Carefully arranged scraps of color come together to make a collage. “I’ve been gathering images for you,” the artist seems to be telling the viewer.
John Craig’s collages will be in the Crawford County Administration Building’s Artists’ Gallery starting in mid-November. He’s quoting another artist, Joseph Cornell, a maker of intriguing boxes, but it’s what the Soldiers Grove artist is trying to do too.
Craig’s pictures are constructed from bits and pieces of old magazine advertisements, postcards, and labels, chosen for their images, or their colors. “Leftovers of the familiar,” a phrase that an art director used to describe these collages, are what draw a viewer in, Craig says, “when the familiar comes back in another form,” something people looking at the picture might relate to, like “a fragment of something pulled from their own past.”
For instance, the composition of “The Mother,” already in the Administration Building’s permanent collection, illustrates that “the whole earth is a sacred thing in itself,” he says. The print of a moon-faced woman, hands to her chest revealing the Earth, is a pose that illustrates what he calls “the familiarity concept.”
At the start of his career as an illustrator, one of Craig’s main tools was an X-Acto knife and the process was a tedious one. Actual paper had to be cut out and bits slid over and under each other, sometimes arranged over a template. If he wanted to disguise the edges that resulted, he’d have to use fine marking pens to color in the white edges.
For a portrait of Henry Ford, composed over a photograph of the automobile manufacturer, Craig used pieces of old advertisements that showed tire-treads, bumpers, fenders and hubcaps, as well as entire cars. Ford’s forehead is peeled back to reveal a car engine in place of his brain.
Craig sees his assignments as problems to solve. The problem for the Ford commission was to portray someone famous by using whatever he was famous for.
By the time Craig got a commission to create “Poker Face,” a man’s face made entirely of playing cards, he was using a computer and the Photoshop program. He scanned the fronts and backs of old playing cards into his computer, then shaped and twisted the images on the screen, and slid them over or under each other. No more tedious cutting and arranging and pasting.
When he first used the computer to draw, “it was like a return to mosaics,” he says, because the picture could be broken down into such small square parts.
“I learn something new about Photoshop every time I use it,” he says. It’s just like a three-dimensional toolbox, because it contains his regular tools as well as ones he might use only once.
More than 50 pieces from all eras of Craig’s 40-year career will be on display at the Crawford County Administration Building, 225 N. Beaumont Rd., Prairie du Chien, starting on Thursday, November 17, with an opening reception from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The building is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.