Assemblage art is what I'd describe as 3-D collage. Basically you use found objects (usually vintage or distressed) and recombine them to make art. You can read more about it and see some very fine examples here.
I'm working on my first assemblage piece but I've been having kind of a tough time with it. I like order, neatness, organization and logic; I'm drawn to patterns and symmetry versus spontaneity and chaos. The soup cans in my pantry are arranged in alphabetical order; so are the spice jars. None of my natural inclinations are particular helpful to me for this project.
Fortunately the May/June issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine has a great article/mini- workshop on assemblage art by Amy Hitchcock, which helped me understand a bit more about the how-to aspects of assemblage. The why was still a problem for me, though. As in: why put all this junk together when I could be making something useful, like a quilt?
For a while I sat and looked at the assemblage ephemera kit I bought over at Etsy.com and waited for the junk to spark something. The vendor did send me some pretty interesting bits: a doll's head, shredded money, a little computer board, a vintage book page, a tiny glass light bulb, dice, springs, etc., but none of them really related to each other (other than being a collection of stuff you might find in anyone's junk drawer.)
Since sitting and staring at the pile didn't result in any ideas, I started separating the ephemera into categories: paper, glass, metal, plastic. No, I didn't alphabetize them, but I was tempted. Then I noticed that the doll's head had the same color hair as I did about fifteen years ago. She also had painted-shut eyes, as if she were asleep, and dreaming.
I could relate; twenty years ago I was all about the dreams. Me, the dreamy little housewife, changing diapers, scrubbing floors and folding laundry, all the while constantly writing in my head, or furiously typing up a few pages while the kids napped, all the while thinking about how incredible it would be to see my name on the cover of a book.
It wasn't all dreamy, though. I clearly remember my perpetual state of frustration, trying to find the time to write and pursue publication and being rejected week after week after month after year, all while juggling the kids and the house and chores and family obligations. All alone; no one to talk to about it. All those negative comments from well-meaning friends and family: you'll never get published, you should be happy with what you have, stop deluding yourself. I put up with ten straight years of that; even now I wonder, how did I manage to keep writing?
Still reminiscing, I put the little light bulb over the doll's head. If she were wet, I thought, she'd be me in the shower, shrieking as the title for StarDoc came to me. That was really the moment everything changed for me and my writing, and ultimately led to my first published novel, my first series, and my career as a professional writer. And in true lightbulb fashion, I finally got it. Assemblage art is symbolic, like a visual metaphor for whatever the artist is trying to communicate. I wasn't compiling random bits; I was supposed to take the pieces that had a personal vibe for me and put them together to tell a story.
I found a little crate I used to use for the business cards I collected at writer conferences over the years (all of which are now alphabetically filed away in a card holder) and began assembling in earnest. The background is a page; the focal point is the doll. I put the little lightbulb over her head, positioned the computer board to serve as her torso, and scattered some shredded money at the bottom. It all began to make sense to me: the burden of inspiration, the delight of dreams, the challenge of technology, the achievements, the disappointments. The single di, for the gamble that is each book. All of it playing out against the work.
I have some other elements to add so I'm not finished, and I still have to figure out how to nail or glue everything in place, but it felt good to finally get it. I even have a title for the piece: Bruised Dreamer.
When writers tell a story, we do often start with a lot of unconnected, random bits. A great character, a fiery conflict, an amazing setting. Building those elements into something cohesive and coherent is what drives us: pulling it all together, assembling it into something with meaning. Often we're not successful and it still looks like a pile of random stuff, or it doesn't convey our vision, or under scrutiny it falls apart. But when we make the right connections, all the story ephemera can be assembled into something really wonderful, something that another person can explore and understand and be entertained by; something that will add to their cache of life's delight. And isn't that why we write?