Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Portrait of Tia Blassingame setting metal type from a job case, working on the book, "I AM".
Typesetting for the artists’ book, I AM. Image courtesy of the artist.

Levi Sherman: It’s so empowering to have an instructor that holds themselves to the values they profess in the studio. Can you talk about a recent experiment or a time when you’ve broken through your own expectations as an artist or teacher?

Tia Blassingame: I typically build into my artists’ book project an aspect that pushes me to work with a technique in which I need to build mastery or for some reason I’ve avoided. It’s baked into each project, and not something that is necessary for the reader/viewer to know.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" depicts a screen-printed leaf and text in white on a brown page.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For example, in Harvest: Holding & Trading I used screen printing mainly because it had been a technique that I found underwhelming. The colors seemed too garish, the whole process messy. It just did not appeal to me. So with that project I pushed myself to gain control of the colors. In that project all colors have some amount of brown and largely represent the skin tones of captive Africans that were brought to Rhode Island over the course of the 18th century. 

For my most recent project, Colored: A Handbook, I had taught paste paper making, which is always one of those techniques that half the class loves. Meaning half the class hates it. In the end, they have way too many sheets that simply end up in the trash. Rarely are they incorporated into their work aside from as endsheets or the cover of an odd blank book or two.

Close-up of a spread from "Colored: A Handbook" with prose poetry on the recto. The pages are washed brown using paste paper techniques.
“Chapter Eight: He can’t talk about it with me,” from Colored: A Handbook. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I know I had not brought the technique into my own artist’s book projects. So for this book I wanted to challenge myself to use it in a way that made sense for the writing and subject matter. I had previously encountered Madeleine Durham’s paste paper and used them in blank books. Last year I had an opportunity to take a workshop with her. This gave me a chance to experiment and see the many ways that I might be able to create patterns and texture that supported a book that looks at the centuries of Black presence — joy and pain — in the United States. Also I found the process surprisingly meditative. In the end, I expanded my incorporation of paste paper to another related artist’s book including African American: A Handbook. Furthermore I expanded this experimentation to combining paste paper and natural dyes. I’m looking forward to where that takes me beyond this set of artist’s books.

And now I have an example and different method of teaching paste paper — as in intimate collaboration with your content — to my students. In this case my art and teaching practice have been expanded.

LS: You manage to achieve the same soft, layered look of pressure printing with your paste paper and even screen printing. I think of it as something of a signature style, a way to identify your work at a glance. What is it in your process or content that draws you to that aesthetic? 

TB: Yes, initially in the paste paper workshop I think my inclination toward a more muted realization was misunderstood, or confused with not understanding how to correctly perform the technique. Eventually that tendency and desire to achieve a more muted palette was recognized.

I typically prefer a more muted or subtle color scheme. Colors, their combinations have meaning. I do not use any colors arbitrarily in my artists’ book projects. At times I may explicitly call out their meaning in the colophon. Other times I feel like it is clear or that, if not, the colors still have the intended effect upon the reader/viewer.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" which shows text knocked out of a brown leaf printed on tan paper. The text is a 1758 listing for a slave.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been struck by how art teachers, my classmates, artists would refer to the color brown as ugly or unattractive, undesirable. I couldn’t help but look at my own hands and arms, and know they were wrong. In grad school, art school, those same flippant comments, dismissal of brown continued. I want to say it was without self-awareness, but I doubt it.

For me the stark whiteness of a page or sheet of paper is artificial and jarring. The color white, pure white, in the natural world is an anomaly. I know students often start and get stuck on using stark white paper. Even when there are alternatives of varied hues. In their case, they are using what they know, what is comfortable. Copier paper, notebook paper, textbook paper is typically stark white. So I have to push them out of their comfort zone to explore, and experience how colored, cream, natural papers print, take and shift ink colors.

