M.Rose Sweetnam

M.Rose Sweetnam work
Photo by M.Rose Sweetnam

“Historically, collage has been a pretty queer art medium when you look at zines and different artifacts. I wonder sometimes about why it was that I got so interested in collage when I was younger and now because it does seem like a lot of queer artists use it as a medium.”

M.Rose Sweetnam grew up in Madison. As a child, they practiced dance and collage. It was in elementary school and middle school that they developed a talent for the visual medium. After middle school and for years afterward, they set aside collage and opted for more traditional academic disciplines. At Madison Area Technical College, they enrolled in figure drawing, a “combination between my dance world, bodywork, and art.” Once they transferred to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, M.Rose specialized in various types of printmaking, including silk screening and woodcuts. Even though they were enrolled, after a point, their personal practice went dormant.

“When I took art out of a place of creativity and joy and put a lot of pressure on what the product was going to be, those were the times where I ended up moving away from art. It was no longer able to be this therapeutic or joyful project,” they prefaced. The compulsion to produce work that could be viewed by others, that could be sold, paralyzed M.Rose for a long time.

Photograph provided by M.Rose Sweetnam

“So with this most recent art show—it was via the Queer Pressure, Black Locust shows they do—that was the motivation for me to return to the art practice. In the actual creation of the art, I tried to have it be not about the product and have it be more about the process. I returned to my collage work. I had been doing print and different things at UW, and I returned to collage because that’s been the medium that generated the work I always liked the most. The images always felt most lovely to me. It’s a process that speaks to me.” Today, collage is M.Rose’s dominant medium. The shift to collage didn’t occur within the university and, in a way, inhabits the antithesis of the academic, productive, and serious.

What is most miraculous about M.Rose’s return to collage is the unconscious ways they’d been preparing for it. “A lot of what I have I collected slowly over time. So I have some books that were donated to A Room Of One’s Own when I worked there. I have some old Wisconsin yearbooks. For a while, I wasn’t entirely certain why. And then, ‘Oh, I can use these for collage, and maybe that’s why I’m keeping these things I like.’”

There’s something natural about M.Rose’s interactions with collage. The art form, more than any other, is breathable and livable. It doesn’t seem that M.Rose has to build their life around the medium. Collage is organic, only giving and appearing when joy is needed.

Photograph provided by M.Rose Sweetnam

Most recently, M.Rose presented their work in a show at Black Locust Cafe that was partnered with Queer Pressure. Housed at Robinia Courtyard, the pieces were collages of bodies, black-and-white photographs paired with strips of iridescence and images of natural scenes. The work was composed of found materials, the artist’s previous print work, and old collected paper and woodwork. Glow-in-the-dark glitter glue, mahogany picture frames, and iridescent wrapping paper all comprise the playful collection of M.Rose’s most recent, perhaps most authentic work.

One of the instrumental pieces of the show was Deep Melt , a framed image of two lovers kissing, surrounded by green illustrated tendrils, pink iridescent textured paper, and a black-and-white landscape photograph of a frozen lake and trees. The figures are tender, sitting on the ground with their legs tucked, one slightly leaning into the other. The viewer is immediately melted by their softness, accentuated by the beauty that cradles them.

“The couple in Deep Melt was a picture that was in an Original Plumbing magazine, which is no longer in print, but it was a trans guy magazine from the mid-2000s. It was just a couple I liked.” M.Rose elucidates on the inspiration behind their choice of figure, body, and pose. “I wanted queer specific images. The other pieces where I had hand-drawn folks, I looked up historical gay images and found another couple and other people I liked. In this collection, mine are somewhat tracings, but they’re also very loose tracings. I try not to be too precious with it. Whenever I get too precious about things, it becomes a little too much.”

Photograph provided by M.Rose Sweetnam

Prioritizing joy and mental health is a process that has been evolving for M.Rose for years. While self-love expresses itself through M.Rose’s gender identity, it also has its roots in their relationship with nature. “Animals and nature have often been a place I looked when I’ve needed to get out of my head. Smiling at a dog can bring me out of an anxiety spiral. When I’ve had some of my worst times with dysphoria, rather than looking forward in public, I would just look at the clouds. Looking at the clouds, looking at nature more often than not was able to bring me out of it.”

M.Rose reflects, “I grew up in the [UW] Arboretum. When I was 19, I moved back in with my parents for about a year. When I was really struggling with depression and agoraphobia, something I would do is go out into the Arboretum onto the paths where hopefully I wouldn’t have to see people, and that’s how I was able to start getting myself to leave the house again.” M.Rose’s dark and brighter moments connect back to interacting with nature. The outdoors provided them an environment where nuance and vulnerability could nourish. Out of the forest, M.Rose has blossomed, offering us whimsy and inviting us to celebrate.

M.Rose’s work can be found on Facebook: M.Rose Sweetnam Art. Additionally, they do commissions. Email mrosesweetnam@gmail.com to learn more.

Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.