Issue #51, Spring 2014
All Images Are Limited to Light and Dark
An Interview with Marcy Miranda Janes
All Images Are Limited to Light and Dark
Oregon native Marcy Miranda Janes began working in cut paper techniques and book carving in 2010, transitioning from poetry writing and translation to visual imagery. Her original “pelvis valentines” derived from a synthesis of Victorian valentines and traditional Mexican papel picado. The pelvises incorporate symbolism through plants, birds, and insects of the Sonoran landscape, in the spirit of the Victorian “language of flowers.” Janes has had solo shows of her paper art in Portland, Oregon and Tucson, Arizona and has participated in group shows in Berlin, Germany, Tubac, Arizona and Tucson. Her current work focuses on natural, unnatural, and supernatural history of the Desert Southwest.
What initially drew you to paper cutting?
I stumbled upon paper cutting when I wanted to make valentines like the old Victorian type for my sons a few years ago. I cut images of their special animals and plants into the hearts, and realized the forms looked … enhanced somehow. And the symmetry spoke to me. It gave the images a different rhythm. I kept making hearts, filling them with plants, birds, insects, spiders, fish, monkeys, etc. And then I started thinking, worrying, about a friend of mine who was having a baby in her mid-forties after having some serious health problems. And so the hearts turned into pelvises, which are kind of valentine-shaped. My first series was “pelvis valentines.” My dear friend gave me my first solo show at Alma Chocolate in Portland in May 2010, and then some of the pelvises traveled to Berlin to show in the Wunderkabinet gallery curated by Leah Buckareff.
When making pieces for the Sustainability issue, I framed the imagery for Mary Heather Noble’s winning essay inside a pelvis. The focus of her essay on children and effects of the environmental pollutants on them suggested a protective pelvis framework.
What was it about Victorian valentines that captivated you? Was there a style or feeling you were trying to emulate?
For that initial project, I liked the over-the-top laciness of the Victorian style, but filled with praying mantises and giant squids. I have always really liked the weirdness of Victorian thought; the art always seems to be filled with elements of both growth and decay. A very literal example is Victorian hair art, elaborate floral arrangements made of the hair of dead people. There is a huge hair bouquet at the Yaquina Bay lighthouse in Newport, Oregon; I have seen it a couple of times and every time I am just unable to look away. The flowers even correspond to individual species. Such keen attention and respect paid to both the beautiful and the grotesque. So much time collecting hair.
What do you see as the unique challenges of paper cutting? What are the benefits?
One challenge of paper cutting, if you cut a piece out of one sheet of paper, is accidentally amputating something. Or deciding after you have cut the piece that you wanted twelve tarantulas, not four, and now it’s too late. So now the piece is tinged with regret. I think a benefit of the medium is it is half drawing, half sculpture. It is an image and an object. I also think it is a bit subversive. I have seen people discount the medium as “lacy,” or doily-like, not noticing that the lace is comprised of AK-47s and drones. Kind of like swearing in a lovely tone of voice.
What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?
The pelvis valentines were autobiographical, using imagery and ecosystems of the Sonoran Desert where I live. I was living through some intense experiences, and they turned into places and species. I suppose that makes them a visual form of creative nonfiction? Cutting paper feels like a language I have suppressed for a long time, and it feels natural to express the imagery in this language. The physical process has been organic, too. At first I was cutting paper with a kitchen knife over a piece of cardboard to keep from cutting the table. I slowly realized that sharper knives and cutting mats would serve me better... I have experimented with different kinds and thicknesses of paper, but the original 100%-cotton-rag-leftover-resume paper I started with has proven to be the best weight and fiber.
"I have seen people discount the medium as “lacy,” or doily-like, not noticing that the lace is comprised of AK-47s and drones. Kind of like swearing in a lovely tone of voice."
You say cutting paper is a language—is there a particular message that goes along with any of your creations for this issue?
In the sustainability issue there is the notion of dichotomies, of life versus death. And with the cover piece, the “human face” is an aggregate of many species, the idea that we can’t really separate ourselves from all organisms. If we live unsustainably, we all are headed towards extinction. I tried to include species from all continents, as well as from different genera, and underground, land, water, arboreal, and air creatures.
Have you ever created commissioned pieces before now? How does the process vary, if at all, from your usual artistic progression?
I have, and do. I enjoy interpreting other people’s ideas and experiences. The Sustainability essays are an example. I read them all and tried to take note of the images in the essays, but also of their relative importance to the writer. For example, in Mieke Eerkins’ essay, “Seep,” there is a detailed description of the cormorant mired and struggling in bunker fuel. The cormorant’s fate is central. I eulogized the cormorant in the cover piece, as a skeleton flying up alongside the warhead. In the interior illustration, I made Eerkins’ young bird-rescuing woman into a little girl rowing an oil drum ark filled with sea animals on a petroleum sea. The whale skeleton framing the piece was modeled after the fin whale skeleton at the Center for the Study of Oceans and Deserts (CEDO) in Puerto Penasco, Sonora.
