Petra Zehner: Digital Collage Artist

 

She founded the Paris Collage Collective – PCC

Petra Zehner lives in Paris, France and is the founder of the Paris Collage Collective (PCC). She is a collage artist, working primarily in digital format. Follow her on Instagram. All images in this post are copyright Petra Zehner and PCC artists. The image below is a digital portrait of Petra seated in front of a stop sign

 

At her website, Petra says: I am a German-born graphic designer, illustrator, extroverted introvert & bibliophile.

Q: Can you tell the audience a little more about yourself?

PZ: I was born in East Germany but my family moved to the west after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I spent my childhood or rather my formative years in the same country but in almost equal parts in two very different social and cultural environments. The transition was quite difficult and uprooting, and I don’t think I’ve ever properly recovered from it. Even though recovered might not be a good way to put this. Let’s say it forced me to deal with questions of identity and belonging at an age where I wasn’t intellectually and emotionally mature enough to do so. I had always been an avid reader and ended up essentially living inside whatever book I was reading at the time for many years. We lived in a small town so there was nothing else to do anyway. For practical reasons, I ended up studying German literature, linguistics and modern history. In Germany, you have to decide from the very beginning if you want to study to become a teacher, something my mother would have approved of, or get a more advanced degree with which you can’t teach (because it doesn’t include any pedagogy or educational theory). I did the latter.

After a couple of years in a small university town I moved to Berlin to finish my studies, and there my whole world changed or rather opened up. It’s there where for the first time I had access to art, music, theatre, and above all like-minded people. When I say my first love is literature, it’s not to say that it’s more important to me than art but to acknowledge that it came first. For a very long time, the only cultureI had access to was the one contained in our local library.

The image at below is a digital photo collage by Petra Zehner, and shows a female diver, the diving platform and a piece of crumpled paper behind the photo image.

PZ: As to visual art, I have a weakness for Renaissance art but my main influences and inspirations are modern and contemporary art and photography. The things I like or that inspire me are rather eclectic, and so are the themes I deal with myself. That said, I haven’t lived in Germany in fifteen years, so questions of identity and belonging are still something I’m dealing with on a daily basis. Even though I’m not sure you can necessarily see this in my current work.

 

Petra’s image above (a digital collage) shows a sky view of buildings, with shoes and clothing hanging from wires or clotheslines. The sky includes text printed in Cyan blue. The buildings are in B&W tones. The shoes are black and the clothing is orange-red and white-grey. See more about Petra’s wires further down.

Petra is a bibliophile and studied literature and linguistics in Berlin. The image below is Petra’s collage that shows the title page for the book Bonjour tristesse, by Francoise Sagan. Notice there is the illusion of transparent tape in 3 places across a graphic image of a young woman.

Q: Did you read this book and did it inspire you? In what way?

 PZ: I did read Bonjour tristesse, just before taking the book apart for one of my collages. I currently live in France, and Bonjour tristesse is a French classic, so when I came across the book, I think someone left it in the lobby of our building, I took it without thinking. I didn’t like the first half of it. And it’s not long. I think I expected too much and may have also been inclined to dismiss it just because everyone unanimously told me it was great, and I distrust unanimous judgments. But it deals with identity, with how much of it we construct, and how much of it is out of our control, so yes, it did end up inspiring me.

Q: Were there other books that inspired your art?

 PZ: If you are wondering if there are specific books that stand out and that I come back to over and over again, I can’t say there are. Not consciously at least. I am one of those people who re-read books, though. And in the last years I started to re-read books I had encountered first in my early twenties. That’s always an interesting experience because I often don’t remember the story or theme at all – I obviously read too much, but I do remember how or what I felt reading those books for the first time, the kind of person I was, and the ideas and thoughts and ambitions and dreams I had.

So many of Petra Zehner’s collages show wires crossing the image. In the image above, the wires include hanging lights. Petra created this collage for the PCC Creative Challenge week 49.2019 (the 49th weekly challenge in 2019).

Q: Why do you include wires? What do wires signify?

PZ: The wires are an almost accidental encounter/discovery. I was drawn to them as a graphic element at first. Their lines divide the canvas and give structure to the composition. While working with them more often, I realized they also symbolize connection and connectedness, electricity, which obviously powers the Internet and thereby almost all social connections these days.

