous period in its history. At the center of those pivotal years is the towering figure of its most illustrious native son, who encapsulated the significance of the border state to the cause of national unity when he reputedly declared:
I secured the existing ‘Star of Abraham’ to a construction of five salvaged
wood planks, which alternates hand-painted lettering with my typical collage
treatment. My Lincoln artifact had finally found a fitting context.
I long have found interesting that Kentucky had given birth to both
presidential leaders in the national conflict, and I devoted a section of my
composition to that inexplicable fact.
Border-state Kentuckians were divided when war broke out. Munfordville
native Simon B. Buckner attempted to enforce its neutrality before accepting
a Confederate commission. He led troops at the strategic Battle of Perryville
in 1862, and later became a scandal-plagued governor of the Commonwealth.
One of my favorite spots in the piece: Lincoln’s boy Willie, U.S. Grant, a young
Frederick Douglass as a free man next to a slaveholder’s advertisement,
a superb wood engraving of combat, Clara Barton, Samuel Colt, and an image
of the Commander in Chief that indicates his unusual height.
“Sustainability can’t be like some sort of a moral sacrifice or political dilemma or a philanthropical cause. It has to be a design challenge.”
— Bjarke Ingels
From the time I first paid a visit to its astonishing Jewel Room, after we moved our studio to Kentucky, I continued to sustain a high regard for Lexington’s Headley-Whitney Museum. I have written before about the lost treasures of George Headley, and how they inspired my Bibelot Series of collage miniatures, but I only recently acknowledged an undisclosed desire to have my work displayed at the institution. It pleases me to say that the daydreaming phase is over, because three of my larger works are part of their 2017 kick-off exhibition: ART | GREEN | DESIGN.
The show features examples of art and design that are inspired by and exemplify eco-friendly ideals. I am gratified to be represented among a group of exceptionally creative individuals. It causes me to realize just how much my activity in this chosen medium is driven by a practice of sorting through the cast-off material of our wasteful society and upcyling it as a worthwhile artifact. Cherry Balm, Pearallelograms, and Matthew’s Touchonic Lodge are fitting examples of that orientation.
An unidentified assemblage that I liked (left), and Kentuckian Brandon Long, my friend who creates handsome abstract squares from recycled roofing metal.
Details from three of my collage artworks, selected by the museum to include in
the show: Cherry Balm, Pearallelograms, and Matthew’s Touchonic Lodge.
“I don’t want to go home tonight
I wanna turn loose my lust
I want you to squeeze me tight
Do the things that we discussed”
When you have a talk with yourself about your to-do list, does it ever seem like you’re having a conversation with another person entirely? You know intellectually that once the ice is broken, a work lingering on the agenda will be a joyful immersion, a natural high, or perhaps a creative ecstasy, but the emotional preliminaries can be too much like a peculiar seduction.
collage miniature by J A Dixon
4.5 x 6.5 inches
available for purchase
“Talking about my music traps me in a vicious circle and it’s very seldom that I manage to escape it. If I’m writing a new piece then I mustn’t talk about it because if I do then I have no impulse to write it any more. Once it’s written, then there is nothing left to say. That’s very apparent to me. It’s a matter of thinking in music, and I hope my music finds a direct way to the listener without any further explanation.”
— Arvo Pärt
Allow me to dive deeply into the context of my most prominent large-scale collage artwork to date. Some of you may dismiss my analytical subtext as obscure artspeak, or others might think that I have lost myself in an esoteric miasma. But to those of you who are kind enough to offer the benefit of the doubt, or who also conduct the same kind of “post-mortem” (heaven help us), this is the kind of thing that people with a visual design background have a tendency to do. Nevertheless, a collage artwork should stand on its own without a preliminary explanation or a closing summation (just so you know where I stand on that). For those of you who are still with me, let’s jump in…
My goal was to create an illusion of depth with an abstract layering of value and
color contrasts, culminating with the “title character,” a Queen Alexandria Birdwing —
nature’s largest butterfly (which corresponds to this being the largest collage on
canvas that I have created so far).
