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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Words and Music: Deciding How to Work with Someone Else's Captions

One of my favorite kinds of projects to do are collaborative artist trading cards--or ATC jams (where typically one person makes a background, sends it on to a second person who adds a focal point, who in turn sends the card on to a third person for final touches). These collaborations can move to some really unexpected (and quite wonderful) places as each artist brings her own individuality and eye to bear on the composition.

One of the challenges that I particularly enjoy is how to work WITH the elements left for me by the artists who have gone before me in the piece. For me, a successful collaboration means honoring what the other artists have done by attempting to preserve its integrity while adding to the whole with my own vision. I don't consider it a success when one artist negates what another has done by, for example, covering up previous contributions ("covering up" in the sense of obliterating or rendering invisible, not layering upon). How to both show and build upon what the others have already contributed? This is the challenge, and for me, the delight: art as a puzzle to solve.

"a successful collaboration
 what the other artists have done"

A recent ATC jam that I worked on presented a fun challenge: it came to me already captioned with not only words but bits of sheet music. (Some of you may know that I am a musician as well as a visual artist. Fragments of music as used in collage thus always carry an extra layer of meaning for me, as I can hear in my head the tune that is shown as well as usually discern the type of music it is and the time period it comes from--such as a Romantic-era piano piece, or a fragment from a church hymnal, or a bit of a jazz lead sheet. Consciously or unconsciously, these musical bits color my perceptions of the rest of the piece. Ideally, they harmonize! LOL)

But back to the jam at hand. The first layer as created by Marie was a richly colored gel print in a geometric honeycomb pattern overlaid with deep amber swirls:

It had nice texture and depth to work with--two qualities that always make the finished product more interesting!

Layer Two was added by Charlotte. She distressed some sheet music fragments and added some little raised tiles with text on them, both of which introduced the color black into the palette. She left plenty of room for the third artist--me--to interpret her and Marie's contributions and finish the set of cards.

What was interesting to me about what Charlotte did was that all three of her sheet music fragments and all three of her captions were different from card to card. 

On the first card, she specifically seemed to link the music and the text, with the words "Life is" from the first and "independence" to the latter. This strengthened my natural inclination to "hear" the music fragment as melody to the accompanying texts. (Since the key signature is visible, I felt pretty sure the next note would have been an F# for the syllable "in-"...and wondered how the rest of the word "independence" might be set to the music!) With D major being a pretty upbeat, happy, and even brash key, and with Marie's color scheme suggesting Independence Day, I started to think along patriotic lines in contemplating what I might add.

But did I want to pursue the line of combining music plus text? When I looked at the other two cards, I tried to think of a contribution from me that would be fairly unified across the set and that would also honor the work of Charlotte and Marie.

"This is the challenge, 
and for me, the delight: 
art as a puzzle to solve."

The card reading "explore, dream, discover" to me seemed to have a softer sentiment than the other two cards, owing to the word "dream" (thus making me think that perhaps the music fragment from the last card, in A-flat and with its rhythmic swaying between two notes, might have gone better with this particular text...and that the 4/4 G-major frag, which could conceivably be a march, might have gone better with "so the adventure begins"...). But if I disregarded the word "dream," the sentiments of "explore" and "discover" were still pretty bold... How did these words fit with the patriotic feel I was getting from the first card? And what could I do? Maybe find vintage illustrations, perhaps from the Colonial period, that might reflect these ideas?

I rather quickly discarded that idea as being too literal. Furthermore, I felt that Charlotte's contribution, differing as it did from card to card, introduced enough variation to the set; I started to think that I wanted my contribution to be approximately the same across the three cards, and to let the variety in Charlotte's words set the frame of how the viewer would see my contribution, with Marie's background playing the foundational role.

I also realized about this time that the great majority of viewers of these cards might not read music at all, or if they did, might not think to try to link what the music was actually saying to what the texts also said. So I decided to treat the music as largely a merely visually decorative element at this point as I further pondered my contribution.

I did like the vintage illustration idea, but I decided I wanted something quirky and perhaps downright odd. I struck upon this illustration of a maiden leading a moose by a ring through its nose as being wonderfully weird:

AND...when I tried this picture on with each of Charlotte's captions, some new meanings seemed to emerge in regards to what the illustration now seemed to say under each of the sentiments. "Independence" now seemed ironic, since the creature was literally being led by the nose by the maiden. "Explore, dream, discover"--perhaps the maiden was about to be in for the exploration and discovery of her life! (Just how genteel could this besuited moose really be?) "And so the adventure begins" also seemed ironic and perhaps dire; was this to be an adventure for the moose, or for the maiden? Where is she leading him? To the slaughter?