I often mix old and new, as in contemporary photography (often photos I’ve taken myself) and vintage images I find online or elsewhere, and I use the wires to tie these elements together while at the same time keeping them to divide or structure the composition overall.

Petra Zehner’s image (above) juxtaposes a B&W photo of hanging laundry with a reproduction of a vintage comic.

Q: where do you find the comics you use for collage?

PZ: The comic strips I use are from old comic books I found in Paris, a city full of secondhand bookstores where you can find almost anything. I never did read comics myself when I was young, but I love the aesthetic, the visuals, and the paper and quality of the print.  Lately, I’ve discovered mangas and other Asian comic books and am looking forward to working with them too.

Q: Is the age or source of comics or other media important for your collage practice?

PZ: Yes. I do keep copyright in mind, more for my commercial and less for personal work. I work with both digital and real life materials, books, magazines, etc., and have different rules for each. Digital images I use only when they are marked as copyright free or for creative common use. With physical materials, even if I end up scanning them to work digitally, I’m a littleless strict. But in case of doubt, I’d rather not use something that crosses into someone else’s territory. And not just for legal reasons. I think that should be common courtesy towards other artists.

Petra’s image above shows juxtaposition in scale and context with a large stop sign, a 10-story apartment building and a tiny man with a cane.

Q: Do you use signs to direct the viewer’s interpretation of the image?

PZ: I like signs for many reasons. For one, I love typography, but I’m also always drawn to words, expressions, puns, etc., and a lot of the random pictures I take during the week are of signs. That said, my collage work rarely starts with a fixed message I’m trying to convey. I find something that speaks to me, remember something else I have seen and saved that might go with it, start experimenting, and usually end up with something very much unexpected in the end. The meaning or message usually develops with the collage. I think it’s Joan Didion who said “I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means, what I want and what I fear.” I collage to find out what I’m thinking, what I see and what it means. Especially when you work digitally, you can move the same visual element into a variety of different contexts and see what that does for you.

Petra’s image above is a cautionary tale – a woman and her missing shadow leap across and through police signs that read Caution Do Not Enter.

 

Weekly Creative Challenges at the Paris Collage Collective

Petra says she founded the PCC to connect with other collage artists. She had another goal: to createa platform that allowed collage artists in Paris – and beyond – to build meaningful connections with projects that start with shared photo images. In a way, the PCC weekly challenges create a unique platform (on Instagram and the PCC site) that goes further than likes and shares on typical Facebook or Instagram sites.

She says she has done other collaborations before, on a much smaller scale, and mainly with photographers and writers, back when people still had blogs, adding: For many years I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Instagram because it was too image-focused and not wordy enough for my taste, also very superficial depending on what you do and share. But there are also a lot of exciting art projects and collectives out there, and rather than just joining one of those, I decided to create something myself.

 

 

The 2 images at right are by Petra Zehner (left) and Barbara Gibson (right), for PCC creative challenge #01-2019. Petra added flowers to the portrait of the girl and woman. Barbara added a floral background.

All participants in the PCC weekly challenge used the same photo (below). The photo, by Berry & Co studio, is from a free-access photography collection at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, The Te Papa collection includes approximately 3,000 images. The collection was discovered by chance in the early 1990s – found in a cupboard in a building in Wellington, New Zealand and offered to Te Papa.

 

 

Visit Resources at PCC

See Resources at PCC for links to free access images at libraries, museum collections, including the Met and the Getty, the New York Public Library (NYPL), Unsplash and a few more. Artists and designers, educators or students can use, share, and remix images without restrictions by linking to these sites. For example – the link to the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) allows access to a collection of more than 406,000 images of artworks from the museum collection.

Here are the basic instructions for each PCC creative challenge:

The PCC weekly challenges are participatory and open to all artists. You do not have to be a member of the PCC to participate. See all the collages submitted for weekly challenge 01.2019.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to create a collage or mixed media piece based on the sample image for the week. Your collage can be in digital or analogue format. Download the image from our link to Unsplash. Print the image if you want, or work on the image digitally. Final instructions: When you finish your collage, post it on Instagram with the following hashtag: #pariscollageclub.

