Artist George J. E. Sakkal breaks down existing pictures to build new ones.
His collage style moves away from what he calls a traditional approach of building on a photograph's image. He focuses instead on cutting a photograph into slices of paper that can be organized by their color, texture and structure.
By doing that, Sakkal said, he has a palette to work with just like oil or watercolor paints.
"It allows me to paint with paper," the Ellicott City artist said.
Sakkal's collages, which incorporate thousands of meticulously placed paper shards into largely abstract works, are on display at the Howard Community College art gallery in Columbia through July 29. The show is a 25-year retrospective of work by Sakkal, who has taught at Columbia Art Center and will start teaching paper collage at the college in the fall.
"The technique is just so incredible," said Jim Adkins, HCC director of visual arts. Adkins said he also enjoys the way the finished products have a look of photorealism and Sakkal's ability to deal with current and historical events through his art.
The works in the exhibit focus on themes ranging from Sakkal's feeling of being trapped in an uninspiring job in New York to his concerns about gridlock, unrest in the Middle East and a U.S. policy of pre-emptive war. More recently, he has made more realistic landscapes and seascapes inspired by his time spent in Maine.
Sakkal was encouraged by his teachers in high school to pursue art, but he said his father wanted a more practical career for him. In the late 1950s, "he wanted me to be an engineer because of Sputnik," he said.
Sakkal compromised and studied architecture at Texas A&M University, but took every elective in fine art he could. After graduation, he worked for five years with the Peace Corps in Iran and used his experiences there to earn a master's degree in city planning from Harvard University.
In the early 1970s, he became an architect for a stock brokerage firm in New York, but he said it did not suit him. He moved to Baltimore and went to work in 1974 for the Maryland Department of Planning, retiring 2 1/2 years ago.
It was not until the 1980s that his professional art career began. A visitor on an architectural tour of his condominium in Coldspring New Town saw a collage he made for his master bedroom and offered to buy it.
Sakkal said he could not sell it, but offered to make her one on commission. When he finished, "I was praying she didn't want to buy it because I loved it," he said. But the woman decided to buy it for her husband, Roger Dalsheimer, a Baltimore art gallery owner, as an anniversary gift.
Sakkal said those bright multihued, abstract works, and several others from that time, show his experimentation with color gradation.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Sakkal exposed more of his work to the public in galleries and shows. He started to use more structure in his compositions and to include more recognizable images tucked among the thousands of paper shards. His palette became darker, with somber colors predominant until some of his most recent works.
Sakkal said that when he begins a project, he doesn't know what it will be. He moves pieces of paper around, building patterns from all four sides of the canvas until "I begin to see things that are there. It tells me what it wants to be."
When he starts to recognize the theme, he moves to detailing or adding specific shapes and images to solidify the point of the work.
For example, a collage called Victory or Death - December 26, 1776 started out with nonspecific patterns. He added a figure of George Washington on a whim and considered it for a couple of weeks until he decided Washington was the key subject of the work. So he added a horse made of 35 bits of brown paper pieced together, American and British flags, and figures of Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin.
"It is a symbiotic relationship," he said, "between [the work's] capacity to express and your capacity to give it meaning."
The Howard Community College Art Gallery is in the Administration Building, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. The free exhibit is open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.