Arts & Culture

C.R. artist combines puzzles to create collages & so can you

#x201c;Big Rac#x201d; shows the whimsical side of Mel Andringa's jigsaw puzzle collages, where he inserted the raccoons
“Big Rac” shows the whimsical side of Mel Andringa’s jigsaw puzzle collages, where he inserted the raccoons from one puzzle into the fast-food burger from another puzzle. At age 10, he discovered that puzzles often were cut from the same pattern, making their pieces interchangeable. (Photos courtesy of Mel Andringa)

When Mel Andringa empties a jigsaw puzzle box, he doesn’t see a pile of pieces, he sees a pile of possibilities.

And you can, too, if you know what to look for.

Like so many others, his earliest puzzle memories reach back to childhood. Unlike almost anyone else, his puzzle creations hang in corporate offices, in private collections and in museums, including the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

They begin like ordinary, everyday puzzles, but by the time he’s through with them, they emerge as works of art holding delightful surprises for viewers. Like “Big Rac,” where raccoons peer out of a multilayered fast-food burger; or several variations on “American Gothic”; and “Floating Pieta,” where Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture of the slain Christ cradled in his mother’s lap creates a waterfall in the midst of an autumn river reverie.

Puzzle journey

In his youth, Andringa discovered that while the pictures on the puzzles change with each box, the same template was used over and over to cut the pieces, making them interchangeable.

“I can kind of remember playing with them as a real young child — some cutout giraffes that were in a page of a book that you put your finger through from the back side, and the pieces came out and you could make them stand up,” said Andringa, 76, who grew up in Holland, Mich., and has lived Cedar Rapids for nearly 30 years.

Co-founder of The Drawing Legion and Legion Arts with F. John Herbert, they moved from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids in 1991 to renovate and operate the century-old CSPS Hall until 2019, bringing cutting-edge, world-class performances to the NewBo District.

Andringa, now retired, maintains a home studio in the nearby Cherry Building, where he has exhibited his puzzle art on the gallery walls and floor. His plywood floor puzzles allow all ages get into the act, trying their hand at his designs during indoor and outdoor art festivals and events.

His personal puzzle epiphany came around age 10, when his cousin passed down a set of World War II airplane jigsaw puzzles, showing fighter planes with their machine guns, flying in different directions against blue skies. They all were cut from the same pattern.


“I found that I could make midair collisions by mixing the pieces,” he said. “That little 10-year-old terrorist grew up to be an artist.”

Fast-forward to college, around 1967, when he decided to see if he had remembered it correctly — that puzzles sometimes had the same stamp. So he bought some inexpensive children’s puzzles and began experimenting, and found the same was true of those, and of larger puzzles, too.

Soon he was making “found art” puzzle collages, and after attending graduate school at the University of Iowa in the ’70s, he began incorporating puzzles into his teaching there and beyond.

It was also in the late ’70s and ’80s that as a performance artist, painter and multimedia artist, he created and toured coast to coast and across the Atlantic to Amsterdam with “The Sistine Floor.” It’s an avant-garde dreamlike work in which the Pope asks Michelangelo to create a mosaic floor design, at a time when all the artist wants to do is retire, “work jigsaw puzzles and watch Olympic gymnasts on television.” But he can’t say no to the Pope, and begins exploring how to make mosaics.

History lessons

Mosaics, themselves, are a type of puzzle, dating back centuries, and jigsaws are a mosaic format, Andringa said. But they’re cut so the pieces interlock, instead of just butting up against each other like most mosaics do.

London mapmaker John Spilsbury is credited with making the first jigsaw puzzles in the 1760s, to get rid of some of his inventory.

“He glued some of his excess maps to a piece of thin, mahogany veneer, and then he cut it with a jig and a saw,” Andringa said. “A jig is something that then allows you to cut the same curve over and over again. Usually they called it a ‘marquetry saw,’ used for making inlaid wood (objects).”

Spilsbury “cut along the borders of the countries, then chopped the oceans up into regular pieces and put them in a box and merchandised it as an educational toy for children, to teach them geography,” Andringa said, adding that idea continues today. “We’ve all seen puzzles of the map of the United States, where each state is cut out to be in the shape of the state.”

When those earliest educational tools for children evolved into puzzles targeted for adults, they depicted paintings and were pitched as art appreciation.


“The idea was that by assembling a jigsaw puzzle, you would spend more time with that painting than you would on a gallery wall, and you would learn all the details of it,” Andringa said.

The puzzles still were being cut by hand, he added, and great care was taken to not cut through the face of an important figure like the Queen of England.

“So they would cut around the face and then around the hair and then around the crown,” he said. “Some of those pieces would be shaped, but they were difficult to (solve).

“Here’s your basic lesson,” he explained. “When you do a jigsaw puzzle, you’re working with two kinds of information: the information on the piece, that is the queen’s face, or the state of Iowa, and the shape of the piece. That is the border of the piece. And if you can’t tell from the irregular shape of the piece what the adjacent part of it is, then you don’t know what the next piece looks like.

“With an interlocking puzzle, you frequently see a portion of what the next piece looks like. It’s twice as hard if the pieces are all the same shape, and twice as hard if the shape of the information is the same in all the pieces, like a solid yellow puzzle that has a Dole banana sticker on it or the solid red puzzle merchandised as Little Red Riding Hood’s hood.”

When the idea of art appreciation turned commercial, the puzzle pictures moved toward pop culture icons, like pop bottles and movie stars or “whatever would have a commercial impact,” Andringa said.

He’s still partial to the vintage Springbok jigsaws, with their artistic puzzle faces, which he’s found at secondhand stores for a quarter.

