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.

Anna Santana
Brothers in collage: Rafael Alvarez (right), a Baltimore screenwriter, developed a passion for making collage (above) in middle age. Besides grief from his kids, he gets validation in the discovery that Louis Armstrong couldn’t put the scissors down either. The trumpeter’s collages are kept in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College in Flushing, N.Y.


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.

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.

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.

“Excuse me,” I’ll say if someone walks by in a faded Iggy Pop or Foghat T-shirt, “can I take a picture of your shirt?”

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 ...

Rafael Alvarez is a writer based in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

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