The Art of Collaboration: Studies in Creativity

February 19, 2018

By Nancy Kuhl

+ The Art of Collaboration: Studies in Creativity

The best creative collaborations call into question the mythologies of individual genius and invite us to consider the additive possibilities of thinking and working together. Studies in Creativity contemplates a diverse range of collective art-making models by exploring classic and cutting edge works of art and literature devised or authored collaboratively. Artistic partnership, creative competition, the power of the muse, the influence of the impresario—these and other varieties of imaginative or inventive combination and exchange may be shaped by productive challenges or by destructive forces. Love and anger, pleasure and jealousy, conversation and argument—emotion and energy can seem to be multiplied in collaborations. Archives provide uncommon access to the ways works of art develop in a relational context. In documentary records we see several hands at work editing a text, many individuals authoring a stage performance, two lover-artists passing notes back and forth—a social and interpersonal mode of artistic practice comes into focus. Studies in Creativity both explores and celebrates the spectacular potential of minds coming together to make something new. (NK)

Bandanna Land, 1901

Bert Williams and George Walker, funny man and straight man

At the turn of the 20th century, African-American comedic performers Bert Williams and George Walker were among the most famous and well-paid actors on the American stage—Walker played the “straight man” as a stylized dandy; by contrast, Williams was a blundering and unlucky “funny man.” In the 1890s, the two actors began performing in blackface as Two Real Coons, contrasting themselves with then popular “coon shows” featuring white actors in burnt-cork makeup mimicking African Americans. The versatile comedians were soon appearing in popular vaudeville venues across the country. In 1903, after successfully starring in their own shows for several years, Williams and Walker collaborated on In Dahomey, an ambitious musical with an all-black cast. The show’s central musical number featured Bert Williams singing “I’m a Jonah Man” in blackface. Of wearing the burnt-cork make-up long associated with unapologetically racist representations, Williams famously stated that the make-up allowed him to perform in new ways: “It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed.” In 1908, Williams and Walker starred together in their final collaboration, Bandanna Land. In a review of the play’s opening night, the New York Times noted that the crowd so loved the high-stepping cakewalk dance routine concluding the show that “the response from the audience was utterly deafening.” Walker fell ill and had to withdraw from the show; he died in 1911. In the years that followed, Bert Williams excelled as a solo performer with the Ziegfeld Follies and as a recording artist with Columbia Records.        

Sheet music, theater advertising broadside, business card, and photographs from the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.

Exorcism by Eugene O’Neill, 1916

George Cram Cook, Mable Dodge, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, and Others, Provincetown Players Theater Company

During the summer of 1915 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a group of friends wrote and performed plays in the living room of a rented summerhouse. A year later, the Provincetown Players, as the group was then known, staged plays by Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell in their first season in New York’s Greenwich Village. The Provincetown Players were at the center of the early 20th-century Little Theater movement that transformed American theater. The Players were motivated by “the impelling desire of the group [to establish] a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary and dramatic purpose could see their plays in action…without submitting to the commercial manager’s interpretation of public taste.” The socially engaged community included now well-known writers, editors, and artists such as American journalists and communists John Reed and Louise Bryant, and writers Mable Dodge Luhan, George Cram Cook, and Hutchens Hapgood. After Eugene O’Neill’s early play, Exorcism, was performed by the company, the playwright was said to have destroyed all copies of the script. The copy here, the only know script of the play, belonged to O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, who gave it to the writer and producer Philip Yordan sometime after her divorce from O’Neill. The recent discovery of this famous “lost” play fills an important gap in the study of this all-important American playwright, a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and Nobel Laureate.

Provincetown Players advertisements, playbills, and published play scripts; photographs (Eugene O’Neill, undated; John Reed, 1914; Mabel Dodge, 1914; Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook, with daughter Nilla, 1920s); Eugene O’Neill, Exorcism: A Play in One Act, draft, typescript, corrected, 1919; from the O’Neill, Luhan, and Hapgood Papers.

