I am, in all my genres, an artist of juxtaposition, not only tracing connections between seemingly separate parts, but binding fragments into whole things: stories, garments, world vies, collages. I began making collages as a young immigrant in Chicago. At thirteen, which I've always considered sufficient culture shock all by itself, I moved from a coffee farm on the top of a mountain in Western Puerto Rico, an hour's drive from the nearest small town, to the university community of Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago. I lost the natural world that was my intimate joy and context, the close-knit circle of our family unraveled as my mother took on graduate school and activism, all the social rules were alien and I didn't know how to make sense of most of what went on around me. I took to journal writing and collages trying to map my path, visually and in words, to create coherent images made of the bits and pieces I wanted. I invented supernatural protectors-- genies and goddesses and mythical beasts made out of pieces of National Geographic and Ladies Home Journal. I remember I created an entire harp whose scales I cut one by one out of Breck hair color commercials. Collage helped me put myself back together, as the collage style of writing, small vignettes arranged in a pattern, best allows me to talk about the complexity of the world.
I love lining up images whose content is wildly different, but whose lines can be made to flow together--the edge of a riverbank and the gesture of a hand, a bird's wing and a mass of cloud, strands of hair and an aerial shot of plowed fields. I love using tiny bits of paper, so the content of a photo becomes pure pattern and color. In fact, I made my mother a miniature quilt, using tiny snippets placed with tweezers into a traditional grid of triangles. Collage is akin to magical spells, raw ingredients bound together into something potent and new.
These days I make collages in large spiral bound books with black pages, exploring the places where words can't take me. I use collage to create personal talismans, to speak unspeakables, to give the wordless body voice. Since my stroke in 2007, I have often found visual art easier than writing. I compose my essays in color, tell stories in layered imagery, sometimes printed on fabric and embelished with beads, sometimes composed in Photoshop, but scissors and glue stick still takes me into that meditative dream space faster than anything else.
Obviously I'll have to make storage space for my National Geographic stash in my tiny home, because the journey I'm undertaking will be full dream maps, roads marked with tree branches and ancient bits of pottery, the necks of waterbirds, altered cityscapes and the flanks of whales. Or, as above, a stormy Miami night, ancient gold, a stag and the tattooed arm of a woman of power, buried a thousand years ago in the Andes. I call it "Brujeria #1."
I have learned over long, hard decades, the power of a personal story deeply embedded in context. What I am setting out to do is to tell the story of my body, my aging, ailing, female, Caribbean Jewish, immigrant, disabled, queer, art-making, epileptic, childbirth-scarred body—and to deepen that story with history and widen it with ecology and global vision, until in encompasses everything I am burning to write and speak and make art about.
And the vision of what I want to do has changed the shape of the house, the strategy for funding it, the network of collaborators I’m building, and what I dream about at night. But most of all, it’s given me back that sense of anticipation, of knowing that I’m living inside an epic tale of adventure, where messages and teachers are everywhere, and neither time, nor effort, nor any experience at all, is ever wasted.
This time, though, I’m not setting out alone. At fifty-seven, I exist in a rich, dense mat of relationships, able to chart a course in which adventure co-exists with planning, where amidst the magic of happenstance, messages can also be asked for, and teachers encountered by design. The encounters I am planning for are with people whose passions overlap with mine, with organizations that can make good use of my brief presence, with archivists and librarians who can put their fingertips on things I need to know, and also with landscapes, from the closest we have to pristine, to those as scarred and ailing as the sickest among us.
When I was in my twenties, I bought a poetry suitcase. My plan was to travel around the country with a portable typewriter and give readings, teach workshops, stay with friends of friends in the various political movements I was connected to, living on a shoestring and a song. The particular song that ran through my mind at the time was Back By Fall by Wendy Waldman. It was the anthem for my vision of a journeying poet with a vocation for social justice art.
There’s crying in the cities
all the people are sad.
I heard it from the mountain
where I was living.
No food for the children.
Oh the times they are so bad.
What ever happened to giving?
Oh, Mama mend the hole in my coat.
Take my guitar from the wall.
I got to go see what I can do,
and I hope I’ll be back by fall.
Aurora Levins Morales is a disabled and chronically ill, community supported writer, historian, artist and activist. It takes a village to keep her blogs coming. To become part of the village it takes, donate here.
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