We’ve all marveled at pieces of spectacular artwork and wished to know more about how they were created. In this column from our January/February 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, mixed-media assemblage artist Jen Hardwick gives us a glimpse into her inspirations and artistic process. We hope her story inspires you in your own assemblage adventures!
Artistic Salvage by Jen Hardwick
After decades as a painter, I’ve spent the last few years working in assemblage, and I find that a huge part of the draw for me is how precisely I can lay out my pieces and create patterns of color, texture, shape, or whatever my materials inspire. I’m a neat person; there’s simply no way around that. I like things to be straight and clean and square, and painting doesn’t lend itself to that very well. That never bothered me when I painted. In fact, the messiness is what I loved about painting, but I found myself increasingly drawn to even, balanced lines once I started working with assemblage.
The patterns that emerge from my pieces are always deliberate but never truly planned. I’ll occasionally sketch out an idea and work with it on paper before I start to assemble, but for the most part I find an essential focal piece, lay it out on a panel, and begin to try out other materials with it. I’m always looking for that balance, that equilibrium of visual weight, that contrast of colors and textures that brings the piece forward as a whole without promoting one detail over another. This is when the patterns of the piece make themselves obvious to me. I find the strongest theme—a vibrant color or an arresting shape—and carry that into the rest of the work. Repeating that color or shape helps to pull the entire piece together.
My primary working materials are industrial castoffs: rusty old hardware, broken pressure gauges, manual typewriter arms, plus cogs, wheels, gears, and springs that spent most of their working life deep inside machines and tools. I love the sense of history and purpose that they carry with them. As an artist I love how easy they are to work with. What makes them so easy to work with is that they were machined into very regular shapes at their creation. No matter how rusty or grimy or dented they’ve gotten, they haven’t lost that symmetry. Repetition of that symmetry, the vibrant colors and those arresting shapes, reinforces the patterns inherent in the piece.
The first thing I do when I get a haul of “junk” from a garage sale or a thrift store is to dump it out on my workspace and sort it. There’s nothing quite like sorting through a huge box of rusty old metal and seeing what interesting shapes and textures come to light.
The larger reason for the sort, however, is to organize everything in a way that makes it easy to put my hands on what I need when I need it. Putting like parts with like parts gets me thinking about patterns before the assemblage even begins. It allows me to see what’s available, and how things will fit together: hardware in one pile, game pieces in a second, old tools in a third. Then items are broken down further: washers here, screws there, everything sorted into its own bin. Scrabble® tiles get their own drawer, as do Monopoly® houses. Fuses, gear wheels, gauge faces—everything has a place. Once I’ve started to work on a piece and the creative flow is high, I know exactly where to go for the next shape, texture, or color that I want. There’s no need to stop and hunt through a huge pile of undifferentiated bits.
When I lay out an assemblage piece I tend to work outward from a single item that’s caught my eye and informs the shape and size of the entire figure. A rust-speckled washer may serve as a bug’s right eye or a tarnished chrome wrench can become a robot’s left arm, for example. Those pieces give me the spark to begin, but as soon as I choose them and lay them out, my sense of order kicks in and I seek out ways to balance them on the other side of the piece. Part of the inherent fun and challenge of found material assemblage is gathering parts that complement each other, rather than seeking precise matches.
Colors, textures, and shapes all play a part in adding patterns to the pieces. Game pieces add color, buttons add sparkle and texture, typewriter arms add interesting shapes. The bits differ, but the overall effect is one of regularity and completeness. The arrangement of features draws the eye from one side to the other, from the top to the bottom. The details are what the eye lingers on, but the initial figure informs those details in a precise way and gives the viewer the context to understand the piece as a whole.
I like finding those neat lines, those pleasing harmonious angles. The patterns that emerge are the natural result of following that artistic path, bringing together shapes and colors thematically. Assemblage—bringing order and union to a chaotic jumble of rusty industrial remnants—has taken me to an artistic realm I was never able to reach with paints and paper. It’s a place I plan to explore for as long as I can lay my hands on rusty hardware and shiny brass gears.
Jen Hardwick is a self-taught artist. She pulls inspiration from her life, but her materials are what inspire her most. Jen lives in Seattle, Washington, with her son and husband and a garage full of junk that will, some day, become treasures.
For more artistic inspiration, read Carrie Bloomston’s tips for becoming a more confident artist. Plus, don’t miss these products: