I began making collages in middle school in Los Angeles. I’ve created collages ever since, as well as painted, and made sculptures. The paintings have been shown in galleries and museums, sculptures have been commissioned in Seattle and Portland, and now I am also working in ceramics. Until very recently, the collages, much more private, have been shown far less often.
For many years I’ve carried out collaborative art projects around the world. In practice and by design, these projects are complex, unwieldy operations that span several years. Usually I’m working in a language not my own, sometimes with people with whom I have no spoken language of communication. It is difficult and extremely rewarding work. But it provides pretty much the opposite of instant gratification. Creating small collages, which I often do in the evenings when I am away, is very appealing because they require no interpersonal relations, the minimum of materials, and each is usually completed the evening I begin it.
The collages become a kind of journal of where I am at, literally and figuratively. Each is a small, contained exercise in seeing. My favorite material is paper gathered from old wall posters, collected on the street. Being exposed outdoors to sun and rain, the papers have faded and been washed; I like the oxidized palette, and I like that the colors have finished shifting. Once collected, they remain remarkably stable. And I like the temporal and geographic specificity of the papers- each from a particular time and place.
My first work with wall posters was in Rome in 1978, when I spent several months photographing shapes and colored forms that I saw on abandoned wall posters in the city center. Those photographs also led to my first collaborative project, called “See-Through”, I worked with photographers and musicians and we produced slide/tape performances, locally at and/or on Capitol Hill.
I returned to Italy in 1985 as a Fulbright Fellow, where for two years in Bologna I carried out a wall poster project in the streets. I collected papers from old posters, and then collaged and painted in-place on posters of my own that had been put up by the city’s poster-men.
For the past few years I’ve been an artist in residence in Paris commissioned by In-Situ, which positions working artists in Paris schools to interact with kids of immigrants, mostly from Francophone Africa. I don’t really speak French, so as described above, I return to the apartment in the evening ready for some intimate non-verbal artwork.
Most all of the collages here were done in Kochi, Kerala, India in 2015. I was a Fulbright Scholar in Kochi a decade ago, where I completed a body of large paintings about the arrival of Vasco da Gama there 500 years ago, collaborating with a group of ex-billboard painters (vascoproject.com). I have returned to Kochi a few times since to continue working with painters there. Kochi is a vibrant port city, about the size of Seattle, with a collection of rather amazing old spice warehouses (godowns). I made one of them our studio in 2004, and since that time they have begun to be used more widely by other artists. Kochi is now the site of India’s biennial, which enfolds in old godowns spread around the city.
I was invited to participate in the 2014-15 Kochi biennial, which was visited by 500,000 people from around the world. I collaborated with painter Surya Noufal to create a series of large (4’x12’) oil on enamel pieces, based on my collage imagery. For two months, while he painted in the godown, I made collages there, six days a week six hours a day- a kind of live performance.
Donald Fels collects his material from the many traditional paper posters and announcements found lining the streets of Southern Europe and India. He repurposes the patterns and imagery from the paper to create compelling abstract collages with an aura of far-off places.