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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Affixed with a 27-cent mainsail, I launch my 4-by-6 inch visions on voyages to kin I don’t see often enough, friends with whom I share other passions, and random, never-to-be-seen-again wayfarers who crossed my path long enough to stand for a photo and give their address.Skip to next paragraph
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Many of the images are cut from snapshots taken with an ever-present disposable camera. The cheap plastic boxes shoot beautiful 35mm film, still the choice of artists and old school professionals.
Bought at gas station mini-marts – a “FUN PAK” for $5.95 – the disposables are pointed at food in preparation, presentation, and partaking. The pictures ARE later combined with carefully peeled and re-affixed butcher shop stickers documenting that 1.01 pounds of thick-slicked bacon cost $5.04 in Los Angeles in late 2008.
I’m especially keen on rock ’n’ roll T-shirts – sometimes vintage, more often department store retro-wear – worn by the aforementioned passersby.
If the stranger is game, somewhere down the line they’ll receive a collage combining the picture of their shirt (no heads, just neck, arms and 100 percent rock ’n’ roll), a photocopy of an album cover by the band, and maybe a quote from a deceased band member snipped from an old copy of CREEM magazine.
Other hand-cropped images – self-portraits of myself with people I know, the camera held at arm’s length – are married to scraps found on the street. Kids may swear that they lost their homework, but America’s alleyways suggest something else.
Not long ago, I found what appeared to be the entire contents of a homeless person’s pockets, complete with the business cards of social workers, addresses for shelters and soup kitchens, and a citation to appear in court on a street infraction resulting from not having access to indoor plumbing.
All of it makes its way into my house (sometimes after a stop at Kinkos, where color copy machines add depth to flat images) to be filtered through my laboratory before being sent back out into the world.
“My mother doesn’t understand most of them, I have to go over and explain,” said a childhood friend over the course of his father’s recent death, my mini-mosaics intended for big smiles during dark days. “But keep ‘em coming.”
In order to keep them coming, I must practice a discipline more elusive than collage: patience.
My throwaway cameras pile up more quickly than I can afford to have them processed. Because I don’t label them, part of the fun is reaching into the grab bag for one and ferrying its secrets to the drug store.
Another week passes before the pix come back – never one-hour processing, because immediacy, highly valued in our culture, robs the process of its natural course.
Writing to a friend in 1953, Armstrong said: “ ... my hobbie [sic] ... is using a lot of Scotch tape ... to pick out the different things during what I read and piece them together and [make] a little story of my own.”
You can find me setting up portable studios of tape and ink and paper in coffee shops, saving the sticky sections bordering sheets of stamps to make frames for pictures of road signs snapped from the car – Amelia, La., for my daughter; Ralph, S.D., for my grandfather – on cross-country road trips.
An unadorned envelope appears naked to me.
What a wonderful world ...