Colleen Attara wasn’t a natural-born artistic ingénue. She wasn’t some kind of gifted savant of painting or drawing or sculpting. Instead, she had, from a very young age, an intense creative spirit and a desire to express her voice in whatever medium she could find. At 51, the Yardley, Pa. mother of two has developed a strong sense of what she wants to tell the world, coupled with an uncanny knack for seeing beauty in the most mundane objects and unexpected pairings. That has led her to discover and refine a distinct brand of artwork that lives in homes, schools, and hospitals across the region, including Capital Health Medical Center – Hopewell.
But if you step into her art studio—a 450-square-foot cottage in Yardley—the strewn scraps of fabric and weather-beaten leather and the random objects of antiquity, like an old clock face or a broken vase, clue you in that even her artwork is a journey. It’s an experiment of trial and error using discarded materials and discovered treasures that Colleen unites to tell stories and depict emotions all of us can relate to. Grief. Self-discovery. Joy. Disappointment. Reinvention. Hope.
Mainly focusing on three-dimensional art and mixed media collages, Colleen creates greeting cards with powerful messages (which are sold in more than 55 stores, bookstores, and in Trader Joe’s), inspirational scripted words and vibrantly colored flower box gardens that adorn the walls, and personal art journals, all depicting the complexity of her spirit and providing windows into her personal challenges and achievements.
Those offer insights into Colleen’s sometimes-uphill battle to learn about herself and find a voice through her art. Her exuberance and her appearance—her mussed blonde hair and the infectious smile that burns 10,000 watts—can be misleading, because it hasn’t always come easily. Despite the fact that her art favors warmth and hopefulness over darkness and glower, she’s had to dig deep and tune out voices along the way that told her she was too small, too inexperienced, or incapable of achieving her dreams for one reason or another.
Colleen is spunky and genuine, and there’s nothing saccharine about her. Much like the torn photographs, scraps of paper, and recycled materials, all stitched together with bits of colored thread on one of her sewing machines, this woman is a little bit of everything, and that’s just how she likes it.
Having grown up in Monroe Township, N.J., Colleen followed her older sister, Sharon, to Texas, attending the University of Houston to study radio and television. “I wanted to be a news anchor, and I did that for a little bit out of school. I was young, and I was on the air, but I was working with some very sexist men,” Colleen says. “I saw well-dressed salespeople with nice cars who were making a lot of money. And then there was this one person who told me I could never be a salesperson; that I just didn’t have what it would take. I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do, because only I can decide for myself what I can and can’t do.” As proof of that, she brushed off an embarrassing stutter throughout her childhood to become an on-air news anchor.
So with virtually no sales training, Colleen began selling commercials and airtime. She found that her instincts and personality carried her a long way throughout her sales career, the majority of which she worked in Philadelphia. Throughout her career, she lived off of a take-no-prisoners approach, often making bold moves to get noticed. And it worked.
“I remember sitting at a luncheon with the director of sales and the sales manager in a really nice restaurant and looking at them and saying, ‘The choice is yours. You can hire me now at this price or you can hire me later at a higher price.’ And another time, I went to the best bakery in Philadelphia at the time, and I had a sheet cake delivered to the sales department with my name on their business card,” Colleen recalls. “I may not have been doing art back then, but I was still very creative. I pushed the envelope.”
She worked at ABC and eventually moved to FOX, selling advertising to heavy hitters, her sales career cruising along at full speed. Having married her husband, Michael, (a PGA professional whose company Spirit Golf Management just purchased Hopewell Valley Golf Club), who she dated in high school, in 1989, they eventually had two kids—a son, Wyatt, and a daughter, Paige, now 21 and 18. At first, Colleen moved into a job share situation so she could maintain her career and still give plenty to her children. But eventually she wanted more. So she left, never looking back, and reset her sights on motherhood and finding a way to speak to the world through art.
She started taking classes at an art school called Cultural Arts in Progress (CAPS) across from the Yardley Inn by the Delaware River. But despite her desire to create art, it took a while to find her niche, and it was a difficult and often oblique process at times. “I had to push through, and I was really uncomfortable. I was with some pretty amazing artists at the time. So I just kept pushing. I just kept showing up, which is really the one thing I would tell anyone. Just show up,” Colleen says. “I just kept going, and eventually one day we had canvases on the floor, and we were just throwing paint on it. I just remember it was like something cracked open inside me, like something in me was just like, Okay. I’m off.”
She began hunting for objects that might mean something in the context of her art—retired business signs, old windows, other people’s leftovers—and she began painting, deconstructing, and quite literally piecing them back together. She began bringing her work to galleries, gaining exposure, experimenting with different mediums, and absorbing advice so she could refine her work.
In an effort to put to work her writing ability and her desire to express her world view through her art, Colleen began creating greeting cards, often combining scraps of paper, torn pages from books, and photographs all coarsely sewn together with messages like: “There were times she lost her way. But she never lost her grit and swagger” or “I know. It looks like a tiny baby. But that little person is the greatest teacher you will ever have.”
There’s perhaps more of Colleen in her greeting cards than in anything she does. Except for one thing. Somewhere in the organized chaos of her little studio, she keeps a series of treasured journals that are painfully honest portrayals from various periods in her life when she was working through something scary, emotional, or unclear. Each page, crafted with photo transfers, phrases torn from books, physical manifestations of memories both massive and minute, and lots of thread, is plastered with the poetry of the moment. There’s one journal she started when her mother was dying, and when you turn each perfectly narrated page, you feel like you’re reaching up on your tippy toes and peering into Colleen’s soul.
One page says, “I look through boxes of photographs and see pictures of you, each hair sprayed into place, wearing sweaters on the beach, on the board walk. Sweaters stacked in neat piles. These same sweaters we put in bags and gave away. We couldn’t save everything. We could barely save anything. Like all your things, you are disappearing.”
Page by page, book by book, her words and images are raw and boil down to the root of pain and struggle, of loss and uncertainty. It’s intimate and soul searching and, most of all, cathartic.
“I went away by myself to finish that book about my mom. It was the most private thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t even tell her about it,” Colleen recalls. “After she died, I just got in the car, I went away by myself to an inn in the Amish country, and I just finished that book. I realized very quickly that, because there were so many unanswered questions that came up when she died, and this helped me heal.”
The process of creating the book helped Colleen heal from her mother’s death and put to rest unresolved issues she’d never have the chance to face with her directly. This gift of healing through art, she discovered, was something she wanted to share with others. To that end, Colleen teaches others how to heal through altered books at Squam Art Workshops in New Hampshire, showing participants how to empty pain and emotional turmoil into art journals. “This is definitely heavy, but it’s amazing what happens when you give people places to hold the hard stuff,” Colleen says.
The vast majority of her work—the pieces the public gets to consume—are colorful and warm and designed to generate hopefulness and inspiration, and it’s the kind of art she feels fortunate to share with the world. “I’m doing the work I’m meant to do. I’m doing the work I was born to do right now. I’m really certain of that. It just comes out easily,” she says. “And it feels good because that clarity of purpose is all you can ask for.
“If you ask me what I want for my children, I would tell you I want them to find work they believe they too were born to do—work so true it feels like play.”