Mom Eats Son’s Homework

Libby Ramage is one of the funniest artists working in Princeton. Her latest series of collage involves recycling her son’s homework. I bought four of her handmade cards — made from recycled homework — at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Sauce for the Goose sale in December. I plan to frame them and hang them together… when I find more wall space.

The Gallery at Stuart County Day School is exhibiting her work as part of its month-long celebration of sustainability with art.

Libby’s work, along with that of Eva Mantell and Dan Fernandez — all teachers at the Arts Council of Princeton — will be exhibited Jan. 30-March 13. The opening reception is Jan. 30, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Gallery hours Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Stuart Country Day School, 1200 Stuart Road, Princeton, (609) 921-2330.

Here’s what I wrote about her in 2003:

Joey Carson’s sixth-grade math notes look, at first, like complicated equations scrawled over the ruled pages. Looking closer, one discovers little devil heads doodled among the numerical strings.

Libby Ramage wanted what mothers typically want – to preserve moments of her children’s lives. So she gathered Joey’s hoarded scribbles and turned them into a series of collages. In “Tame the Beast,” she created a dragon-like monster out of the notes, using the scraggly ends torn from the spiral notebook for teeth and scales. A cartoonish boy stands on top of the dragon, looking triumphant.

The resident of the Jugtown section of Princeton is interested in the angst of adolescence. Another work in the series, “That Time of Life,” shows a male figure whose body parts are all out of proportion with an especially enlarged hand. It captures that awkward feeling teen-agers have about their bodies when they suddenly start to grow in new ways and nothing seems to fit together.

Ms. Ramage’s mixed-media artwork is playfully bizarre, like that of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and illustrator Rachel Bliss.

When Ms. Ramage is not making her artwork, she is busy teaching it to youngsters. She is on staff at the nursery school of the Jewish Center of Princeton and teaches 9- and 10-year-olds at the Arts Council in the afternoon. That leaves evenings for her own work. “I’m persistent,” she says of how she manages to get it all done.

The children in her life – including her sons, Joey, an eighth-grader, and Eddie, a sophomore at Princeton High School – feed her artwork, which in turn feeds them.

“Teaching art to kids is so stimulating,” she says. “No matter how tired you are, when you get into the class with kids the energy you have is remarkable. Nine and 10-year-olds struggle with what they want the painting to look like, but I can see the success immediately and show them how to get there. The give-and-take of success is what keeps you painting. And kids are much more fun than adults.”

While having fun with kids, she has created murals at Princeton’s Riverside Elementary School and at the Princeton Shopping Center. At Riverside, students created artwork on paper and Ms. Ramage copied it onto the wall with the help of parents. At the Princeton Shopping Center, drawings were collected from all four elementary schools. Ms. Ramage copied them as contour drawings on the wall and older students filled them in.

Even her kitchen feeds her artwork – it is the room in her house she uses as a studio. Paints, brushes and an easel are neatly situated alongside peanut butter and cereal boxes. “I used to live in a two-room Manhattan apartment and my studio was the bedroom, so this is a real step up,” says the Ohio native who moved to Princeton 12 years ago. “I do more art in here than cooking.”

She offers a guest a cup of Tension Tamer tea – something she says she needs desperately after a week of weather that precluded her students from playing outdoors.

Her home is filled with artwork exhibiting much of the whimsy and oddity of her own – she has traded with artists who favor folk and primitive art, some made from recycled objects. A three-dimensional piece that looks like it is from a Day of the Dead celebration – a skeleton is inside a coffin that has its double doors flung open – adds a certain dimension to the teal-green dining room. Ms. Ramage recounts how, when her children were small and invited friends to play, other mothers would take their children by the hand for an early exit upon seeing the skeleton coming out of its closet.

Ms. Ramage says the artist is the odd person in society, the observer, while everyone else around is oblivious. The cats Ms. Ramage uses in her pictures are intended to be her, observing.

