Several years ago, I took a collage workshop taught by Jonathan Talbot at Artiscape in Columbus, OH. Talbot began the class by handing around a piece of paper and telling us to tear off a small piece to use in class. He then asked us how old we thought the paper was. It was thick with a beautiful feel like old cotton. It showed some foxing – brown spots – that can form on paper, and it was printed in an old font that had left deep impressions. I knew from my experience as a book dealer that this paper was very old. Guesses for its age ranged from 50 – 250 years old. When Talbot told us that the paper was a page from a book printed in the 1600s, there was an audible gasp from everyone.
How could we dare to tear this up and use it? Wasn’t this something precious? Never be afraid, Talbot told us, to use your best materials in your work. There were knowing nods around the room. Each of us had precious supplies that sat unused. We needed to give ourselves permission, the consensus seemed to say, to use what we’d been hoarding.
I put my little scrap of 400 year-old paper into my work that day. You can see it in part of my collage below. It’s small and unremarkable. It took many months for me to realize, though, that the lesson was not that I was giving myself permission to use my best supplies, but that I was giving myself permission to thoroughly screw them up.
I have to understand and acknowledge that when I take the first cut in a piece of gorgeous, hand-marbled Italian paper I might possibly turn the whole project into a piece of garbage. Not through intent, but because that is the way art and learning work. What we set out to do isn’t always what we end up with. And that’s OK. What ends up in the garbage bin is sometimes just as valuable as what ends up on the wall or in the showcase.