On Collaboration, IV: Joseph Young & Christine Sajecki -by William Walsh, Kenyon Review

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Joseph Young and Christine Sajecki tell stories together. Their work combines layered and striking images with texts that are rich and evocative and exceedingly precise.

Their latest project together is called Covers. Christine produced a series of book covers for books that do not exist. Joe wrote microfictions that display with the books. The effect of picture and word is an examination of narrative, an evocation of storytelling. It’s more about the experience of a book than about the plot and characters found in a book.

They answered a few questions for this series on collaboration.

Joe, you’ve said that nothing you do on “your own is as pleasurable or meaningful as the stuff (you) do with another person or group of people.” What is it about collaborating on a creative project that makes the process or the outcome more satisfying for you?

I think as much as anything, the joy of collaboration is the joy of problem solving with another person. You enter into a kind of contract with someone else in which you try to solve the problem, How do we make something beautiful together? In a collaboration, everyone involved has to bring his or her full faculties to bear in the service of making a thing as good as it can be. It’s a way of spreading the satisfaction that comes both from making things yourself and also from the consuming of artistic things of people you respect, and often love. Love I suppose is central to it, working with my friends, making something with them, spending those many hours working out the goal we face together. It’s a great excuse to spend time with my friends. Oh and then the product, yes. If it were just me that made something nice, well that feels good. But when it was me and a friend, well, I’ve given my trust to someone that they can not only make something as well as I can, but that together, by giving up some amount of individual control, we can make something even better. I mean, these people are so talented!

Christine, making encaustic art seems to be very hard and not easy to control. Can you describe the process a bit and talk about what it is about encaustic that appeals to you, esp compared to working with working in other media?

Oh MAN. What’s not to like! Wax is hard to control the way an animal is hard to control. You have to know the animal and let it be itself, but give it guidance and gentle direction. It has a character, needs, tendencies, substance, the way a creature does; it’s warm, soft, giving, and unpredictable like an animal–and once you get to know it and trust it, this becomes a steadfast relationship.

It’s such a physical medium- the whole body goes into working the surface, scraping and planing, digging, carving, melting, rubbing, applying and removing. It’s soft and pliable, yet you can rest your elbows on it while working, muscle it around, torch it, blast it, lean all the way across it… it engages so many of your senses–smell, touch, sight, even sound.

I’m usually not so loquacious but I am so very much in love with this medium.

I like it compared to other media–its animal and sensual nature aside–because it’s so malleable and impermanent–anything on the painting’s surface can be changed at any point, yet if left alone, it can last forever. It has the immediacy of acrylic, as more layers can be made seconds after the wax is applied, but also the workability and translucency of oils (and then some). And it’s got body. That’s what brought me to it from oils- the thickness, the substance; the medium of wax itself has space and light. The depth one senses in an encaustic painting is real- some things in the painting are actually closer to you than others.

Can you both talk about your new project, Covers showing at theMinas Gallery in Baltimore (from April 10 through May 16)?

This one was different for us! Usually we’re on one adventure together; now we are living far apart, so we had to negotiate the distance, the distance between us becoming more of the white space we both work with. We were not as engaged in dialogue about what we both were doing with our work, but I think that at this point, having collaborated as much as we have already, that we could be sure that each other was working in a way that when the show was hung, we knew our work would be complementary and engage the other. This has always been our goal, that Christine’s paintings and Joe’s text would not serve as illustration or explanation for the other, but that they’d create a sense of dialogue between equal partners, equal modes.

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About the paintings in Covers, they are meant to represent book covers, some closed–just the cover–or spread open, with the spine and backs showing as well. Books are a vehicle for the central themes–the South, civil rights, life after the Civil War, and race–that reoccur in the show.

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Joe and I have really different experiences with race; I was born and grew up in a rural Connecticut town which was 99.9% white. Joe grew up in Kalamazoo in a racially mixed neighborhood, which was probably 70% black and 30% white. We both helped out for Obama’s campaign, both harboring the hope that he would address some of the institutional racism in our country. So we both worked independently around the central themes, me in Savannah living in a poor and mostly black neighborhood, working with the immediate surroundings, and Joe, interestingly enough, living in a traditionally white neighborhood in a very black city (I haven’t seen the statistics lately but it used to be said that Baltimore is 80% black).

