Summer has arrived, and I am craving a good road trip — windows down, sun shining across the horizon, and good music à la Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic. This craving is the idea behind my recent piece “Road Trip”: four cassette tapes with eight miniature oil landscape paintings depicting the journey across America from the west coast to the east. All of my road trip adventures have playlists, and when I look at each of the tape paintings, I can hear the songs that kept me company on those long drives. Of course, it also works in reverse; hearing a certain song can take me right back to the I-80, singing along to half of the words as I scout the skyline. That sense of transportation into memory and nostalgia is what I am trying to evoke with these tapes.
COVID has resulted in several cycles of canceled plans, so I’ve taken several road trips to keep my wandering brain sane. Most of the reference photos I used for the paintings were photos I took on a cross-country drive in the summer of 2021. I’ve started painting other out-of-date pieces of technology, like old cellphones and laptops; they feel like slightly more substantial Polaroid pictures or other tokens of memory I carry with me. I enjoy bringing the phones with me to examine and enjoy in other contexts like the subway or in the park. With the right preparation, almost any surface can be painted, from shells and rocks to glass soda bottles or pickle jars. Finding objects to paint can easily become part of a vacation, and painting those objects when you get home is a great way to remember the fun times.
I first stumbled upon the idea of painting on a cassette tape thanks to a professor’s charge to bring unusual “canvases” to class. A thing I already had to think about for painting class was transporting any paintings I created in class back to my apartment while wet. Moving around a lot as a kid had also left me with an appreciation for transportable ways to present art. Finding an object that came with its own case was really satisfying — even better that it’s a see-through case.
When I first started painting cassette tapes, I was also experimenting with CD cases. I eventually decided that I like tapes and their cases better than CD cases because of the separation between art and frame (or case), but I kept coming back to the first CD case I painted. It was an oil painting of a cloudy sky inside a CD case, which I titled “SoundCloud.” I wanted it to do more than just show the sky; I wanted it to be immersive. It’s hard to do that with such a small object, and I realized the way around this was to add music.
Music has always been a large part of my art practice — I always have the radio on in my studio, and many of my pieces have playlists I’ve created to listen to while I work on them. Some of the tapes I’ve painted have recordings of the playlists I listened to while I worked on them, but many of them are also mass-produced tapes with music from icons like Hall & Oates, U2, James Taylor, Tina Turner, and other bands I grew up listening to in the car. I’ve been able to source a lot of the prerecorded tapes through neighbors in my local Buy Nothing group, and I’m thrilled to be able to work with recycled materials.
To paint an object like this at home, you’ll need several paint brushes (#1 round, #3 round, #5 round, #6 flat), gesso or Mod Podge, acrylic paint, some cardboard or paper plates to mix paint on, and several cups of water for rinsing. First, apply several thin layers of gesso or Mod Podge to your object with the flat brush to prime it. This will help your paint stick to the object and keep it from flaking. This step can be done any time before painting, so if you are doing this craft with kids, priming the objects the night before can avoid boring dry times. Before I paint, I do a quick sketch on the object with a pencil or pen to help me avoid warped paintings. I use oil paint, but I don’t recommend it for casual crafting; it’s very messy and requires the use of toxic solvents. Acrylic paint is much cheaper, easier to use, and easier to clean up. It dries quickly and can be cleaned up with soap and water.
I love to paint on canvas, but there is something especially satisfying about creating art that someone else can hold in their own two hands, and even sometimes listen to. Because of these tapes, someone else can know what it sounds like in my brain when I see these specific views. Someone else can know what my memories sound like.