Take note

By Kali Jo Wolkow

MICA Gallery exhibit gets creative with office stationery

The next time you see someone in your office scribbling on a Post-it note, look a little closer: You might be witnessing the artistic process at work. 

This weekend, Rosa Maria Arenas, artist of “The Yellow Stickee Diary of a Mad Secretary,” will display her series of art pieces at the MICA Gallery in Old Town. The pieces were drawn on a rather unconventional medium: those teeny colored pieces of office stationery with adhesive strips on the back, commonly called sticky notes. 

 “I would be at work, and I’d just start drawing all these self-portraits,” Arenas, 58, said by phone from her home in St. Louis, Mo. “After a while it just started to be something I did whenever I was in an office.”

After Arenas, a Holland, Mich., native, graduated from Michigan State University in 1991, she struggled to find an occupation that fostered both her creativity and paid her bills. In 1994, however, she found one — sort of. That was the year she began a string of temp jobs as an office assistant, receptionist and several other vocations that can be found in the thesaurus under “secretary.” She said she started making quick portraits of herself that varied according to her moods and feelings. 

For three years, Arenas said she kept these daily “one-minute mediations,” as she called them, a secret. They’d become a timeline of moods and emotions carefully tucked away in sticky note “diary.”  

Then, in 1997, after giving a copy of one of her line drawings as a birthday present to a friend, her office musings were discovered.  After that inauspicious debut, several of Arenas’ friends started pushing her to participate in the 1998 St. Louis Art and Soul studio tour. It was the first public exhibition for her drawings. 

In all, Arenas said she’s created more than 2,000 sticky note drawings in her 11-year span of temping. 

“I persisted in my folly.” Arenas said. “That’s kind of my motto.”

The MICA gallery exhibit will display about 30 pieces from “The Yellow Stickee Diary” collection, ranging in size from the classic 3-inch Post-it square to blown-up scans several feet wide. In addition, some prints will be manipulated, altered and collaged — using office supplies, of course — in several numbered variations. 

She said that while some people prefer her smaller, more personal, simple line drawings, others are drawn to the larger, more detailed and colorful ones.  And although Arenas added more elements to the larger portraits than the original ones, she never strayed from using what she called “necessary office materials,” including pens, markers, highlighters, liquid paper, paperclips, staples and even nail polish. Some people, apparently, have different ideas of what constitutes an office necessity. 

The selection at the gallery was chosen, in part, by Terry Terry, MICA Gallery president.

“We are all looking for people who think differently, who are free and willing to experiment and have something to say,” Terry said. “Rosa does that.”

Even though the exhibit won’t be finalized until the day before, Arenas said her living room is overrun with enough yellow sticky notes for her to imagine what walking into the gallery will be like. And she has some definite ideas for what she wants the Lansing audience to imagine. 

“I want this to be an exhibit that says, ‘Listen to yourself,’” she said. “I hope people might say something along the lines of, ‘This is scary fun — and yet I feel enlightened.’”