My development as an artist has been rooted in the small format, taking what I have
learned from that into the realm of a larger scale. It is not surprising that I find myself
embedding actual collage miniatures into bigger works, as I have done here.
In addition to my preference for ingredients that represent the culture of language
and symbolic communication, I lean toward a “maximalist” approach, in this case
the clustering of dense material to contrast with bolder shapes and color-quantities.
The counterpoise of angled polygons and strong diagonals forms the basis for a
dynamic visual tension, allowing for more nuanced details to serve as focal points, spatial anchors, and color accents.
Although I have inserted into this artwork many details for literal association and
observational reverie, it is essentially a “collage painting,” with attention to the
artistic surface, an activation of visual space, and the overall viewing impression.
Thanks for visiting! Please register and comment here to let me know what you think. Criticism is permitted here. I promise to respond.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when
brothers dwell in unity!”
— Psalms 133:1
Collage collaboration is thriving in the Bluegrass. Robert Hugh Hunt and I began to think about a new project earlier last year, to follow our double-piece venture of 2015 (unveiled at the Kentucky Artisan Center’s It Takes Two show, featured at JUXTAPOSED, and also recognized in the state capitol rotunda as part of the 2016 Governor’s Derby Exhibit). Based on a thumbnail sketch in my journal that suggested a pair of interlocking shapes, we each took a 16×20 canvas-on-wood construction and worked independently on a solution to our “puzzle.” As we shared images online, a color scheme evolved as visual ideas echoed. Out of the gate, a found drawing of lupine eyes would demand a lower face with grinning mouth. Before long, we had exchanged a digital simulation of how the pieces would configure. Robert responded with a television element after I pasted the face of Fidel into a vintage TV set. (Strangely enough, this was a few weeks before the dictator’s demise.) When my partner, known for his mixed-media roosters, drew a chicken head, I added a corresponding game fowl to further the red-black theme. Did my fragment of a playing card spark his array of floating club symbols? His hand-drawn kissers certainly inspired my pencil and acrylic rendering of the “photo-booth” Kennedys.
Finishing touches were made after we had shared our final interim images. When our halves converged for the culminating “intercourse,” we thought it desirable for me to install a clamping device, so that the components might stand alone in the future. I explored possibilities and tried some ideas at my workbench, but, alas, I have never been an engineer. Fortunately, my kind collaborator was comfortable with a decision to join them permanently and declare victory.
All in all, I found our creative teamwork to be an immensely satisfying collaboration. The result was selected to be part of the local NEW YEAR NEW ART winter exhibition. Even though the interlocking feature of the artwork is probably more discernible when viewing it in person, it makes for a provocative online impression, and we were pleased that it was designated as the promotional poster for the show. After I had sorted through dozens of potential titles with a lack of conviction, Robert coined the phrase that stuck. He wrote this to me when he summed up our experimental process:
“Well, this collaboration was unlike any I had done. Most art collaborations have multiple artists working one at a time on a single piece until it is finished. As the artist, you are either ‘starting’ the collaborative piece or ‘finishing’ it, and, in cases with more than two collaborators, you could be working the ‘middle’ of the piece. But with Dreams Aligned, we took a different approach — creating two pieces, which I felt should stand on their own, and merging the two into one piece that not only worked as a whole, but made a stronger piece than the two works alone. And the fact that we had worked together successfully before, and understood each other’s artistic language, and that we kept a visual dialogue ongoing, showing each other the progress on their ‘half,’ following each other’s visual cues on medium, color, composition, etc. — in this way we were able to create a collaboration with two distinct artistic halves. It wasn’t a merging as much as an alignment of our artistic styles and languages, hence the title.”
a collage collaboration by J A Dixon and R H Hunt
mixed-media construction, 26.75 x 26.5 inches
(left component by Dixon, right component by Hunt)
available for purchase
“I tell you what gets harder over the years, it’s coming to grips with ‘is it finished yet or do I want to make one more change?’”
