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Defying the odds

Origins of multi-artist collage exhibit opening at UMass include facing death, tearing up a great work of literature & two trips to Russia

  • The table in Lola Baltzell's Leyden studio is covered in collage scraps, melted encaustic wax, brushes, paints, and other supplies, all the signs of an active artist.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    The table in Lola Baltzell's Leyden studio is covered in collage scraps, melted encaustic wax, brushes, paints, and other supplies, all the signs of an active artist.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • Russian viewers were the first to see the War and Peace Project in its entirety when it opened at the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate’s gallery in Tula, Russia. Curators hung the 747 collages in irregular blocks that roughly approximated the sense of picking up a novel, reading for a bit, then putting it down to resume at another point later. <br/>Trish Crapo photo

    Russian viewers were the first to see the War and Peace Project in its entirety when it opened at the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate’s gallery in Tula, Russia. Curators hung the 747 collages in irregular blocks that roughly approximated the sense of picking up a novel, reading for a bit, then putting it down to resume at another point later.
    Trish Crapo photo

  • Lola Baltzell uses a heat gun and an electric griddle to melt wax, which she uses to create encaustic paintings.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Lola Baltzell uses a heat gun and an electric griddle to melt wax, which she uses to create encaustic paintings.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • Lola Baltzell poses in front of dozens of shipping tags that served as tiny canvases in a previous art project.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Lola Baltzell poses in front of dozens of shipping tags that served as tiny canvases in a previous art project.
    Recorder/David Rainville

  • War and Peace Project collage no. 728, by Lola Baltzell.

    War and Peace Project collage no. 728, by Lola Baltzell.

  • War and Peace Project collage no. 725, by Lola Baltzell.

    War and Peace Project collage no. 725, by Lola Baltzell.

  • War and Peace Project collage no. 730, by Trish Crapo.

    War and Peace Project collage no. 730, by Trish Crapo.

  • During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation. <br/>Trish Crapo photo

    During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation.
    Trish Crapo photo

  • During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation. <br/>Trish Crapo photo

    During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation.
    Trish Crapo photo

  • The table in Lola Baltzell's Leyden studio is covered in collage scraps, melted encaustic wax, brushes, paints, and other supplies, all the signs of an active artist.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Russian viewers were the first to see the War and Peace Project in its entirety when it opened at the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate’s gallery in Tula, Russia. Curators hung the 747 collages in irregular blocks that roughly approximated the sense of picking up a novel, reading for a bit, then putting it down to resume at another point later. <br/>Trish Crapo photo
  • Lola Baltzell uses a heat gun and an electric griddle to melt wax, which she uses to create encaustic paintings.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • Lola Baltzell poses in front of dozens of shipping tags that served as tiny canvases in a previous art project.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • War and Peace Project collage no. 728, by Lola Baltzell.
  • War and Peace Project collage no. 725, by Lola Baltzell.
  • War and Peace Project collage no. 730, by Trish Crapo.
  • During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation. <br/>Trish Crapo photo
  • During one of several collage workshops Team Tolstoy members led at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Museum & Estate in the summer of 2011, artist Lola Baltzell examines a collage made by a workshop participant. Though Baltzell can understand and speak some Russian, translator Inna Dubnitskaya (center) is on hand to help with the conversation. <br/>Trish Crapo photo

When Leyden artist Lola Baltzell was given 30 months to live in 2009, she knew what she had to do. She started a project that would take at least three years to complete.

Baltzell decided to cover every page of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 magnum opus “War and Peace” in collage. She’s read the novel a handful of times, though she admitted that she can’t get all the way through the Russian version, its complex language surpassing her studies.

One of the longest novels in the Russian language, Baltzell’s copy weighed in at a hefty 1,494 pages, including the epilogue.

Despite her grim health prognosis, Baltzell lived to see her project’s completion. Though her disease is not in remission, Baltzell is doing much better, and the cancer hasn’t “set up camp,” as she likes to say.

“Doctors would say I have a chronic illness. I say I’m doing OK.”

Though she’d had the novel since a trip to Russia during her college days, she would have to destroy her beloved book to create her project.

She ripped the first of 747 double-sided pages from its binding, gathered her scissors, glue and a stack of materials, ranging from road maps, sheet music and magazines to coffee cups, cellophane and bottle caps. Then, she set to work.

Once the first collage was finished, she tore out page two and began again. The project would be a long time in the making and eventually involve a lot of people.