“The first time I came to Cedar Rapids was to buy jigsaw puzzles at Goodwill and the Salvation Army,” he said. “I packed my station wagon full of as many as I could bring back to my studio in Iowa City.”


He bought “hundreds” of them, and brought them back to Cedar Rapids when he moved there, putting them in his new studio space at the Firehouse next to CSPS Hall. While many were ruined during the Floods of 2008, he still has “hundreds” of them.

“I could supply the city of Cedar Rapids with puzzles to work during the pandemic,” he said.

Immersing himself in jigsaws and their history would shine a new spotlight on his artistic endeavors.

Puzzle competitions

When word of his puzzle prowess started making magazine headlines in the mid-80s in gaming magazines, Sesame Street and Smithsonian magazines, he went to the National Puzzle Championship in Athens, Ohio, to see how that operated.

“It was quite similar to what NewBo City Market has done twice now during their jigsaw tournaments,” he said.

“And in those tournaments, people race each other to put those together. Now that’s kind of making a sport out of it — taking a pastime and making it a push time.”

The Ohio contest organizers put two and two together and brought him back the next year to escort the secret jigsaw puzzles from the manufacturer in Boston to Ohio, in an armored truck. The performer in him said yes, and he created the persona of “Professor Puzzle.” He donned a cap and gown featuring a puzzle design, and started making the morning talk show rounds in all the major media capitals along the way — Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“That was probably the era when I had the most jigsaw celebrity as Professor Puzzle, going around the country, showing off these jigsaw puzzles,” he said.

building community

He kept creating and exhibiting his puzzle art, up to the time of the 2008 flood, which destroyed much of his inventory and closed CSPS and the Firehouse for mitigation and renovation until reopening in 2011.

“The flood was a terrible, terrible thing. But I said I’m going to wrestle with it. I’m going to make it give me something back, as a song or a play or artwork or something,” he said.


He traveled to Venice for an art residency, studying mosaics with the company that makes the mosaics for St. Mark’s Cathedral. He also studied floods, and was in the Italian city of gondolas and canals during a time of high water. That renewed his artistic spirit.

“I came back and I got re-interested in puzzles and started reproducing some of the things that I’d lost,” he said.

“But I also I started making street puzzles or things that we could use to build community in New Bohemia, where they have street fairs. I’d haul out my plywood, hand-painted jigsaw puzzles, and people would work among us in the streets.

“I just kept puttering around with the stuff,” he said, and about a year ago or so, artist Tim Klein contacted him, saying he was making puzzle mash-ups, too, from reading about Andringa’s work in one of those 1980s magazine articles.

Based in Vancouver, Wash., Klein has been drawing media attention, too, and he said he always makes a point of mentioning Andringa in his interviews. Klein came to Andringa’s Cedar Rapids studio, where the two puzzle masters talked shop.

Puzzling advice

Andringa, a humble man who concedes he’s “sort of expert,” has lots of advice for people pulling their jigsaw puzzles out of hiding and onto dining room tables during this time of social distancing.

You’ll need a working area about three times the surface of the puzzle, so if the puzzles is 10 inches by 20 inches, he said you’ll need an area at least 30 inches by 60 inches on which to work it.

“It is a pretty intuitive activity,” he said, “and everybody has a slightly different way that they tackle them.

“The borders definitely help because let’s just say you’ve got the whole border done, but no other piece is done. There’s a piece in the upper right hand corner — and all four corners, actually — that’s missing and is somewhere on the rest of the table.


“But you know more about that piece in the corner, and its shape, than you do about any other piece. If it’s like a right angle, kind of square piece, you know that certain pieces will sit there and other pieces won’t. So that’s another question of whether you want to take the time to lay out all the pieces. First of all, you’ve got to turn them over, then you’ve got to separate them.”

He recalled a time in Ohio when groans reverberated throughout the huge convention hall, as the contestants turned over their puzzle pieces and saw the face of a zebra staring back at them.

“It was all black and white,” he said. “Puzzlers hate that. They think that’s just making it hard for the sake of making it hard.

“Puzzle companies often make the mistake of doing that, of saying, ‘This is the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle,’ because it’s a puzzle of a Jackson Pollock. It’s true, because you don’t really understand the picture — everything’s camouflaged and you can only work with the shape of the piece, not the shape of the information that’s on it, because it’s an allover pattern.

“In a way, they undercut themselves if they try to make it too difficult, because people want to enjoy the experience, not have it be a mind-breaking task to put it together.”

So when you’re working a less daunting puzzle at home, building out from a corner, you’ll know two things about the next piece, “as opposed to just any random piece — whether it has an inner or an outie,” Andringa said.

“But in that corner piece, you know it has an innie and an outie, or two outies or two innies. You know more information about the shape of that piece than you do any other piece or any other position of the puzzle. So you could kind of work from the corners toward the center.

“But of course, you’re also working with the shape of the information on the piece. So therefore, you’re saying the colored sky is blue, and it’s true that you’re handicapped if you don’t have good color vision,” he said.


There’s more to puzzles than meets the eye, with politics sometimes entering into play, he noted.

A woman he knows said her father was a socialist or a communist, and he didn’t like the kids doing jigsaw puzzles because “it was meaningless work, it was just labor. Someone had put it together to be taken apart and put back together again, and it was a dead-end activity,” so he didn’t want the kids doing jigsaw puzzles.

“If he saw them doing a jigsaw puzzle, he’d take a piece and eat it. That sounds mean, but you understand his point,” Andringa said.

“And in my way of working with the puzzle, it’s not a dead end. I can make something with the puzzle. Once the puzzle has been made, I can come up with a new design by mixing them together, and open that form for making something up again, and have it be a creative act rather than a task.”

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