Borderline, 1929

Pool Productions (Bryher, H. D. Kenneth Macpherson), filmmakers

In the late 1920s, writers Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), Kenneth Macpherson, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) collaborated to create Pool Productions and Close-Up, a pioneering film journal. These projects reflected the trio’s interest in developing a context in which the young medium of film might interact with other art forms; movie making also provided opportunities to explore their abiding interest in psychoanalysis and the possibilities it might represent for experimental artistic expression. Pool Productions films, which were directed by Macpherson and featured H. D. and Bryher as actors, employed innovative narrative forms and the use of dramatic lighting and effects such as montage to represent emotional and psychological states. Borderline, Pool Productions’ only full-length feature, explored issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender. The film starred Paul Robeson, the only professional actor in the cast. As director, Macpherson used double and triple exposure and other inventive techniques to visually represent unconscious mental processes. The published scenario notes that the film takes place “in a small ‘borderline’ town anywhere in Europe…” where two romantic couples—one black, one white—are drawn into a complex series of encounters: “nerves are tense with continuous hostility [and] vague and destructive cravings.” In a community characterized by petty attitudes and self-righteousness, racial tension comes to serve as a scapegoat for “unresolved problems, evasions, and neuroses.” The two couples become caught up in violent forces beyond their control resulting in tragedy and exile.  Two sets of photographs—production stills and behind the scenes snapshots—provide views of the work-in-progress and the final production.

Film stills, backstage photos, promotional materials, list of expenses from the Bryher and H. D. Papers.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, 1933

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, writer and muse

When Americans Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas met in Paris in 1907, their connection was immediate. Toklas soon moved into Stein’s apartment and the two became lifelong partners, referring to one another privately by pet names including “Hubby” and “Wifey.” Stein and Toklas together presided over one of the most famous salons in Paris, and their home became a gathering place for avant-garde writers and artists. Stein helped to launch the careers of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, and she attempted to translate their experiments in art into writing. Although Stein was a highly regarded and formidable figure among the Paris modernists, most critics and audiences found her work dense and difficult. Alice, however, was convinced of Stein’s genius and supported her as partner, secretary, typist, and devoted housekeeper. Stein was deeply affected by Alice’s belief in her work and she drew inspiration from their life together. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—a narrative of the lives of Stein and Toklas, written by Stein but narrated by “Alice”—was published in 1933. The book was a tremendous success; author and muse became literary celebrities and returned to the U. S. for an extended book tour. Of this unusual “autobiography,” Stein’s friend Virgil Thomson wrote: “the book is in every way except actual authorship Alice Toklas’s book; it reflects her mind, her language, her private view of Gertrude, also her unique narrative powers.”

Love notes; manuscript notebook; first edition, 1933; photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during their American book tour, by Carl Van Vechten, 1934; 1934 press clipping (facsimile); notebook containing corresponding notes between Stein and Toklas, from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers. 


PaJaMa Photos, 1930-40s

Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French, photographers

In 1925, artist Jared French moved to New York City where he met the painter Paul Cadmus, who would become his lover, artistic confidant, and lifelong friend. When French married artist Margaret Hoening in 1937, the three formed a photographic collective cleverly named “PaJaMa,” a combination of the first two letters of each of their names. PaJaMa photographed themselves and their friends (including writers Donald Windham and Truman Capote, photographer George Platt Lynes, and MOMA curator Monroe Wheeler) on the beaches of Fire Island, Provincetown, and Nantucket in the 1930s and 1940s. The trio adopted a magical realist approach by manipulating the viewer’s perspective of the landscape and embedding their own bodies as figures in the natural environment. The PaJaMa photographs recognize landscape to be both peculiarly malleable and constant, a surreal backdrop and a stage to engage or distort. Critics have celebrated the formal simplicity and subtle eroticism of the PaJaMa collective’s black-and-white images. Their photographs often served as prototypes for later egg tempera paintings by both French and Cadmus, who often depict the simultaneous rigid and fluid geometry of both landscape and body. The Jared French Papers at Beinecke Library include correspondence between Jared and Margaret French over three decades, and a rich correspondence between Jared French and Paul Cadmus, addressing their independent and collaborative artistic work over many years.

Photographs and letters from the Jared French Papers.

