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Local White River Junction Artists Talk about the Creative Process

Apr 10, 2018 07:12PM ● By Linda Ditch

Photo from the Upper Valley News

White River Junction residents Michael and Sara Chaney have combined their talents to form a series of pieces known as 'Almanacs,' now in nationally juried art shows around the country.

Michael is a professor of English and African-American Studies at Dartmouth. Sara is a lecturer in writing, an administrator for the college, and an active poet. Together, their series of mixed media artworks are visual almanacs chronicling their life experiences in the Upper Valley.

The couple answered a few questions about their creative process:

Q: How long have the two of you been working on the series?

A: We started in September of 2017.

Q: Do you plan the pieces ahead, or are they created as inspiration strikes?

A: Both, really. At the beginning, we wanted the almanacs to be an expression of our shared experience in time and place—a kind of shared autobiography in multiple media. We allowed the pieces to grow and develop organically. However, we do use a map or a reference sheet when planning out the particulars. We figure out who gets which panel, and which panels will be for us to work on together. We are constantly reacting to our daily rituals in our visual work. We call them almanacs because we see them as a form of art journaling. Not only do they record our various flights of fancy as they hit us in the moment, but they also help us to record and see ourselves within monthly and seasonal time frames.

Planning has become more essential as our almanacs have become more ambitious in concept. For example, in Almanac #3, we wanted the entire canvas to be readable at a distance as a very short poem: “Freeze your chosen still winter ascent.” Some of the letters are painted clearly, while others are indicated more subtly by the shape of some construction stairs, for example, or our dog running in the woods on a snowy January day.  To pull this off, we needed to be very deliberate in our planning. This involved many walks and drives in search of the perfect S-shaped river or R-shaped smokestack.
photo from the Valley News
Q: How do the two of you go about creating each piece?

A: We discuss our world endlessly. From the vigorous exchanges of remembered details, we usually decide on themes and topics based on our experiences of our neighborhood, the hill behind our house, the history of our road, a joke that makes us laugh, something our daughter said to us—a number of influences really. By the time we square up a canvas, we tend to know what we want to make. We work together to hash out a design idea for the piece as a whole. We often emphasize a central contrast in our design so that the piece looks different at a distance than at a closer glimpse. One of our favorite methods involves having the whole piece look like a poem from a distance, whose letters when seen closely are made up of smaller images or collages. If this is the case, the piece begins with Sara working out the words of the poem that will dominate from a distance. We then use masking tape to divide up our canvases. From there, we form a map and discuss how we will equally cover the canvas with words, images, collages, natural objects, and gadgets made of birch bark. Each piece takes us at least a month to complete. We work on them in bouts, sometimes not at all for a few days, sometimes doing nothing but the Almanac. In general, though, we work on them for an hour or more every day. When we are done, we frame the paintings ourselves.

Q: What are the challenges of working together to create art?

A: (Sara) There really aren’t any. We are creative people who have a great deal of experience working together already. We are doing this in order to bring greater harmony and creative integration into our lives. So far, it has been profoundly rewarding.
(Michael) I thought about this one a lot, and there’s no real challenge to report. Sara just said to me, “It’s been a beautiful symbiosis,” and I couldn’t agree more. There are so many challenges to making art. Making art together lessens all of them.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your work?

A: Our art making is a form of collaborative practice. It is also more than that. It has connected us more deeply to one another, to our region, to the historical past and to the moment. 
If you’re interested in keeping up with Michael and Sara Chaney’s work, they have a blog you can follow on their website,  

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