By NANCI PRICE SCOULAR, mixed media artist living in San Francisco. Nanci is a first year student in the Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts MFA Program.
This post was written as an assignment for professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
The idea of “collaborating” with the work of an artist no longer alive is intriguing to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I could control the outcome. Secondly, I could use the original work as a springboard into my own creative process. Lastly, there could be a bonus—if the artist was well known enough, I might get “discovered” by association. I decided to test this idea.
To start I purchased a used copy of "Dark Light" (Lustrum Press 1973) by the photographer Michael Martone. It was not in good condition but met a number of my criteria: Martone was no longer alive and he was successful enough to get his work published. I was very drawn to his vulnerable and haunting black and white photographs. They would be the perfect inspiration for my creative process, plus the monochromatic images would be a strong yet neutral building block for my collage.
By way of structure, I challenged myself to find a story. What was Martone thinking about when he took the photographs? Assuming he had input into the sequence of the images, why did he put certain ones opposite one another? Why this collection as a whole? I had little guidance. My copy had no cover and the only clue was in Martone’s words in the preface:
“It needed in the first instance
a bright light to expose
and a dark light to expose…”
I inferred that the collection was about the role of contrast, how both the dark and the light are needed to reveal something. To me, that something was vulnerability. With that in mind, I looked at each double spread as a yin and yang, honoring the dark and the light both with the tonality of my collage elements and my content itself. The project is still in progress but here are some examples:
Through the process I discovered that collaborating with an artist no longer alive is something quite different to what I thought it would be. What began as an exercise in exclusive control over someone else’s work as the foundation for my own became a way of experiencing an artist whom I could never meet. I could not stop thinking about Michael Martone. What experiences shaped the vulnerable eye with which he composed his images? I could feel the intensity of his gaze as I worked on top of them. I felt the need to honor his intention, his message, instead of taking the work in a new direction. I felt him beside me in some form as I worked.
I found myself lamenting what could have been. What constructive criticism would he have had? Where would the altered book have gone with his input? Did I do “us” justice? I felt the longing for a creative relationship with a man I never knew, to spend long hours contemplating the nature of our collaboration, discussing the purpose of photography, collage and more.
As I’ve worked on this project and have considered writing about it in this blog, a key question has emerged for me regarding going public. Is this altered work a memorial to Martone or merely a self-promotion? Or can both comfortably co-exist?