Visual Collages as Sound Archives: Musical Meaning Imagined Visually

By Alexia Williams

“Music is a collage. Just like music, just like poetry, just like art, nature—collage is really a combination of things. And you just have to explore it. You have to experiment with it. You have to bring it together. You have to see what it sounds like. It’s how it melds with what this piece is and that piece is and that sound is, and how it makes you feel—what it makes you think. You know, life is really a collage.” – Yolanda Ward[1]

Collage as Archive

 Collages are archives, made up of bits and pieces of paper—often clippings from newspapers, magazines, personal photographs, advertisements and handmade paper. They are saturated with layers of historical, material, tactile, visual and sonic meaning. They can enable intergenerational bridges into archives, and allow sonic details to emerge in visual form. Together these fragments craft new images that shape our potential for seeing, hearing and understanding a larger body of work. How then can collages visually conceptualize musical meaning?  How can collage artists broaden our sense of what is possible to hear in music?

The Black Bird Series: A Conversation with Yolanda Ward

Paper collage artist Yolanda Ward has been stockpiling paper—newspapers, magazines, notes, letters, handmade stationery—for 40 years. However, she did not become a professional artist until she lost her corporate job as an art director in 2009 during the financial crisis. She turned the pink slip into collage art, and used the remainder of her savings to fund her training at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia College of Art.

“I couldn’t throw it out. I had National Geographic going back to the 1970s. Containers of paper I couldn’t throw away. I did not know why…I don’t just see the magazine. I see these things in little tiny pieces. I see a little tiny branch, a piece of a bird. I’m about evolving something: What could this be? That was my collecting time. And then I evolved into handmade papers…I’ve got drawers of whites, blues, yellows, because I’m looking for specifics of how I’m going to make paper look like pieces of cotton in the field. How will I make these look like bark? It develops on its own, and it speaks. Like the music, or like poetry.”

For Ward, collage art is itself an archival practice, one that requires extensive collection and curation of antique and handmade materials.  Paper, quite literally, isn’t what it used to be.  Digital printing has altered the color saturation and texture of modern periodicals in ways that have compelled Ward to treasure vintage copies of Life, Time, National Geographic and Seventeen. When unable to find paper with the qualities she needs, Ward makes her own, “Handmade papers all have their own personalities…I like the touch of the hand. That means I’m in it…If I’m using printed paper, I prefer the vintage…Paper was how things were communicated. If the paper wasn’t rich, you wouldn’t buy it, you wouldn’t pick up that magazine. It had to have a feel to it. It had to give you something when you touched it.”

Paper offers Ward a spiritual connection to the past, one that is tactile, but also requires careful listening, “Music is collage…My work, like music, it tells a story that captivates you, and takes you to another place. That is the base of why I create.”  Inspired by the musical storytelling she hears in the work of her “paper hero” Romare Bearden, Ward began her Black Bird Series in the summer of 2015 as an extended riff on Nina Simone’s 1966 song “Blackbird.”

“I love Nina Simone. I love her. That voice is so penetrating. And I’m a big emotion, I want my work to touch you, every little bit of paper. I go into the zone, I’m trying to transfer how I feel through paper. Nina Simone’s voice is so rich and so deep. That song Blackbird—pictorial images of the cotton field.  It was based around the cotton field, slavery time, the women in the field. I saw the black woman as the black bird. Even now we go through so many things. And we continue to rise.”

On April 7th 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yolanda Ward about collages as archives and how music has inspired her work. What follows is her discussion of the 8 collages in her Black Bird Series, and her collaborate project with fabric artist Sherry Shine.

Image of Yolanda Ward's Black Bird Series Crossroads in Fabric and Paper

“Crossroads in Fabric and Paper” was a joint exhibit between Yolanda Ward and Sherry Shine featured on September 10, 2016 at The Arts Portal gallery in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. In their collaborative mixed media piece, “The Crossroads,” a black bird sits perched atop a red barn set into a cotton field. The project inspired Ward’s expansion of the concept into her Black Bird Series.

Ward: “It had her fabric in it and it had my paper in it. [Shine] always includes a marking from the underground railroad. Every piece has a mark about how to continue your journey…In fabric there’s pattern, there’s texture…the pieces had to have a synergy, even though I was working in paper and [Shine] was working in fabric. I look at paper, collage, fabric. They all are a coming together of different elements in order to create the imagery. You had to have different patterns that form together to create the energy. The same thing happens with paper. There could be 15-20 different papers that come together in one piece. You need a combination of things because they each speak differently. It’s almost like in a song—harmony, notes, verses, tone, lyrics, all of those pieces—it’s the same thing with paper. Now I’m trying to introduce thread into my paper.  It’s like a songwriter. In order for each thing that they produce to resonate, you have to continue to investigate.”

Image of Image of Yolanda Ward's Black Bird Series Cabin & Cotton Livin'


“Cabin & Cotton Livin,” is the first collage in the Black Bird Series. None of the birds in the 8 collages appear in flight. Here, three appear hovering over a cotton field in full bloom. A back field is visible behind the neglected farm house.

Ward: “The cotton field, with the black bird just continued to evolve. That question, ‘Why you want to fly Blackbird?’ is presented. And if I’m asking what that means, then I have to be believe in something else—that something else is possible. And that’s where faith comes in. I know it’s about the plight of a people, of a woman, a black woman specifically. But her music opens you to what’s possible…That’s what [Simone] did in this song, that’s why she began with what she did—the blackbird—and how I can bring that into the images I’m trying to create…That blackbird is always the possibility.”

