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Q & A with Mary McCleary The Editors

One of the most arresting elements of your oeuvre is the relationship between the titles of your works and their ostensible subject matter. As often in poetry, the provocative juxtaposition of title and work seems to create a space of lyric, even spiritual, resonance. How do you conceive of the relationship between title and artifact? Which comes first, the title or the work?

The idea for an image or actual image comes before the title in almost every work. Sometimes I start with the subject or theme, inspired by something I have heard or read. This can be an event in history, a work of literature, or even science. Sometimes I start with something visual: an image in my head or something I’ve seen. When I start with an actual image, I have to discover what it means. I have to consider if what it implies is true and think how I might tweak it to make it mean more. My primary job is to communicate visually with the viewer, to create a strong compelling object that causes someone to want to view and examine it. That said, the titles and text used in most of my collages are very important. They provide extra layers of meaning or hints on how to follow a trail to meaning for any viewer willing to pursue it.

In the case of “The Fall of Rome,” the image was from a photograph I bought on Ebay that wound up working with a poem by W.H. Auden ending in the lines, “Altogether elsewhere, vast / Herds of reindeer move across / Miles and miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast.” I started with an image that seemed to have some resonance, partly because I liked the strong diagonal. Auden’s reindeer are an obvious connection with the image but an abrupt shift within the poem from which I got the title. If the viewer discovers the origin of the title and reads the poem, a whole additional meaning becomes apparent. At the same time, I hope the image and cryptic title work for viewers who don’t know the reference. But why that particular poem out of a number that mention reindeer? It felt right, and it seemed true. "A Hundred Familiar Objects Which No Longer Exist" is a quote from Mark Twain describing a visit back to his boyhood home. I’ve been thinking about that phrase since I first read it, and it seemed to fit with the image in some way I can’t quite explain. For this collage, I liked the challenge of trying to make something of the sentimental image.

Many of your key works take their titles from Eliot (or, in the case of "Children of the Apple Tree," a memorable misreading of Eliot). What makes Eliot resonant to you, to your creative process?

When I became a Christian a little over 20 years ago, I started exploring 20th-century Christian writers such as Flannery O’Conner, Evelyn Waugh, and others to try to learn how they incorporated their faith into their work, yet were still able to speak to those with other beliefs. T.S. Eliot had been a little intimidating to me until 1998 when I attended a conference where Greg Wolfe, editor of Image, spoke on his work. I found Eliot much more accessible than I had imagined. I identified with this middle-aged curmudgeonly Anglican, and he is still my favorite poet. What an artist reads can’t help but creep into their work, so for years my work has contained bits and pieces of Eliot.

My interest in poetry started late in life, so I’m still playing catch-up and overwhelmed by all the books I want to read. Recently I’ve read several books by Andrew Hudgins and Mark Jarman as well as C.S. Lewis’s poetry. I’m still exploring Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Geoffrey Hill, and Auden because there’s so much there. A new novel by Erin McGraw is arriving any day from Amazon.

I’m still trying to understand why I like some poets more than others. Usually it’s because they write something I recognize in our shared humanity while at the same time surprising me. Occasionally what they have to say is so profound and affecting I can’t help but utter a quiet almost reverent “amen” after reading it. It may seem surprising that I don’t find many examples of visual art that affect me in the same way. I don’t know if this is because of my familiarity with the visual arts or something about the nature of the two means of expression.

I'm intrigued by the theme of watching in many of your pieces. You've spoken elsewhere about the role of the glued eyes: as organizers of space, as metaphors for the omnipresent gaze of God. But what about watching as a narrative act, among the figures in your compositions? There are the boys who look on in "Children of the Apple Tree," the bystanders in "Praising the Beauty of What Is Transient" and "Friends Discussing the Possibility Someone Came To Shore," both figures in "David and Bathsheba," the spelunker shielding his eyes from the blast in "Plato's Cave"....

To tell you the truth I haven’t thought of this much. Very often when I pose figures looking at one another, I do so because this is a design device causing the viewer’s eyes to follow their glances diagonally back and forth across the composition. They ricochet. Certainly by doing this I imply relationships between the figures, as in "Children of the Apple Tree," or “Allegory of the Senses.” In "Praising the Beauty of What Is Transient,” the viewer joins onlookers portrayed in watching the fire consume the building. In “Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London,” the subject is directly engaging the viewer. In “Plato’s Cave” the explorer is coming out of the dark of the cave in to the light that hurts his eyes.

In "Sentry" (1993), the viewer's eye moves from foreground (the boy slumped in the chair, expression vacant, headphones on) to the back left of the composition, and then to the back right, where a woman is drawing back a curtain to reveal--something; we can't see what she, and one of the other adults in the composition, see. The essential mystery of the piece is dual: who (or what) is the "sentry" of the title, and what is being guarded, or guarded against? In "What Is Hidden Everywhere" (2007), we're presented with an analogous composition, only this time we see directly past the backs of the heads of the watchers into the scene they watch: a busy winter ski slope viewed from the cozy comforts of a rustic ski lodge. Again, the mystery is announced in the title: what is hidden everywhere, what exactly are we seeing (and not seeing). Can you talk a little bit about these two pieces in relation to one another?