– Burton Cummings
Being invited by our Community Arts Center to participate in the annual winter invitational of regional artists never fails to jump-start my burst of year-end activity. Submissions to the January-to-February show are required to have been completed after August. The request comes in late October, but, instead of selecting from completed works, I’ll typically commence a work specific to the exhibition in early November. I set a goal this time to produce my largest collage ever and to shoot some in-progress photos.
The first image below indicates how I blocked out the early composition with mostly larger elements. The second represents how the color-quantity contrasts and spatial manipulations resolved themselves. The last image is the finished work with final layering and a few closing refinements.
It is a challenge to maintain a high degree of spontaneity when creating so large a work (for me, the dedicated miniaturist). It helps to carry a momentum of small-scale experimentation into the process, plus there are things I do to boost an “organic” flow. For example, if there are aspects of the color scheme I want to enhance, rather than acquire and position new elements one by one and invite too much preoccupation with each, I will quickly prepare a batch of ingredients and place them into the composition as rapidly and as intuitively as possible, responding to my impression of the evolving totality. Instead of pondering two-dimensional locations, the eye or hand moves first, and one learns to trust whether something “belongs” or not. Also, it can be difficult to know when the winding down to conclusion should start. At a certain point, I become conscious of a natural progression toward closing refinements (more logical considerations for balancing and harmonizing the overall effect). Noticing an escalation of rational deliberation can be the reliable signal that a piece may nearly be done — almost time to “pull the plug and sign it.”
We are unlikely to hear any collage artist say that completing a work is an exact science. Personally, if I walk away from something that I suspect is finished, it is less probable that I will continue to monkey with it when I come back. It is beneficial to have an objective consultant — in my case, a trusted partner willing to instruct, “Don’t touch it!”
I also should note that the exhibition is an opportunity for Robert Hugh Hunt and me to unveil another major collaboration (more to say about that next time). Creating the interlocking mixed-media construction was an interesting process. The result is something unconventional, and we’re pleased that it was selected as the promotional image for the show.
an early and a late
stage of my largest
collage painting to date
(click each for larger view)
Empress of Wings
collage on canvas by J A Dixon
42.25 x 30.375 inches
available for purchase
“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,”
– Mary Oliver
Not long ago I thought this series had run its course, but now I realize that it contains a rhythm which I hope will never stop. Originally inspired by the lost bibelots of George Headley, it has taken on its own continuity as a collage exercise that calls me back. I might spy a particular color, a certain fragment of printed typography, a shiny ingredient, a scrap of this or that — the next thing I know, a new miniature has cracked its shell, and it is unmistakably a “bibelot.”
It will not portend the fruitful struggle of demanding art. Rather, it is a favorite tune sung again, a pleasing walk taken more than once before, a quiet gift to oneself. And, just perhaps, a new mystery will be revealed — something worth investigating later — when simple delight must give way to challenge.
Churn (Bibelot 151)
collage miniature by J A Dixon
6.625 x 7.75 inches
Purchase this artwork.
“Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.”
I think it is good to start a fresh cycle with something that perplexes me. Will anyone else think that this is art? Does the irrepressible creative urge need to take matters into its own hands now and then? Or am I merely illustrating an untold story from my rambunctious imagination?
collage miniature on book cover by J A Dixon
7.25 x 9.5 inches
Purchase this artwork.
At our studio gallery, a surreal lady is my most popular note card, and now you can purchase cards with Pulcinella’s Secret as a packet of five or as part of a set of assorted cards. A set of five vertical note cards contains one each of five cards, with Pulcinella’s Secret, plus details from Structural Integrity, Fallen Body, Mystery Solved, and Pearallelograms. A set of four vertical note cards without Pulcinella’s Secret is also available.
Larger than a typical note card, each blank card is 5.125 x 7.75 inches and is folded along the left edge. Envelopes are included.
Click below to buy with your PayPal account or a credit card.
No extra charge for shipping, handling, or state taxes within the USA.
International customers, please contact me directly.
Assorted vertical-format cards ~ 5 cards, 1 each of 5 ~ $30
includes Pulcinella’s Secret
Assorted vertical-format cards ~ 4 cards, 1 each of 4 ~ $24
does not include Pulcinella’s Secret
Preview each distinctive collage note card —