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  • bellebrett

Storytelling through Art

As an artist as well as a writer, I sometimes opt to tell stories through collage, one of my favored media. For my novel, Gina in the Floating World, I created collages that captured some of the scenarios and emotions of my story. During the pandemic, I have found myself leaning more towards visual expression rather than written expression. While also using this time of isolation to downsize my large trove of memorabilia, I decided to honor my deceased loved ones by creating memory collages that told something about their lives and what was important to them.

The collage for my father represents his adult years. I call it “My Father’s World.” As with book titles, I consider how I want to title my artworks. Geography was central to my dad’s life story in that he lived on two continents, traveled frequently for work, and enjoyed these trips. He would love to have traveled even more than he did.

Thus, a key element is the map of the USA and Europe connected by the Atlantic Ocean, which he crossed many times, at first by ship and later by plane. I’ve included appropriate images symbolizing several of the localities that were important to him. He was born and raised in England and spent his early working years there. First introduced to the USA through a post-doctoral fellowship, he spent his last 18 working years on the East Coast of the USA (Lancaster and Philadelphia, PA), with frequent trips to New York; Toronto; and his favorite American city, San Francisco, before retiring with my mother, at her request, back to London. Since he was an immigrant to the USA (at least for part of his life), the choice of the welcoming Statue of Liberty for New York felt particularly appropriate.

I chose several photos that felt emblematic of his life: him climbing Mt. Rainier in his 20s during a cross-country train trip, a family shot in front of our house, and his retirement from the company where he spent his entire work life. Regarding the Mt. Rainier picture, my father wasn’t a mountain climber per se, but I believe that was an accomplishment he took great pride in, much as he later took pride in his four miles an hour walking speed. The other images focus on his main interests: reading fiction, especially the American humorists and his favorite novel, Ulysses, which he kept by his bed; writing letters to family and friends until he felt he had nothing more to say; drinking wine (and for a short while, making it) and martinis; listening to classical music, especially Mozart and Haydn; reading about science, scientists, philosophy and language. The background of his collage is a piece of sheet music from Mozart that I played as a child, so it was meaningful on two levels.

In some respects, making collages is similar to writing. As I composed this collage, I not only considered which details of my father's life to include but also how the arrangement of the images would create a visual rhythm as written words create an aural rhythm in poems and stories. I played around with the order until it felt right and omitted items to reduce clutter and tighten the message, much as a writer omits unnecessary scenes, characters, and words as she revises. As the artist, I want to tell the best story I can, but it is up to the viewer to provide her own interpretations.

Making this collage was cathartic for me. I felt invested in capturing my father as I knew him, in telling his story through imagery, and in creating something that would be visually challenging and evocative but also pleasing. Importantly, for me as the downsizer, I feel more ready to let go of some of the actual items that served as sources of inspiration.

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