Interview with Collage Artist, Teresa Petersen

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Teresa Petersen, "Midsummer Rituals" collage and mixed media on vintage 1920's poster

Saren Hauser

Teresa Petersen opens a new exhibition titled “They Call Me Mellow Jello” at Eyeporium Gallery on Saturday, May 14 from noon to 5 pm.  Her work emphasizes and explores the relationships between women’s stereotypes and ideals: in culture, in nature, and in our throwaway society.

Hauser: The title of the show begs the question: ‘So what’s with all the Jello?’

Petersen: My mother had a Jello cookbook.  She’d refer to it occasionally and make some of the ‘treats.’  But really!  What a terrible tease.  All that sweet and shiny lime Jello and it had shredded carrots and onion slices in it! Colorful:  yes.  Nourishing or tasty: no way.  Yet that cookbook held all these images of the perfect food.  How could a Jello mold be the epitome of the nurturing mother and savvy hostess?  I just have to challenge this.

Hauser: And your challenge to these feminine images goes far beyond mere Jello?

Petersen: Yes, far beyond. I try to explore what is or was considered ‘natural’ or ‘ideal’ by using images that are instantly recognizable as typical idealized American scenes.  My background images are mass-produced, outdoor scenes and landscapes that show a manicured natural world of groomed trails, tidy views of picturesque mountains, idyllic woodlands and streams.  Old paint-by-number paintings or vintage prints are some of my favorites.   Then over that background, I layer figures

Petersen, "The Old Jello Mill," collage and mixed media

and objects cut from older popular magazines and catalogs to contrast the real or perceived social ideals of that era—ideals of beauty and material wealth and worldly success.  By mixing these unrelated background scenes, objects, and figures together, they are stripped of their original context, bringing to light some of the embedded social constructs of our culture.

Hauser: Including American feminine stereotypes?

Petersen: Often including those images, yes.

Hauser: And you also often incorporate your own painting in your pieces?


Petersen: Well, drawing and making things have always been part of my life.  … [in college] I majored in both biology and art, with a mind to doing scientific illustration.  Then I started illustrating fossil reptiles, and renting a studio space where I could make fine art.  There was a junkyard behind the studio.  Kismet!  Much of the materials that were first considered for framing my large paintings were now the perfect objects for my assemblages.  I returned to school in 1995 at Wayne State University in Detroit, and got my MFA in 1998.  I’ve been using recovered wood from doors and windows as material for collages and assemblages ever since.

Hauser: And found objects now figure prominently in your work?

Petersen, "Easy Money," collage and mixed media

Petersen: Yes, I really enjoy working with these materials precisely because the objects come with intrinsic meaning; they aren’t blank like paper.  I can subvert that original meaning by taking objects apart, breaking them into smaller bits of symbols.  Then I mix up those symbolic pieces with other delightfully unrelated or unexpected things.  Cutting things apart and recreating them is part of the charm and power of collage and assemblage, enabling me to reconfigure the symbols and images  – the dominant paradigm of American postwar consumerist society, or at least what was being sold to the public.

Hauser: And where you live is reflected in your work as well?

Petersen: Detroit was a key part of the industrial backbone of that mid-century American exceptionalism culture – what’s more central to the American dream than the automobile?  The old ‘Motor City’ is a terrific source of old books, magazines and catalogs for the picture elements of my collages.  I have a bank of basic ideas and themes I use often in my works, and I have a collection of materials for constructing the pieces. This recycling makes sense not only from an ecological standpoint, but also links my pieces to a time when people saved and utilized every scrap.


Eyeporium Gallery is located at 1431 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago.