The hardest part of preparing Reading Girl for publication has been creating the cover. At first I wanted to use one of Matisse’s images, and it seemed serendipitous that the title’s namesake was a painting made in 1922, putting it in the public domain. But a little research quickly suggested that public domain wasn’t that simple. A New York Times article, “Museums Seek to Protect Art Images on Internet,” used Matisse’s work as a case in point: “In the case of 19th-century artists and their predecessors, back to the cave painters, no protection is needed: Their art is already in the public domain. But in the case of someone like the modern master Henri Matisse, things are less clear.” A couple of calls to the rights & reproduction folks at the Baltimore Museum of Art (which has the biggest Matisse collection in the world) and MoMA made it clear that whether and how I could use Matisse’s Reading Girl was really extremely unclear. Due diligence seemed to require going through at least two organizations and paying one or more fees to secure reproduction rights and obtain an image up to the standards of the Matisse estate. Meanwhile Finishing Line Press was moving forward on their end, and before I knew it I needed a cover. So I dropped the idea of using a Matisse image and set about creating a Matisse-esque image of my own.
Ironically, one of the drawbacks I’d anticipated of using Matisse’s 1922 painting is that it isn’t recognizably Matisse—at least, I assume, for most people. It had seemed the obvious choice for the book’s cover, but I had questioned whether it was the best choice. So when I abandoned it and turned to creating an original cover that would somehow say “Matisse,” I decided to emulate his cut-outs. I’ve never been drawn to Matisse’s cut-outs as much as to his paintings, and only two poems in my book are based on cut-outs. But I presume that when most people think of this famous French artist, they think of his crisp, colorful, paper compositions—a google search of “iconic Matisse” suggests as much. So I bought a package of colored paper at Michaels and tried my hand at a cut-out.
Call me a purist or a craft nerd looking for an excuse to by colored paper (guilty), but I thought it was important to emulate Matisse’s method. I suppose I could have used a drawing app to create the look of a cut-out digitally, saving a lot of time, but I thought it would be more fun to use paper and scissors. I also thought I’d learn more about Matisse’s work.
The first cut-out I created was based on the 1922 Reading Girl. And this made my cut-out a departure right off the bat, because I don’t believe Matisse’s cut-outs are nearly so literal. I worked at the scale of the book cover, which meant using tiny sewing scissors. But in photos of Matisse “painting with scissors,” he’s shown handling a pair of long silver shears. And while he was able to draw his shapes directly with scissors, I found I had to draw my shapes with a pencil first. I gained a greater appreciation for how Matisse was able to draw in such an irreversible and blind manner—or perhaps he could see his shapes in a way I could not. Another departure was in my choice of paper. Mattise’s assistants colored paper for him using gouache paints, no doubt to get just the colors he wanted. My palette was pre-set by Michaels. And while Matisse would sometimes spend months arranging, and rearranging his compositions, I made only a couple of adjustments before I called my cut-out “done.” After all, I was on deadline.
It took most of the day, but in the end I had what I thought of as a translation, or cover, of Matisse’s 1922 painting. What was interesting to me was that I’d tried to translate Matisse’s image using his own language, not mine—the translator’s. Yet, the interpretation of the image was my own, and the process of listening to the original and transcribing what I heard was intuitive and fun in a way that only visual art is for me.
I am always telling students to keep writing when they think they’re done with something because you never know what else you might have to say until you say it. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t stop with one cut-out. Plus I was having fun. But at the same time, I was tired, especially of manipulating the tiny scissors, so I told myself I wasn’t necessarily making another cover, just a shape. But one shape led to another, and then suddenly I found I had a second cover indeed—two vegetal silhouettes against a Matisse-blue background. After all the work I had put into the first cut-out, it was this second, far-simpler one that I chose for the cover. Vive la process!