ON A RECENT SATURDAY AFTERNOON in his Northeast Portland living room, Kevin Sampsell is showing me a plastic tub full of torsos, heads, dresser-drawers, and mountain ranges: the images he’s cut out and will glue into his next collages.
Though there is mellow blues guitar (by Jake Xerxes Fussell) playing on Sampsell’s stereo, it’s combining with the steady beat of a Native American dance group rehearsing at nearby Irving Park. Perhaps this fusion is fitting, because we’re here to discuss how Sampsell combines mid-20th century printed ephemera—magazine ads, yearbook photos, catalog pages, greeting card text—into art.
Sampsell is still best known as a local literary-world figure. As an author, his books include the 2010 memoir A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial) and the 2013 novel This Is Between Us (Tin House Books). He also edited the 2009 collection Portland Noir, is the founder and publisher of Future Tense Books, and coordinates author readings as well as small-press offerings at Powell’s Books.
I MADE AN ACCIDENT
By Kevin Sampsell
Collage art started as a hobby, but for Sampsell it’s become a full-blown creative second life. This month Clash Books will publish I Made An Accident, a collection of his collages, which are interspersed with several of Sampsell’s poems: an unlikely creative marriage that works, not unlike a good collage itself.
The book was originally scheduled for publication in 2020, but its pandemic-induced delay gave Sampsell the chance to keep tinkering, adding and subtracting collages. After all, he’s got hundreds of pieces to work with. While he often makes collages at home, collaging has become a kind of social life and community for him; he’s just returned from presenting at Kolaj Fest in New Orleans. As we talk, the day’s mail even brings Sampsell a small collage sent from an artist friend in Minnesota. “There’s a huge community in Portland of collage people,” he says, citing a number of PNW Collage Collective events he’s attended locally, and a group collaging night he co-founded at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. “It’s so fun.”
SAMPSELL EVEN LIVES IN A 1906 HOUSE owned by another longtime local collage artist, Kurtiss Lofstrom, whom Sampsell met by interviewing Lofstrom for Kolaj magazine. The home’s interiors are a kind of collage as well, the walls given over almost entirely to artwork, be it theirs or others’; even the windows are colorful, affixed with stained glass. I had initially come to see what Sampsell called the Collage Garage, a detached garage behind the house that serves as an art studio for himself and Lofstrom. But Sampsell’s collage-making had also spilled into their living room, decorated with past works and its bookshelves stuffed with art books and vintage tomes serving as inspiration or raw materials.
He began making collages in earnest in 2014. He had begun an intended new novel, but the writing had slowed to a halt. Sampsell realized he needed a diversion. “I wanted to do something entirely different from writing,” he explains in I Made an Accident’s introduction; he adds almost apologetically, “…something fun to do!”
Sampsell remembered the word collages he’d briefly tinkered with 20 years earlier, inspired by William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up” method of writing (a means of scrambling phrases and sentences). When he returned to collaging eight years ago, Sampsell remembered that he still had stored away an envelope of unused word cutups. Soon he was spending several days each week on collage. These days it’s more like once a week, but Sampsell is prolific and doesn’t seem to deliberate for long periods.
“I made like three or four things today,” he says now, even though it’s only about lunchtime. “You can complete something in a sitting more or less. A lot of people say that it’s meditative. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but for me, when I’m doing it, I feel like it slows down time. You start collaging and you look up and it’s four or five hours later.” Collaging, he says, is something he can do without having to think of a reader, or an audience. “With the collage stuff I have no intention. I don’t see a path that I’m going down.”
AS HE DESCRIBES in I Made An Accident’s introduction, Sampsell has even made peace with the fact that for now he’s choosing collage-making over writing: “The truth was, I found the act of writing often excruciating, but when I collaged, it was thrilling—I could see the art being born right in front of me, and the urgency of collaging began to satisfy me more than fiction.”
I Made an Accident is divided into seven chapters grouped roughly by theme. The book’s first collage, “88 Cosmos,” features the black and white head of a woman with shampoo in her hair rising over the yellow surface of the sun, as part of a section called “Hello, Transformants,” featuring humans and animals mixed into different backdrops: surfing a giant corn cob in “The Corn Trick,” contemplating towers of 8-track tapes in “Sha Na Na,” or drawing bolts of lightning into a nighttime sky in “Where Does Lighting Come From?”