Delmore Schwartz’s Finnegans Wake, 1943-1961

Delmore Schwartz and James Joyce, reader and writer

Poet Delmore Schwartz was a celebrated member of the generation of American writers who followed the high modernists. He wrote frequently in poems and stories of his painful childhood as the son of unhappily married Jewish immigrants who divorced when he was a boy. In spite of his intellectual and creative gifts, Schwartz was a deeply troubled man prone to alcohol and drug abuse. He died at the age of 52, alone in a seedy New York hotel. Schwartz’s brilliant mind and tragic end moved his writer-friends, several of whom—including John Berryman and Saul Bellow—wrote works inspired by or dedicated to him. Schwartz’s archive provides evidence that even as he descended into addiction and mental illness, he continued to read and study the works of James Joyce, the modernist writer who most inspired him. Schwartz’s one-time roommate, poet Robert Lowell, wrote that Schwartz referred to Joyce as a “Master of Joy.” His copy of Finnegans Wake reveals the reader’s complex relationship to the text. A book so heavily annotated that the original text is nearly obliterated, this work offers an opportunity to consider the possibility that close and active readership may be a kind of collaboration, the minds of reader and writer together creating a new intellectual and aesthetic object.

Delmore Schwartz’s annotated copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, reading notes and fragments, undated photograph of Schwartz, Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Robert Phillips, 1979.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller 1949

Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, playwright and director

Brilliant and controversial, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan are as well known for the dramatic dissolution of their creative partnership as they are for their most celebrated collaboration—the premier production of Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Opening on Broadway in 1949, the play earned Miller the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Kazan received the Tony Award for Best Director. Of the first performance, Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times, “Arthur Miller has written a superb drama. …Under Elia Kazan’s masterly direction…every member of the cast plays like a person inspired. …Although Mr. Miller’s text may be diffuse in form, Mr. Kazan has pulled it together into a deeply moving performance.” Miller’s next major play was The Crucible in 1953, which explored community hysteria using the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory for the Communist “witch hunt” then underway in the U. S. Miller drafted the play after hearing a broadcast of Kazan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in which he identified colleagues he knew to be members of Communist organizations. Though Kazan’s “naming names” ended their friendship, the issues at the heart of their conflict continued to influence both men. In 1954, Kazan won the Oscar for On the Waterfront, the story of a heroic informer; Miller’s 1955 A View from the Bridge has a cowardly informer at its center. Miller was himself called before HUAC later that year; he refused to cooperate and was convicted of contempt for Congress. After more than a decade of silence, Miller and Kazan resolved their differences; they successfully collaborated on the premier production of Miller’s After the Fall, in 1964. 

Elia Kazan’s annotated Death of a Salesman script, 1949; photograph of Miller and Kazan by Inge Morath, 1963; Death of a Salesman first edition; Chicago Playbill, 1950.

First Book of Negroes by Langston Hughes, 1952

Langston Hughes and Helen H. Watts, writer and editor

In the 1950s, celebrated African-American poet, journalist, and playwright Langston Hughes began writing nonfiction children’s books in the Franklin Watts First Book series. “When boys and girls FIRST start asking why?…what?…and how?” the publisher’s promotional materials read, “FIRST BOOKS are the first books to read on any subject.” Hughes wrote several titles for the series, including volumes on jazz, Africa, and the West Indies. The First Book of Negroes begins with a narrative about two cousins—one growing up in Harlem and the other in the Jim Crow Era South. While the book is critical of racial discrimination, the work praises American democracy and its capacity for righting such societal wrongs. The overtly patriotic tone of the work was shaped in part by Hughes’s pending appearance before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist Senate subcommittee. If the broad themes of the book were informed by the politics of the day, the text itself was shaped by Hughes in conversation with his editor, Helen H. Watts. Hughes’s archive includes a letter from Watts of some 20 pages of notes concerning Hughes’s first draft; in addition to her own feedback, Watts includes additional notes from her husband, publisher Franklin Watts, and comments from another “First Books” author. Comparing Hughes’s many drafts and the finished book shows that Hughes both incorporated suggested minor changes and made substantial structural modifications to the narrative in collaboration with his editor.

Correspondence, manuscript drafts, and The First Book of Negroes from the Langston Hughes Papers.

Exquisite Corpse

Drawing, 1958, Pablo Picasso and Saul Steinberg, artists

Text (undated), Robert Dash, Anthony Howell, and Signe Howell, writers

If making art includes elements of play, it should come as no surprise that artistic collaboration might take the shape of a game. Perhaps the most famous art-making game is the Exquisite Corpse, a compositional amusement in which collaborators work independently on parts of a whole. That no one artist can see the whole to which her contribution adds is just part of the fun. The game is said to have begun with the early 20th-century avant-garde artists associated with Dada and Surrealism—art movements that rejected logic and embraced the irrational. The process of the game included passing around a sheet of paper–each person writing down a single word and folding the page to hide what was written before passing the page to the next player. Soon a wild, nonsensical, dynamic sentence had been written—partially by the players and partially by the chance and randomness of the game, which stripped away an individual’s creative intention. The game is thought to be named for a sentence produced by the game: “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine,” but an early adaptation of the game to drawing may also have influenced the name. In this version, artists play in groups of three: one draws the head, one the body, one adding legs and feet. Thus the game itself produces an uncanny body no single artist could have imagined: an exquisite corpse.

