Bricolage, the Writing of Words/the Pasting of Pieces

August 23, 2021 § 15 Comments

From the French verb, “bricoler,” to tinker with things you already have

Collage, also from the French, “coller,” to glue

By Nina Gaby

Pile and slash, cut and paste. Start with one element. Maybe the scroll or the shard. The thing you found in the road. Kind of like that first glimmer you have for writing.

I’ve amassed ephemera, handmade papers, antique Japanese ledger books, milagros, wire of varying gauge, Italian calling cards, vintage cloth and wrapping papers. I have fired translucent porcelain tiles, grids and scrolls. Pried nails off barns. Just like the snippets of sentences, phrases you scribble on the back of the grocery receipt and place next to the other scrap you saved. The tinkering. The bone folder, the tiny antique hammer, the special glue.

Writing flash essays and creating collage are processes with notable similarities. Both require careful attention–the “mise en place,” the organizing and arranging of your workspace, reading the entire recipe (as in what was that submission deadline again?) Gathering ingredients and tools. The spontaneous ability to pair and discard.

Porcelain was my starting point. Flawless, white; its very nature close to that of paper. My collage process started simply with paper-thin porcelain pages fired to translucency, stacked and bound with rusted wire to represent unsent letters. The purity of the surface allows the viewer to project their own thoughts, much as the reading of a poem becomes a personal narrative. Slowly the pages changed in shape. I added sulfates, the ceramic equivalent of watercolors, and piles of oxides, which fused and broke the tiles in a serendipitous manner. I was asked to donate to a 10”x10” art fundraiser. The gallery supplied a wooden cradle frame to which I affixed shards, wire and paper, and this new body of work was born.

While working up a solo mixed-media show, “Other Alphabets” –which explored the narrative existing outside of actual words–I discovered the Asemic writing of Sam Roxas-Chua and Simon Lewty. Like staring at a Rothko or a length of Japanese Boro, unfamiliar symbols go far in convincing us that intuition is the secret sauce. Why does this element work next to that, why does this word–and no other– fit right here? The associative nature of creativity is so powerful that I am typing while I am gluing and fear I will ruin my already rickety keyboard.

I cram too many things onto the collage frame much as we might cram a bunch of modifiers into a sentence. Over describing, over whelming. I resist the urge to add polka dots to the margin or scribble with walnut ink all over the background.

Us “pilers” instead of “filers” will make unique associations as we rummage, intuitively knowing that the very thing needed to advance the design is crammed in that corner, much as the writer knows to advance the sentence after rummaging through a dozen wrong words.

Maybe we cram inspiration from other senses. Taste, music. What’s the essay writing playlist, the studio rock list? What’s for lunch? While the essayist may take a break and read another’s words, I might go to “Art Propelled” or Instagram. Edmund De Waal writes about his installation “Library of Exile,” and before I know it I have gessoed, burned, and slashed a diptych with his quote “where books are burned in the end people will also be burned.” I tie on a button that belonged to my grandmother, a pogrom survivor. I add too many porcelain scrolls, molded clay faces and scribbled shards. I edit but leave a Jewish star scraped into the thick chalky paint. I return to this essay and have a hard time knowing which of these descriptors I should leave in. Is it too heavy for these fragile times? In the background Tom Petty sings about not having to live like a refugee.

Phrases from my flash essays become titles for the collages but my writing tends to the darkness pulled from many regrets. The visual work, for the most part, is “pretty” so I rework those titles. Maybe the pandemic inspired in me the need to do more pleasing things.

Because we write on computers, we miss the other senses. I stop to read a bit, and as more evidence of order in the universe, Brian Doyle describes in “Sensualiterature” from the Sunday CNF Short Reads:

One of the things that we do not talk about when we talk about writing is the sound and scent and sensuality of it, the scratching and hammering and tapping, the pitter of pencils and the scribble and scrawl of pens… the dark moist smell of ink and the rough grain of dense paper and the faint scent of glue.

OK, thank you. It’s all bricolage. It’s all right there.

And because this draft comes in at 904 words, I go back to the delete key.


Nina Gaby’s newest body of work will be exhibited both in St. Johnsbury, Vermont this August with the Vermont Book Arts Guild, and in Rochester, NY, for the month of September, along with her artist sister, in a show they have entitled “Mixed States,” referencing mood, terrain, geography, and the always changing landscape of visual narrative. See more at

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