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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

You Asked, no. 14: Spiring up from leaf litter: Mary Bullington and collage

Amid the rubble.
All images via Mary Boxley Bullington.
In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You asked series is composed of our questions to each other. Soon I'll post an index to our conversations, as well as some information about how to see more of Mary's work, and how to get in touch with her. (Note the close, with a reference back to an earlier post with the Tarot card of the Fool heading over the cliff.)

Youmans: I think of the floor of your collage studio as leaf litter--a compost composed of dropped fragments that is continually being stirred up and giving birth to something new. Can you talk about your materials and method, as well as your sense of having a call to be an artist?

Bullington: Years ago, my brother Andy, coming into a studio paved with my collage scraps, said, "You could make a whole series just using this stuff, and call it Floor Art." And I do! Here we go back into the idea of the materiality of my work, and how this affects the process of making it. But first, a definition: Collage = any work of art made primarily by cutting or tearing and adhering papers and/or textiles to a support, using the basic principles of design to create unity and surprise. (The word collage derives from the French word coller, to paste.) Collage is made out of 2-D material cut or torn, arranged, and pasted into place. It's a very forgiving technique in that you can cut out the bad and save the good, and also, a highly morphic way to work, because you're constantly moving bits and pieces around, sometimes completely changing appearances and structures as you do.

Lion collograph to make collage pieces.
For the last 20 years, one hallmark of my collages has been that I create virtually all the materials I use in them, by painting, drawing, and mono-printing rag paper that can be easily glued flat to a painting on another piece of paper or to a more rigid support. But this method of working evolved gradually. When I started out in the 1980s, I made my collages from sheets of commercially colored papers, especially a paper called Color-Aid whose surface is beautifully silkscreened in a solid color including every hue, tint, and shade in the design spectrum.

Lion early on, with human mask.
I began to shift away from using commercially colored papers in my collage-making after the summer of 1986, when I rewarded myself for passing my oral exams at Indiana University by buying gouache. I started painting abstract designs on paper and incorporating these paintings into my collages. After I moved from Bloomington to North Carolina in 1987, I stopped making collages for several years to concentrate on teaching writing at UNC-Greensboro and researching my dissertation in medieval lit. Then, one day, circa 1990, I got mad and pulled a large, very bad painting on paper of a naked lady out from under the bed, dismembering and rearranging her until she became a much smaller, much more compact and much more interesting figure of a man in a coat and tie. I called it "The King," because it featured only the shoulders and head, with a tragic face wreathed in a crown of flames. I recognized immediately that this collage was far superior to anything I'd ever done—and represented a new direction: I could not only fit painted papers into a design, but make the entire collage out of a single painting by cutting it up and reinventing it.

Lion, approximately stage three, on olive ground.
This became for me and is still a major modus operandi. I find the materials I create often inspire invention and help me generate new work. Ideas usually come either while I'm painting or drawing freely, or while I'm looking at a new painting on paper to see where I can take it—and whether cutting it up and collaging will add dimension and interest, or will just ruin it. And often, as you say, I get ideas when sorting through my scraps. (In addition to the floor, and small boxes and baskets of scraps, I have 4 waist-deep hampers in which I put my left-over cuttings.) Now and then I'll make up a game to play with myself using scraps: Mary, pick up 10 pieces off the floor and put them on top of that painting over there. Then I'll add a new rule: You have to tear the pieces, not cut them; you must throw them, not place them. You can't use any blue. Etc.

Lion's head
Trial and error is my mainstay. Making a collage is often a bit like going to the optometrist's office and trying different lenses: Is this one better? Or is this one better? Half the time I don't know! I'll spend all day— two or three days—laying out a collage, then come into the studio, look at it, and shake all the pieces off and start over. Not very efficient, this method! And there are all sorts of other inefficiencies. One of the problems with collage is that it has to lie flat until it's glued, so you don't see it in the perspective that you will when it's hanging on a wall. Not unusual to find, after glueing a collage down, that a whole section is wrong—or that it hasn't got enough "air." Ten days work down the drain. If I'm patient enough, sometimes I can cut it up and redo it on a fresh ground. But then there are also the lucky accidents! A fragment slips from its place to a much better place. A little abstract scrap falls over a face and I see she now has a wonderful scowl now that I would never have thought to put there. Once I photographed a newly finished abstract piece, and damn! when the image came up on the computer screen, I saw it was a lion—a wonderful, compact little lion. Been working on it for days and never saw that lion before, but there he was, by jiminy! Now I had to work to enable other people to see him! (And all the while, a little voice whispered in my ear, "But he will never sell!")

Standing His Ground. 2011-2015
To be a full time, fully committed artist, I think you have to be more than a little obsessive-compulsive--and a little crazy. Would a sane person commit all her time to and pin her economic life—now and future--on the whims of a market that may or may not care a fig about collaged lions? Or Nazis? Right now that's one of the things I'm working on—Nazis. And I find I'm channeling my favorite German Expressionists as I do. (But they will never sell!) How dare you take such folly seriously? How dare you do it full time? Wouldn't it be wiser to have another job to provide real income? Well, yes, it would. But I know from experience that if I hedge my bets, I will never be but so-good of an artist.

"Who Peynted the Lion?"

