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Discovering the Multi-Dimensional character of Collage

I am a printmaker and last year I also became a collagist. That’s someone who uses collage to make artwork. I love printmaking and I’ve been learning and playing with print for about 18 years. Part of my passion for printmaking is the process. Processes that range from the simplicity of rubber-stamping to the baffling alchemy of lithography. Collage, in contrast, had always seemed a little one-dimensional - a process of simply cutting and sticking. In early 2021, however, I received the chance (funded by the SWWDTP) to learn from collagist Jean McEwan[i] and over several months we collaborated with collage and talked about collage.

I was particularly interested to find out how Jean used collage with the communities she worked with as artist facilitator because I was reflecting on my research methodology for my PhD into trauma-informed arts practices. Collage appeared to offer a more accessible way to get into art-making for individuals affected by trauma who often have much associated anxiety and nervousness. This wonderful opportunity to spend time with Jean, allowed me the opportunity to get to know collage as a medium, to appreciate the depth of its application and to find out how collage can be used within research.

Through my research I am seeking to understand how I can safely work with women affected by trauma from sexual violence and abuse, how to avoid compounding trauma through ill-considered power dynamics, as well as the potential for supporting trauma recovery through connection and community. Working with women affected by this kind of trauma may appear niche but my findings will potentially hold wider relevance for artists working with any individuals or communities affected by trauma. As a visual artist and researcher, I argue that collage is a particularly ‘safe’ medium to use when facilitating art with those affected by trauma.

Making art can feel risky. The results are unknown and art-making is hindered by the (wrong) presumption that one should have certain skills such as drawing to make art. Collage offers multiple ‘safe’ ways to explore creative self-expression. Some of these include:

Collage allows the participant to control how much they choose to reveal about their expression or feelings because it can be used in an abstract, metaphorical or surreal way.

Collage is accessible because it is cheap and requires little equipment: glue, scissors and found papers such as, unwanted magazines, leaflets and packaging.

Collage is democratic because it needs no learnt skills such as drawing, and so participants are less likely to feel judged about their perceived ‘lack’ of skill.

These are just three examples of the many facets of collage that contribute to creating a non-judgemental art-making space, where the participant’s choice and agency is foregrounded in a relaxed and connective space.

For my PhD research, I went on to run two 6 week collage projects with service users at Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services to explore trauma-informed practice. All of my participants told me afterwards that they had felt very anxious beforehand, and several participants related to me just how much they had had to push themselves in order to take part. By switching from printmaking to collage for the art project, my previous assumptions of this ‘one-dimensional’ medium have been overturned and collage has become central to my research into trauma-informed participatory art practice.


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