I hadn’t thought about their relationship to one another before. Perhaps “Sentry” would make more sense if you knew that the woman drawing back the curtain was meant to represent the “bride of Christ,” the church, and that the whole collage is an allegory complete with vanitas still life. None of this is labeled to allow for the mystery you describe.

The title, “What is Hidden Everywhere,” is from a line in a Samuel Menashe poem, “Reeds Rise from Water.” What you can’t see from the website is a narrative about Magellan’s sailing through Tierra del Fuego typed and glued to the bottom of the collage. It tells of the Indians who saw his boats but dismissed them as an apparition, ignoring the evidence of something right before their eyes. I like combining a seemingly unrelated image, a title and story, hoping the viewer will do the work to put it all together.

It doesn’t concern me that viewers have their own interpretations of my work. That’s inevitable, especially since we live in a splintered culture where there are fewer shared references. It’s also going to happen if an artist design’s work to give the viewer space to interpret it. I struggle with each collage with how much to make obvious and how much to veil the content. One reason I frequently quote other writers for my titles and text is that they say things much better than I am able. I also piggyback on them, adding references to their work, collage-fashion, to make my work richer and denser in meaning.

Of the many antique forms that blend, braid, and distill into what we now call the prose poem (or flash fiction)--anecdote, joke, parable, sketch, journal entry, list, postcard, fragment--the one that seems to bear most directly on your work is the parable. Can you talk a little about the parabolic tradition, in literature or in visual art, and how it relates to your work?

How to answer this depends on how broad we want to define parable. Several of my collages, “The Good Samaritan” or “The Prodigal Son,” are inspired by well-known parables told by Jesus. In other works, like “Henry Ford’s Peace Ship” or “When Sparrows Fell,” the viewer might find a lesson in the historic events that are my subjects. Sometimes the text is something from science such as in “9.81 Meters per Second per Second” which a viewer can interpret. The text for that collage reads:

“Near the surface of the earth gravity is a downward acceleration. Over time, it causes all unsupported objects to pick up a downward speed. Since gravity is a persistent acceleration, falling objects keep falling faster and faster. For objects near the surface of the earth, gravity causes them to accelerate downward at a constant 9.81 meters (m/sec)/sec. This means each second it falls, it will be traveling 9.81 meters per second faster.”

In another work, “The Strange Dust of Our Actions Drifts and Settles Upon Us” the text is from a list of chemicals and particulates given off when someone fires a gun. The text is deadpan and descriptive with information I got from the EPA. It reads:

“Emissions from a .45 caliber ball cartridge: Acenaphthene, Acetonitrile, Acrylonitrile, Aluminum, Antimony, Arsenic, Barium, Benzene, Benzo[a]anthracene, Benzo[b]fluoranthene, Benzo[k]fluoranthene, Benzo[g,h,i]perylene, Benzo[e]pyrene, 1,3-Butadiene, CO2, CO, Carbon disulfide, Chloromethane, Chrysene, Copper, Dibenz[a,h]anthracene, 1,2-Dichloroethane, Dioxin/furan compounds, Ethylbenzene, Ethylene, Fluoranthene, Fluorene, Formaldehyde, 1,2,3,4,7,8-Hexachlorodibenzofuran, Hexane, Hydrogen cyanide, Indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene, Lead (Pb), Methane, Methylene chloride, Methyl ethyl ketone, 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9-Octachlorodibenzofuran, Oxides of nitrogen, Phenanthrene, Propylene, Pyrene, Styrene, Toluene, 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, TSP, m-Xylene, p-Xylene, o-Xylene, Zinc.”

You incorporate text into many of your collages (though in reproductions it is usually impossible to read). How does text relate to the visual--the basic facts of the composition, or the collage components from which you build the composition?

Unlike other collagists, I don’t cut out individual letters out of magazines and assemble them like a ransom note on the collage. I hammer out the text on a forty-year-old portable typewriter on paper painted various colors and glue it in strips around the edges. In works when I’ve combined texts from sources as varied as scripture, literature, spirituals and American popular song within one work, I’m approaching the text as an additional collage element, one part of all the varied things I try to pull together.

It’s different in every piece. At first glance “Sugaring Moths” might appear to be a mere decorative arrangement. The text I wrote implies more:

“He had perfected his recipe for sugaring moths: A bottle of Guinness or other good stout, the mashed flesh of a ripe banana, 4 spoons of black molasses, and a pound of the stickiest darkest sugar he could find. After boiling, he let it simmer on the stove until thick. Then added a little Jamaican rum after it cooled. Sweet, fruity, winelike. Ready to brush on fence posts or tree stumps at dusk, especially when there was no moon and the night would be hot, humid and dark. Returning to his spot with his flashlight he would find a company of moths tippling his cocktail, intoxicated, sucking the sweeten patch. He made it so easy for them. The Mason jar he used for trapping and killing moths was originally made for preserves. Like the old guys he used potassium cyanide. It reminded him of lump sugar. If he’d hold the jar just a little under the moth, the creature would drop down in to it on the first rush to get away. Clap the jar lid over him! He’d flutter for just a moment. He set them in order. Gathering against the night.”