“HELP ME. I CAN’T STOP WRITING THIS BOOK! I wake up before dawn and on my way to the bathroom I step into my studio and turn on my computer. I heat up some water for tea, and stop for a second to look at my monitor. The next thing I know it’s 4 p.m. and I’m still in the silk long johns that I wear to bed—now I’m sitting at my computer—I still haven’t brushed my teeth, and the UPS guy is knocking at the door. I can’t tell if it’s divine intervention or demonic possession—divine possession, I think, for images and insights are pouring out of me faster than I can process—or I should say they’re pouring into me and from there emptying onto the pages.”
Those are the first words I wrote 6 years ago and I’ve barely stopped for a breath since. Looking back now, it’s evident that I’ve always faced emotional issues by either writing or making some kind of art. This book is a combination of both—a narrative interwoven with art and memorabilia plucked from my life. It’s an artobiography—clearly, my attempt to put all the pieces together, both literally and figuratively.
It began after a weeklong trip into the mountains several years ago. I walked in my front door, took off my jacket and hung it in the hall closet. On my way up the stairs to my bedroom, I passed a sculpture I’d made in my early twenties. It resided on a book shelf along the wall. I’d seen the piece thousands of times before—it had followed me to every apartment and house I’d ever lived in. This time, it stopped me in my tracks. I could see, suddenly, that it was an archeological relic I’d been unable to decipher until that very moment. It was a message about me that I had placed there. Here’s how I describe that moment in the book: “There in front of me was the incarnation of longing. Though it has hands and feet, it has no eyes, no face, no internal organs. I could see that the figure has no self. Its insides are an empty space, a void—perhaps, waiting to be filled. And the piece was about me.”
What if the rest of my artwork contained hidden messages? Vaulted into a frenzy of activity I began unearthing relics from my past. I was captivated by the intrigue of decoding my own cryptic clues unwittingly planted over a lifetime. From closets and flat files and computer hard drives I began pulling out written pieces, sculptures, etchings, art photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, poems—everything I could find. Unraveling inner mysteries, no doubt to reconcile my difficult family dynamic, has been an endless quest for me—a lifetime spent trying to understand what it is about me that has caused my father’s endless rage. His anger was the crucible in which I was forged.
As pieces haphazardly fell beside each other, some of them seemed to exhibit a magnetic attraction and once locked together moved as a pair. Startling juxtapositions began to emerge. A faded quotation, clipped from the pages of my later life, fell arbitrarily next to a series of small paintings I’d made in college shortly after I was married.
The paintings, one leading to the next, showed the evolution of birth. “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” the quotation read. The image of an unborn child right next to those words catapulted me back to that time in my life when I faced the dilemma that would become a major life struggle—to what degree do I follow my own path.
Each of the items in front of me, whether written or graphic, turned into puzzle pieces as they fell into place. The objects with which I had surrounded myself, I discovered, were telling me the real story of my life.
As I continued to scan bits and pieces into my computer, the pages of a book began to materialize. At the very front I put the image of an old medal I had won for artistic merit in high school. Even at the time I had received it I thought it bizarre to receive a military-looking medal for art. I had no idea why this odd object should be placed in such a prominent position, but I had a strong sense that it belonged there. The worn-out relic remained at its post on an unfinished page for a long time. Then the words finally came to me. “My mettle of armor.” Succinctly, my life was reduced to four words and a picture, for not only was art my avenue of expression, it also insulated and protected me—a safe haven that offered recognition and appreciation.
Hours morphed into days and then into months as the landscape of my life was laid out in front of me. The objects worked synergistically to reframe personal issues that had been floating disconnected inside of me for years—issues that, until then, would only occasionally bob to the surface.
A few times I came across a photograph that contradicted a memory I’d held for decades. I would cavalierly choose to keep the memory and ignore the picture. In an effort to be honest, however, I knew that eventually I would need to resolve these inconsistencies—it became clear that each conflict was actually a flashing neon sign. I’d always depended on memory as though it were reality, but I began to wonder, Could it be that my memories were influenced by the need to protect myself and were then calcified in the re-telling over a lifetime? As I loosened my grip, some memories began to revise themselves.
Then, something else happened. I started to have entirely new memories— memories of feeling comfort and joy I hadn’t remembered before —a flashback of a father in good humor taking his young family to Coney Island for hot dogs on a balmy summer night. A simple memory of contentment—being a tired, sandy little girl sitting on the beach at sunset, feeling the cool sea breeze on my bare shoulders, watching sandpipers scoot along the waters edge.
As I was able to see that my painful childhood memories held a disproportionate power over me, a spontaneous counterbalance came into play—I was extricating myself from the tangles I’d left behind in unresolved form when I was too young and too frightened to unravel them. It is one of the exquisite contradictions of life that even if pain lurks just below the surface, at the very same time, there is abundant opportunity for joy. We live our lives on many levels.
I came across an assemblage I’d made years ago of my sons’ old hockey sticks and duct-taped ski gloves, photographs and other articles—remnants of their childhoods in the mountains. The discarded gear still contained their actual fingerprints. Even while making the piece I was aware that the process ameliorated my sense of loss as my two boys left home to start their own lives. Once I had finished the piece and put it on the wall, the essence of them, even in their absence, was always with me. It provided a palpable sense of completion and eased me into a new stage of life.
Just as creating the hockey stick collage was liberating, working out this much larger and more complex collection of memorabilia has freed me in ways I never imagined—for as I found order for the objects and pieces of paper in my hands, I myself was reassembled.
If you’d like to see a bit more about how Artobiography came into existence click here.
To purchase a personally autographed copy of Storm of the i go to www.TinaCollen.com and in the comment box include how you’d like it signed. Books are also available at Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon. If your favorite bookstore doesn’t have it on the shelf they can order it for you. I look forward to hearing from you. — Tina
We’re giving an autographed book away in a contest, asking people to leave a comment answering this question:
Oftentimes the objects we hold onto contain cryptic clues that point towards something deeper about ourselves. Take a look around your house (or your room) at the things with which you have surrounded yourself. Is there anything you are still hanging onto that seems to contain a hidden message for you? What do you think it is?
The next stop on Tina’s blog tour is on Wednesday, February 9. She’ll be visiting Faye Quam Heimerl at Letters from the Copyeditor.