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Thursday, June 2,2011

Textures of youth

Local artist and author shares her story in radical "artobiography"

By Sara Kassabian

Tina Collen’s story of her relationship with her father is multidimensional. Literally. In her memoir, Storm of the i ($29.95, Art Review Press), Collen tells the trials and tribulations and successes of her life via paintings, photographs, memorabilia. Instead of chapter after chapter of reflective prose, Collen uses pop-up fortune cookies, wedding photographs and lots of phallic imagery. The intriguing textures meld the universal truths of this “artobiography,” as she calls it, making Collen’s book unlike any memoir you’ve ever seen.

She has already received acclaim for her ambitious effort. She has already won the Colorado Independent Publishers EVVY Award was a finalist for the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award, and most recently, she won a Nautilus Award Gold Medal.

Boulder Weekly caught up with Collen before her presentation and book signing at the Boulder Jewish Community Center, happening Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m. The gregarious artist shared pieces of her story and what drove her to put it into words and images.

Boulder Weekly: How did you initially develop the idea to write an artobiography?

Tina Collen: Well it wasn’t really an idea that I developed it was something that came and grabbed a hold of me. I’m an artist and a graphic designer, so my house is filled with a lifetime of my work, and all of a sudden it struck me one day that I’d been looking at this stuff for years and years and years and I had never seen before that there was a message in almost all of the pieces. And I started looking at it just one after the other and I realized that the real story of my life was in this artwork and I started writing and I couldn’t stop.

BW: What was it like switching mediums, illustrating your life with words rather than images?

TC: Well, almost none of this work was done for the book. All of this work was taken from my life. It’s memorabilia, it’s photographs and it’s art that I’ve created over my lifetime.

But the work was really just a collection of expressions throughout my life. I just never realized that there was more to it than what I thought when I was doing the piece. I would look at it and viewed it from a very one-dimensional perspective. It wasn’t until I looked at all of it together that I saw the story in it. So the reason that it’s all these different mediums is that what I’ve done over my life.  

I’ve made etchings and woodcuts and prints and photography and tapestries, and all sorts of different things over the years.

BW: Would you say that all art is an expression of the artist’s inner narrative?

TC: Always, always. It is always some part of you that is coming out. I’ve always felt this even when I was quite young. It comes from some other places it really just came to me. I’m sort of the vehicle and it’s through my experience, my skill, whatever that may be, that the art is shaped. So that’s the imprint on the art that it’s through me.

BW: You said that you find your story relatable, what universal truth does the narrative of your life share?

TC: Well one of the things I find really interesting is so many times people come up to me and say ‘you’ve written my story,’ and then they tell me their story and it isn’t anything like what I’ve written.

It’s the family dynamic and the things we all want and need in our life, and what we’re looking for. Probably the most important thing I’ve really learned [is] about forgiveness, that’s where I really where I found peace about this story.

My story is that my father didn’t speak to me for 15 years and I never knew why. And then I wrote this book that I really needed to read to really understand [why] and that exploration. And, of course, it was a five-year journey, so part of it was the time that it took, the time that I had been thinking about this subject that helped resolve it for me.

BW: Do you have any advice for people looking to reconcile?

TC: I would recommend to everyone that you don’t need to be an artist or a writer, but looking over the things of your life, memorabilia, the things you collect, looking through those and trying to understand what they’re about, why you save the things you do and why it matters to you, who was in your photographs. … If you can put those things together for yourself it will change your life view of your childhood, your past and your relationships in your family, that’s what happened for me.

BW: What will you be discussing at your reading tonight?

TC: Many people have asked about what inspired me to write this book, but what’s even more fascinating to me is what happened after I finished the book. And I talk about that at this presentation tonight because my relationship with my father, which is the central focus in this memoir, was transformed and it changed my life. He’s now 95 and I just feel so lucky that I’ve had an opportunity to be able to resolve things for myself and clearly the writing of this book was a vehicle.

In the answer to your first question about what people relate to, it’s the possibility of resolving what appeared to be intractable problems. They see that played out in the story it makes them think of their own issues and what they can do.  

BW: If you have one piece of advice for women who have difficult relationships with their fathers, what would it be?

TC: I think the thing that helped me most is that writing this book allowed me to have a more global perspective of this situation, rather than the perspective of the child who’s seeing everything happen to them; and having to create the structure for this book in order to make everything make sense and be explainable. I started to get a much, much broader perspective, and when you have a broader perspective it changes how you feel about it.  

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by author.

Tina Collen speaks at Boulder Jewish Community Center on Thursday, June 2. Presentation starts at 7 p.m. 3800 Kalmia Ave, Boulder, 303-998-1900, http://boulderjcc.org.

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