Kara McMullen (right) and Ann Petroliunas (left) are prose track graduates of the IPRC Certificate Program. They’ve recently collaborated on a collage project.
Ann Petroliunas is a 2017 graduate of the prose certificate program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, OR. She is an educator, writer, and managing editor at Arq Press. Born and raised in Chicago, she now resides in Oregon and often gets confused about which one is home. Ocean waves, glue-sticks, and avocados are a few of her favorite things. Her work has previously been published in The Rumpus, Hot Metal Bridge, The Grief Diaries, and Memoir Mixtapes.
Kara McMullen is a writer and graduate of the 2017 IPRC Certificate Program. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with two dogs, a cat, and another person. Her writing has also appeared in Storychord, Ohio Edit and The Harpoon Review, and is forthcoming in Slush Pile Magazine.
KARA: Can you talk about how your process for the collages? I’m interested to hear more about those because in some ways visual art is sort of a black box to me, or like it’s not my first language or something, so the collages were often much harder for me.
ANN: Well, to start…. I have a problem called SCRAP, and I frequently spend many hours and many dollars there. So my process starts with opening up like 4 giant plastic bins of old magazines, books, x-rays, clothing patterns, etc., pulling out a handful, and flipping through them. I don’t always know what I’m looking for. Sometimes your text has concrete imagery in it that I latch onto and I’ll start there. Other times, it evokes a feeling and I flip through images in magazines and books until I find a picture that evokes that same feeling. And sometimes I’m in a weird mood or drinking a glass of wine and that drives my process more than your text! But it always seems to work out, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot collaborating with you. I’ve started to incorporate shapes and colors more in addition to magazine photographs. I feel like I am taking more creative risks. How has your process changed over the course of our project?
KARA: I think at first I was very literal, like I would just read your text and then look for concrete images that you had mentioned or alluded to. It felt more stiff and formal to me, and then I realized that I could change that (d’oh moment, there). So I started looking more at the leftovers of whatever I had cut out, and using those because they’re often strange amorphous shapes that I would never set out to create on purpose. Once that happened the whole thing got much more loose and a lot more fun. And I completely agree–I’ve grown a lot over this process too. I think I’ve learned how to expand my own definitions of what something “is” or “should be,” which I think is the direct result of working with you closely, since of course, your definitions are (by definition…sorry) not mine. Did anything similar happen with the text piece for you over time? Or was that a completely different process?
ANN: I started to really enjoy getting away from the concrete and starting to play with shapes and layers. I am finding that happening in all of my collage work these days. I feel like I need to “warm up” with something somewhat concrete, and then I look at it again and add something weird and then suddenly I have given myself permission to go for it, and then I do and it’s always much more interesting than when I started.
BOBBY: What was your process for collaborating? Kara, did you present Ann with an image? Or Ann, did you ask Kara to express an idea first in text?
KARA: We both did both, if that makes sense (which, yeah, it probably doesn’t at all). Every week we each wrote text and collaged in response to the last week’s text from the other person. So there were weeks where there was a lot of synergy between what we were each writing and doing visually and weeks where we were obviously preoccupied by different things and so there wasn’t so much congruence between the words or the images. But each week felt a little different.
ANN: This project literally happened in a google doc:)
BOBBY: Do you go in with an idea to express before starting to collage?
KARA: Each collage was a little different for me. Sometimes I stuck very closely to Ann’s text, because I thought that it was important to be true to those words. Sometimes, depending on what the text was, I interpreted it more loosely and let the collage do it’s own thing rather than just be representational. Each type of collage was fun to do–the one’s that I was a little more true to the text were fun for the hunt of the image through all my collage materials, and the others were fun because improvising visually doesn’t come all that naturally to me, so exploring that process was cool.
ANN: Poor Kara, I was going through some shit for a portion of this project’s timeline. So there were weeks when I got to collage some beautiful, philosophical, musing question from Kara and she got really, really angry let’s burn the world down text from me. Somehow though, when we went to select our pieces for the narrative, it all worked together and the angry weeks found their place in it.
BOBBY: What are some of your favorite collaborations? Like whose collaborations do you admire?
KARA:In general I really like collaborations and seeing what people can do when they have a creative tension together–even when it’s less of a formal product and more of a playing and feeding off of each other–Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglizt. Closer to home I have friends who work on music and visual art projects together and it’s cool to be able to get an insider view on the process.
ANN: Danger Mouse and James Mercer. Best collaborators ever. It’s too late to change your mind, You let loss be your guide….. That song is sooooo good. Oh, and while she’s taking some time off to collaborate with her husband on raising my nephew, my little sister is a choreographer who makes insanely awesome collaborative dance. I admire her. We’ve lived in different states all our adult lives, so I don’t often get to see the process, but her company, The Pharmacy Project, makes work that’s based on ideas and words she puts out there, and then she and the dancers make movement together. It’s so rad. And not just ‘cause she’s my sister.
BOBBY: How is the collage process different for you than your normal writing process? Why collage?
KARA: I have a perfectionist streak that I really have to combat to have any writing process at all, something that’s taken me a while to develop for that reason. But with collage, maybe because I don’t think of myself as a visual person and so I’ve got very, very little at stake, I can just let myself get loose and play and have fun with it.
I started collaging because it’s a good way for me to short circuit that perfectionist side. If I start writing or working on a project and just can’t get past it, I’ll turn to collage to get outside of that space. It often helps enough that I can then go back and write without so much self-criticism.
ANN: I second what Kara said about having very little at stake and using collage to get past blocks in my creative process. I also just really love microtext and found poetry (cut ups, erasure). I think the two make great partners. Some days I sit down to work on a longer piece of writing and am too tired, sad, mad at #45’s latest act of buffoonery, too whatever to focus on what I “should” be writing.
I’m lucky that I have room in my house, and could make myself a safe creative space, and I really do have a ridiculous fire hazard of a collection of old magazines, so I often find myself closing the door and flipping through some and letting whatever I’m feeling come out that way instead of in memoir essay form which is my “should be writing” genre. While the collaborations in this project started with the text Kara and I shared weekly, often my personal collage process starts with the imagery.
And I’m gonna be super honest here, my leap into/love for this image and text work really solidified after the last election. I was thrown into a really dark place with some buried sexual assault trauma unexpectedly resurfacing and in the days following the election results, tearing up old magazines, gluing the pieces back together on my terms, and writing haikus for those images was super therapeutic.
The Rumpus picked up a triptych as part of their Enough series, and I guess I realized then that a creative process that started as personal healing could yield work that is accessible and hopefully helpful to anyone who is hurting too (and paying attention to the wealth of beautiful art and writing available to us on the internet). It’s also pretty cool to look at something you’ve created that tells a story of 20 years in a few cut up images and 17 words. Regardless if that story is about assault, or grief, or walking your dog.