Archive for the 'Methodology' Category

First cause: the intuitive response

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

“Every athlete, every musician practices every day. Why should it be different for artists?”
— Christoph Niemann

Creating a collage within constraints is one of the most enjoyable activities within the medium, because it is necessary to throw oneself upon the mercy of pure intuition. Last week I was in the middle of caring for my mother at our family farm, and I assigned myself this exercise:

Mombo (V E Dixon) with her son (J A Dixon) ~ Easter at the Blue Bank Farm, 2017Complete one full-page collage in my journal within the time of Mombo’s two-hour afternoon nap, using only ingredients found in the recycling bin.

Naturally, my journal is the perfect place to conduct such exercises. I take what I learn from the small format and bring it to larger artworks. What is it that I learn? That, too, is primarily a matter of fortifying one’s intuition. I hope to internalize the creative response that each experiment reveals and keep my collage process as subjective as possible. For me, nothing bogs down the making of a collage more than too much rational thinking, which is best reserved for aesthetic refinements, finishing touches, and creating titles.
 
Untitled (first cause) ~ a collage miniature by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

Untitled (first cause)
constrained collage exercise by J A Dixon
page from 11×14 Strathmore journal
not for sale

I Must Have Kentucky ~ all the details

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

“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. Star of Abraham ~ John Andrew DixonThe 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. John Andrew Dixon at the Kentucky Artisan Center, Berea, KentuckyObviously, 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 hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky”.
 

detail from ‘I Must Have Kentucky’ by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

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.

detail from ‘I Must Have Kentucky’ by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

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.

detail from ‘I Must Have Kentucky’ by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

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.

detail from ‘I Must Have Kentucky’ by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

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.

Thanks for reading such a long entry. I invite you to register and comment here. Let me know what you think. If anything bugs you, constructive criticism is encouraged!

do the things that we discussed . . .

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

“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”
—Bruce Cockburn

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.

What? This has never happened to any of you? Well, in that case, I can’t believe I just hit the “Publish” button.
 
Sordid Whims ~ a collage miniature by John Andrew Dixon, Danville, Kentucky

Sordid Whims
collage miniature by J A Dixon
4.5 x 6.5 inches
available for purchase

Another worthy collaborative alliance

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

“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.

‘Dreams Aligned’ (a collaborative collage construction by John Andrew Dixon and Robert Hugh Hunt) at the 2017 NEW YEAR NEW ART exhibition ~ Community Arts Center, Danville, KentuckyAll 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. the 2017 NEW YEAR NEW ART exhibition ~ Community Arts Center, Danville, KentuckyAfter 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.”
 
Dreams Aligned ~ a collaborative collage construction ~ Kentucky artists John Andrew Dixon and Robert Hugh Hunt

Dreams Aligned
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

Empress of Wings — When is the flight over?

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

“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 ~ John Andrew Dixon

Empress of Wings
collage on canvas by J A Dixon
42.25 x 30.375 inches
currently on consignment

Continuing a series . . .

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

“It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”
— Henri Poincaré

December is the time of year for making hand-crafted holiday cards. By and by, I return to variations on the theme of a Christmas tree. Perhaps some of the collage miniatures are more “successful” than others, but the point of this ritual (other than sharing joy with dear ones, of course) is granting free rein to an intuitive response. Exercising this capacity is at the heart of collage as a medium. How important it is to give the imagination a blank check and invest no concern in the lack of a preconceived approach! Choosing a simple pictorial theme conveniently jump-starts an experimental process. What follows is pure discovery.
 

