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First Among Equals

As I discuss in my memoir, collage has a history as an art practice of defying conventions, as well as embracing spontaneity, freedom, the release from rules. Also, collage-making is often used in art therapy, according to art therapist Cathy A. Malchodi (2007), because clients feel less intimidated by it than when they are asked to draw or paint. I become very interested in collage, because I enjoyed bringing images and techniques together spontaneously, and then talking with my art therapist, Ilene, about what those collages might suggest or communicate. I write specifically in my book about processes by which I created collages such as “Re-Membering” and “Art Therapy,” and I have often contemplated how my work with Ilene has affected how I view and make art. I believe I let go of the idea of art as a subject of analysis, as I had been trained to do in my graduate work in art history. I embraced being more improvisational, when making artwork, and I enjoyed bringing images together that, for me, created new interpretations and implications when juxtaposed. Even when I paint, I have a more relaxed process. I now see how the painting goes and try not to hover over it. I make myself stop, take a break, and then look and add again.

In this blog, I will say more about a specific collage I made recently, a sort of tribute to First Lady Michelle Obama, who will soon leave the White House and will be sorely missed. Here, I refer to her as Michelle, because she seems like someone I would be friends with, as well as to distinguish her from her husband. The November issue of Vogue Magazine included an article about and many photographs of Michelle, shot by Annie Liebovitz. Because of the intended audience of Vogue, the article highlighted her fashion sense. Michelle has chosen designers from all over the world to dress her, and there were many images of her in fabulous garb, but two photographs stuck out the most for me. The first is a shot of her, leaning against a white, marble, Corinthian column on the porch of the White House. This style of column originated in ancient Greece, and later populated Rome, as a symbol of stability and fortitude, and it is still employed most often in the construction of public and governmental buildings. Michelle’s dark skin is emphasized by the whiteness of the column, as well as by her off-white, silky dress, which flows over her curves. She looks like a queen, looking over her kingdom, at first glance, recalling an image of Camelot. But of course, her skin contrasts with the column and its patriarchal, racist history. This photograph of the statuesque, African-American Michelle portrays, for me, the notions of diversity, prosperity, and hope. Michelle remarked eloquently during the Democratic National Convention this year that the White House was built by slaves, and today she and her two daughters populate its grounds, highlighting the legacy of Obama’s presidency, which changed history and challenged many repressive traditions. Michelle has played a vibrant role in her own campaigns for healthy eating, exercise, literacy, and education, not to mention, human rights across the globe.

The other image that struck me was a profile headshot of elegant Michelle, because of the connotations of such a pose in Renaissance paintings of women, as well as in histories of ethnographic and eugenic imagery. This pose also recalls a mugshot. Here, she looks like a cameo, and the pearl, hoop earrings she wears are set off against her black dress, her black hair, and her black skin. The caption beside it, also in white, reads “First Among Equals.” This phrase signifies, for me, that she affected history, and for the better.

There were so many beautiful photographs of her in the article, yet I resisted any of the images of her and Barack, touching, laughing, and smiling at one another. Throughout the past eight years there have been so many videos and photographs of the couple, in which they appear like best friends, as well as lovers. I chose to focus on Michelle in this collage, as well as for her specific legacy. I like how the two images of Michelle stare off in different directions in the composition, perhaps looking backward at the past and forward to the future.

I placed these images onto paper printed with an image of a bird, sitting on the branches of what appears to be a cherry tree The bird and the branches are robin egg’s blue, which, for me, have a fairytale feel, and I also incorporated strips of paper printed with scarlet and rose-colored flowers into the collage. When I saw the striking and melodious print, I thought of cherry blossoms. I chose the cherry blossom design because I felt like there was some connection there to the White House, and George Washington came to mind. I then performed some internet searches to remind myself of the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree, which pertained to the slogan that he is culturally associated with “I cannot tell a lie.” George Washington, the first POTUS, sets the stage for Michelle’s legacy:

Upon further research, I learned of the specific relationship between the cherry tree and first ladies. A 1912 gift from the Japanese to the United States of cherry trees, a symbol of the countries’ alliance, became a White House tradition and prompted the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This Festival became the domain of first ladies such as Helen Taft, Mamie Eisenhower, Betty Ford, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama: Michelle falls into this tradition, yet on various levels, she has both broken with and surpassed mainstream expectations for first ladies.

My collage was improvisational and created in a sort of associated, free form of memories and images. In future posts, I’d like to write more about how I think my work with art therapy has impacted my work as an artist and as an art historian.

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