The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 27, 2013

Peace by pieces: MSU English professor, author, artist unveils first solo art exhibit at SCC

MSU English professor, author, artist unveils first solo art exhibit at SCC

By Adam Miller
currents@mankatofreepress.com

---- — The small crowd moving around the gallery could hear the distinct sound of small wooden blocks clacking against a tabletop.

Jenga blocks, the medium of the artist currently on display, were set out for guests to take home as keepsakes. Wrapped in vintage art from magazine clippings, the students, faculty and other viewers of Diana Joseph’s first solo art exhibit couldn't help but to play with the toys.

The sound of the blocks falling from stacks gave a strangely appropriate soundtrack to the exhibit, filling the air with the playful spirit and child-like quality that her art portrayed.

Like most art, however, there is more to the colorful blocks than what meets the eye. Despite being game pieces typically used by children, Joseph used them to overcome personal strife and make discoveries about herself as a person.

The result — her exhibit, “Jenga Block Collage Factory” — is on display at South Central College through Nov. 22.

Joseph's inspiration

It was a spring day when Joseph, an associate professor of English at Minnesota State University, was sitting on the floor of her living room with her 2-year-old son, Teddy.

Playing together with Jenga blocks, Joseph would build a tower and her son would knock it down. It was while rebuilding one of those towers that she realized she could use the blocks as a base material for collages, which she had been making a lot of from other materials for a while.

Teddy was born Nov. 19, 2010, and in February of 2011 Joseph was diagnosed with postpartum depression.

“What I remember most about that time was how confused and sad I felt. I felt disconnected from my baby, from my family and friends, and from myself,” Joseph said.

It was around that time that Joseph came across the work of Lynda Barry.

Barry is a cartoonist, a collage artist, a graphic novelist and the author of 17 books. Of those books, the one that resonated the most with Joseph, a published author herself, was “What It Is,” a memoir, collage and how-to-guide in one.

In it, Barry writes, “Sometimes we are so confused and sad that all we can do is glue one thing to another. Use white glue and paper from the trash, glue paper onto paper, glue scraps and bits of fabric, have a tragic movie playing in the background, have a comforting drink nearby, let the thing you are doing be nothing, you are making nothing at all, you are just keeping your hands in motion, putting one thing down and then the next thing down and sometimes crying in between.”

Through this advice from Barry, Joseph started making collages. At first she glued paper onto paper, then onto canvas and then onto the backs of clipboards. She found something satisfying about cutting tiny images from different mediums and creating something new.

“When I was in the midst of postpartum depression, I would have said I found it soothing. But now I can see a metaphor at work: my sense of self had been fragmented,” she said. “What I needed to do was find a way to rearrange the pieces.”

Making the collages helped Joseph a great deal, and even after recovering from her postpartum depression, she continues to create them. 	Joseph's exhibit

Joseph’s exhibit came to the SCC gallery when Michelle Johnson, an SCC art instructor, first saw the pictures that Joseph had posted of her work on Facebook.

“I was compelled by the whimsy and the narrative of the work,” Johnson said.

All the art is very colorful, and when looked at up close, it has a visible texture to it. The art itself is made up of Jenga blocks that have been covered with different layers of images cut from vintage magazines, newspapers, catalogues, postcards and more.

“I especially liked the images I found in children’s school books from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s,” Joseph said.

Joseph then put the covered blocks together and glued them into a brightly painted frame. The end result is “a collage of collages,” Joseph said.

There are 22 such collages on display in the exhibit. The largest is made up of 48 individual Jenga blocks, while the smallest is only made of five. There are also five collages that are placed on the back of miniature clipboards.

Mat Oliver, a former student of Joseph's, said his favorite piece was “Lovers in Love.” He liked that it had images that one would see in both heterosexual and gay and lesbian pairs. He also liked the cartoon images, which made the piece unique.

When asked about Joseph's favorite piece, she said, “Maybe my favorite is the piece I just finished. Though every time I finish a piece, I think, ‘Oh, that one is my favorite.’”