"These slightly uncomfortable
and ambiguous juxtapositions
pleased me greatly." 

YES. These slightly uncomfortable and ambiguous juxtapositions pleased me greatly. I found them thought-provoking and darkly humorous and a little bit weird, which are pretty much my three favorite qualities in a piece of art. I knew in a flash that I had found my contribution. Now to finish the cards!

I manipulated the original illustration in Photoshop to adjust the color cast so that it would be more harmonious with Marie's color scheme. Once it was affixed to each card, I made the colors even more brilliant by adding some creamy colored pencil to embolden the figures and keep them from being dominated by the rich and busy background.

My figures needed a bit of a ground to appear against, which would also help reduce the impact of the background, so I chose some translucent washi tape in a vintage music print that would echo Charlotte's music fragments. (All this music seemed to lend a fairy-tale or pastoral quality to the whole as well, like some sort of Sondheim-esque "Hello Little Girl" vignette.) This washi also repeated the black that she had introduced to the palette; to play up the black and frame the composition, I edged the cards in soft chalk ink, then added an enamel-like border of melted embossing powder.

And voila! My work here was done.


  1. OMG, I love it!! I was so excited to get this card. I am in awe of you work and your insight into my mashup. I love jams because I get to challenge the next person, sometimes my intent is rational and sometimes it's just weird. Art is supposed to be thought provoking! Your addition to the cards is great. I look forward to jamming with you in the future!

    1. Hi Charlotte! Thanks for stopping by. :) I'd love to hear more about your own creative process. Did you have any vision for how you would have finished these cards if you had kept working on them instead of sending them on to me to finish? Were you surprised at how the homer came out? (I love being surprised when I get a homer!)

      I absolutely loved our collaboration and look forward to the next time we work together too. :) Such fun!

    2. Paula, my creative process is very random, or very precise. I haven't come to a conclusion on this subject yet. I've been a maker all my life. When I was a little girl my days consisted of watching game shows, collecting junk and making stuff. I've always let my mind/heart guide me from piece to piece. Just recently with jams and ATCS i've started working from a gathered a pile. I have been confining myself to my personal stash. My art used to take me weeks/ months to finish because I always waited on a component to call to me. I love the thrill of the hunt, but more so I love to challenge others. With this jam I instantly fell in love with the color scheme that Marie outlined. I swoon over dark colors. The color black is my soulmate, I take it with me everywhere and introduce it into so many things. I also have a similar love for music, and while I don't have a firm grasp on the technical components, I love how varied sounds make me feel. When I work on a jam it's all about feeling & mood. My contribution to the piece was purely to invoke thought and analysis. I chose you for the piece because I read your profile and some other snippets about your music, and again I love your work so of course you were the right choice for the job!! I didn't envision a finished piece because I knew that I would be passing it along. I did however look through the entire jam group before deciding who I wanted to send it to. I've been tickled with every single card that I've received from you. The effort & analysis that you contribute parallels the thought and consideration that I put into a piece so I knew that it would be great. On a different note, I browsed your blog and I was hoping to find a write up on Masterboard Backgrounds. I'm a little obsessed with them, recently i've been working to pull of the perfect piece. I would love to see what you come up with for one of these!

    3. Hi Charlotte! Last things first--coincidentally, I just sent off a masterboard yesterday for a Swap-bot swap--but alas, I didn't think to photograph it while I was making it (or before I sent it off, for that matter). But what a great idea for a blog post! I will definitely take you up on your suggestion and write about this soon. What do you personally like to do when making (or appreciate in others') masterboards?

      Yes, black! It instantly deepens and grounds a composition, no? It was great how you added it to Marie's starters (which I also loved...so rich and glowing). Black is magic for sure! :)

      I am so amazed and pleased to hear that you sifted through several people before picking ME to finish the cards. That is an honor, and I am so happy that we seem to share so much in the creative/analytical process and approach many things the same way. The fact that you chose your contribution to the cards to provoke thought is delightful to me (and definitely had the desired effect on me as well!). How long have you been doing jams/collaborative art?

      I love your work and am so glad that we've gotten hooked up as art buddies! Can't wait until our next jam. :)