Exquisite Corpse drawing, 1958, from the Saul Steinberg Papers; Exquisite Corpse text, undated, from the Robert Dash Papers.

White Dove Review, 1958-1960

Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, artist and writer

Poet Ron Padgett was a teenager working at a book store in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he first discovered “little magazines” like Yugen and Semina—slender volumes including work by poets such as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Frank O’Hara. Realizing he could make such a simple publication, he invited some of his classmates at Tulsa’s Central High School to join him in creating the White Dove Review. His friend Joe Brainard, “the best artist in school,” became the magazine’s art editor. The editors contacted writers they admired, including Jack Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1957) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl was published in 1956), inviting them to contribute. A lively community developed around the magazine, including Dick Gallup, Betty Kennedy, and Ted Berrigan, then enrolled at the nearby University. In the years ahead, Padgett and Brainard would move to New York, becoming central figures in the group known as the second generation of the New York School. That community would come to be defined, in part, by its small press publications—the “Mimeograph Revolution.” Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard remained close friends and creative collaborators, working together over several decades on many publications and unique books. In 2004, ten years after Brainard’s death at the age of 52, Padgett published Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard.

Issues of the White Dove Review; Joe Brainard’s cover sketches, manuscripts, and correspondence from Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, and Ron Padgett; photograph of Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, circa early 1990s.

Brakhage Scrapbooks – 1958-1967

Jane and Stan Brakhage, artist and filmmaker                  

Jane Wodening, then Jane Brakhage, assembled these remarkable scrapbooks in the early 1960s, when she was the wife and muse of experimental film maker Stan Brakhage. Celebrated today as a pioneer in avant-garde cinema, Stan Brakhage was just gaining recognition for his non-narrative and hand painted films during the period documented by the scrapbooks. Wodening created the scrapbooks from literal “scraps” of their family life, Brakhage’s creative process, and the artistic communities of which they were a part. Pages are covered with the widest array of verbal and visual materials, including but not limited to letters, manuscripts, photographs, original art, clippings, pamphlets, filmstrips, and flyers. The scrapbooks demonstrate Jane’s aesthetic vision and creative drive, while they document a crucial time in Stan Brakhage’s career. In the years during which the books were assembled, Stan made some 30 films, including his ground breaking Dog Star Man; throughout this period, the couple encountered and shared lively creative exchanges with many filmmakers, artists, and Beat Generation poets. Friends who were, in some way, “contributors” to the scrapbooks include: Kenneth Anger, Wallace Berman, Joseph Cornell, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Jess, Robert Kelly, Gregory Markopoulos, Michael McClure, Jonas Mekas, Carolee Schneemann, and Louis Zukofsky. “We were all young and wild and articulate and creative,” Jane Wodening has written about the period, “we were right; we were gods; we were going to change the world, bring it around to sheer truth.”

Scrapbooks compiled by Jane (Brakhage) Wodening, [1958–1967].

Screen Tests: A Diary, New York: Kulchur Press, 1967

Gerard Malanga and Andy Warhol, poet and artist

Poet and photographer Gerard Malanga worked in the 1960s as Andy Warhol’s principal assistant and, as such, he was both an important participant in much of Warhol’s work of the period and a key figure of the scene at the artist’s famous studio known as The Factory. As Warhol mythology has it, it was while creating some photographs of Malanga to help promote a poetry reading that Warhol developed the process for his famous Screen Tests, minutes-long film portraits of visitors to The Factory made before a tripod-mounted camera. In 1965, Malanga created a multimedia performance called Screen Test Poems using his poems and various screen test reels. Two years later, film stills were published together with Malanga’s poems about the portrait sitters; subjects featured in A Diary include Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Salvador Dali, Marie Menken, Billy Name, Nico, Ondine, and Lou Reed. Screen Tests: A Diary unites the work of two members of a dynamic creative community. One might argue that the subjects of these dual portraits also play crucial roles in shaping the final work, a rich composite portrait of Warhol’s Factory.