The result is a collection of 747 collages by several artists, each with its own feel. Some pages were used as canvas with the collage built on top, other pages were torn to shreds and used as collage material themselves.

Some of the pieces relate to the Russian words underneath through images, color or added text, while others are more abstract, purely products of the artist’s mind.

All measure 5 by 7 inches and include at least one word of the original text. Each will be displayed alongside its English translation when the full exhibit makes its U.S. debut Sunday in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Hampden Gallery. An opening reception will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Open gallery hours are held from 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Friday, and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays.

The exhibit will be on display at UMass through March 13, before moving on to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

The project was shown in Boston and New York City before completion and the full display debuted in Russia in 2012.

“It’s very exciting to do the full show in the U.S. and I’m glad it will be in Massachusetts,” Baltzell said, beaming. “It feels like we’re bringing it home.”

A long road

Baltzell spent her undergraduate days studying Russian at Grinnell College, in Iowa.

She bought her first of many copies of “War and Peace” in 1981. During a summer break from college, she travelled to Russia to spend the season in Moscow and Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

“I found it in a bookstore in a beautiful building in Leningrad that used to house the Singer sewing machine company,” she recalled. “It had been repurposed into a Soviet bookstore and everything was ridiculously inexpensive.”

She couldn’t recall exactly how many Russian rubles she paid for it, but estimated that the brand-new, 1976 hardcover edition cost her about $1 U.S.

She certainly got her money’s worth. Baltzell carried that copy through college and beyond, managing to keep track of it through several moves.

While studying at Grinnell, Baltzell said she was drawn to Tolstoy, as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian author of “Crime and Punishment.”

“I liked Dostoyevsky’s darkness, but I was more drawn to the pastoral, spoken nature of Tolstoy,” Baltzell explained.

That’s part of the reason she chose “War and Peace” for her collage project, rather than another novel. It’s length was a big factor, too. She wanted to start a huge project to defy the short life expectancy her doctors gave her — and the book fit that bill.

Baltzell earned a degree in Russian in 1983, but found herself back in school by the end of the decade. “When I graduated, it was during the Cold War. There weren’t a lot of options to use a Russian degree. I could try to get a job in the CIA, or go on to get a PhD and teach Russian.”

Neither were for her. In 1990, Baltzell earned a master’s degree in social work. She works as a psychotherapist in the Boston area.

She and her husband, Mark Natale, make their home in Brookline, but come to their Franklin County retreat quite often. They keep a “half-time” home in Leyden, where Baltzell has a studio. It sits miles from anything but a few scattered neighbors.

The long, hilly drive to their Leyden home passes picturesque eastern valley views along a road that seems to never end — it just goes up and down hill after hill and winds around countless curves before becoming little more than a cart path after the last house, which is theirs.

Her studio’s bookshelf boasts several copies of “War and Peace” in Russian and English. Her 1976 edition traveled with her through three decades and several moves. She never knew she would rip each and every page from its binding.

What is now an international art exhibit started out a solo project — a creative outlet and time killer — but it grew into much more as she brought in other artists and found more and more meaning in what they were doing.

“It was a way to connect with earlier parts of my life: My Russian grandfather, my Russian studies in college and my friends as an undergraduate, in a race against time.”

Though the small hardcover fit easily on a shelf, in a moving box, or nearly anywhere else, Baltzell quickly found the project was a lot of work. Each collage had to be thought out, materials sought out and cut and tons of glue applied. One or two were easy to do, but 747 collages made for a mountain of work.

Thinking about spending all that time alone in her quiet studio was quite discouraging for Baltzell, and she nearly gave up on the project.

Team Tolstoy

“I started the project and had done maybe six collages when I realized I was bored already,” the artist admitted. “I gave up the project and it just sat there for months.”

“I’m a social artist; it’s kind of an oxymoron.”

Baltzell prefers to work with, or at least in the company of other artists. She said it gives her a creative energy she just doesn’t get in isolation. The project stayed shelved until she reconnected with a Boston artist and college friend who was going through her second battle with breast cancer.

“I asked Lynn Waskelis if she’d be interested in reviving the project and she jumped right in,” said Baltzell.

At the time, Waskelis was receiving regular chemotherapy treatments, which often made it hard for her to do the most routine tasks. She began timing her chemo so she would be at her best on Fridays, when she and Baltzell got together for weekly collage sessions.

