Collages of Chaos: Lillian Paige Walton’s Meter Wide Button

The front cover of Lillian Page Walton's Meter-Wide Button, a pencil drawing of a woman wearing a hat with a sketchbook in her hand.

In 2013, a Houston based curator named Max C. Fields premiered the art show Linear Movement on his digital gallery. The show consisted of five paintings by a recent graduate from the University of North Texas. The artist’s work uses oils and inks to create a collage of lines and abstract shapes on organic objects. Each collage sees lines and colors interact with each other in a way that feels oddly human, like a surreal snapshot of a busy New York City street. In the first untitled piece, there is a large teal splotch to the far right that loosely resembles a whale walking on its tailfin next to three large skyscraper-shaped pieces in pink and white. All of these are being cut through and crisscrossed by lines of black and white, infinite paths taken across the city in a given day.

In the next painting, two large white rectangles mirror each other at the center of the piece like an open book. Exploding outward from what could be the pages of the book are curving lines of various colors and depths. A lunar cycle of half filled-in rings seems to dance from one page to the other, and puddles of pink and white collect below like there is too much story for this book to absorb. While it might feel like looking at some bizarre, abstract, expressionist pop-up book, looking at the piece, one could tell that if it were really a book, it would contain a multitude of worlds, some much like this one but still far from anything we’ve ever seen. It would subvert every expectation of plot from one page to the next. The artist that brought these worlds to canvas in 2013’s Linear Movement is Lillian Paige Walton.

In the years since the opening of Linear Movement, Lillian Paige Walton has moved to New York City where she obtained her MFA in Painting from Hunter College and has had her work shown in galleries in four different countries. Walton has also taken these same fine arts concepts her paintings are known for, and used them to create fictional worlds on the page.  In her debut collection, titled Meter-Wide Button (Sapp Press, 2021), Walton binds nine short stories, all of which encompass a collage of chaos. Splotches of humor are lined with streaks of anxiety as familiar worlds appear to fall apart with surreal twists and elegant absurdities. A seemingly normal dental exam turns into an archeological dig when a dentist finds something strange rooted in a patient’s mouth in the story “Excavation.” In “No Spoon,” a simple stop at a convenience store after dinner leaves a kleptomaniac in shock after she hears the trumpets and sees the bright lights of a man’s rapturous ascension toward the sky.

Lillian Paige Walton prepares us for these tumultuous worlds in the first story of the collection, “The Room in Which I Write.” The story starts off with the sentence “Before we continue, there is something about me that I would like you to know.” The line acts as a familiar hand that wants to guide us through a shapeshifting world once thought mundane. Later, the narrator says, “My work is coming from the room in which I write,” and then goes on to describe the windowless room as having no furniture or decor other than a single 16th-century urn. The narrator says that sometimes the sound of their pen draws snakes into the room that crawl around their ankles, other times the floor is filled with water or sand. As the first story in the collection, we get a sense of what worlds are created when Walton herself sits down with a pen and paper. It helps prepare us for the subsequent eight stories as they bend and break expectations.

In “Bather,” we find a woman who is looking for a little respite from the hustle and bustle of living in vibrant New York City. Trying to soak in a too-small tub, we see more than just the water close in on her aching body as she is repeatedly pulled out of relaxation by endless noise and anxieties: a person on the streets yelling “Listen, man!” over and over, eyes that appear and disappear in a skylight above, and the small bathroom’s walls that inch closer and closer trying to turn the tub into a coffin, when all she wants to do is reach her toe to the faucet to let the cool water run along her overheating body. When “the cool stream licks the inside of the bather’s foot,” we watch as “she inflates, feeling her body rise like the dough upon which an entire mold of the bathroom is destined to be imprinted.” Can the old walls hold this expansion in place? Can she be liberated from the oppressively small bathroom? Can she gain control of the chaos? What’s left for the world when a woman finally feels in control?

The title story, “Meter-Wide Button,” closes out the book by taking us to a future where humans are colonizing other planets and comedians are still getting blacklisted for their inappropriate jokes. The story starts off at an apocalypse themed house party where a woman dressed as “an antibiotic-resistant strain of syphilis” meets a man “with a styrofoam mutant head velcroed to his shoulder.” As in many other stories in the collection, we feel like we’re placed inside a familiar world with drunken house parties, but soon we find ourselves at an artist residency on a planet called Longshelby II, where an artist tries to balance his time admiring night skies, living through attacks by revenge seeking natives, and creating memorable art that the visiting guest critics will admire. Walton may take us to another planet in this story, but the social critiques feel right at home here on Earth.

In Max C. Fields’s write-up of Lillian Paige Walton’s Linear Movement art show, he observed that “Walton takes disparate elements from a variety of sources (which Walton cites as ranging from Surrealist painting, household objects, to Devo album art) and combines them with various methods of mark making. The resulting abstract compositions are reminiscent of aquatic landscapes, science fiction B movies, and bewitched breakfast foods…all of which, considering [Walton’s] diverse canon of influences, likely serve as inspiration.” Reading her debut story collection Meter-Wide Button, it’s clear that turning the humdrum into the hypnotic is still at the forefront of her artistic expression. If creating collage is giving order to objects that seem to have no reason to interact with one another, then placing words next to each other to draw a reader into unimaged worlds is no different. This fine artist-turned-author’s debut collection straps a seatbelt around its readers as it masterfully pulls them from one chaotic world to the next.