January 2021 Today is a day when I hate my house, I hate it for all the things it will never be. For ceilings that are too high for lights in one room and too low for lights in…
I always work like a collage artist, even when I’m writing what looks like a conventional essay: I collect fragments of fact, memory, reflection until a narrative or direction surfaces, and then I follow it. It is a slow process, and often frustrating. Sometimes, the bits pile up and no shape emerges.
Last year, I committed to a “100 Days” Instagram project (people make or do something for one hundred days and document it) and mine was called “100 Days of Finding Home.” I made an image every day related to the book I’d been trying to write about buying my grandparent’s house. The book was stuck; nothing was moving on those pages and so I hoped the image-making would help identify what mattered most in the essay drafts. As I posted the drawings, paintings, photos, and collages, I wrote captions that became longer and more reflective over the course of the project.
When the one hundred days were up, I told a writer friend that I felt terrible because instead of inspiring me to write my book, the project had taken over all my creative time. They told me, “I thought the project was you writing the book?” (This is why writers need writer friends!) I pulled all the captions into a Word document and started digging through them. I found sentences, phrases, drafts of anecdotes that related to some of the pages I’d already written, but they felt too connected to the images to separate. In the case of “Weeds,” I pulled the previous writing I’d done about gardening and my unsuccessful attempts to tame the yard, the new fragments related to invasive species, and the collages of plants and birds in my yard, and began to move them around on the page as if they were all pieces of text or all possible pieces of a collage.
These collages comprise acrylic monoprints, etchings, and paintings from vintage natural history collections, old photographs, and other found images and papers. Like the text, those components work like pieces of memory, research, and reflection. My attempt then, in combining text and image, is to show I and eye, both. Formally, the essay is modeled on old plant guides that have a photo or drawing of a plant on one page with its description, range, and habits on the next page. The red text lists archaic and current common names for my weeds, and it echoes “warning” notes in foraging guides about noxious or poisonous plants. I’ve used photos and diagrams in the past, but “Weeds” is only my second finished essay that incorporates collage, and it feels like I found a form I’ve been looking for. It’s inspired me to re-evaluate much of the earlier writing about the house, looking for gaps in the narrative that photos, drawings, or collages could fill.
CHELSEA BIONDOLILLO is the author of The Skinned Bird and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her essays have been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing, How We Talk to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, and elsewhere. Her collages have been shown in Washington and Oregon as a member of the PNW Collage Collective and anthologized in Transitional Moments by the Arizona Collage Collective & Kolaj Institute. She has a BFA from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. You can find her on Twitter @c_biondolillo.