29 collage greeting
cards by J A Dixon

variations on a
Christmas theme
2001 – 2016

That dreaded Artist Tongue

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

“Somehow the language used for describing and discussing art has a reputation for unusual opacity, even sadism.”
– Robert Atkins

Someone recently remarked that my description of collage as an intuitive phenomenon sounds like “artspeak.” I know what she meant — confusing, overblown prose that tends to alienate the “uninitiated.” She may have had a point, although I would hope that there is a difference between jargon meant to exclude those who don’t speak the often-elitist language of contemporary art, and an honest attempt to write about something that is difficult to articulate (because, in essense, it is a non-verbal, non-rational process). If I fall prey to obscuring that distinction at The Collage Miniaturist, please call me on it. I can take it.

dixon_untitledindustry

Untitled (INDUSTRY)
collage experiment by J A Dixon
8 x 12 inches
not for sale

the necessity of journal experiments

Friday, October 14th, 2016

“You must train your intuition. You must trust the small voice inside which tells you exactly what to say, what to decide.”
— Ingrid Bergman

Believe it or not, collage-miniature experiments in my sketch journal have become less about visual results than they have about intuitive choices and conditioning my sequential responses. If one can internalize this process as a smooth, nonjudgmental flow, then it is possible to bring it to bear with more rational, formal concepts. This will help avoid bogging down in an undesirable, second-guessing mode. I hope that makes sense. If not, I promise that I will keep trying to articulate this important aspect of creativity.
 

a journal experiment by John Andrew Dixon, collage artist, Danville, Kentucky

Untitled (Oat Man Mountain)
a journal experiment by J A Dixon
5 x 4.5 inches

a journal experiment by John Andrew Dixon, collage artist, Danville, Kentucky

Untitled (Per Pound!)
a journal experiment by J A Dixon
7.75 x 8 inches

a journal experiment by John Andrew Dixon, collage artist, Danville, Kentucky

Untitled (pierced)
a journal experiment by J A Dixon
3 x 4 inches

a journal experiment by John Andrew Dixon, collage artist, Danville, Kentucky

Untitled (DBC)
a journal experiment by J A Dixon
9 x 5 inches

a mini-tutorial for gel transfers

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”
― Isaac Asimov

A growing number of people will now agree that most emerging social networks are not what they’re cracked up to be. For an artist who spends a lot of time in solitary activities, it can be a beneficial connection to a larger body of peers. I concur with Cal Newport that it can also be a habit-forming distraction that pulls one into a more shallow mode than the deep concentration necessary to produce exceptional creative work. There are times, however, when a Facebook interaction is so good that I have to marvel at the way people can quickly exchange valuable information across continents. Case in point: a recent back-and-forth between Peter Dowker (Lac-Brome, Quebec) and Matthew Rose (Paris, France) about image transfers for collage assembly. When Susanna Lakner (Stuttgart, Germany) and Melinda Tidwell (Santa Fe, New Mexico) jumped in, it developed into one of the best step-by-step descriptions of gel-medium transfer that I have seen. Here is my summary of Dowker’s technique—

“First of all, stay away from the hard stuff, like the toxic chemical cleaner trichlorethylene. Instead, use a gel-medium method to achieve an effective transfer. Apply a healthy coat of liquid acrylic medium to the image side of an ingredient and adhere it face down. GLOSS medium sticks better than matte. Rub with a brayer, or burnish gently with a soup spoon, and let it dry. Using a bit of water, gently rub off the paper backing with your finger or a piece of cloth. Don’t use too much water and slowly move over the surface, removing a bit at a time. Use oil varnish or vegetable oil to bring up the image. A minute amount of paper will always remain behind, giving it a cloudy appearance when dry. The oil varnish or vegetable oil will make that disappear and enhance the transparency. I formerly used matte oil-based varnish, which works okay. The vegetable oil idea comes from Allan Beally. There will be hardly any build up at all — probably less than any of the collaged pieces next to it. When making a transfer onto vintage papers, I find it’s better to seal them first before you begin — 1 or 2 coats of matte gel medium — the water involved to rub off the back of the transfer can destroy the substrate. Keep in mind that different papers react in different ways. Sealing is only necessary if the base is fragile. Be patient after gluing down the transfer. Letting it TOTALLY dry before rubbing off the paper is essential. If you’re not patient and start rubbing too soon, the image can start to break down. Wait a minimum of 2 hours (overnight is best) before removing the paper backing. If I know I’m going to be using a transfer from the outset, I start the piece on heavy card, to keep the substrate from becoming wrinkly in one spot from the water. The method works with original elements or copies. When I do use a laser print, it’s on thin, cheap office paper. Removing the paper backing can take ten minutes or more, because I go slow, not wanting to damage the image — not really that long at all. I’ve had the most luck since I began sealing the receiving surface with matte medium and waiting longer for it to dry. And the oil works wonders!”

