In digging through the paper recycling, under layers of glossy ads for furniture blowout sales, buy-one-get-one-free fast-food specials and political platform placards, the quantity of information that passes in and out of our houses unnoticed becomes overwhelming. But to mixed-media artist Stephanie Bacon, these piles of paper are more than just junk mail, they are a greater social text—a page in our collective diary that spills out our hopes and desires and comments on our value system. Scissors in hand, she'll edge around an oozing stuffed crust pizza and tuck it away to be used in one of her art pieces. Bacon's a pack rat with a purpose.
While Bacon, an associate professor at Boise State, has a background in graphic design, her heart is in illuminating the minutiae we pass by or discard every day. By collecting the ubiquitous ephemera that clogs our recycling bins and turning it into something more dynamic, Bacon is able to process its meaning.
"I'm impressed by the quantity of stuff we throw away and the quantity of junk around us," says Bacon. "So, if I make a piece where I say, 'I'm so sick of getting these coupons in the direct mail with pictures of pizza on them. What if I were to cut out that picture of pizza?' At the end, I've got 18 feet of pictures of pizza."
While Bacon hasn't always worked in collage—she completed a series of faux-historical paintings and still lifes after receiving her MFA at Brooklyn College in New York—she's always enjoyed making viewers do a double take. After Bacon and her husband Brent moved to Idaho, that impulse to play with a viewer's perceptions and expectations took a new turn.
"When I moved, I was amazed at the quantity of paper that I was moving: file cabinets full of things that I had written, or letters that I had received or clippings that I had saved. I just couldn't quite understand myself and why I had felt the need to hang on to those things," explains Bacon. "So I started making work out of that paper, repurposing and recycling. It kind of helped me think through what the value of those things is to me."
With an expansive basement studio space, Bacon's work got considerably bigger, "like a goldfish growing into its tank." Soon, she acquired an antique letterpress and began her "Discourse Series," a collection of colorful letterpress prints on fiber-flecked handmade paper. Each piece in the series contains a mash-up of text and eye-catching imagery, like Discourse 9, which fuses a cherry-topped slice of multi-layered cake with the words, "Will they have to eat the cake that they bake and sleep in the bed that they lie in—or something to that effect?" Like her previous paintings and collage work, Bacon's letterpress pieces beg viewers to reassess their initial impressions of the work by taking a closer look at the paper's composition and reading more into the relationships between the images and seemingly familiar text.
"I was interested in the idea that maybe you could make paper that could look beautiful from three feet away, but carry a whole different content when it was right up under your nose and you realize, 'Hey, that's made out of string and dog hair,'" says Bacon. "It's asking a viewer to have one impression and then re-evaluate that impression as they spend a little more time with the work."
Bacon's interest in recycled papermaking inevitably bled into the classroom. In the graphic design program at Boise State, she developed a hand process course to help introduce students more familiar with Photoshop than photosynthesis to the joy of using their hands to shape natural fibers.
"She works with making paper from various materials—from corn, hair, cigarette papers, everything you can imagine," says fellow graphic design professor Jennifer Wood. "I think it's really interesting for them to deal with other process ideas besides the computer, besides moving from their sketchbook to the computer."
Outside of her work at Boise State, Bacon was commissioned in 2007 to install a seven-part mixed-media collage series at the new Boise Public Library at Collister titled "The Museum and Farm of Ideas." The large-scale rectangular pieces speak to various disciplines such as Cookery and Cooperation with Plants and Animals or Geography and Maritime Exploration, and include layered clippings of Frankenstein's monster, lobsters, maps, vowels and roasted turkeys combined with flowing paragraphs of cursive text. Meant to add a splash of history and Carnegie-era grandeur to the new-paint-smell strip mall space, Bacon's work at the Collister library, like all of her work, effectively reassembles the discarded and overlooked and assigns it new meaning.
Though Bacon's schedule has been hectic of late—she's been asked to consider taking over as director for the Idaho Center for the Book—she has plans to begin a new collage series this summer. Loosely inspired by "the paranormal and things people talk about on late night radio," she wants the series to explore cultural depictions of things like UFOs and numerology. For Bacon, this project is another way to make people more aware of their own process of thinking and, hopefully, help them to digest the barrage of images and information that floats by us every day—recycling the recycling, so to speak.