Midlife discovery: I'm a brother in collage with Satchmo
A writer caught up in the calm of an ancient art form finds kinship with Louis Armstrong, whose other instruments were scissors and tape.
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Often, we don’t figure out that our obsessions are not as peculiar as feared until someone else comes along – particularly someone admired – who shares the same eccentricities.
Imagine my satisfaction upon leafing through the Paris Review not long ago to discover that I and the great Louis Armstrong – the immortal Satchmo – are brothers in collage.
While gigging between the four corners of the world, the great trumpeter cooled out between shows by decorating reel-to-reel tape boxes with pictures cut from newspapers, magazines, and personal correspondence. The results – presentations of bright, floating color often depicting the man and his horn – are preserved in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College in Flushing, NY.
Armstrong cut up personal invitations to the Vatican, taking the honorific “His Holiness” and placing it before his own name. I go to pierogi dinners in East Baltimore and cut the fliers into ribbons to decorate photocopied pictures of my Polish grandmother.
As a fellow artist, what especially interests me is that Armstrong created collage to relax from his main form of expression; that few people knew about it and he didn’t have to worry about being good at it – all he had to do was enjoy it.
According to the illustrated feature in Issue No. 184 of the Paris Review, Louis apparently wasn’t good enough at it for his wife to let him hang the work in their home, thus his move to tape boxes.
My practice of this ancient art – collage from the French coller, to glue; a medium traced to the invention of paper in China – has emerged as the unexpected and profoundly comforting surprise of my middle age. Until I spend a little cut and paste time with my morning coffee – a meditation bordering on ritual and dependent upon fading technologies – I can’t quite get on with the day. And it calls loudest during stress, when there is something more practical – such as turning in this story on time – to be done.
Faddists might call what I do “scrapbooking,” except that my versions appear to have been cob bled together by a lunatic. My children have warned that one wrong move by dear old Dad and my quiet passion could be the slam-dunk “Exhibit A” in my committal.
The evidence lies stacked in milk crates: marble composition books fattened not with old photographs but photographs of things that are old: televisions when they were pieces of furniture (often cut from news stories about octogenarians enduring without health insurance); postage both new – love the “50’s Fins & Chrome” series - and cancelled; and obits of long-ago baseball players.
Pieced together around decades of MY journal entries, it makes for an eccentric encyclopedia currently running to 30 volumes and captioned in a script that has shrunk as I’ve aged, as though I were a lost sibling of R. Crumb.
Crackers? You’d have to ask Louis or his misses. All I know is I’m rarely more serene than when fooling with dollar-store markers, a ruler, transparent tape, old newspapers, and scissors.
The scissors are small, with plastic handles; the kind found in a third-grade art class. Squeezed between my thumb and forefinger, the pressure of the blades is reassuring as I shear photographs in one long, curving motion; the tool gliding around the image of a loved one destined to become stationery on which I’ll send well wishes to another loved one.
My preferred canvas is a postcard. In the way that a story unfulfilled until it is received, my ceremonies – echoing an age when light was caught on cellulose and humans delivered correspondence from heavy sacks - are incomplete without a daily walk to the mailbox.