My thanks to Mr. Dowker for allowing me to share this description here. Some of us have also used a variation that involves removing the paper backing independently, in a basin of water, before adding it to the collage surface. When doing that, one ends up working with a collage element that is essentially a veneer of acrylic medium, which introduces a size limitation and other aspects of craftsmanship. Peter calls this the “gel-skin method.” Although he has used it many times, a drawback for him is the need to build up 4 to 5 layers of medium — so it’s not too fragile for the rubbing stage — which makes for a thicker transfer. According to Peter, “not very appealing to the fussier ones among us.” The gel-skin method does allow for a right-reading image (if that’s important), otherwise the previous method will result in a flopped image (unless it can be photomechanically or digitally reversed prior to transfer). Each collage artist will refine an individual methodology, and, not surprisingly, new discoveries and “fortunate accidents” occasionally can result. As Peter reminds us, “Don’t be shy!”

Take a few minutes to savor a few of his extraordinary artworks below—
 

CUTTERS
collage with image transfer by P Dowker

ACORN
collage with image transfer by P Dowker

VAAVING
collage with image transfer by P Dowker

TOYS
collage with image transfer by P Dowker

A closer look . . .

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Here are a few detailed images of my repurposed chair, Good Morning, Mrs. Bradshaw. I knew from the outset that I would not be satisfied to achieve a “merely aesthetic” result, even though I am usually pleased if my collage artwork successfully does no more than that. I sought to visually communicate a symbolic tension that evoked my feelings as youngster, caught between the clarity of adult expectations and the fuzzy pleasure of indulging a literary genre that was generally frowned upon in the 1950s. I include the name of my first-grade teacher in the title. She was probably the first person outside my family who recognized and encouraged my creative interests.
 

The project took on a life of its own when I became convinced that it was
finally time to exploit some of my vintage typesetting specimens.

My concept rests on the visual contrast between “scholastic” and “vernacular”
imagery — what a ’50s schoolboy was supposed to read and what he was not.

My desire to preserve the circular “rivets” that held the wooden seat and back
slats to a metal structure presented challenges of collage artisanship.

A fun, rewarding part of the process was to capture the youthful energy of
reading comics and to avoid obvious narrative references at the same time.

Thank you for your interest and attention. Please let me know what you think of my work, this blogsite, or the medium of collage in general. Comment here or through TCM at Facebook. Stop back again!
 

Merely a metabolic event?

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

“I’m a ‘what if’ person. I have always felt that failure was a completely underrated experience.”
– Kevin Costner

Process is everything with some artists, and I respectfully get that. Experimental spontaneity within the small format is a vital and meaningful aspect of my art, but when I scale up for a larger work, I apply that experience and insight toward an end result — something more planned, with the intention to provoke a positive response in another — an agreeable product, if you will. So, what about the individual artwork that has “merely” contributed to the overall creative metabolism of an artistic investigation, and, as a stand-alone work, is little more than a “glorious failure,” in the final analysis?

I wish I knew how to answer that dangling question. Obviously, not every collage “sketch” is significant in its own right, but if the potential exists for it to engage a particular person, and that person wants to observe it repeatedly, to discover if it has a few secrets others have missed — how can anyone diminish its intrinsic value?

Dixon_Metabolism

Metabolism
collage miniature by J A Dixon
7.375 x 9.5 inches
 
Purchase this artwork.