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As for the stories [see ADDENDUM below] that appear alongside Christine’s paintings in the gallery, these were more or less meant to represent the texts that might have appeared between the book covers that Christine painted. As mentioned above, I [Joe] wasn’t so much responding to her paintings (and neither was she responding to my stories) as much as working the same kinds of thoughts and ideas as she was, taking my experiences and imaginings about the people I’ve encountered both here in Baltimore and also during visits to Savannah, using the imagery and atmosphere of those places to talk about some of the themes Christine mentions above. I was also thinking about history as I wrote the stories, things like the civil war and its aftermath, writing a story, for example, called First Secession that sort of wrapped up an experience I had driving through South Carolina, the first state to succeed from the Union, with some thoughts about history. To create a sense of visual unity in the show, the stories were printed on pieces of rice paper painted in wax and hung on the gallery walls.

A few years ago you collaborated on a project called Deep Falls, which included Christine’s art and Joe’s short stories printed right on the walls of the gallery. Can you both talk about how that collaboration worked in terms of texts and images? Which came first–the visuals or the words? How fluid is that process? Can you describe the response to the show?

That process was so fluid, in fact, that Joe and I both had trouble remembering what did come first, stories or art. We spent a lot of time together, in the midst of our muse, and were simultaneously responding to the same stimuli, with a lot of dialogue back and forth as well. The show was about a specific place, Falls Road, in Baltimore, which is this wooded valley hidden right in the middle of the city. You can only get to it either by magical accident or if you know exactly how. It follows the Jones Falls River–long ago it was a Native American Trail to the coast, and then industrial mills were built along it in the 1800′s. It’s windy and wild and has no place being in a city–it’s wonderful. We took many walks along it together, as well as had our own experiences with it previously, which we talked about at length. Joe?

This being our first real collaboration together, much of the work and talk had to do with how our work would engage the other. At that point I had never had an art show, having always worked strictly in words, and so I was very excited, and also rather nervous, about how this would work in terms of making my words into an art object that could hang in a gallery. Then, one of us–again there was that fluidity that makes it unclear whose ideas were whose–had the idea of printing the text on the walls using the wintergreen oil transfer process, a process Christine had been experimenting with in her paintings for a while. Basically in this process, text or images are photocopied, the copies applied to whatever surface they are to be transferred to, and then dampened with wintergreen oil, which releases the photocopy toner onto the surface. The effect was much like taking the gallery wall and running it through a copy machine. Often certain letters would be broken or slightly smudged in the process, which gave the text a very graphic and substantive look.

The response to the show was really positive, but I’m not sure either of us are sure whether that positive response had more to do with the art that was made or the big party that the show resulted in. During the process of making the show we enlisted the help of so many people, our friends who are artists, musicians, designers, writers, and those with special technical knowledge, that the art opening became a kind of community event. It was awesome, and we owe a million people a million thanks.

Christine, you wrote the voiceover narrative for this video that Joe put together with a montage of your art. It’s a story about your first days in Savannah, Georgia where you attended art school. It’s a sweet reminiscence until the end when it becomes comically profane. Listening to it made me see how narrative your images are. Do your images all have backstories?

 

Hmmm. Well they all have stories, not always backstories–sometimes they happen during the painting. Especially self portraits–often I will do one when I am not working on a larger thematic body, to sort of check in with myself, without a clear plan of where it’s going to go. For instance, Humor in American Newlyweds; Self Portrait with a Red Headed Woodpecker–I had just gotten married and left my life in Baltimore to join my husband in Savannah, in a house that is very much in progress and needing so much work to make it into a home. It was such a confusing time, not knowing what my role was or what my life would be, resisting certain changes but not wanting to make myself and my husband miserable, not wanting to lose myself in love. Many of my days were spent swinging a hammer and smashing down ceilings and walls, out of necessity. I started a self portrait, and was visited by a woodpecker making a huge racket outside. I looked on the internet to see what kind of woodpecker it was, and what it was all about, and found that it was a destructive and sort of mean little fucker. It’ll smash up duck eggs, for instance. I am generally a very nice person, but temporarily made an alliance with this bird for this painting and painted it sitting on my shoulder, to take on some of its selfishness, its violence, and to help me bash apart the house.

