Friday, October 17, 2014

magnificent minnesota

Since arriving home from my quick camping trip in coastal Maine, I've been mostly preoccupied by finishing up a second painting commission for the client I visited in Minnesota this summer. The first one was a 7'x3' timeline-style collage depicting the company's history in Minneapolis, now hanging in their atrium, and the second is a triptych of three 30"x40" panels celebrating Minnesota's environment, culture and industry.

Due to its size, the first painting had to be shipped by freight in a custom-built wood crate weighing an insane 173 lbs. These three were small enough that they could be shipped USPS Parcel Post and arrived today, so I can finally share the finished result and a few details about the process.


I sourced and dyed over two hundred pieces of paper: maps, letters, envelopes, travel brochures, sports tickets and concert programs, sheet music, history books, newspapers, book covers, and on and on. Each piece was individually dyed with different hues and water to dye ratios in order to create an almost ombre blue-green-tan paper background across the three panels.

Most of the material I use comes from vintage markets, antique stores or garage sales. When an antique dealer or vintage seller finds an amazing desk or dresser, a lot of times it's full of worthless (to them) old paper that's been tossed away and forgotten for decades. You'll usually find that stack somewhere off to the side of a thrift or consignment store, and I've met a number of local antique dealers who save particular types of paper for me, usually weird old advertisements or envelopes or ripped up newspapers used as drawer liners (I'm totally that customer. Ugh.)

I stopped at every random library, antique dealer and sketchy looking thrift store I saw in between Minneapolis, Bemidji and Duluth and ended up with some very interesting material full of patina and wear.



So much old paper! So much dust! It was really fun to be my rental car on the ride home to Boston.


I spent several days researching Minnesota and included references to nearly every important bit of history, from old loggers' songs and iron ore mine signs to the Pillsbury and Gold Medal mills and the First Avenue stars of native Minnesotan singers. There are a ton of early 1900s invoices from local paper, farming and milling companies, and some funky vintage food ads from the 1950s. Some other favorite additions were Bob Dylan's handwritten lyrics to It Ain't Me, very old Minnesota Statehood Centennial stamps, Great Northern Railway train schedules, a handwritten 1925 Mayo clinic prescription and an original newspaper from the Minnesota Twins' World Series win.


Before starting the first 7'x3' painting, I scanned in all the material I had collected and created a digital concept sketch. Only after tweaking it maybe a dozen or so times did I actually start working with the materials on canvas, sticking to it rigidly and creating a painting that was nearly identical to the concept sketch. For this triptych, I basically said "Blues and greens! Paint splatters! Stars? Trust me!" and they did! I had full artistic freedom provided that I included the most important and iconic references.


One challenge in this project was to highlight the best parts of Minnesota's past and present with bold images and words in the foreground while including a ton of smaller references in the background without either overwhelming the other. With collage art, you can run the risk of including too many materials and jumbling them together in non distinct layers. To avoid this I separated my materials into piles: the unimportant, the slightly more important, the background, the mid ground, the visible foreground and the prominent top layer. This is a good way to approach collage in general, because it helps ensure you won't accidentally drown your best, most special materials under layers of paint or glue; they'll be off in a special pile that only gets used on top of a completed background, not in it.

If you think this is a little too intense of a philosophy regarding torn up bits of paper, you're totally right.


For this project I also had to do something a little bit new and out of my comfort zone, which was outsource some of my photography needs. Sometimes people are surprised that every photograph in every collage I've made was taken by me sometime over the last eight years. I don't just Google random photos and I don't buy my backgrounds in the scrapbooking aisle... it's important to me to use genuine, relevant photos from places I've actually been and things I've really experienced because I feel it has a strong effect on the energy of the final painting.