Photolithographs of portrait photographs, Screen Tests: A Diary, screen test print of Edie Sedgwick, from the Gerard Malanga Papers.

Aché: A Free Publication for Black Lesbians, 1989

Pippa Anne Fleming and Lisbet Tellfsen, writers, editors, community organizers

Early in 1989 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lisbet Tellefsen and Pippa Fleming began publishing Aché: A Free Publication for Black Lesbians, a community arts newsletter including a calendar of events, poems and short essays, and an open forum where readers could exchange information about available goods and services or apartments for rent. Named for the Yoruban celebration of the power to make change, Aché informed and empowered its readers and contributors; in 27 issues published between 1989 and 1995, the newsletter printed writing and artwork by some 200 contributors, most of whom had never previously been published. Fleming and Tellfsen eventually transformed Aché into The Aché Project, a non-profit organization located in offices on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, just steps away from the site of a 1960s Black Panther office. Aché and its members organized community events at well-known Bay Area centers of social activism like Modern Times Bookstore, The Women’s Building in San Francisco, and the Pacific Center for Human Growth. Of the ongoing influence of her collaboration with Tellefsen and the members of the community, Fleming writes: “Though the organization was laid to rest in 1995, the women of Aché have gone on to become celebrated authors, scholars, web gurus, anthropologists, performance artists, historians, professors, photographers, tradeswomen, archivists and slam poet divas who continue to change the world to this day.”

Early issues of Aché: A Free Publication for Black Lesbians, production layout drafts, manuscripts of writings by Lisbet Tellefsen and Pippa Fleming, photograph of the Aché staff in 1990, from the Lisbet Tellefsen Papers.

Two Trains Running by August Wilson, 1990

August Wilson and Lloyd Richards, playwright and director

African American theater giants August Wilson and Lloyd Richards created some of the most important theater productions of the 20th century. Richards had a reputation as a “writer’s director” who aimed to serve the text as the writer intended; while this characterization may be true, archival evidence suggests director and playwright worked together to stage Wilson’s texts. The older of the two by some twenty years, Richards became the first African American to direct a play on Broadway when, in 1959, he staged Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. As head of the National Playwrights Conference in 1981, Richards selected the then-unknown August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from more than a thousand submissions. This catalyzed an impressive artistic collaboration that resulted in Pulitzer Prize and New York Theater Critics Circle Award-winning productions. Richards’s production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1990. It appeared on Broadway in 1992 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist that year. Set in 1969 in a restaurant in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up, the play explores the experiences of urban African Americans at a time of economic and political upheaval. Documents in Richards’s archive illuminate the dynamic collaboration of writer and director in bringing Wilson’s text to life on the stage.   

Letters and notes between Wilson and Richards, typescript drafts, production script, sketch of stage set on a napkin, photographs, advertising materials. From the Lloyd Richards Papers.

Elevator Collaborations, 2000

Michael Kelleher, writers and artists

As a graduate student in Buffalo, NY, poet Michael Kelleher conceived of and executed a series of art projects combining the work of numerous collaborators; Kelleher envisioned the works as “a means to promote dialogue and collaboration between artists and writers.” Employing strategies of “procedural” art, in which creators adhere to specific guidelines, Kelleher provided frameworks to which his collaborators imaginatively responded; in this way, each element of an Elevator project was created both independently by a single contributor and collaboratively as a result of Kelleher’s fundamental involvement. An element of chance played a role as well—Kelleher’s guidelines might include sending one’s work through the post (where it would be marked, perhaps torn or damaged, possibly lost) or  collecting found objects. In this way, Elevator projects were also shaped by the broad environment in which they were conceived, and they record and document aspects of that specific place and time. It is no coincidence that Kelleher named his publishing endeavor Elevator after the abandoned industrial grain elevators that mark Buffalo’s skyline; these structures appear on the Elevator logo and, in The Postcard Project, as a key visual element of the work. The final, enduring artworks, combining individual pieces from members of a close-knit community around the turn of the 21st century, may be understood to fix a certain moment in time, even as they invite viewers to enter into an ongoing conversation.

The Postcard Project with Isabelle Pelissier, 2001 and The Elevator Box Project with Brian Collier, 2000; photographs of collaborators assembling The Elevator Box Project.

