Boulder Bookstore owner David Bolduc said of artist and graphic designer Tina Collen’s “artobiography,” titled Storm of the i (2009) and published by Art Review Press, “I’ve been in the book business for thirty years and have seen a lot of books. But I’ve never seen anything like Storm of the i.”
I agree with Bolduc that Storm of the i doesn’t look like other books, but Storm’s uniqueness is also what hinders it most. The book defies traditional design and layout, like a watered down, less haunting version of American author Mark Z. Danielewski’s popular House of Leaves (2000). Storm of the i is also a confusing book formally and conceptually. It vacillates throughout all three hundred pages between various different styles — photo album, scrapbook, self-help, personal memoir, maudlin diary, autobiography — and none of them seem to help its author’s intent.
Creating the term “artobiography,” Collen tries to tell her personal life story through the prism of art. She does not present her life as the life of an artist, however, but rather from the perspective of a life lived by an artistic methodology; she approaches and describes life as an artist would approach a new project. This aspect of Storm of the i is the most unique, truthful and interesting idea Collen’s book explores. As she writes in her book, “art is essentially serendipity and editing, as is life.” Interwoven into her story of personal discovery and familial drama, centering on unresolved issues with her father, are interesting stories of creativity.
In her book, Collen recounts stories about starting numerous different businesses, from selling her handmade jewelry early in life, to her more successful silk plant arrangements for the offices of various corporations. In the early 1990s she bought, destroyed and rebuilt her own home, living inside during the reconstruction and overseeing the every aspect of the building. She had a brief foray into the art world with her “fleurotica” collage work, floral images made from assembled scraps of pornography. Her “pornage,” as she named the technique, is humorous and provocative, and earned her an exhibition in Paris. Even the manner in which Collen relates to and engages with her children reminded me of the way my own artist mother let us play in her ceramic studio. Somehow Collen seems to turn the mundane in her life into short-lived, creative adventures.
Through Storm of the i, Tina Collen also explores the uncertainty and confusion she felt about herself and her family. She questions who she was, who she is and how those around her, mainly her father, husband and two boys, shaped the person she has become.
The book is written with heavy sentimental and motivational overtones, some examples of which include listing of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and quotes like “every person must choose how much truth he can stand,” and, “it’s never to late to be what you might have been.” Collen states that writing this book helped her make sense of much about her family that had always alluded her, making the act of writing her story self-help in the truest sense of the word. Though Collen works with the universal theme of self discovery, Storm of the i struggles to find a context outside of its author’s own particular life, and the book’s relevance for its readers wanes as the story moves from childhood through adulthood and into middle age.
Collen’s “artobiography,” designed by the author herself, a professional graphic designer, seems to intentionally break the rules of good graphic design. Collen changes font, color and style more often than the reader can keep up with, and the book is chock-full of family snapshots, photographs, artworks, both hers and other artists, quotes, pop-ups, foldouts, lists, scans, photocopied notes and hand-written, almost illegible inserts of text.
Her overuse of drop shadows, demarcating something personal in nature like a letter to her father, a photograph of her siblings, or an old business card from one of her many ventures, rob the book of any formal sophistication it could have had. In desperate need of some self-editing, it’s really a shame Storm of the i was never edited enough to become a poignant memoir.
Despite Storm’s obvious formal and narrative faults, it’s hard to dismiss anyone’s life story, regardless of how little me might know or care about it. Everyone’s story does matter, but to whom? Reading Storm of the i forces you to question the importance of personal narratives and the need, relevance and place for autobiographies by the non-famous. I firmly believe in the idea that the personal is universal, that highly specific personal experiences can speak the best about universal experience. It’s a delicate balance you need to strike, however, to turn your story into a story that means something for someone else. Tina Collen valiantly reaches for the universal in Storm of the i, but she never does find it.
Storm of the i (Art Review Press, 2009) is available at the author’s website, www.tinacollen.com.