collage artist︎ New York City/USA & London/UK
march 14, 2020Could you please give us a brief history of where you grew up and how you got started as an artist?
I grew up in NYC right across the park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My parents dragged me there as a child. I can clearly remember my first Monet retrospective when I was about ten and how amazed I was by it. In high school, we had few resources or perhaps the school didn’t value art education. So, our art teacher made us endlessly draw a house plant, its negative spaces etc. There was a whole movement in school to kill the plant so that we could stop drawing it.
I have always done something creative. I grew up writing poetry as a hobby. I did ceramics at university, when I was working in Tokyo as an English teacher and even when I moved to London. But in 2000, for my 34th birthday, I asked for paints and a canvas and a few hours for myself (I had my four children by then) and I painted a picture. Six months later, I took it off my wall and painted over it. Soon after that I decided to start taking painting classes.
Do you work in any other media than collage?
I began my practice as an oil painter. I adored oil paints for their versatility, their forgiveness. But I was worried about the effect of the fumes of the paint and turps on my family, so I made a radical switch to acrylics. I have also been studying and practicing printmaking for the past nine years.
What ignited your interest in collage work in particular?
I took a week of classes with the English artist Kitty Stirling where she introduced me to acrylic inks. I fell in love with them. They are expensive if you use them with all their intensity of colour. But you can dilute them very effectively too. I started making washy landscapes and seascapes on large rolls of primed wallpaper liner. But I felt something was missing. When I had been oil painting, I mostly painted portraits of people, swans and animals. I’ve always been drawn to figures. So, I started making little paper people and set them into a variety of situations. With these collages, I explored adult life filled with difficult conversations. I made many collages that depicted moments before or after rows or resolutions between people. I also made red London double decker buses, black London taxis and red urban pillar boxes and collaged them into non-urban landscapes where they looked out of place. Taxis took people to discuss secretive things. Buses rescued stranded city folk. Would anyone ever pick up the post?
Then I decided that I wanted to try traditional collage from found materials. I’m a hoarder and it suited me so well. I also had many unsuccessful or incomplete prints printed on high quality paper. So, I have used them as a great base for collage.
You are currently crowd-funding a collage Haggadah on Kickstarter. Could you first please explain what the Haggadah is?
The Haggadah is a written guide to the Passover seder dinner that Jewish people and their friends and families hold each spring. It commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah includes various prayers, blessings, rituals, fables, songs and information for how the seder should be enacted. Although modern Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) can vary widely, the tradition of reading a book to guide the seder dates back to the Middle Ages, and some of the elements that make up contemporary Haggadot were used 2,000 years ago.
So you are creating your own illustrated version of the Haggadah. Why this particular book?
I grew up in a religious home. Although I am no longer orthodox, I love the Jewish festivals and I have great untapped knowledge from my years in parochial schools. A Haggadah is the most commonly decorated Jewish book, so the tradition is a long one. There are many examples of Haggadot starting from around the year 1300 AD in Venice. I wanted to participate in this centuries-old tradition.
The difference with traditional Haggadah pictures is that they usually depict exactly what happened -- the crossing of the red sea, images of slavery, etc. People try to get as close to what they think it looked like as possible, but I think this can sometimes isolate us from connections with the pictures (seeing it all so long ago, weird clothes etc.) The opportunity with collage is to bring the pictures into confluence with contemporary life, with photographs, 19th century etchings, words, illustrations, etc. I think this combination of different styles helps to seamlessly mix together the meaning and literary symbols of the text with the imagination and the visual context. One example is the plagues happening “with an arm outstretched.” Is it literal, or what does it mean? In my collage, I combined the concept of God’s hand with the figurative meaning of wrath.
You have a rather feminist approach to your Haggadah. Would you mind elaborating a little on that?
I translated the text and eliminated all male references to god.
As for the collages, I would say that my most obviously feminist collage is in the depiction of the “Four Children” which is widely known as the section about the four sons - one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask. I have collaged them as female. That will be controversial in some circles and refreshing amongst others. I am a dyed in the wool feminist but this project wasn’t driven by that per se.
How long have you been working on this project?
I started my first collage in 2018. But my work really took off in 2019 until the present day. But I have actually been thinking about creating my own Haggadah even before I started my artistic life.
How many collages and illustrations are you creating? Do you have a fixed number in mind, or do you let the work and inspiration take you?
There is so much to be inspired by in the Haggadah. I was spoiled for choice. Everytime I thought I had exhausted the concepts, new ones presented themselves to me. The ten plagues, in particular, were really fun to explore. I’ve created over 50 collages. I’ve had my most concentrated productive period in 2020 because I finally had a concrete deadline.
How long do you think it will take you to finish?
I’m almost there.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered along the way?
I had trouble with the big themes like slavery and liberation. I was obsessed with making something amazing and profound. It dogged me. I didn’t want to do something trite. I started so many pictures that I never stuck down in the end. I wanted to expand the depiction of slavery to prompt users of the book’s main duty - to remind Jews that they were slaves once and to be empathetic to those suffering around the world. That wasn’t easy.
Also the translation was a challenge. I have never translated anything before. Instead of “Blessed be he, king of the universe…” a common translation of the beginning of many of the blessings in the Haggadah, I changed it to “Blessed be God, leader of the world”. That was not very difficult. Other passages were much more complex.
In what format and number will the book be created and or printed?
The book is going to be released digitally and in full colour on paper. The number of copies I get published will depend on the success (or lack thereof) of the Kickstarter campaign. I am also having some limited edition hand-bound copies made by the bookbinder Rachel Jackson of Binah Design. I am also going to be making high quality giclée prints of my collages. If the Kickstarter doesn’t make enough money, I will make a few copies for my family and friends to use and think it through again.
Do you have any advice on how to approach such a large project? Any lessons learned already?
If I were doing it again, I might have been more methodical. I might have chosen a pallet, for example and stuck to those limited colours. I might have only worked on A4 or A3 sized paper. I might have had a big box that I would throw my scraps into and store all my Haggadah materials together so I’d never have to go hunting for a particular paper. I might have thought of a certain genre or theme. (There is a very old Haggadah where all the figures in it have birds’ heads. I have made one collage in homage to that.) I’m not sure I could have worked that way. I’m not sure I could have been so disciplined and still have been creative.
What other professional or artistic goals do you have as an artist once you have finished this project?
I intend to return to painting when I’m done with this project. But in January, I started experimenting with collaging with abstract images from the sports sections of newspapers, onto canvas. Then painting figurative images on those abstract background. Combining collage, painting and printmaking is my ideal. It will be like collaborating with myself. I am living in the present, particularly now, with the Coronavirus invading the earth. But I am excited to see what I will discover next. I am very lucky that, so far, I never run out of ideas.
Check out Emily’s Collage Haggadah on Kickstarter
Emily Marbach ︎ ︎
interview: Petra Zehner