One Big Self, 2003

C. D. Wright and Deborah Luster, poet and photographer

In 1998, lifelong friends and frequent collaborators poet C. D. Wright and photographer Deborah Luster made numerous visits to prisons in Louisiana. With the poet acting as an observer and as a “factotum” to the photographer, they set to work making portraits of the inmates they encountered. Individuals were invited to “present themselves as they would be seen, bringing what they own or borrow or use: work tools, objects of their making, messages of their choosing, their bodies, themselves.” Of making the individual photographs, Luster has written: “I wanted this to be as collaborative an enterprise as possible.” Over a period of about five years, Luster photographed tens of thousands of inmates, giving her subjects some 25,000 photographic prints to share with family or trade with other inmates. As photographs were made, Wright spoke to inmates, listened to their stories, came to understand something of their experiences; she recorded details about the prisons, their routines, rituals, and artifacts. She kept notes—recording conversations, jotting down overheard speech, collecting documents. In 2003, Luster and Wright published One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, collecting Luster’s photographs and Wright’s poems—lyrical works employing the rhythms of guards counting inmates, braiding together many voices, assembling fragments of narrative and emotion. The resulting work may be understood as a collective visual and linguistic portrait of an incarcerated community, a collaborative recording of the personal experiences of two artists encountering that community, and, as Luster writes, as “a document to ward off forgetting.”

C. D. Wright, notebook for One Big Self with documents; Deborah Luster, photographs.

Asian American Tarot Deck, 2017

Mimi Khúc, Monica Ong, Monica Ramos, Simi Kang, and Camille Chew and Collaborators,

editors, artists, writers

Produced for “Open in Emergency,” a special edition of the Asian American Literary Review creatively investigating mental health issues in Asian American communities, this project was the work of some 25 artists, writers, and editors. Monica Ong—an artist, poet, and designer in Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab—described her process of making images for a group of cards: “I designed photo illustrations for six of the cards…based on what I learned about each writer who created the accompanying texts. Some sent images and personal documents, others had interesting anecdotes. … those details helped me to create digital collages that capture the archetypes of the Adoptee, Survivor, Ancestor, Lecher, Patient, and Deportee.” Ong’s multi-layered collages highlight the deck’s exploration of complex relationships between family, memory, and identity; the cards interrogate both cultural mythology and racial stereotypes, considering the impact both may have on self-understanding and well-being. The tarot deck is itself a powerful metaphor: used to tell “fortunes,” tarot cards are randomly dealt in patterns that are interpreted to divine the future. Part game, part ritual, a tarot reading calls to mind fate and chance, past and future, the real and the imagined, underlining dynamic tension between a singular life story and a broader human history. Because “Open in Emergency” provides multi-disciplinary learning tools for classrooms and community centers, the tarot format is much more than a metaphor: the interactive nature of the deck of cards makes it useful in starting conversations about the taboo subject of mental health.

Tarot cards (1 complete deck, 8 duplicate cards) with enlarged reproduction.

Miss 2017, 2017

Victory Garden Collective (Louise Eastman, Jess Frost, Tara Geer, Katie Michel, Wendy Small, Janis Stemmermann), artists, printers, gallerists, social activists  

In late 2016, a group of women artists united to create a series of striking, witty, and engaging works in the spirit of the World War II tradition of the “victory garden.” Initially planted to support the home front food supply, these public-park and backyard gardens came to be seen as beautiful elements of communities under pressure, “morale-boosting symbols of solidarity.” “Today, our world is again in political and environmental turmoil,” the Victory Garden artists write, “and we are similarly in need of nourishment and unification.” Pursuing publicly engaged art projects that aim to “initiate conversation and action,” the collective has made works that unite public and private spheres, such as candy Valentine hearts printed with mottos like “Rise Up” and “Protest” and a kitchen apron emblazoned with the word “Persist,” speaking to the ongoing nature of both political action and domestic work. The “Miss 2017” suffragette-style sashes call to mind both turn-of-the-20th century women marching in pursuit of the right to vote and mid-century beauty queens parading before judges in swimsuits and high heels. Made for the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington, the sashes respond both to the troubling misogynistic rhetoric that characterized the 2016 presidential campaign and to the election of the former owner of the Miss Universe Pageant. This project—which included printing and distributing hundreds of sashes to be worn at the march—removes the sash from a space of sexual objectification, returning it to a social and political context.     

 Miss 2017 sashes and broadside; production and march photos.

See Also: + The Art of Collaboration: The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban, 1961-1972

& + The Art of Collaboration: Richard Wright’s Native Son on Stage and Screen