For the muted colors that I use and the shades of brown ink that I may present, I prefer how muted papers draw them down…to a place that is comfortable for the eyes of the reader/viewer. And might make them linger for a bit on a page, an image, a word, concept. This is just another Book Arts technique that I employ to engage the reader/viewer in a relationship with the book, a conversation on race.

Digital mock-up of a spread from "Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian".  Each page pairs text and semaphore. "Oscar Grant" on the verso and "Abner Louima" on the recto.
G and L pages from Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian. Images courtesy of the artist.

There are very few examples of my use of white paper. In a book like Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian (2015) or Mourning/Warning: Numbers & Repeaters (2018), the paper is slightly nicer than regular copier paper, but as bright a white. Making the browns that have been added to the nautical flags feel like they belong. The white gives some indication of a primer with only the essential information included. In Hers: A Primer of Sorts (2013), I used white rice paper only because I was broke and was committed to complete this artists’ book for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. I had already written the text, settled on the book layout, and planned the execution. When it came time to start the edition, I did not have the funds to complete it as I originally envisioned. So I reconsidered how to complete the edition. I happened to have a pad or two of rice paper. I had a decent printer, and it turned out the paper went through the printer. It printed beautifully. To tamp down the starkness of the white paper, I covered the pages with a veil of images of letterforms and lace fabrics. This was also helpful because I was using upcycled almanac covers that were slightly yellowed and age worn. The text is printed on the reverse of each page and becomes apparent when the text block is pulled away from the covers in this flutter book.

LS: Since you’ve spoken so eloquently about how color operates in your work, I wonder if you might do the same for book structure. The complexity, scale and interactivity of the binding seems carefully calibrated for each project.

TB: I am engaging the viewer/reader in a conversation about historical and contemporary racism by using printmaking and book arts techniques to seduce the reader through materials, color, tactility, pacing in order to slow the reader’s initial impulse to flee or avoid a discussion of race.

Each artist’s book project has different perimeters from how I push myself as I mentioned, but primarily the relationship that I am looking for the reader/viewer to have is with the book, how I want the reader/viewer to physically engage with that specific artist’s book. I consider how I can utilize typography, materiality, tactility, and so on to facilitate that relationship, control the reader/viewer.

Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013) employs color and sound and translucency to build an interaction with the reader/viewer that ebbs and flows. Influenced by the size and placement of text and image, the viewer will move close to the page. The rhythm and rustling of non-color field pages and relatively silent ones act as a metronome that can both guide the reader’s pace and create a haunting soundtrack as captive Africans are brought into view. Harvest is intended to be emotional and disorienting.

Black in Dictionary is meant to seduce through tactility, color, pattern, scale. It feels good in your hands, but also you want to hold it and not put it down or share it. The paper has bits of glitter embedded in it, but it is also buttery and appealing to touch. The imagery on the flags — photos of my skin and jewelry — is muted, misty — almost enjoyable to view despite the jarring text from a slang dictionary. What is it to hold close and almost covetously an artist’s book that highlights derogatory terms to describe African Americans? What is it to maintain this conversation on race because the decisions that I make in creating the work have stalled your impulse to flee or avoid the topic?

Image of "Black in Dictionary" showing the flag book open with text on one side and imagery on the other.
Black in Dictionary. Photo courtesy of the artist.

My work doesn’t have an easily identifiable signature look because each project demands several different things: some invisible that are for me and the process, others to ensure a specific physical engagement and building a relationship with the artist’s book. The signature is there for those willing to look below the surface and obvious.

LS: Do you find that artists’ books as a medium are particularly capable of that seduction and intimacy that allows you to challenge readers with a conversation about race

TB: Absolutely. We all have some relationship with, feelings about, memories of books and reading. Good or bad. So there is a different response, emotions that a work using the book format can elicit. A different attention, connection that the viewer makes. Intellectual, emotional, physical response that you can draw from the viewer. That can be quite intense. Books or their absence, being read to or not growing up, being voracious reader or struggling, have an effect on everyone, but it also gives us strong memories and responses to the physical representation of a book…and can make us responsive to bookishness — those book characteristics: pacing, pages, covers, text and/or image, narrative, propelled by the reader, some space for their imagination to fill in the story, presence, intimate experience between the reader and the book or story or characters or author/artist.

