Conceiving "Garbage Safari" for Philly's FringeArts

Literally painting over the past can be uplifting and it is a beautifully gratifying way to recycle materials.
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Every canvas has the potential to become something new. Over the past year, I've made a habit out of reimagining old works by painting over them, thus creating a tabula rasa. Then I am blind to the canvases' hidden histories, forgetting previous works and focusing on the future. See no ashes, only the phoenix. That's not necessarily my approach to life in general, but it's my current approach to mixed media. I relish the act of smearing globs of acrylic over work that no longer represents how or what I want to communicate. Literally painting over the past can be uplifting and it is a beautifully gratifying way to recycle materials.

Yet when I drew a silhouette of a tuskless elephant on one canvas in April 2015, I made not a happy creature but a sad one. It had no curly tail, no bright eyes. This was no end-of-film-happily-ever-after Dumbo. I didn't plan it, but, here, I wasn't envisioning every exacting detail; I let my fingers do the deciding. After I drew the silhouette, I dug through the box of junk under my craft table and adhered stray buttons, bottle caps, beads, or who-knows-what to globs of Modge Podge, and gradually filled the outline of my animal. It took a couple of hours every night for a week to completely clutter the elephant. This elephant would eventually become the star of my FringeArts digital exhibit, "Garage Safari."

But not quite yet. There was more to the process.

After I filled the elephant with junk, I gave him a bed of twisted tissue paper upon which to stand. Next came the real paint work, with a whole swatch of colors and a couple different brushes, followed by a long spell beneath my desk fan. Those layers took hours to dry. The elephant stayed in my apartment for about a week before shining at Gallery 788 in Baltimore and later an animal shelter in Alexandria, Virginia. In between the two shows, I got it in my head to photograph my elephant. As is the case with scores of other shutterbugs, many of the photographs I take never make it into Photoshop. Normally, I dump the files from my SD card onto my computer, never bothering to edit them. These photos were different.

Sometimes it takes photographing something to see it. In putting together the elephant, I had thought of each and very hunk of junk as fulfilling a utilitarian purpose: converting the negative space into positive space. But after photographing the elephant and reviewing the photos on my laptop, I sensed a phoenix in the making. This elephant was sadder than I realized, a poignant beast, like the Velveteen Rabbit longing to be real. I chose one photo and adjusted the contrast and saturation. The photo had a gloomier look to it than the original acrylic. Then I copied the elephant and put three in the same image, just far apart from one another for them to remain lonely. Playing with the colors some more, I made a dozen versions, each one with its uniquely eerie palette. From there, I made a series of ghost elephants in as many versions as the trio images.

Still, I wasn't done. The elephant needed a story. The poem, "The Elephant," by Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, was just the one. It opens with, "I create an elephant/of my scarce resources." My elephant, too, came from humble beginnings, birthed from whatever odds and ends I could scrounge up in my studio apartment. Now I will debut this new incarnation in Philly's 2015 Fringe Arts Festival as "Garbage Safari." Unlike the dearly departed Cecil the Lion, my elephant will never strut, but he will, to quote Drummond de Andrade, "search for friends/in a world already tired/that no longer believes in animals/and doubts things." May my elephant become more real in that search.

Preview "Garbage Safari" at RAW DC's "Bold" in Washington, D.C. on September 2. Buy tickets here. View "Garbage Safari" here starting September 4, 2015.

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