Petra Zehner was interviewed for the online magazine Beyond Photography and asked how she chooses the sample image for the weekly challenges. She said: The images need to be copyright free, so I select vintage images where the copyright has expired, or choose photos from stock image websites (usually Unsplash) or work with photographers who donate one of their images. I choose images that speak to me and that I would work with myself.  Sometimes it’s the feel of an image; sometimes it’s a purely practical decision, because there is something with a perfect outline in it, so it’s easy to cut out. The decision is very subjective.

Beyond Photography teamed up with the PCC for creative challenge 42.2019.  See images by participating artists for weekly challenge 42-2019.

 

 

The image (left) is by Petra Zehner and shows a man sitting on a construction girder in front of an architectural plan for buildings in a landscape. The plan behind the photo is torn at the edges and taped. I told Petra that I am fascinated that so many of her digital collages include what looks like tape added to hold papers in place.

Q Is the tape an analogue or digital addition?

PZ: A lot of my work is actually digital, or a mix of analogue and digital with elements being scanned individually and then assembled in Photoshop. I think most of my work with tape is done in that way. I know my work often looks ‘handmade’ at first, but when you look at it closely you see that a lot of it would be impossible to do by hand alone. Because, even though there actually is a tool called Magic Wand, working in Illustrator or Photoshop has nothing to do with waving a magic wand, hitting a couple of buttons, and the computer doing the rest. It allows you to work in much greater detail and can therefore be incredibly time consuming.

It’s true, I do love working with tape, and I use pieces of tape as visual elements in their own right. It stresses the notion of assemblage. They can be used to stress other visual element of the collage, or to guide the viewer’s eye, play with size, etc.

 

Building the PCC Collage Community

Q: Do artists who participate in PCC weekly challenges interact with each other?

PZ: It’s hard to tell how much interaction there is. Currently, we have between 150 and 200 challenge submissions per week, but within that small group, people talk. PCC is a very supportive and positive little community. There has never been any negative feedback or behavior. It’s also rather mixed when it comes to skill levels and ambitions, which has been very positive in itself. Apparently it’s motivating rather than discouraging. Which is what I was hoping for, but wasn’t sure would happen in the end.

Personal questions for Petra Zehner

Q: Were there any creative mentors in your childhood?

 PZ: NO

 Q: Do you have formal art training?

PZ: I went back to university in 2008 or 2009 to study graphic design but wouldn’t call this art training. At all! It was a practical decision. I think in the US, and also in the UK where I was living at the time, it’s easier to be something even if you have no formal education for it. In France and Germany, back then, people still very often wanted to see a piece of paper. Attitudes are thankfully slowly changing.

Q: Who are the artists who inspire you?

PZ: How much time do you have? There are so many, and it wouldn’t feel fair or right to single out only a few. The one thing I can say though, is that it’s very often not their art itself that inspires me, but their personality, and the things they encountered or have overcome.

Tell us about the work you still want to make.

PZ: I currently don’t have the space to work on bigger pieces, which is why a lot of my work is small and/or digital. So what I would love to have (please listen dear universe) is proper studio space, no matter how small, and to combine collage and larger scale paintings and maybe fabrics. That said, limits are always a good things, and I’m grateful for what is. It forces you to make the best of what you have, and pushes you in directions you may have otherwise ignored.

Oh, and I haven’t written that first novel yet.

 

Final Comments:

Petra Zehner is a digital, creative dynamo. She maintains a portfolio website and created and maintains a robust Instagram presence for herself and the PCC. She wants to grow the PCC artist community, and the weekly challenges show amazing and increasing participation.

Be inspired and participate in PCC creative challenges – 2020.

Follow the PCC on Instagram. You will see a wonderful collection of analogue and digital works by collage artists you can follow.

Follow Petra Zehner on Instagram. She has more than 12 thousand followers, and her Instagram page includes 3 portals – one for interviews, one for her B&W photos, and one for showing/selling prints of her collages.

Visit the PCC and check out the resources page for links to copyright-free images.

I am pleased that I was the 4thinterview at Petra’s interview page. Each interview is unique. Read all the interviews here.

Please let me know what you think – add comments – and thank you.

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