And then, on top of all this, there's always the possibility—the probability, really—that the work will fail. An artist has to be willing to make some stuff that's seriously BAD—I mean, god-awful. Not on purpose, mind you. Again, my brother Andy, a full-time musician, says it as well as anyone: "You're never going to do anything really good unless you are willing to stink up the room--completely stink it up!" So sometimes you work up a rage, and then you work in a rage. Very few artists talk about this, but it's true. Other times you work in terror. When I find myself going out on a limb and getting scared, I will start talking to myself: "Do I have any idea what I'm doing? NO!!!" "Okay, then, let’s do it some more!" Sometimes things go bust—you ruin something good, and it's really not retrievable. The best you can do for now is shove it into a drawer for a month—or for a year or two or three. Or you have to cut out the part or parts that might be usable and pitch the rest. And off and on, if you are growing as an artist, your eye will change—your taste will change. I have several photo files labeled "Work Destroyed for No Good Reason." Almost every time I troll through my photo folders, I find new images to put in the "Destroyed" albums. Very discouraging. But you can't let it defeat you. After all, you chose this life, didn't you? You knew you were crazy, didn't you? But the truth is, Marly, on some level, we didn't choose this life—it chose us. But we did choose against common sense to listen to the inner call—and to obey it.

That obedience—and the discipline to work in its traces—is part of the ethic of art-making. When I look back on the last 20 years or so, I realize I became a visual artist basically on a hunch—a pretty good hunch, maybe, and obviously a better hunch than becoming a medievalist turned out to be. Or being a poet, for that matter. Because, as you said, Marly, in your answer to my question about the Artist-as-Fool in The Book of the Red King, the Fool—that is, the Artist--knows he's found his true home when "he becomes fruitful." For that, I found myself willing to step heedlessly off the cliff into thin air.

The mess on Mary's studio floor.


  1. This is fascinating stuff! The process -- involving thoughts and materials -- sounds both thrilling and exhausting. Anyone who creates something from (nearly) nothing impresses the hell out of me. Yeah, as a undeveloped artist who abandoned the tortured path in my early 20s, now, half a century later, I can enjoy it all again vicariously through your discussions. Thanks!

    1. Another post about her different modes of going at it will be up soon. She's nothing if not energetic!

    2. Thank you, R.T. Poets also create "something from (nearly) nothing"--as you and Marly well know!

  2. some of the examples are astounding; i want to say, sort of like a five dimensional view of finnegans wake, but i won't say that... some of them give me the impression of slowly floating down through a plastic medium, eyeballing flashes of brilliant colors on the way to visit schroedinger's cat. lovely work; tx for showing them...

    1. Mudpuddle, I think that Mary will like that description. I wouldn't be surprised if she did a piece called "Schrödinger's Cat." In fact, with all their layers, her collages must often contain paradoxes and alternative positions. (And cats.)

    2. Also, you could fruitfully compare her collage work to the whole idea of a thought experiment. I once wrote a story based on "the Chinese room" thought experiment of John Searle. It proved a very curious way of coming up with a story, and led me down strange paths.

  3. Interesting that Mary's career as a collagist was born out of a realisation that a certain discarded painting, rated "bad", was dismembered (the impulse to do this is not explained but perhaps it cannot be; we are all subject to random impulses) and thereby became "good" (or to use Mary's words: "far superior to anything I'd ever done".) In literary terms the painting was redeemed; but suppose it had remained under Mary's bed, unredeemed and therefore still "bad"...?

    Whoops! Redemption - albeit the secular variety - fascinates me and I wrote a novel about it. It was the hardest thing I've ever done; for a long time the first part didn't match the second part, the transition was unsatisfactory, and by extension "bad". You could say the endless rewriting was the equivalent of Mary's act of dismemberment. But did my novel eventually become "good"?

    Here the artist has it over the novelist; one can focus on the entirety of a painting or a collage whereas a novel, despite being printed, only really exists as memory. Perception vs. memory - it's a no-brainer. The fact is I've submitted my other novels to agents for their judgement, good or bad. But Blest Redeemer... I just daren't. Cowardice can't be "good" can it? Therefore it must be... nah, I'm pussy-footing, it has to be bad. Definitely bad.

    But please don't revoke my invisible licence just yet.

    1. That first paragraph sounds a bit like Mudpuddle's comment about Schrödinger's cat! That pesky alive-and-dead cat...

      You and Mary both write poems--when short, they can be held in the mind at once. So perhaps that's a better comparison. And you both revise them.

      You've published two novels, right? I've read some of your snips of larger pieces and find them interesting, so I'll peek around later.That is, when I have ground my way through the current big project (which is at that stage where the writer is absolutely ready to be done and yet is too dutiful to be done. Alas.)

  4. Marly, I'm glad you've written about this. It is something about Mary's work that has struck me as highly interesting and important.
    And Mary, because you are such an accomplished writer, you produce here what is really the equivalent of an article or manifesto about the making of your art. I'd love to see you expand more on this and turn it into a memoir of method.

    1. The next post in the series will have more about her methods of approach...

    2. Thank you, Robbi. I doubt that it's a manifesto--I'm certainly not advising any other visual artist to do what I do, but I think I did say some things about the process and commitment of the artist that I've thought about for a long time. As for the memoir, I'm 62 years old. I can use the time I have left either to write or to make pictures. I choose the latter. (Besides, it's too exhausting to revise and proofread what I've written--I always leave words out. This is is why I deleted the first version of this comment!)

  5. This is lovely, all the more so because Mary is a good writer with a strong (and rare) ability to describe her own artistic process in ways that make the rest of us want to take up collage too.

    I've been enjoying this whole back-and-forth; will be sorry to see it end.

    1. I think we have one or two more left for now--maybe more will pop up later. (I have some text from Mary, and she needs to pick images.) We both are working on projects that we need to work a wee bit harder on. I'll tell her to come look at your comment--such a lovely thing to say.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.