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Creating From Destruction: Why One Artist Ripped Up Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Artists create art out of all sorts of things. But one Brookline collagist decided to create by destroying.

Lola Baltzell ripped apart the more than 1,400 pages of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” a book she has loved since she was a Russian studies major in college, for what she calls the “War and Peace Project.”

In her living room, the 51-year-old flipped through a paperback copy of the tome, searching for a passage that inspired her project:

In the same instant he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and in the same instant that he had died, he made an effort with himself and he woke up. Yes, that was death. I died — I woke up. Yes, that death is an awakening.

Baltzell looked up and said, “That one sentence really strikes me: ‘Yes, death is an awakening.’ … Brushing death is an awakening.”

Baltzell knows this firsthand. In 2008, the artist was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

“And the first year was hell,” Baltzell recalled. “So when you kind of pass through a situation like that, it really makes you think about what you want to do with your life, how you want to spend your time, what’s important. And so I’ve been an artist for many, many years, and I got this idea to do a long-term project, thinking maybe I’ll just beat the odds and live to see it through.”

And that’s how the “War and Peace Project” began.

Baltzell took her well-worn 1970’s Russian Soviet edition of “War and Peace” and set a goal for herself: make 747 collages, one for each two-sided page in the book. Baltzell mashed-up Tolstoy’s prose with scraps of wallpaper, sheet music, paper bags, even coffee cups.

At first she was able to craft to six collages on her own. But, in her weakened state, the work took a lot out of her. So she recruited friends to join the effort.

“We spent every Friday together for months,” Baltzell said. “Gluing, cutting, tearing, burning pages, whatever. We made one after another.”

Her first partner-in-crime, Lynn Waskelis, a close friend from college, was going through chemo for breast cancer when she started helping Baltzell with the collages.

“There was a therapeutic quality, I think, for all of us,” Waskelis said. “Sometimes what we made was really good, and then we would start to evaluate it like art. It sounds so hokey but there’s a sort of quilting bee aspect to the whole project — versus therapy or craft.”

So Baltzell, Waskelis and friends Adrienne Wetmore and Emma Rhodes cranked, making hundreds of collages over two years. They added dried flowers, thread, wax and graphite to their palettes.

Eventually artists from as far away as Berlin and Copenhagen got on board. So did Baltzell’s husband, Mark Natale. He says his wife’s idea inspired him to rediscover both “War and Peace” and photography. He’s documented every collage for the “War and Peace Project” blog.

“And I’d be cropping them and getting them ready for view, and I think I became a critic,” Natale said, and he liked what he saw.

Other people did, too.

Team Tolstoy was invited to do exhibitions and collage workshops in Boston and New York. Then Baltzell decided to take her project to the source: Yasnaya Polyana, the estate a few hours south of Moscow where Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace.”

“It was funny,” Baltzell said. “When I first thought about contacting them, I thought they would be totally offended by what we’ve done because we’ve basically taken ‘War and Peace’ and destroyed the book, page by page. But, in fact, they were so intrigued!”

Because, Baltzell said, the Tolstoy estate was looking to build a younger fan base for a great writer who’s been dead for a century.

For the carriers of Tolstoy’s torch, Baltzell’s seemingly destructive project breathes new life into his 1869 book. Right now, the 747 Team Tolstoy collages are hanging on the walls of the Russian author’s home. Baltzell was there to attend the opening reception for her project that started as a dusty but beloved book on her shelf in Brookline.

As for Baltzell’s health, her breast cancer is at bay. She is currently training for the Pan-Mass Challenge next month.

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