Adding the Magic of Everyday Images
by Candace Hennekens
All my life I have been writing—diaries, poems, essays, articles, or books—and then in 2000 I became a visual artist and found another creative outlet. Writing and art making are not, for me anyway, either or. I engage in both, switching between the two activities, practicing them simultaneously, or sometimes, employing both image and language together. Using language with image can be a useful artistic tool. It is a way to turn the viewer in a certain direction, help the piece tell a story, and make the work even more personal. Word choice can make a piece serious or it can make it fun. It can add an air of mystery or it can make clear the story line.
More than anything, the combination of language with image makes an art piece’s message clearer. There’s magic in language so why not use it?
My first attempt at using language with image was to illustrate various word idioms. I did twelve of these in watercolors with markers and stencils to write each caption. Only four examples survive. In the following pieces the images are the focus, and the language provides both title and cartoon-like commentary. Paint the Town Red, It’s Black or White, Seeing Red, and Red Letter Day are explorations of how color has both denotative and connotative meaning.
For me, art has always been an evolution. When I painted How to be an Artist in 2008, I was moving toward collage, but painting was still my primary style. The message was to became a list poem in the center. Conceptually, the words are the most important part of this piece. I used a stylized silhouette of a woman with phrases about the artistic life running across her torso.
Because I don’t love the way my handwriting looks, and because I felt using my handwriting would detract from the image, I used different fonts and sizes in a word processing program to create my thoughts about what is important in order to be an artist. Had I simply used the woman, it would not have conveyed the complexity of my message. Had I only used the words, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. I didn’t want the piece to be entirely serious, however, so I gave her a scarf, cut some fabric shapes from real fabric, and put the phrase “Wear more scarves, start today” on the piece. Originally, this piece really was intended as a message to myself, and I made it large with the plan that I would hang it in my studio. Realizing that it spoke to others as well, I made prints, and it was a best seller in the hay barn art gallery that I ran in the summer for ten years when I lived on a farm.
After this, I began doing a lot more collage work where words often dominated images and design enhanced the words. Collage is a French word and literally means to glue. A collage is created by securing a variety of materials onto a backing to create a unified piece. Materials that can be used to create a collage include photographs, ephemera from daily life, textured papers, jewelry, cloth, buttons, to name some of the possible choices. Adding language to the piece can be done in the artist’s own hand, with type blocks, or by cutting out words and phrases from published materials. It is an engrossing treasure hunt to search for the right words and language from old books, magazines, newspapers, dictionaries, old letters, and even advertisements that come with the mail. Wherever there is printed or handwritten material, there is fodder for the word hunt.
I am showing a few examples of these language heavy collages: I created them on 8.5 by 11 inch paper, and then had them blown up into posters. I also reduced them to 5 by 7 card size and sold them as cards. These were especially fun to do and viewers liked reading them, even when the words were reduced in size on the cards.
All artists bring their unique way of seeing the world into their art. Most of my collages are done for fun, and bring my joie de vie and sense of humor into art. For me, art creation is a personal statement about what I love, what I have been attracted to, what in the natural world is worthy of celebration, and what I have experienced. There is little sturm und drang (storm and drive) in my art personality, and especially not in collage. I am joyful, grateful, and want to communicate positive emotions.
A retrospective on my childhood that I did in 2008 used language that was entirely personal. I used a page from the five-year diary that I kept between 1959 and 1963 (ages eleven to fifteen). Looking back on how I was raised, I see the richness of love my sisters and I received from my parents as well as the comfortable and spacious home we grew up in, an unusually large house with an unusually large and well landscaped yard. In addition to the pages from my diary, I applied photos of my family of origin, a quote from a Wordsworth poem as well as jewelry, textured papers, string, wrapping paper and other ephemera. I not only used a very personal piece of writing—the diary—but also another source of language—the poem. The quote from Wordsworth’s poem “Intimations of Immortality: From Recollections of Early Childhood” harkened back to my teenage years.
