The paintings in this on-going series are based on imagery from a pair of scrapbooks found at an antique store. The scrapbooks bear no clues about who made them or their origin. They are unsigned, and they include no handwriting or personal or familial memorabilia. Research revealed that the imagery was sourced from issues of Collier’s Magazine dating from 1936 to the early 1940s. The antique dealer I bought them from had discovered them at a church bazaar in Hamilton, Ontario.
Two things compelled me to turn the scrapbook pages into large-scale paintings. First, the source illustrations from the pre-digital era are compelling. Owing to the talent of the graphic illustrators of the time, they are richly coloured, and beautifully stylized. Mostly clipped from advertisements, they include a mixture of wartime propaganda, cartoons and sentimental depictions of wildlife, nature and domestic middle-class life. By taking the private, often trivialized and feminized hobby of scrapbooking and presenting it in “heroic scale,” I celebrate the efforts of the anonymous scrap-booker and the symbolic richness images themselves. These images are remainders of the past divorced from their original context. The creative re-appropriation of mass culture found in these books represents an effort to sustain cultural memory in some form, to somehow preserve and compile what is otherwise discarded, valueless and obsolete.
“The scrapbook was the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and appropriation and redistribution of existing media… As a genre unto themselves, scrapbooks represent a fascinating, yet virtually unexplored visual vernacular, a world of makeshift means and primitive methods of gestural madness and unruly visions, of piety and poetry, and a million private plagiarisms.”
~Scrapbooks: An American History Jessica Hefland
Second, the way these images were collaged–the compositional rhythms and the unorthodox yet striking associations–allow new narratives and meanings emerge. The pages seem to tell impossible stories. What interested me was the way the scrap-booker was using the same techniques we’ve come to associate with more prestigious traditions of modern art. I began this project by reproducing individual pages from the scrapbooks faithfully as paintings. Eventually, I used the scrapbooks as an image bank, and in the spirit of the original scrap-booker, developed my own compositions and created large paintings.
The persistent imagery of the scrapbooks is like a ruin of a bygone era, a reminder of a past we can’t fully understand – the original meaning and context obscured. As paintings, these assemblages become a series of riddles that hold a mirror to the madness of the world and reflect our contemporary sense of shattered innocence and vanishing optimism.