Williams: “Then why is it the birds are never in flight? Is this the other half of Nina’s line: Why you want to fly Blackbird? You ain’t ever gonna fly.”

Ward: “Yes, the birds are never in flight, because that is the question. They could at any moment. But are they? Will they? Which direction will they go?”

Williams: “What about the tree? Why is the tree bare?”

Ward: “The tree is bare because it is always in the fall or the spring. To me, something is beginning at all times, it’s in the middle. Spring, getting ready to bud. It’s always in the middle because of something becoming, in transition. You’re always in season, in transition in life.  It leads to the questioning, because you don’t know what’s going on. In the back you see the field, but it’s so open. The cabin is broken, but it’s still shelter. So there’s this push and pull that I also hear in Nina’s music….Listen, my mom loves ‘Cabin & Cotton Livin.’ She talks more about her past now than her present. Her brother built her a cabin. Her mother died when she was a child. It was hard. They had to work. Mom was working on the cotton fields. She told me, ‘Pop planted that cotton and nobody picked it because it was so hard to pick. We looked out and it was a sea of white.’ Every piece of paper in this series, is dedicated to my mom, and my grandfather.”

Image of Yolanda Ward's Faith In The Field II


“Faith in the Field II” inspired the Faith in the Field Series, which Ward is continuing to expand.

Ward: “‘Faith in the Field.’ The cotton field was overwhelming. It was this hard, but beautiful thing at the same time…There’s always a church in the background. I believe there had to be faith. The song that Nina so eloquently sung said all of this is happening, but there is more. Nina is a truthful woman. She just hits you with that deep sultry sound, that hits you in your tracks. But that’s also how she leaves it open… It’s a depressed thing at the same time. The way she sings it, It’s so rich with sorrow. That black bird song is so many things.”

Image of Yolanda Ward's Made In America“Made in America”

Williams: The flag is an image that you repeat throughout the series. Why is it such an important image for these women?”

Ward: “Yes, and the blue jeans in the basket, the clothesline. It’s the American concept of why are we here? How do see ourselves as Americans? How do others see us?”

Image of Yolanda Ward's "My Country Girl"

Ward: “There’s always a church in the distance. These are everyday scenes, but there’s also wonder behind it…The black bird is always the possibility. But what always holds us? Faith. Whether we stay in it. Whether we come out of it. Faith will see us through. You have to be on that journey about faith. That’s why there’s always a church. Sometimes you can barely see it, sometimes it’s right there.”

  Image of Yolanda Ward's "One On The Way"“One on the Way”

Ward: “From far off, it looks like a painting, and I want that. I want that because your mind is now open. I want the questioning. It generates conversation. Just like music takes you on a journey, I want to do the same thing with my work. And the paper for me, it frees me. I can’t control it.”

 Image of Yolanda Ward's "Stirring The Pot"“Stirring the Pot”

 Ward: “I never cut the paper, I tear. You get a different thing when you cut than when you tear. You get a different thing whether you tear towards you, or whether you tear away from you. If you tear towards you, you get a piece with a line, away from you, you don’t get a line. Even when you want something straight, I tear it on the edge of something…I’m always looking for texture. Handmade paper almost melts. I started as a painter, but paint controls me too much, Paper freed me. Paint took away from the energy. You don’t have any control over paper. The piece of paper is the piece of paper. You have to let yourself go.”

Image of Yolanda Ward's "The Procession"“The Procession”

Ward: “The church again.  In the distance, you’re going to see that church. Here the women are marching with bails on their heads. The men too. But the women—I believe they knew that there was something else.”

Image of Yolanda Ward's "Working It Out"“Working it Out”

Ward: “African American women are workers. We have been working forever. Working not just for survival, but you know, who are we? What are we going to do here? How do I tell my story? How do I get to my family? And the clotheslines—I remember hanging my clothes up on a clothesline. The whole series is about slavery time, when we were owned, doing and giving to others, but we were always trying to find our own way out. That sheet in that picture is just blowing in the wind. I couldn’t believe that it was out of paper, and I’m the one who put the paper down. It was done by my hand.”

Photograph of Yolanda Ward in her studio

Ward: “I thank God that I’m finally living what I call the art. I am living the art. Everything you see is connected to it. Every moment is a creation. I don’t just see the thing, I see the possibilities of the thing. That’s a whole journey…How many people do you know make paper anymore? The past, everything is collected. Everything in the collage process. Whether you’re making the paper, finding the paper, the images that come out in the paper. There used to be words in the collages. But you can only find that in older paper. Text used to be a big part of my process. How to find the right words. How to find the right image. You might be looking at a portrait of an African child, but you’re also looking at a lion, or a giraffe. It’s always a combination of what you’re archiving. I’ve got paper all over my entire house. Everywhere you look there is a book, magazine, drawers filled with paper that I’ve collected. I’m always searching. When students go in these archives, it will take them on their own journeys. There’s so much history and so much future.”

Yolanda Ward is currently represented by E&S Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.

All images are shared with the permission of the artist.


[1] Yolanda Ward. Phone Interview. 7 April 2018.