Checks & Balances

Last year I discovered a cache of canceled checks from the 1930’s, totaling 96 in number, inside an English writing box acquired by my parents for their antiques business. I was immediately taken with the beauty of the checks, the printed elements, the elegant handwriting from a bygone era, and all of the random stamps that mark their long-ago journey through the banking system. Something clicked in me with this discovery: I began harvesting the paper ephemera I had accumulated over the years, a collection that I had previously no inkling of its purpose, to create collages using the checks as backgrounds.

My work, no matter the subject or medium, addresses the “landscape of the mind”. I explore mood, mutability, and transience of the self and the world in which we live. Creating this series has been a journey, one of delving into a new medium, exploring different ways of creating a story, a composition, working with text as mark-making rather than language, and setting many moods. The title for the series, Checks & Balances, refers to not only the support upon which the collages are created, but also the checks and balances that our democratic society was built upon, which are now being put to the test.

Many of us are experiencing and expressing great anxiety over the way the president is running our country. Will these checks and balances restrain him? Will our elections fall prey to Russian interference once again? How will we deal with climate change when the people in power deny its very existence? It feels as though we are in an age of incredible uncertainty and tremendous anxiety, with shrinking liberties, racism, increasing pollution, violence, and a war on truth and decency.

In light of these circumstances, it is also interesting to consider the time period in which these checks were used. By the early 1930’s the stock market had crashed, creating ripples of economic hardship around the world. Fascism was on the rise, Hitler was soon to take power, World War II on the horizon, and the United States failing to engage, claiming “America First”! What do we have in common with those who lived through these harrowing times? How are they dissimilar to us?

The collages in this series reflect these uncertain times in multiple ways: through the harried and anxious expressions of creatures after prey or being preyed upon. Some of the animals represented are threatened by environmental factors or already extinct due to human carelessness. I have excised many illustrations of John James Audubon and Maria Sibylla Merian, to create these collages, in part as a homage to these great artists, who were committed to the cataloging, conservation, and preservation of species. I have also used a number of different vintage field-guide books.

The potential for danger and destruction, and reminders of death (momento mori), are also present in many of these compositions and further the sense of dread and anxiety about the future. A woman blithely dives while a shark awaits unseen beneath the surface. Faces of clocks remind us that time is short. Women in famous paintings are paired with animals who show more expression than society allowed the female sitters to evince at the time they were painted. A Pileated Woodpecker sits in conversation with a butterfly all the while considering whether or not to consume it. These pieces in particular are not without levity for comedy and tragedy are but two sides of the same coin.

One cannot live in a state of perpetual agitation and outrage. Many express the need to tune-out and turn away for a time in order to withstand the demands of living in the current political climate. I frequently experience the need to go “airplane mode” and retreat from the world into my studio to create apart from the world. This is where another reflection of the times is expressed and flights of fancy come into the series. Maria Sibylla Merian’s Lanternflys commiserate over the brevity of life, a Carolina parrot becomes a sword-wielding knight, Madame de Pompadour unleashes her true feelings by allowing her pet snapping turtle free-rein, and the Kraken wages a great battle at sea… These whimsical scenes are playful and invite the creation of narratives to go along with each piece.

The sense of mystery and whimsy in these works is yet another way to invite the viewer to consider that which is transient, ephemeral, and fleeting. People’s perceptions often shift with the introduction of new objects, as a once seemingly insignificant mundane check now becomes a work of art. I enjoy thinking about and collaborating with the people who wrote, stamped, and handled these checks almost 100 years ago. I delight in intensifying the sense of mystery that surrounds these collaged pieces of ephemera. Furthermore, I like the idea of re-using and repurposing on an environmental level, but acknowledge this probably only prolongs the life of an object outside a landfill. There is pleasure to giving life to something as unwanted as an outdated nature guide.

Beginning with a background that has writing on it, instead of a blank page, has allowed me to view text abstractly. Signatures become expressive marks, stamps act as horizon lines, and the printed design becomes sky, sea, or functions as a cloth of honor as within the 16th century Netherlandish painting tradition. Positive and negative space is carefully considered and emphasized in these sometimes-minimal compositions. I have transformed these checks into something else entirely through contemplation of each mark, crease, bruise, indentation, and meticulously chosen additions. It is my hope that the viewer will experience a sense of mystery, whimsy, the past and the present simultaneously, and perhaps even a hint of magic.

Checks & Balances gallery