LS: Are you currently working on any projects that have you excited? 

I’m excited about a collective that I started last year: the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. The collective brings Book History and Print Culture scholars into conversation and collaboration with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) book artists, papermakers, curators, letterpress printers, papercutters, printmakers and more to build community and support systems. We are over thirty individuals connected and grounded by our shared passion for book arts and the unique potential of artists’ books as vehicles for social change and racial unity. Our current and future collaborations across media and disciplines will continue to morph as our group grows and our connections shift and deepen. This year we had events such as a conversation on Antiracist Bookworks through University of Maryland at College Park and BookLab, a series of panels hosted by the Bibliographical Society of America with the final one in January 2021. I’m already planning more collaborations for 2021 and beyond.

Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 1 of 2

Tia Blassingame is an Assistant Professor of Book Arts at Scripps College and serves as the Director of Scripps College Press. A book artist and printmaker exploring the intersection of race, history, and perception, Blassingame often incorporates archival research and her own poetry in her artist’s book projects for nuanced discussions of racism in the United States. Her artist’s books are held in library and museum collections including Library of Congress, Stanford University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and State Library of Queensland. In 2019, she founded the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective to bring Book History and Print Culture scholars into collaboration with Book Arts artists of color.

Black and white portrait of Tia Blassingame examining prints in the studio, wearing a "Ladies of Letterpress" apron.
Tia Blassingame. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was especially excited to talk to Tia Blassingame because of her holistic, critical approach to the artists’ book field. She decenters the book object and focuses on the interconnected roles of artists, curators, collectors, librarians, teachers, students, and the institutions they move in. I believe this perspective is necessary for the field to mature and, importantly, to do so with racial and social equity. 

The following interview took place via email beginning July 24, 2020. It has been edited for clarity.

Levi Sherman: How did you find your way to book arts? What was the first artists’ book you made?

Tia Blassingame: I come from a fairly bookish family, a family of educators. My mom taught elementary school. My dad was a historian and Yale professor of African American Studies and History; my brother an educator in Mathematics and LSAT testing. Libraries, overflowing bookshelves, stacks of books, the presence of Black writers, scholars, and artists were a constant part of my foundation years. Looking back it seems that Book Arts in some form was always around me whether as rare books, historical documents, the scholarship of Black art historians, children’s books, manuscripts.

I properly came to artist’s books after developing an interest in learning letterpress printing. I was located in New Haven and had searched for opportunities to learn or at least check out a letterpress print shop locally. I reached out to New Haven Arts Workshop, but they had just sold off their letterpress equipment. When I contacted Yale University about simply visiting the letterpress studios in their residential colleges, they told me that I was not considered “affiliated with Yale,” so I started looking farther afield. I ended up taking a weeklong letterpress workshop at the Center for Book Arts. I was working full-time at the time, so I think I used my leave to take the week off. From that class, I simply went down the rabbit hole.

The first artist’s book that I created? Well, even now friends of the family mention illustrated books that I created and gifted them as a kid. That involved illustration and storytelling. So self publishing at least seems to have been a lifelong interest.

The first proper artist’s book that I attempted was months prior to starting a Master’s degree in the Art of the Book at Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington, DC. I had been conducting research for several years about an early integrated school in New England. While I was an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and immediately after at MacDowell, I was letterpress printing and creating what I did not realize was an artist’s book, or even a book, as I didn’t have the vocabulary or bookmaking skills, but I was laying out the pages and considering the reader/viewer’s relationship with the piece, its pacing. But I was frustrated because I wasn’t able to bring it together. It is really just now that I am coming back to that work to edition it. I still have the letterpress prints and have since incorporated them into bound forms, but in some cases I have re-considered the forms or layouts.The Negro Students of Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire (2019) is the culmination of those letterpress pieces that were started at SFAI and MacDowell almost ten years before. In this case, the resulting Students book was Risograph printed at Endless Editions at Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York City. My ideas around the reader/viewer’s relationship with the book changed from when I was considering it in my lovely studio at MacDowell, but I’m excited about how the reader/viewer and this version of Students will develop a relationship and discuss race in terms of early New England integrated education.

