The Cottrell-Lovett Collection is pleased to announce a recent acquisition of a collage by Sonya Michel, “America the Beautiful” from 2023. Work is mixed media (paper, textiles) on canvas and measures 40 x 30 inches.
Bandannas, the Constitution and “America the Beautiful”
By Sonya Michel
“America the Beautiful” evolved from a series of coincidences. In February 2023 I made “Flowers Everywhere,” a collage that was accepted for a juried show, “Art in Bloom,” at the Martha Spak Gallery at the Wharf in Washington, D.C. The piece included a scrap of bandanna—one of the many textile patterns that feature floral motifs. A few weeks later, I learned, through an article in the Washington Post, that Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) had begun wearing bandannas after losing his hair as the result of the chemotherapy he was receiving to treat cancer. As it happens, I know Jamie, both because he is my congressman and because he bought one of my first paintings, “Tulips,” at a street fair near his home in Takoma Park about seven years ago. I sent him an image of “Flowers Everywhere,” and he immediately offered to buy it.
In the Post photo, the congressman was sporting a bandanna that Steve Van Zandt, noted member of the E Street Band, had sent to Jamie from his own collection “out of solidarity.” In our exchange over my piece at the gallery, Jamie mentioned that in addition to the bandannas that Van Zandt had given him, that article had prompted many of his constituents to send more, and he now had quite a collection himself. I suggested that I could make some of those into a collage just for him, and he said it would make a perfect gift for the upcoming birthday of his wife, lawyer and public servant Sarah Bloom Raskin. A few nights later he came over to my house and dropped off a shopping bag full of bandannas, and I got to work. “Bandannas for Jamie” was the result.
I do not know for sure what motivated Rep. Raskin’s fans to choose the bandannas they sent, but apparently at least some felt that a member of Congress should express his loyalty to the country in conventional form, so there was one featuring the opening phrase of the Constitution, “We the People,” a second with the American flag, and a third decorated with patriotic sayings. Other donors seemed to be suggesting that head coverings could be fashioned from scarves or whatever bits of fabric they found beautiful, and they sent a wide range of items, both mass-produced and artisanal, including batik and tie-dyed squares reminiscent of hippie days. Juxtaposed to the “We the People” bandanna in the collage, these other textiles created an evocative, if sometimes ironic, commentary on the history and meaning of America’s founding document.
Joseph Lovett and James Cottrell are old friends. I have long known about their wonderful art collection and its undergirding principle: “building a deeper understanding of the artists’ work by first cultivating relationships with the artists themselves, allowing the collection to grow as the artists develop their own working philosophy.” So as I returned to making art after retiring from a decades-long career as a professor of women’s history and women’s and gender studies, I began telling them about my work, and they kindly took an interest in my progress. When I sent them an image of “Bandannas for Jamie,” they asked me to make a piece for them.
Much of my production consists of collages based on “the stuff of everyday life”—found objects and the paper, textiles and plastic that regularly enter modern American households. Thus I began the piece for Joe and Jim with what was on hand. I had some scraps left over from what Jamie had brought me, including the American flag bandanna, the black fabric with white patriotic sayings and a fringed Indian scarf, but I had to get a new Constitution. When I went online to see what was available, Google took me to some pretty weird websites, including an extreme right-wing vendor of bandannas that had the Constitution surrounded by bullets (oy!), which I exited ASAP. Finally I found a risk-free version on Amazon, albeit printed on fake parchment, but still workable.
When I began laying out the piece, I was initially thinking about the juxtaposition of colors and textures, visual and tactile. I chose several elements from my own store of fabric, including a delicate silk print from Yasuko, a Japanese American designer who works in Northern California. But as the collage took shape, I realized that the variations in the materials derived not just from their visual and tactile qualities but also from their ethnic origins. As a historian who has written on immigration to the U.S., I was, of course, acutely aware of the unique multicultural make-up of our society, so I decided to emphasize this theme by building on the ethnic variety already implicit in the piece.
After visiting a store in my neighborhood that specializes in African fabrics and locating Mexican textiles on Amazon, I began searching around my house for something to represent East European Jews. I thought I had an old matzo cover one of my kids had made in Sunday School but couldn’t find it. Eventually I located a napkin with the colors of the Israeli flag that we had used for the same purpose, and then I was ready to start the assembly process.
When the piece was finished, I first signed it on the righthand edge of the canvas (not visible from the front), as I often do, but then I noticed that there was already a list of signatures on the bottom of the Constitution, and thought, why not add mine? So now I’ve become (I think) the first woman to sign the U.S. Constitution. I haven’t managed to represent every group that makes up our multicultural country, but I trust that this collage still manages to convey the basic message–both the harmonies and dissonances we live with and the prescient if not perfect document upon which it rests.
See more of Sonya Michel’s work on her website: sonyamichelart.com