She has created a series of figures with arms stretched out. “When children first start to draw at age 4 or 5, everyone they draw has their arms wide open. They are not afraid to embrace the world, and I like that. It fits in with da Vinci’s natural forms.”

“The New Dress,” part of the upcoming exhibit, is from the outstretched arm series. She wears a dress made from smocked fabric and has an earring made from a worry doll. Against a jagged background, she is surrounded by two black cats with sewn-on whiskers.

Many of Ms. Ramage’s mixed-media pieces include fabric. “Friends of mine who were puppeteers in New York had an enormous collection of old fabric from the garment district. They left it on my porch and it had amazing fabrics for bridal gowns. I started using it in greeting cards” – Ms. Ramage has sold one-of-a-kind greeting cards through the Arts Council’s Sauce for the Goose annual holiday sale – “but I realized at that rate, I could have continued until I was 80 and would not have made a dent in the fabric, so I started using it in larger pieces.”

Now that she has built a reputation on it, everyone gives her fabric. “I never intended to work with it, it just happened,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot from fabric and can teach it to kids.”

Much of what Ms. Ramage does is like large-scale paper dolls. “Paper dolls are usually adults that children dress with adult clothing. I’m doing the opposite – I’m making paper dolls of children, because they grow up so fast, and I never had a daughter.”

“Shamhat,” based on the character of Shamhat from the epic of Gilgamesh, is made from a shiny shimmery bridal fabric with lace and floral trim. “The face is the hardest part,” says Ms. Ramage. “It has personality, and it takes time to evolve. Shamhat could sing and tame animals. She represents the natural world and is wild, whereas Gilgamesh is civilized.” The diabolical-looking head of Gilgamesh – not looking civilized in the least – suddenly appears, like a ghost, just below Shamhat’s skirt.

“The Bride’s First Night” is the most elaborate piece in the show. Ghosts from the bride’s past peek out from behind her veil. “At a distance it looks like mottled colors but up close you can see the figures – those old boyfriends who won’t go away.” Embedded in the veil is a little man in a tux with a painted face, made from a button.

The bride’s hand is three-dimensional, made from Ms. Ramage’s own hand wrapped in plaster. The hand wears a pink compass ring and holds a shard of broken glass in her fingers. “I was thinking of the Jewish wedding ceremony where you step on the broken glass,” she says.

Above the bride’s head are two sets of constellations, one shaped round and one in the shape of a crescent. One of the constellations is Cassiopeia, the W-shaped grouping of stars named for the queen of Ethiopia. “Astronomy has always been a mystery to me,” says Ms. Ramage. “They draw lines from the dots and then, a lion. I like the idea of the bride as a queen.”

The bride’s face itself is like the moon, with a dark side and a light side. “One part is frightened, and one part is in control,” she says.

The Periodic Table of the Elements is rearranged at the bottom of the painting. “Making a family is elemental to human nature,” Ms. Ramage explains.

Ms. Ramage studied at the Boston Museum School in the 1970s, completing a fifth-year certificate. Her area of concentration was video, and she taped wind-up toys toddling across the screen against a watercolor-painted background. “It was my own ‘Close Encounters,’ influenced by the phenomenon of E.T.,” she says. “It was about seeing your world from an alien point of view, with the tchotchkes of life marching across America.”

She has illustrated a children’s book, One By One, by Harlan Platt.

Her work in the show at the Arts Council is made up of everything from recycled heart-shaped velvet boxes and Japanese candy wrappers to little toys and detritus from the kitchen – pop tops, match boxes, chopstick wrappers, Land O’Lakes boxes, a clothespin and a little diabolical head with rabbit ears. One piece is titled, “The Deer and the Antelope,” after the song, “Home on the Range.”

“It’s a children’s song, but with a nasty undercurrent,” she says. “It seems to be saying, ‘Everything is really not as nice as it seems.'”

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