Saturday, September 25, 2021

Silhouette Girl: Sheltering Rabbits

"Sheltering Girl," 2020. Acrylic, tissue paper, mulberry paper, sheet music, modeling paste, ink, and glue on canvas, 24"x36". Inspired by "Field of Sunflowers" by Christine Sarjan Cohen, 1996. 

Today I'm sharing one of the pieces I made last year that, after beginning with a slow burn, very quickly burst into a fire of inspiration. In March 2020 I shared a bunch of progress photos of this piece, with my thoughts on fear and Covid-19. I promised an update on this piece and this post has been chilling in my blog drafts for waaaay too long. Wait no more, my friends!

For a long time, every time I chatted with my work friend, LT, I found myself studying this old art print hanging in her office. It was probably hanging there for at least a decade, long before that office became hers. It didn’t belong to her and she didn’t care for it, she just never bothered to take it down. 

It was this innocuous print of a 1996 painting called Field of Sunflowers by Christine Sarjan Cohen. Unfortunately I couldn't find her or the painting online, so I don't have anything more to share about her, but she deserves loads of credit for the collage I'm about to share with you. If you know anything about her or this painting, please comment and share what you know!

The more I looked at that faded old print, the more I felt it—the dreamlike intertwining of flowers and rabbits, the feeling of a windy spring day, the watercolor-softness...

One day another coworker brought in some colorful abstract paintings to brighten things up in the office. As we talked about the art, I glanced over at the flowers and bunnies on Lt’s wall and asked if I could take it for a collage. She was all for it.

I lifted the 24”x36” poster frame from the wall and felt a rushing spring wind in my hands—this would finally become the collage I’d had slowly building in my mind for months.

Less than a week later, on the Monday after the Super Bowl, I was at work again and the full image came to me—the sunflowers and bunnies, the rushing wind, and my personal favorite touch—Silhouette Girl. The rest of that morning I brainstormed poses for Silhouette Girl, envisioned the size of the canvas, and made mental lists of the media I’d use in this collage… paint, pen and ink, different kinds of paper, maybe even oil pastels… I’d been looking for the right piece to bring Silhouette Girl into a collage, but it never quite felt right… This one felt exactly right. During my lunch break I rushed off to buy a big ol' canvas.

Detail from my collage, showing my tiny rabbits
at the bottom of the painting. On a collage this
big, these little guys are just an inch or so tall!
Recently a friend and I had gone to an art gallery and were interested by a wall covered in a series of multicolored abstract 8x10 rabbit paintings. (Spoiler alert: that "friend" became my husband! That visit to the gallery was our first date!). The gallery director came over and told us more about Hunt Slonem, a super-successful contemporary artist, and his many bunny paintings.

Between Slonem’s colorful rabbits and the dreamy rabbits racing through the Cohen print, I guess I had rabbits on my mind. I don’t have any strong feelings for rabbits; I don’t love them and I don’t hate them. I had a couple of pet rabbits as a child, but I’ve always preferred horses and dogs. However, I do love what rabbits commonly represent: peace and innocence.

I had been working on a writing project (more on that later!) focusing on the value and delicacy of innocence. I've long felt like the media and internet are constantly inundating me with calls to fight, to clapback, to rant and rage, to post snarky comments and retweet angry woke threads. I feel as if society wants me to be prickly and harsh and cleverly destructive. 

I don't like that. 

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." That quote often comes to my mind. It's impossible to make the world a better place through nastiness, rage, and destruction. You'll just become a part of the very thing you were against. 

Don’t get me wrong—I have a temper! I get angry, I rant and rage. Just ask my parents! But after a childhood of fighting tooth and nail when I didn’t like something, I eventually learned that outward-facing anger isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes quiet anger is better. Sometimes—maybe most times—it’s better to channel anger into kindness.

My friend Hannah sent me this screengrab of a tumblr post a while back which said being kind is an act of rebellion, of subverting the prevailing culture… being kind is punk. 

As a fan of punk-rock and emo music, I loved this idea a lot. I loved it so much I still think about it several years later. I loved it so much I made a cross-stitch that reads “kindness is punk,” in fierce red and white thread on black cloth.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my 26 years of life is that you can be both strong and gentle, angry and kind, powerful and peaceful, furious and hopeful. This is the message I’m trying to shape myself around, and the theme I’ve tried to cultivate throughout my work, especially with Silhouette Girl. Which brings me back to the Cohen print and the collage...

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of innocence when I looked at Slonem’s colorful bunnies in that gallery. They're cute little colorful rabbits, after all. 