Often the best Sampsell collages are the simplest, like “Dropout,” in which a single arm extends from the core of a cut-open planet Earth, dropping another lone human figure into outer space.
The collages are interspersed with poems, which act as a kind of breather between acts and at times offer commentary or explanation of what you’re seeing. They could also be seen as a bridge between Sampsell’s writing and image-making, or even a way of construing the collages: as visual haikus, sonnets and limericks. In “John Stezaker Talks About Collage,” he writes:
We live in a world saturated with images
There are too many images in the world
It’s what you remove
Taking things away
In order to engage the image
In a meditative relationship
Many of the collages in I Made an Accident are visual gags or simply fun juxtapositions, like “Blame It On the Bossa Nova,” with a high-kicking black and white-rendered dancer against a grid of colorful record-album covers from an old music-by-mail ad. Yet other collages offer social commentary, like “Desperate Prayer,” featuring a man in in a wide-brimmed hat whose face is obscured by the outline of a rifle, or “American Battlefield,” where a man in a business suit with an eagle’s head walks past a bloody Civil War battlefield. A section in the book featuring early works finds Sampsell rearranging headlines, with Burroughs still fresh in his mind: “Embracing this Flirty heaven of obscurity,” “radical women create suicide Software for fat Clowns,” (random capitalization included). Still other collages lean toward colorful abstraction.
LIKE SO MANY COLLAGE ARTISTS, Sampsell began by culling from popular 20th century magazines like Life and National Geographic, often shopping for raw materials at off-the-beaten-path local spots like Periodicals Paradise and Bingo Used Books. But early on, he realized other collagists were selecting some of the same images. “The best is when people say, I have like all these old, like, photo books that I found in, like, my grandma’s basement.” He has increasingly drawn from books, in part because they also provide better paper and higher-resolution imagery.
At the same time, Sampsell, who was born in 1967, limits himself chronologically to pre-1970s ephemera, mostly from the preceding two decades. “In the ’70s and ’80s, magazines were starting to become more glossy and airbrushed,” he explains. “I see people collaging with modern fashion magazines and sometimes it looks pretty cool, but it’s just too glossy for me, and it just kind of looks like scrapbooking.” Yet the decision, he reasons, may go deeper. “Maybe part of the draw of it is the Seventies and Eighties, I already lived through it, but I find something like interesting and mysterious about these things that happen before I was born.”
As we continue to peruse the tub of to-be-collaged cutouts in his living room, Sampsell is already getting more ideas. An oversized color cutout of bacon becomes, once paired with a black and white image of a woman peering through window bars, the unctuous walls of a prison. Blobs of pure color combine with severed cutouts of words no longer discernible, and cropped faces.
“It’s kind of like writing a poem,” he says, “where you put a bunch of stuff together and then you’re like, ‘No, I think I’ll take this part out.’”
While talking, he’s actively collaging. Sampsell removes an earth-toned-paper background in favor of black. Then he removes a yellow blob from the composition and places it on another proto-collage altogether, where it becomes the celestial soccer ball kicked by a black-and-white cutout of a boy, against an acid-patterned sheet of paper sliced out of a 1900 book called Our Wonderful Progress: The World’s Triumphant Knowledge and Works.
WATCHING SAMPSELL WORK, it’s easy to understand why he’s transitioned away from his excellent fiction and memoir into collage. Many of the works in I Made an Accident are good, and a few are truly great. Yet as the heavy drumbeat from outside Sampsell’s house subsides and mellow guitar music fills the interior space unfettered, I’m reminded that the truest artistry here may come from the collage-making process itself, be it in solitude at his house or in communal group-collage settings. It’s not just fun to do, but fun to watch him do. Without quite realizing it, I came home from Sampsell’s with nearly a half-hour of shots of him spontaneously making.
In his books, Sampsell the author communicated a kind of restless seeking. But watching him collage, you see someone at ease: someone happy. His two creative talents need not always be mutually exclusive, and as a fan one hopes Kevin Sampsell the novelist and short-story writer isn’t gone for good. Yet the more one befriends Sampsell, the more one roots for him to keep collaging, because even if one sometimes overlaps the other, these creative pieces of a life go together well.