Secrets in Art

A provocative starting point for a book project is a secret. It can be uncomfortable, odd, or thrilling thinking about this secret, but that very feeling may help you begin.

Turning to our ever-present source of inspiration, the dictionary, we see:
Secret - kept hidden; discreet; not expressed; kept inward; known only to oneself or to a few
If you are writing, it may be easier to give your secret to another character. If you are working with images, assemble pictures or colors that embody the secret. You might use photographs—either of you or ones you have taken—that you can alter by hand or via Illustrator or Photoshop. You may be able to disguise the secret through a series of images. You can decide whether to show the secret at the end or just leave clues within the work.

Try doing a freewrite of whatever comes into your mind (without crossing out anything). Afterwards, think about who would be affected if the secret is revealed. What event or interaction might pressure someone to tell a secret? It could be told out of guilt, to gain approval, to relieve stress, to prevent something from happening, or to celebrate.

Secrets by Carolyn Cuykendall

You could also deal with secrets or fears by collaborating with a group. Carolyn, then a student at CCA, made an interactive book that had little holders on the pages and strips of paper at the back for writing your secrets. The students were interested to see just how much someone was willing to reveal, especially anonymously. It is thrilling to read someone's confession or find out about another person's transgression. It can either make us feel we are not alone, or it is a way to covertly enjoy something we might think about but would never do ourselves.

Robbin Ami Silverberg did a collaborative project shown in Making Handmade Books (p. 243), called titok (Hungarian for "secret"). She asked people to send her their secrets, and she altered, disguised, added her own secrets, and destroyed them so they would remain unknowable, still technically secrets to the public. They found their final form in little square boxes that can be manipulated and stacked up into a larger cube. (You can also see her project on pages 85-86, 155 in Unique Handmade Books.)

A secret doesn't have to be something overly dramatic. It just may be something that is not well known. Joseph Cornell, for example, made many of his assemblages and collages based on personal passions and associations such as homages to his deceased father, his younger brother who had cerebral palsy, and movie actresses that he admired. While the pieces do not present secrets exactly, they do show strong emotions like love and desire, the complexity of loss, and a struggle with religion and sexual feelings. Two of such works are: Untitled "First Collage In a Long Time," 1959 (Navigating the Imagination, 208, plate 91 on page 226); and "The Heart on the Sleeve," 1972 (103, plate 38 on page 143). The first incorporates a tasteful view of a woman, the second includes a piece of artwork by Cornell's brother. In addition to being concerned with aesthetic form and composition and juxtapositions, he included his heart in his work and a little private corner of his world.

If you still feel reluctant to tell your actual secret, use the feeling—guilt, embarrassment, shame, discomfort, elation, excitement, etc.—and make up a new secret. Hold onto the emotion as you let go to create your piece. You may be surprised at what you can make when you give yourself permission to accept a hidden part of yourself.