However… for the foreground of this project I needed two specific images I wasn't able to obtain on my own. The Gold Medal Flour sign and the stars on First Ave Theatre were easy to photograph upon arriving in Minneapolis, but despite stopping at a dozen lakes and braving several billion mosquitos I couldn't get a photo of the state bird, and it was shockingly hard to get Duluth native Bob Dylan to sit down with me for a personal photo shoot. Luckily I found a non-copyrighted photograph of Dylan and bought the rights to use another photographer's stock photo of loons. I won't make a habit of it, but it was necessary and totally worth it this time.


I am so excited with how this project turned out! And not just because I like looking at things that are green and blue. I'm not taking on many commissions at the moment because it's difficult for me to create someone else's vision with my hands, especially these ginormous ones that start out with me flailing over a blank canvas without a clue where to start. But this one was a fun challenge to explore a new place and make art from my experience… and obviously I can't say no to travel artwork.

Does this mean I can be bought for travel?

Well… yes.

Will work for road trips.

(P.S. For the artists reading this, here is a shot of the first painting's custom-built crate. Shipping a painting of this size was brand new to me, and even in Boston it was surprisingly hard to find a service that could deal with an item of this size and value in the time frame I needed it shipped. UPS, USPS, and FedEx Freight services all had limitations, and all three art galleries I called recommended art-shipping companies that had very slow schedules to limited locations. I ended up hiring Craters and Freighters, who built a solid upright crate around the painting and freighted it out to Minneapolis fully insured in five days at a total cost of $1,024. A little pricey, but in line with the value of the piece and right around the initial shipping cost I gave my client. They rule and I would recommend them.)

17 comments:

  1. Wow, these are so stunning, Mae! As always, inspired + in awe of your talent. <3

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  2. I love it when you take us through your process. Beautiful work. A delight to the eyes.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your process here. I love hearing about an artist's approach to their work and since Minnesota is home, I'm sitting here studying every tiny detail and loving it all. Places near and dear to my heart. Your dedication to bringing out the very best in a painting with hours upon hours of your own photography and hours spent finding relevant ephemera shows in every piece you create.

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  4. Always enjoy your "mixed media ramblings". A wordsmith myself, I so appreciate your witty, articulate writing - concise description, really brings your work to life for me.

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  5. SO. VERY. COOL. The photos, the process, the ART, and your willingness to share! You are very talented, and the hard work shows.

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  6. Gorgeous and tedious work Mae! They're awesome! You have such a talent with collage! Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I love seeing your process, Mae--It's just breath taking! Any chance you'd ever give a workshop on how you do what you do? I would take it in a heartbeat.

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    1. Thank you Steph! I am working with a travel company right now to plan some travel workshops and possibly film them so I can offer tutorials online as well :)

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  8. Watching you grow and learn and challenge yourself as an artist is such an amazing experience. This commission is incredible, and the balance of trust your client has with you and the trust you have with yourself to create their vision is amazing. One of the things I love most about your work is that I look at it and say, "How did she DO that?!" Thank you for being such a continuing inspiration.

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  9. Absolutely stunning! Thank you for sharing so much about the process. Love reading your posts!

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  10. Do you sell these pieces? They are very well done. Have you had any issues with copywrite laws? I have often stayed away from collage because of names or images of recognizable people or brands. I just wondered how that works. I have a setup almost identical to yours..ikea cart and table bases, and a double masted easel (it's fabulous, isn't it?)

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    1. (More wondering about brand names, like the flour)

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    2. Hi Stacey, yes these pieces were sold (they were created on commission). I took the photo of the Gold Medal Flour sign myself and it is a recognizable landmark so no copyright issues there. All the other brand images are vintage iterations of themselves, mostly over 50-60 years old and clipped from magazines, so that's not an issue either. You mostly have to be careful of using brand names if your image is promoting something, like if this were a painting that would be a promotional item for an unaffiliated company, however it's just a decorative piece for the office of a Minneapolis based company.

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  11. Congratulations, your artwork has already inspired me to create something new for my university art project ! I just want to know if you need to have the copyrights for the maps that u use in order to create or just photocopying \scanning those maps is enough. Thanks and keep going to inspiring us through your art !

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