As a teenager, I’d seen the movie, Splendor in the Grass, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beattie. It made quite an impression on me, though when I recently watched it last year, I realized that I hadn’t really comprehended the film, or if I had, over the years had forgotten what it was about. What I remembered was the tragic sadness, and the final scene when Natalie and Warren meet again after circumstances have driven them apart and it’s now clear that a chapter in their lives has been closed. The movie inspired me to look up Wordsworth’s work, and read some of his poems. I copied long sections of “Intimations” into my ledger diary that I began keeping after I’d filled up my five-year diary. When I used the lines from the poem, however, I didn’t simply put the quote onto the art. I wrote it out in handwriting, then covered the lines with a mesh screen I’d painted copper. The idea of handwriting and the quote itself were presented, but the meaning was partially obscured. Why did I want to do this? I believe doing so softened the meaning of the quote which read:
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Wordsworth was intertwined with my adolescent search for meaning. Back when I was a teenager, I suffered (as most teenagers probably do) from a depressive melancholy. I didn’t want to whole-heartedly mean what the quote implied so I made it difficult to read. Covering it also served another purpose; it forced the viewer to get closer to the piece of art. Depending on viewing distance, the quote can or cannot be read. In this way, I was also using language as a teaser, an enticement to take a closer look.
In the same year, I created a series of paintings with zinnias. In Five Zinnias in a Glass Vase, I used randomly selected blocks of type from a gardening catalog letting the real words lend an air of whimsy to the thread sketch. Instead of pencil, ink or paint, I sketched the flowers by sewing on the watercolor paper with my sewing machine in various colors of thread. I usually use black, but not always. Watercolor paper stands up well to being stitched. The blocks of type represent the element of water without meaning anything. Using random words lent an air of mystery to the piece and made the text more transparent like water than if the words had meaning in relation to the image. The way the brain processes input is based on previous patterns it has seen. The mind’s eye of the viewer would quickly scan a few words, comprehend that these words weren’t related to the image, and see them as “fill” rather than meaningful.
In subsequent thread sketches in my zinnia series, I selected phrases out of printed material that made sense within the context of the art, as in the piece Four Zinnias Translated. Snippets reading, “So miraculous, I lie down on the ground sobbing”, “O rich summer warmth” and “Translated by” are specific to the aim of the art celebrating the common but beautiful zinnia and even gave me a title for the piece. These snippets were cut from an old poetry magazine.
Sometimes I have used one of my poems in an art piece. In a piece titled Meditation, I printed, using alphabet blocks, my own composition. The haiku reads, “A Clearing in the Forest, Breathe In, Breath Out, Stillness Lies Within.” I painted the abstracted forest painting first, then the idea came to me to write a short poem about how to find calm in chaos, and I printed it onto the art with block letters and gold ink. I chose this method because I wanted to words to blend into the image rather than stand out, as if on the same surface plane, then I brushed over the haiku with a brush dipped in gold ink to give a feeling of movement to the piece.
If I had to pick between language or image, I would have a hard time saying one is more important than the other, or that I like using one more than the other for self-expression. Each can stand on its own. Each is essential to human communication and creativity; however, language and image can become partners in the creation of meaning. When it works, it can become magical. We like meaning; we need meaning; we search for meaning. That’s why we tell stories, paint pictures, make movies, etc. We are imposing an order on life experiences.
Using image and language together helps create that magical meaning we so hunger for. An image opens up a word and makes it more nuanced. Conversely, combining a word or words with an image shifts viewers into a deeper aesthetic or perhaps into a different direction than they might have taken without it. Words help tell the story. Seeing plus reading creates a sum greater than its parts. A simple painting of a daisy with a Basho haiku illustrates this well.
Using words with images has been part of my art journey. I am doing less of it now. I am finding instead that words are in my mind while I paint. I don’t need to make them apparent. I am doing a series of oil paintings with cold wax and other texture mediums on childhood memories. I am trying to capture the internal state of emotion linked to my memory of some part of my childhood. So, while I know what feeling and what I am aiming for when I am creating a piece, I doubt viewers will necessarily connect the abstract painting with the emotion I was reaching for as I painted. Viewers will see whatever they want. As the creator of the art piece, however, there is a deep satisfaction in knowing I have achieved my aim of reflecting my emotional context. Will I use words again explicitly in my art? Most certainly. I believe language is a powerful tool for self-expression and as a writer/artist I have found that words enhance the visual language of art.
Candace Hennekens is an artist, writer and poet. She lives on a river, has delightful grandchildren, and finds meaning and purpose in the arts.