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Picturing a World

Luggage tag art

I admired Jackie Morris's otters on luggage tags when she posted New Blues. They came to mind again when I got a haircut the other day. My hairdresser and I were discussing the slow deliveries and odd shortages that persist after the COVID lockdown. She can't find the little tissue squares used for giving permanents; a shipment of tea for me has gone missing. It was the tissue squares that linked up with the otters. Together, they reminded me of the vagaries of art supplies in certain societies.

In The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glastnost (1991), Andrew Solomon describes how a group of underground artists in Moscow in the 1980's made imaginative use of materials when any one of them happened across something unexpected in quantity, such as several boxes of sequins or vials of glitter. What would it be like to live in a near-future American city experiencing shortages, unpredictable power outages, and general poverty after a pandemic or other disaster? What if an artist happened upon a big box of permanent-wave tissues and shared it out among friends? Would they make funny sculptures or try to draw on the thin paper?
Then I remembered Morris's otters. So make it a box of blank manila luggage tags, nice firm supports for various media. One artist might paint Asian-style, calligraphic animals and plants. Another might draw weird, obsessive pen-and-ink line pictures to express anxiety (I was thinking of Linda Baker-Cimini). A third: tiny watercolor landscapes.
A story could begin on the first day when roommates laugh giddily over the find. (Two in a shared apartment? Three to five in a communal studio?) Then maybe they would organize a light-hearted day when friends were invited over for "happening," a "play date." Everyone would produce a work of art on a luggage tag. When they have a dozen or more, maybe they set up a tag tree in the living room or hang them on a bush in a neglected park where the homeless live What if the tags catch on as a medium of exchange on the street—do some of the collective want to cash in while others see it as a joke and want to retain spontaneity?
There are exercises that help you launch or structure or outline a story, but the most organic way is to just start telling it to yourself. Characters, settings, and events for this one are bubbling up for me. I'm taking notes and hoping a plot will emerge.
I once saw an exercise that called for writing a want ad offering to exchange something of value for something wildly unlikely and then having someone turn up to fulfill it. If I remember correctly (and apologies to whoever made this one up if I'm right) an example might be "Herd of cattle wanted in exchange for valuable library." In this case, what unlikely object or service might someone want in exchange for a luggage tag decorated by a well-known illustrator?

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