“For the first months, she had to lay on the floor while she worked, because she couldn’t sit,” Baltzell recalled. “She was in rough shape, but she really wanted to be there.”

Even with two artists working on the project, it was still a huge undertaking.

“After a while, we began to feel we’d never finish, so we brought in some friends,” said Baltzell. She and Waskelis looked up some of their old classmates and called a few other artists, too.

The two were joined by Boston area artists Lucy Arrington, Emma Rhodes and Adrienne Wetmore, Leyden’s Trish Crapo, Christine Carney Johnson of Atlanta, Ga., and Otto Mayr, of Berlin, Germany.

Thus was born “Team Tolstoy,” the group that would give Baltzell ­— and each other — the energy and inspiration to see the project through. Team Tolstoy did the brunt of the work and was aided by a handful of guest artists who contributed single collages.

Each was given a selection of pages from Baltzell’s old book, as well as its English translation. The instructions were simple: cover as much of the page as they like in collage, ink or other art supplies and leave at least one word, phrase or sentence untouched.

Each artist had their own style.

While some on the team tried to make their collages match what was written on the page underneath, others took more liberty.

“Some on the team really wanted to do what they wanted, without relating it to the page,” said Baltzell. “The outside, invited guest artists seemed to be more true to the page.”

The result, they say, is a work which transcends language.

“I’ve wondered, if someone hasn’t read the book, could they read the themes from the art?” asked Crapo. “I think they could.”

Some sections of the book are heavily adorned in blacks and reds. These are the pages that talk about war and destruction, Baltzell said.

Baltzell felt more compelled to match her own collages more closely to the text after first visiting the author’s homeland.

“After our first trip to Russia, I wanted to take more control of the project,” she said. “I realized we had something unique and interesting.”

It turned out that the artists weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

Tolstoy’s turf

While Baltzell considered her project to be art, she realized that not everyone would understand it.

Some may call it vandalism, a deliberate defacing of a literary masterpiece.

Knowing this, she was understandably apprehensive about informing the author’s descendants of the project.

Still, in 2011, she reached out to the Tolstoy family at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate that houses the author’s home and the Tolstoy museum.

“We put together an email proposal in Russian. It was very apologetic, saying ‘We hope you’re not offended,’” Baltzell explained.

She wasn’t prepared for the estate’s response.

“After a few days, they wrote back and said they were interested. They consider themselves the workshop of all things Tolstoy.”

She was invited to Yasnaya Polyana, the place of Tolstoy’s birth, the site where he later built his home and raised his 13 children and the place where the author is buried.

As long as Baltzell, her husband and contributing artists Crapo and Carney Johnson could pay their own airfare, the estate would pay for their stay.

The estate even used Baltzell and company as guinea pigs for an experimental exhibit during their first of two 10-day stays.

“The first summer we went to the estate, they tried a new idea out on us,” Crapo said. “They took us around the grounds and read (Tolstoy) passages that may relate to where we were.”

It wasn’t just a tourist trip; there was work to be done.

While in Russia, Baltzell taught locals how to create unique collages using pages from books. She said some of them, especially those who grew up in Soviet Russia, were apprehensive at first.

“Self expression and cutting up books is something they’re not used to so much,” Baltzell said.

“There were older women there, with grandkids. When you’d give them a piece of paper, they’d say “No, I’m not creative,’” Crapo recalled. “By the end, they were smiling and working away, saying how they hadn’t done anything like it since they were kids.”

The estate also hosted a showing of the incomplete project and invited the artists back to premiere the finished product in 2012.

Baltzell feels a sense of accomplishment now that she’s finished something doctors said she wouldn’t live to see the end of. But, there’s a feeling of loss, too.

“When we finished, I felt a certain sense of emptiness,” Baltzell said. “It was 21/2 years of meeting artists every Friday and going to Russia twice. When it was done, I was back to my own studio, by myself, and it took a while to figure out what to do next.”

After some pondering, she decided to explore encaustic art — painting with hot wax. She brings in some aspects of collage, incorporating found materials like bottle caps and bullet casings in her waxen work. Now, she’s the exhibit director for the International Encaustics Artists, a professional, nonprofit association of artists. She teaches others how to work in wax, holds encaustics retreats and curates shows.

You can learn more about the War and Peace Project and its contributors, see all 747 collages and read artists’ commentary at warpeaceproject.blogspot.com.

Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.

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