This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Laia Garcia tells us about the self-invention properties she's found in making collages. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
I would like to say that it started because of an obsession with magazines, but that’s not entirely true. I remember at some point finding one of those books that parents record their kids’ milestones in; there, it is written that when I was in kindergarten, my favorite thing to do was cut things with scissors and glue them.
Over the years, and in no uncertain terms, the act of cutting things up and gluing them became a sort of rite. The first rite: In middle and high school, my “work” concerned the standard search for identity and identification. At the beginning of each school year, I sat in front of the television, perhaps playing a VHS eternally kept in my VCR on which I recorded and rewatched music videos (the elusive video for No Doubt’s “Excuse Me Mr.,” which I’m certain only played on MTV three times), live performances (Hole on SNL), and other television ephemera. Surrounded by piles of old issues of Seventeen and Vogue and dELiA*s catalogs, I started the process of flipping through and tearing out pages. I carefully cut photos of Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, Versace ads shot by Richard Avedon, and words like ALTERNATIVE and ROCK & ROLL GIRL, glued them on my new notebooks, then covered them in contact paper to ensure they lasted the whole year, revealing to the world the essence of myself throughout. In 11th and 12th grade, it wasn’t enough to collage my notebooks, I needed these displays of identity to be bolder. In true kinderwhore fashion, I started carrying a kids’ plastic lunch box around as my pencil case—this, too, collaged and contact paper-ed on the front and back. (I also wore a little-kids’ Blue’s Clues–themed backpack.)
In college, I still believed I might grow up to be a fashion designer. I made inspiration collages in an oversized sketchbook before I started sketching whatever designs were percolating in my brain. These were generally a mix of editorials and ads torn out of fashion magazines—a sort of snake-eating-a-snake of inspiration. A second rite.
Post-college, a third rite emerged. As I suffered withdrawal symptoms from no longer having to be creative every day, it occurred to me that I might like to make a zine. Once again, its subject matter was that which was most familiar to me—fashion. I would pick my favorite 10 or so items from the season, and work from there. A first issue was black and white and made on Illustrator. I called it Holy Child.
It was a fun project, but black and white illustrations were not really me. When I started working on the second issue, I knew it had to be collages. I didn’t know it exactly before I started, but something had shifted. It wasn’t so much about showing people who I was, or showing off what I liked and inspired me, but about translating my feelings into something visual. I was dipping my toe into something more personal.
After I finished the 10 collages that made up the zine, I realized that it wasn’t just about a cool pair of shoes or a beautiful dress. Each collage had one, maybe two sentences, and when I read them all back to back, they came off like a little story about leaving home and finding oneself. It was a strange discovery that filled me with possibility: In my waking life, I would never, ever call myself an artist. Deep inside me, a tiny atom of myself did. An artist!, it called out to me from so far away.
Splayed out on the floor of my living room in my small apartment, I played records and surrounded myself with the usual detritus of magazines, acrylic paints, and Kinko’s printouts of pictures I found online. I began work on a third issue during my tumultuous return of Saturn, but in the process, I was drawn not to the runway images I had printed out, but random images of women found in magazines. Halfway through, I found that I had given myself too freely into the work. It revealed too much of my emotions! It was obvious that I was making all these collages about (a lover who had recently bailed). I was proud of what I had created, but in the end, the collages never saw the light of day. It would’ve been like publishing my diary.
Something changed afterwards. I found myself gravitating towards collage the way I gravitated towards writing poetry as a sullen teenager. Living alone, I had so much time to be in my feelings, to let myself float on them like a vast ocean. I filled a giant Tupperware container with materials for collages: old magazines, Urban Outfitters catalogs from that era where they were sending out mini hardcover books filled with abstract images and colored pages, my paints, X-Acto knives, scissors, cutting boards, glue sticks, rubber cement. Once, while shopping at McNally Jackson, I came across a huge sketchbook with a cover that looked like an antique book. It weighed at least 20 lbs, and even without anything in it, it felt important. I paid a not insignificant amount for it, and schlepped it home. I knew this would be different than all the other notebooks I buy and lay empty in various boxes, shelves, and nightstands throughout my house. This would be my collage book.
Now, when the mood strikes, it’s always the same: I play a loud record that I can sing along to, maybe get a little high, and sit on the floor and allow myself to make a mess. I start tearing out pages of things that I like and let them pile up. When I’ve noticed a theme or an idea sparks, I stop collecting and get to work. My mind goes blank—I get lost in trying to perfectly cut out a circle, in not going over the line, a feeling both primal and specific. I play around on the page for a while before I make my final decision. Deciding to glue something down feels like a matter of life or death, even though, in the back of my mind, I know I can always cut the same shapes back out from the page, pretend nothing ever happened.
The collages that I’ve made in this sketchbook are different from anything else I’ve ever done. I spread across both pages, I turn the book on its side. I revel in the white space between the cutouts of a breast, a head, a branch. When I am done, I look at it, I am satisfied. I feel like my ideas have value. I pick up all the tiny paper scraps from the floor, throw them in the trash. Back when I was a smoker, I would have smoked a cigarette at the end of the process, but I’m not a smoker anymore. I never show them to anyone—for a few minutes, I am self-assured. I close the book and put it back on my desk.