Collage is the thing

Collage is the thing
Rhonda Dredge

One evening just before dusk an owl flew straight at Erica Wagner while she was sitting on a veranda.

The bird’s large white face was in her face and its wings spread wide.

“It was like a messenger. It sort of swooped,” she said.

The shock of the owl’s silent arrival created an impression Wagner has depicted in paint and collage.

Now that impressionistic barn owl is on the cover of a children’s picture book Hope is the Thing.

The book will be launched on February 12 at the Victorian Artists’ Society in East Melbourne, along with an exhibition of the illustrations.

The book is a radical departure from the usual picture book that seeks to inform or pander to juvenile tastes.

The protagonist of the story becomes the collagist, and the bold, sometimes crude renditions of birds seem almost accidental and other-worldly.

“You create a picture in shapes,” Wagner said of her method. “I draw the shapes on old paintings. I do it from the back. Then I cut them out. I have happy accidents.”

She uses scraps of newspaper, literally, to represent the packaging of chips and metaphorically to show the passage of time.

Collage is a breakaway practice used by the modernists to disrupt conventionally figurative work that seeks to represent observations.

Wagner does observational drawings, but the cut-out practice results in a marvelously dynamic and surprising meditation on birds, almost mimicking their raucous behaviour.

There are ibis raiding bins in the metropolitan area and a curlew squawking with an open mouth. A black cockie has a stand-off with crow; white winged choughs do an awkward dance.

None of these birds conform to human expectations or give a second thought to patrolling for scraps.

Wagner had worked for 30 years as a publisher for Penguin and Allen & Unwin and believes that books for kids shouldn’t be patronising or too slick. 

“Collage is crude and simplifying,” she said. “It’s about improvising. It evokes quite quickly a form. You get it down on paper.”

“Early 20th century artists used bits and pieces from everywhere. It’s what birds do to build nests.”

The text by Johanna Bell is a riff on a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Hope is the Thing, Johanna Bell and Erica Wagner, Victorian Artists Society, February 9 to 20. •


Caption: Erica Wagner and her bird world.

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