]It felt so natural to take these thoughts of peace and kindness, embrace the rabbits in the Cohen print and the Slonem bunnies I'd so enjoyed at the gallery, and then place my Silhouette Girl in the middle of everything. Silhouette Girl is our reigning champion of innocence and peace, after all!

This was taken after gluing down the first few couple layers
of paper. Recognize the pieces I cut from the art print?
I started my work by examining the soft watercolor shapes in Field of Sunflowers and finding some of the natural lines along which I could cut. 

When I had a basic plan, I set to work with my scissors! For the main flowers and rabbits I followed the existing lines of petals and stems and bodies, but I went a little more loosely with the abstract bits, cutting along changes in color or vague lines to create irregular pieces. 

Continuing to build up layers of paint and paper... 
Once done, I rearranged the flowers and rabbits where I wanted them and placed the irregular bits like puzzle pieces to hold everything together.

As a kid I used to be obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. Not to brag, but I’m still really good at them, I just don’t have the time anymore. Instead of piecing together the edges first, I’ve always liked to work in sections by color and pattern. 

Arranging a collage is a lot like piecing together a puzzle, but instead of a box lid with the picture, I figure out in my mind what I hope to end up with. 

Hope is the key word there—there’s no guarantee that the final artwork will look how I planned! The way the materials interact with one another and with the glue, the varying opaqueness of different materials, and how the precise arrangements come together always affect the result.

By the end, what I’ve made is usually pretty different from what I’d envisioned, but I’m almost always happier with the actual result. If I’m not, it just means the piece isn’t finished.

In this collage, I definitely wanted to broaden the values found in Field of Sunflowers. I’m a fan of high-contrast images; scenes with dark shadows and bright lights. Field of Sunflowers is soft and contains mostly light and medium values. I want my work to better reflect life, with its deep shadows accentuating wonderful highlights.

Almost done... 
With all the cut-paper in place, I went in with my additions—lots of dark red and navy blue, and some pastel pink, blue, and yellow. To these I added torn sheet music in white and off-white.

The result after my first session of work was a rather chaotic and disjointed beginning. I was eager to bring in more paper, some paint, and other materials to start turning this into a cohesive image that looked like it all belonged together! I love that about collage—the process of taking all these separate pieces and combining them into one beautiful image.

Check out that modeling paste in action!
I had been learning a lot about accessibility in art and design, especially tactile art, and wanted to make something super-textural, so I bought a big tube of modeling paste, a painting material that's sort of paint-meets-clay. It's thick and holds whatever shape or texture give it, so it was perfect for painting over the flower petals and stalks so that the flowers were literally stand out from the canvas. It was my goal that if a blind person were to touch the collage, they could identify the flower shapes. 

My final challenge was figuring out what Silhouette Girl would be doing.

In keeping with the accessibility of the tactile flowers, I also wanted a nod to my beloved Deaf community. I considered different signs she could be making... protect, peace, hope, kindness...

The brainstorm Post-its I made while at work...
Of course, it's impossible to capture most signs in a single image. Sign language is about movement! But there are a few signs that can be captured in a still. The well-known "I love you" handshape is one of them. "Shelter" is another. The sign is made by holding one hand flat and moving your other hand downward from your mouth to "take shelter" under the flat hand. 

So I painted Silhouette Girl signing "shelter" above her head, loud and proud, defending the innocent bunnies at her feet from the big, turbulent, bad world around them. 

Maybe I was also a bit inspired by the shelter-in-place orders beginning to take effect around the world, as Covid-19 swept through and totally altered life as we know it. We all wished for some sort of shelter safe from the virus, the chaos, and the uncertainty. A shelter fully stocked with toilet paper, of course. A shelter from the social and political unrest, the police brutality, the misinformation and selfishness.

The final collage is hanging on the wall by my dining table. It was the first piece I hung in my apartment. I want this collage, with its themes of kindness, innocence, and shelter from the world's brutality, accessible and welcoming to all, to set the tone for my daily life. Of course I mess up... I'm often unkind, brusque, or unwelcoming. I yell at other drivers and get annoyed with my siblings and get impatient with my husband. But this collage has become my prayer and my goal. I hope it becomes your goal, as well. 



  1. I love bunnies. I love shelter. Thanks for posting. This helps me believe that I am not alone in needing kindness and peace in the middle of a storm.

    1. You're definitely not alone in that! Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to find peace and encouragement through these times!

  2. I'm so happy to see that Silhouette Girl is alive and well! Thank you for describing your process and how each part contributed to the final product. I look forward to seeing this collage with its layers, colors and textures!

  3. Thank you! No worries, Silhouette Girl will still be around for a long time. I sometimes wonder if describing the process is a little too much, so I'm glad you enjoyed that!