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Joe, I’ve been trying to find terms to best describe the elements of fiction as they apply to microfictions. Like instead of saying “setting” using the word “context.” Instead of saying “characters” using the word “identities.” This is foolish, I know, but are the elements of fiction somehow different in microfictions?

I’ve never thought about this before, but it certainly makes sense to me to think of these things as different in the forms of micro and longer fictions. Because, sure, you don’t engage so much in character in micro, with all of that person’s nuances of psychology, as you engage in placeholders of character. The people in microfiction supply a mark on the page, a calligraphy, that indicates character but then leaves off before a character is formed. Setting I suppose works similarly. I think the people in microfictions are still real people, but they are real as metaphors are real, as opposed to how the textures and descriptions of characters in longer stories are real.

Do you have any future projects planned together? Or do you have collaborations planned with others that you’d like to talk about?

Christine and I don’t have anything in the works together as is stands right now, but I don’t think either of us doubts that we will be again working together in the future. The two of us recently guest lectured at MICA about our collaborations, a talk we gave last year as well. When I was thinking about what we might talk about that is different this year, it occurred to me that in that year’s time we engaged in three different collaborations! These included a show we curated together of representational encaustic painting, our work on Covers, and the what served as the lead in to Covers, Christine’s cover painting for my recent book of microfictions.

In any case, I have been planning an art show with Baltimore artist Kathy Fahey for some time that will involve a variation on the kid’s game Telephone. I’ve also talked to writer and visual artist John Dermot Woods about a collaboration that might involve creating a short film together.

Christine will be collaborating with her husband, an architect, on putting back together what she and the woodpecker smashed.

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Joseph Young lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of Easter Rabbit (Publishing Genius/2009). Hismicrofiction work has recently appeared in Lamination Colony, FRiGG, and wigleafCaketrain, and Grey Sparrow. He has written on art for a variety of magazines and newspapers.

Christine Sajecki works with a range of media from encaustic to charcoal, graphite, and chalkboard paint. Her work has been included in exhibitions throughout the east coast and in Washington state. She has been a guest lecturer and teacher at the Clayton State University in Georgia; the Greenbelt Community Center in Maryland; the American Visionary Art Museum; and the Harford Community College in Maryland. As an artist-in-residence at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore for three years, she taught encaustic workshops in her studio to adults and children. She currently lives and paints in Savannah, Georgia.

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ADDENDUM:

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Relations

They swam as if it were mountains and such were snakes and ewes. Shouts struck the bottoms of the clouds. Oh brutes, said the ladies in leotard suits.

Control

They could have been delivering sons, animals drape eared over the other. And the paperwork, a nightmare or mercy. Though the lot just beyond, oh miles of lapped lake.

Block

From a step a boy saluted 3. Activity for it happened. This was a dry place with such water.

The Orate

The swamp was pale reed and white water, men worked the reels. Something surfaced and they none of them went. Say, said the women, now all will rise.

Tables

The boys were compact boxes of words, faces, teeth. Their hands wanted for the marks of earth. She happy? they said, he sad?

Entry

It had been stained by ash, yellow at the bronzed head. The man opened his coat to show the t-shirt. The Past, it said, Is Safe. Such thin light for it all.

Smaller Now

The case of flesh she was shouted. That was all though, the little girl and sick puppy paid such little heed. That dog at the corner of the porch dreamt of knees.

First Secession

Week’s end haunted the car, the pines, their speeches. From where’d we come? they said, a certain parallel having passed. The fields were empty of ads, studded instead with brickwork graves.

Jan 21 09

One boy passed another. He felt for the bread knife in his pocket. He remembered breakfast, just the day before.

Affirmative

In his booth, he is handed 5000 dollars a day, 2 at a time. Most faces face up, except for the trucks. These he looks into the eye–those from the farms–and wonders, my life, my death.

Good Word

They’d all read from the book–the horned god, the brother death. It didn’t stop a washing of blood or a simple sharing of the cup.

Hundred and Twelfth

Blond and allusions of blossoms, they called at her Cherry. My father, she said, he’d never allow. The sirens, the streets, the starlings, the boys, the boxes on the curb.