I learned a fancy word a long time ago I still enjoy using today. The word is juxtaposition. I know what you are thinking. It is such a big and important word. When I first heard it, that is precisely what I thought. I didn’t learn it in English class as you might assume. I learned it in, of all places, art class. That’s right. My art teacher used it in reference to one of my paintings during a critique. I remember being so impressed as I heard it gently escape from his mouth and travel to my ear. It is amazing the power a word can have. From that day on, I never forgot it.
I pretended to know its meaning right after my art teacher uttered it but, in reality, I had never even heard it before. For all I knew, it could be from a foreign language. It was most definitely foreign to me!
However, I knew it had to be an important word because it had such an air of class about it. As soon as I got home that evening, before I could even put away my art supplies, I looked it up in the dictionary.
I enlisted help from my mother as to its spelling. There it sat in black and white on the dictionary page. “To situate side-by-side or place together especially for comparison or contrast” it read. I closed my eyes and begged my brain to make a photocopy of it for future use. I decided right then and there it would become a new and eloquent word in my personal vocabulary.
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To impress others, for days I went around my house and school just saying it to anyone and everyone who would listen.
“That is such a juxtaposition,” I would say, ending with a slight tilted self-assured nod of my head. Confused stares were the only things I got in return.
It was a word I heard quite often during my college days at the Atlanta College of Art. In fact, it became almost synonymous with our art critiques. Each of us students would timidly place our project on an easel at the front of the room and then stand there trembling as our professor studied it completely with the eyes of a hawk. As he began to speak, it was rare he didn’t use THE word somewhere in his judgment of our work. Because of that, I have always associated it with artwork in particular.
In the world of art, it usually means the artist has placed two things together that are very different or unlikely pairings.
Things that one would not normally assume would go together in order to create interest in the artwork.
One example comes to mind from a drawing I did in art school of paper bags in various states from completely flat to open and crumpled. In one of the drawings, I added a shiny pair of scissors. I guess I got my inspiration from the childhood game of rock-paper-scissors.
Wherever I got it, it worked for me with my professor. “Mark has used the pair of scissors in his drawing to create a juxtaposition!” he said with authority in his deep voice. “It causes the viewer to wonder why the scissors are there in the midst of all the paper bags.”
Last week, as I was frantically trying to create my new Santa design for the upcoming holiday season to meet a printing deadline, I couldn’t help but think of the word — juxtaposition.
Here I was in the middle of August and I was staring directly into Santa’s eyes up close and personal! It just didn’t seem right. Having Santa here with me in August was definitely a juxtaposition.
This year, I chose to incorporate peppermint candy into my design. It was an idea I had been thinking about for some time. So I decided to create a peppermint Santa this year. I carefully painted in every red and white stripe with the precision that’s required to render peppermint candy of all shapes and sizes.
As I painted in the quietness of my studio, I couldn’t help but hear the roar of the air conditioner as it desperately tried to cool down a structure that was most definitely feeling the affects of the almost 100 degree temperatures outside.
I looked directly into Santa’s eyes and wondered what he thought about being in such oppressive Georgia heat. I know he wasn’t used to it, but I was quite sure he was especially warm in his red woolen topcoat with his long flowing hair and thick beard. I wondered if I should paint a few sweat drops on his forehead like most of us have during the summer months or, at the very least, a slight glisten on his nose.
Then in my mind I went back to art school and wondered what my professor would have said upon seeing a sweating Santa. I couldn’t help but smile. I am sure he would say without any hesitation whatsoever, “Mark, I love the juxtaposition of how you placed your Santa in warm winter clothes on a hot summer day!”
As I finished the painting, without any added sweat or touches of glisten, I found myself right in the middle of another juxtaposition. I had placed my peppermint Santa in a month in which he clearly didn’t belong. Oh well, the way this year is flying by, it will be Christmas before we can say, “Ho Ho Ho!”
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Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions to P.O. Box 4232, Macon GA 31208.