Imperfect Beauty

Elisabeth Ptak’s Collages

As a writer and editor, I’m committed to using the best words, phrases, and punctuation in everything I write or review. Overall, this striving for perfection serves me pretty well in the literary arena, but making collages also has shown me the beauty of imperfection.

The edge of a page ripped from a magazine could become a cloud. A stack of books might be a staircase. Ladders are legs—at least in my evolving imagination—as I continue to experiment with this new-to-me art form.

I began making collages in the spring of 2010 during a time of great transition in my life. My first attempts startled me both because of the way they resonated with the issues I was facing and because, in a strange way, they took my mind off those issues as I began to lose myself in the creative process.

Now that I’ve been crafting collages for a while, I’m still not sure whether they spring from an idea I’ve had or whether the collage process itself powers the idea, so I’m often surprised by the final product. They almost always have a narrative feel, but they’re wide open to interpretation.

One of the things I like best about collage-making is that it’s portable and requires only the simplest of supplies and tools—paper, pen, scissors, glue. Over the past year, I’ve packed those items into my suitcase and made collages in Paris, London, and New Mexico, as well as (and mostly) at my own dining room table in Inverness, California.

From the beginning, I’ve composed and collected my collages in a 9 x 12-inch Strathmore drawing pad. Originally, this made it easy for me to carry the work around, but over time the collage-filled pads began to seem like the story of my life in transition. For this reason, I don’t normally sell the original collages, but rather offer digital prints created from high-resolution scans of the original works, which are then re-collaged and/or embellished. Each is a unique work of art.  

I’m drawn to the availability and versatility of paper and the layering and dimensionality that happen naturally in collage work. I use whatever materials I find—sometimes a beautiful museum brochure, sometimes a ticket stub, sometimes pages from an old book. Cutting up the first book was the hardest. Now I happily incorporate library discards and garage sale finds into my collages with no scruples at all. (Well, hardly any.)

Collagist Romare Bearden put it this way:
“You take what you have and make the most of it.”
Author Virginia Woolf said something similar:
 “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

For backgrounds, I often use my own photographs taken with a digital camera and printed on an Epson Artisan 810 printer on heavy matte paper. I sometimes use watercolor pencils to intensify color or highlight an area, and I almost always finish the collages with an India ink border.

While I have no formal art training, I have been tremendously inspired by the many California artists I got to know over a dozen years of producing a landscape art show to benefit farmland conservation in my northern California community. I began to see the landscape we were trying to protect in a new way: rather than a herd of cows, I saw a painting of a herd of cows. In fact, everything looked like a painting to me.

Though the genre is different, much the same has happened in collage-making. My eyes seem to separate layers and shapes in ways they didn’t previously, so that now, everything looks like a collage to me!

The art exploration I’m engaged in also has led to a study of the symbols and archetypal images which, without any active intention my part, have appeared in my collages. How amazing to find that the dog or the spiral or the boat I happen to choose for a piece has a meaning that’s linked to the collective unconscious as well as to my own psyche. To better understand those connections, I’ve often referred to The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, compiled by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism.

I also look for inspiration to Karl Schwitters, Picasso, Matisse, Romare Bearden, Ray Johnson, Inez Storer, and the many contemporary artists adding to the relatively brief, but ever richer history of collage-making.

Elisabeth Ptak was the Associate Director and Director of Outreach at Marin Agricultural Land Trust from 1995–2010 and has a special expertise in the areas of conservation, the environment, and sustainable agriculture. She has been a newspaper columnist for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Point Reyes Light and an on-air essayist for KQED-FM, San Francisco. She is the author and editor of Ranches & Rolling Hills—The Art of West Marin, A Land in Trust, and several other books.
Elisabeth lives in Inverness, California, a coastal village surrounded by forest and farmland and flanked by the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay. The San Andreas Faultline lurks under the Bay’s normally benign waters. Perhaps it’s that hidden potential that gives a certain frisson to life here. Generally speaking, though, not much is shaking in Inverness.

She began making collages in 2010. Her work has appeared in both solo exhibits and juried group shows in the San Francisco Bay Area. To view her portfolio, visit



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