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  • Writer's pictureKarin Craven

Matthew 2: Collage as Icon and the Massacre of Innocence

Bricolage is a creation from a diversity of materials at hand, using found objects or

pieces of objects. Collage is also made from ad hoc available materials, piecing

together parts into a whole. Each art technique makes something from bits of this

and that. One plays with the found materials, improvising and thus, creating a new

whole. Collage is glued down bits on a flat surface whereas bricolage is a sculptural

technique with texture and dimensionality.

The joy of experiencing these techniques is that there is condition of possibility in

finding oneself, that the piecing together of found items into a coherent narrative

whole is not just external and objective, but also inner and subjective. And even if

the material objet d’art is, in fact, substantially present, it is also a fleeting

representation. The material whole is but a provisional reminder of creative

moments existing in time and space. The past informs our choice of materials and is

foundational for the emotional charge, positive or negative, of the material content.

The present moment offers itself as time enough to center down into our bodily

sensations, gather our ideas, feelings and thoughts as we handle the bits of glue and

paper. The future impact of such creative activity is not yet known, but the act of

creating gestures toward an intention, a hope, perhaps even a desire that holds or

re-presents some intrinsic value that we hold dear.

I remember doing bricolage and collage in my elementary school art class. Around

that same time, decoupage was also in vogue and I was gifted with some objects

embellished with glue and colored patterned paper from my grandmother. That

same Christmas I gifted my sister with a decoupage wooden box. She was not

impressed with the found object that I had beautified by my artful application of an

owl. I however, felt satisfaction about re-purposing a simple wooden box that had

been abandoned in my dad’s basement workshop. I liked the process of giving

something new life through glue and patterned paper. I imagined my sister would

enjoy that box practically every day.

How wrong I was. That wooden box carried no emotional weight for her; it was no

beloved box that held earthly treasures like in the movie, The Littlest Angel. My

sister had no emotional connection to the wooden box at all. What a contrast to my

hope that such a gift would be meaningful, appreciated daily as a place to hold items

of importance to her.

In retrospect, I was projecting on to my sister a narrative not only from that

particular Christmas movie, but also from The Kitchen Madonna, a book by Rumer

Godden. The power of objective-images to reflect, mediate and re-form our

emotional selves begins with tender regard, not only for others, but also for one’s

very selves and the divine.

Rumer Godden tells a story set in post World War II Britain, detailing how a brother

and a sister make an icon for their Ukrainian housekeeper, a war refugee. In their

love for her and through ongoing conversations, they begin to understand her grief

over not being in daily relation to a beloved icon of the Madonna. Icons were an

important feature of her former life. The children traipse to museums to learn about

icons, then set about trying to buy one for the housekeeper. In the end, they make

their own Madonna using bits and pieces of what they have found, so that the

kitchen feels more like home to their housekeeper due to the presence of the icon.

Collage created by the author in 2001 in response to geopolitical events and the liturgical season of Advent

The power of devotionally looking at religious iconography to make inchoate sense

of lives is an integral prayer practice of formation in the Eastern Church. When

gazing at icons, one is seeing through to a larger whole. At a soulful level, one is

emotionally connecting to a divine vision of God’s story. The bits and pieces of

individual lives are caught up and refracted through the visual representation of the

divine present in the lives of ordinary saints. In the beholding of an icon, one’s gaze

is doubled: seeing through to an experience of God and seeing the divine eye that

beholds oneself. In this religious experience of mirroring, one is seen and soothed,

held safe and secure in the embrace of the divine gaze. We might say that such

mirroring is an ongoing act of creation whose telos is forming us more fully into the

image of the divine.

Icons help us make sense of what it means to be at home on earth with ourselves,

others and the divine presence. It is a way to see through to new ways of being and

helps us in our becoming as we reckon with who we have been. Collage and

bricolage, even decoupage, are artful ways of representing and wrestling with

aspects of our inner terrain as it relates to external events in conversation with

values and commitments of Scripture and religious tradition. In a way, I view the

practice of collage as a differing modality of drawing an icon.

As an adult, I returned to making collage as a response to two intersecting events:

the war in Afghanistan and the necessary preparation of creating and leading

workshops on the rituals of Advent. In the late autumn of 2001, we were still feeling

quite new to Minnesota after years of living wherever the Marine Corps ordered my

husband. We were adjusting as a family to civilian life in a place. We were grateful

for nearby family. We were trying to make sense of life post 9/11 in America.

Over the national holiday of Thanksgiving, I needed time and space to make sense –

life-giving sense – of war in the light of the upcoming Advent season. I was feeling

deeply the paradox of war while also preparing for the ritual return of the Prince of

Peace. Words didn’t make sense as a way to process the season and onset of war.

Every day, I found myself cutting out colored photos from The Pioneer Press, The

Minneapolis Tribune and magazines. I had to gaze on photos from the wartime

theater as one way of bearing witness. From religious publications, I looked at art

that theologically framed articles on the war. I thought about our life as a military

family, remembered times apart when my husband was deployed to the Middle East,

even as I was conscious about how, in the turning to civilian life, my husband still

traveled to Middle Eastern countries.

I didn’t know what I was going to do with the newspaper and magazine images.

Until I did. I knew I had to live with those images. Making a collage seemed like the

thing to do. It took a weekend to make two collages. I framed them and gave them a

place of prominence in my living room and study. I have lived with these images for

over two decades.

In our world today, so many people are hemmed in and ground down by war. The

visual focal point of our recent Confluence gathering included one of my collages

amidst a crèche scene of baby Jesus in the rubble. The crèche and collage bore

witness to the Scriptural story of King Herod: fear and flight, kings and baby boys

coexist with dreams and death, stars and wisdom. To live with this story is to let its

images work on us, that we -- like the magi – may journey on and come home to a

deeper peace by “going another way.”

This other way is the third way that arises from holding the tension of paradox. The

play of noticing what is and playing with visions of what ought to be leads us down

paths of peace that resist violence and evil, that protect the vulnerable, that trust in

emerging wisdom flung out in the sky and knit together in community.

About the Author- Karin is a chaplain and practical theologian who takes joy in playing with ideas, living the questions and being outdoors daily with her dog Ruby. Landscapes of the heart are Whidbey Island; windswept prairies and sloughs, bluffs and backwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota; and the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. Karin lives in Missoula with her husband Bob.

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