ara Pearce had the world — many worlds — at her fingertips, but her fingers couldn’t feel.
The former Enquirer arts reporter had volunteered for a buyout from the paper in September 2008 and wanted to become an artist herself. She’d finally create collages from the antique world maps, fashion magazines and other papers she’d collected for decades.
Pearce knew she wanted to make pieces about empowered women. That’s no surprise given her own accomplishments. She has a master’s in library science and held a host of roles at the Enquirer, including restaurant writer, books editor and features editor. (Full disclosure: I was on Pearce’s staff.)
But nine months after leaving the Enquirer, a breast cancer diagnosis stopped Pearce before she could start her tactile pursuit. The initial word was Stage I cancer; it turned out to be Stage IV.
“One and a half years were taken away” from creating art, Pearce says. “I couldn’t use my fingers; they were numb. I lost my nails,” which have grown back. She still undergoes chemo but feels “pretty good overall.”
Look out, world (maps), here she comes.
Kathy Holwadel, formerly of InkTank and now with the Italian-language School Amici, was impressed with Pearce’s intensity in covering visual art and books for the Enquirer.
“As I watch her transition to this new life, well, there she goes again!” says Holwadel, who invited Pearce to contribute to Cincinnati Dreams Italy , an exhibit opening downtown this weekend to accompany the George Inness show at the Taft Museum of Art. Pearce is the only paper artist among 45-50 exhibitors. Her work is at Park Place at Lytle (400 Pike St., Downtown; information is available at www.taftmuseum.org). One of Pearce’s favorite sources of vintage art is Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine, edited from 1837-77 by an influential woman named Sarah Hale. But the women who drew many of the wonderful fashion plates toiled anonymously, “and people were not appreciating them,” Pearce says. “I don’t want to lose that (work and history) again.”
Pearce’s Grand Tour collection is a chance for the former writer to still tell stories, but with her beloved Victorian ladies, maps, postcards, ticket stubs and other objects instead of words — unless the words are the perfect text from an old book. The series’ title refers to the European trips that privileged young women took in the 18th century.
Pearce displays a wicked sense of humor in naming and composing her works. One Grand Tour collage, which is part of the Dreams exhibit, is subtitled “Upon Closer Examination, Elizabeth Realized That Her Guidebook Failed Miserably in its Description of ‘David.’ ” She’s decided that in another scene, the women have discovered that teapots make lovely decanters for Chianti. Her Mad Women series juxtaposes ladies from 1940s-50s sewing books with with axes, hammers and gun ads.
Emily Buddendeck of NVISION hosted Pearce’s first solo show in March at her Northside shop.She’d noticed a “stand-out piece” from Pearce in a Tiger Lily Press group show in October 2010.
“I was surprised to learn that she hadn’t had an art show before,” says Buddendeck, formerly of SSNOVA. In addition to her humor, Pearce’s skill caught Buddendeck’s eye.
“Her cuts are so meticulous — not even using a magnifying glass — and her adhesives are not bubbling out,” Buddendeck observes.
Though Pearce uses ragged and even soot-covered finds from garage sales, secondhand stores and trash bins, the former librarian can’t bear to cut or cover the paper too much. “I’m mad, mad, mad about paper,” she writes atop her Collage 365 blog. Her Brazee Street studio in Oakley is named Paper With a Past, as is another blog where she enthusiastically shares discoveries.
“Ask her about any of her pieces, and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of what vintage pamphlet or book the collage papers come from,” says Cynthia Gregory, who taught Pearce in a collage workshop at the College of Mount St. Joseph last year and chose her work for a group show at MSJ this summer.
The vintage paper is just part of what elevates Pearce’s work from craft to art. “She has a keen eye for design and composition,” Gregory says. “Also, there is a strong narrative and intentionality to her work.”
In addition, Pearce imposes tough standards on herself. Even her bookmark-size gift tags combine at least three pieces of paper. She adds little ink or paint to collages. All images used are copyright-free. Pearce rarely uses contemporary paper, and even then it’s something recycled. She’s put old tea bags aside, thinking the stained paper could add a painterly effect to a future collage.
Pearce says she hadn’t expected to be exhibiting so soon in her new career, “because I think I still have a lot to learn. It’s scary to throw everything out there. I make it for myself.”
Her first attempt at collage boxes will be shown in the Encore exhibit of miniatures Oct. 13 at Memorial Hall, part of the Constella music and fine arts festival. For the Oct. 14 open-studio night at Brazee, Pearce will exhibit fall-themed mini collages alongside painted canvas collages by Susan Mahan.
Though she makes pieces about empowerment, Pearce hasn’t directly addressed her cancer in a collage and likely won’t. But “the disease helps inform the art,” she says. “I’m more patient now, while still frenetic. I embrace the idea of living in the moment when creating and not thinking of anything else.”©
SARA PEARCE’s work is part of theCincinnati Dreams Italy exhibition at Park Place at Lytle (400 Pike St., Downtown).