I have found my artistic progression flows when commissioned work is permitted to be honest, and not expected to be cute or pretty or “tasteful.”
You are a lawyer as well as an artist; do your professional and creative lives ever intersect?
I think there is a connection between my lawyer work and the choice to cut paper. I went into law to level playing fields, to make systems more egalitarian. I think the simplicity of paper cutting makes it accessible to nearly anyone. It involves a pencil, paper, and knife, pretty much—although some incredible paper geniuses can do this work with scissors, which blows my mind.
Do you have a favorite essay in this issue? What stuck out to you about that piece?
I loved the inherently image-rich essays. Ana Maria Spagna’s essay, “What Happened at Humbug Valley” had my head spinning with camas bulbs, turkeys, coppiced trees, acorns, deer, bear, elk, managed fires, egrets, oaks, redwoods. I had visions of a wild turkey phoenix rising out of the ashes of a managed burn. The turkey phoenix didn’t fit into any of the pieces, but I may have to cut it in the future! Sarah Gilbert’s essay, “Trapped,” was easy for me to visualize since I am also from Oregon and also commuted by bicycle with my children. Rather than people on a bike, I conflated the elements of “ethical traps” she described, imagining her as a praying mantis mom, riding an organic fruit and vegetable bike, hauling along her happy-squash children. The Gilbert praying mantis appears on the cover, too, pushing the children on the Noble swing set
Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?
Hmmmm. Early on I made a piece called “The Flowering Mind.” It was a small brain, made of forget-me-nots and honeycomb. It was a kind of prayer for one of my sons. And it worked.
Does your art tell a story about you? What does it say?
I imagine so. I grew up in a pastoral, solitary setting and spent a lot of time looking for deer, grasshoppers, shiny rocks, the door to Narnia. I always felt narrated by the natural world, and itchy and misshapen among the industrial world. I think that is the orientation of my artwork.
What challenges did you face interpreting literary works as visual art? Did you find a particular essay more challenging than the others?
The essays that were more theoretical, or which involved more interior imagery rather than natural imagery were more challenging. I also found it challenging to handle imagery from different cultures. In the Spagna essay I didn’t want to make anything, as an outsider of Maidu culture, that would be an interpretation of traditional symbolism. The same was true for the essays by Hassinger and Lanzoni, which include imagery from the Sudan, and the notion of Pan-Africanism. With the Hassinger essay, the issue of “re-naming” places and methods was so important, that I resolved the cultural-appropriation issue by simply cutting the actual words into the piece without further interpretation. Regarding the Lanzoni essay, the borehole pumps are important images and culturally non-specific. I also cut camels and the Sudanese pyramids of Meroe into the piece to suggest place, culture, and history.
What similarities do you see between the creation of written works and paper cutting?
Well, I have written a lot of image-loaded poetry since I was young. I think the cut paper pieces generate a rhythm and cadence through repetition and positive and negative space, like poetry. I think they come from the same internal place. Both play with juxtaposition.
What art forms or artists do you wish more people knew about?
I love the infinitely soulful work of Elsa Mora, and the ground-breaking social commentary of street paper artist Swoon. There is jawdropping work from Mexican, German, Jewish, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Iranian, Javanese, etc, traditional folk artists. Many traditions use paper cuts as good luck pieces. I see them that way.
Your work possesses a captivating juxtaposition of light and dark, positive and negative, hope and despair—what is it about dichotomy that draws you toward this aesthetic?
Maybe because it makes you think or imagine new things. I have always liked surrealism because it challenges what I believe to be truths. My younger son and I made up a game when he was little that created this effect: I would ask “what do you get when you cross a (random object) with a (random object)?” He would answer, or I would, with a third completely unrelated random object. And it would either make us laugh, or think, or both.
That’s another lovely part of this technique; all images are limited to dark and light, so it emphasizes the allegorical. I have seen paper cutters use colored paper or paint parts of the cutting to offer some nuance, but I have mostly used light paper on a black background to highlight the contrasts. I think it works well with the Sustainability essays, which illustrate the logical endpoint of misuse of resources, and the hopeful redirections that can be taken.
You have described your work as good luck pieces, prayers, and valentines—does your art inherently take on a spiritual element, or are these specific cases?
Most of my art is dedicated to something or someone, and contains some kind of wish on my part. With the Sustainability work, I hope and wish the people who have the authority will renounce individualism on behalf of life for all species.
Jamie L. Beaudoin
Jamie is a former Editorial Assistant at Creative Nonfiction. read more
What's In This Name -- And What's Not?
Ever since I began to write and to teach writing 20 years ago, people have been asking me to explain the genre in which I work—this... read more
Introduction to the Sustainability issue
While interviewing Elizabeth Kolbert for this issue, I was struck by her candor, humility, humor, and toughness. As an environmental... read more