Two copies of the single-sheet artists' book "Students" side by side; front view and back view.
The Negro Students of Noyes Academy, Canaan, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of International Print Center New York (IPCNY).

LS: Has art always been the outlet for your historical and archival research? Or did your interest in history precede its emergence in your art practice?

TB: No, well at least not visual art. I always wrote verse or poetry tied to my research but it was more for me to roll over an aspect of the process or a fact or connection that energized me. Prior to shifting to visual art, I was writing essays and manuscripts on architectural history, architecture and perception that never quite captured the essence or energy that interested me. The last two times that I was an artist-in-residence at MacDowell, for example, I was conducting the field research upon which Students is partly based. The final time, I was writing a traditional essay and then turning it into pages, an outgrowth of experimentation that I had started in the preceding months as an artist-in-residence at Santa Fe Art Institute, where I had been making clumsy letterpress prints about Noyes Academy.

The love of research, libraries and looking to history and historical documents to make sense of, and seeing connections to the present, were instilled by my dad. The rare books and documents that littered our home, his study and his offices were a constant. The conversations in our home — I expect partly because everyone including my brother and mom, in addition to being voracious readers, could draw so easily from history, memory, personal experiences — were always tangled and enlivened, in part, by history, oral history, and books.

Also I can’t overstate my brother’s influence as a reader of science fiction, mystery by white and Black authors HG Wells and Ray Bradbury to Octavia Butler, comic books, Agatha Christie to Chester Himes, and beyond. Whose library growing up had been the Library of Congress as my family had lived in DC-Maryland before I was born and my brother had accompanied my dad to the LOC while he conducted research. Who as a young kid had read his entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and moved on. A set that endlessly entranced me with its images framed by text. My brother’s seamless movement between comics and literary works, and his serious regard of comics with his verbatim, but lively, retelling of a page or entire comic, or excited describing of a comic character — their powers, backstory, and incidents from various volumes — with the same seriousness and thoroughness that he would give to a Stephen King novel or Beckett definitely helped develop my interest in text and image, books as art, but also open to all types of content and treatment. 

In many ways I see no disconnect between the arts and historical research. A well-turned sentence or a well-timed and intonated joke or story can be art and personal or oral history. Book Arts gives me a way to integrate the two.

LS: Elsewhere you talk about using period typefaces to evoke specific histories in your work. Is it fair to say that other artists perhaps ignore historical connotations of letterpress printing, or trade on a sense of nostalgia rather than contending with unpleasant aspects of the past? Can design and technology be separated from its context?

TB: With each project, in some way I am building a relationship between  the book and the reader/viewer and orchestrating how they physically engage with that book. I look to the tools that I have at my disposal of which typography is just one. I am interested in that space where a typeface like Caslon is in popular use while bondsmen and bondswomen are doing the back-breaking work of building the foundations of our nation, providing the wealth and leisure time for a Thomas Jefferson or a George Washington.

When you think of printmaking or architecture, for example, they hold and carry forward certain traditions while embracing and exploiting technological advances. But for me I look at the context in terms of race and racism. As such, nothing — at least in the United States — can be divorced from them. That contextualization adds depth and it is in the tangles of those layers that we can reach a more nuanced and, to me, interesting discussion.

At times I break my aims of using typefaces tied to the era that I am presenting, but I do this with specific intentions in mind. For example, in Past Present: DC (2015) I span several decades and employ various typefaces in metal and wood type, from the Government Printing Office, as well as polymer. I included Archer typeface in Past PRESENT: DC because it has a certain persuasive and almost charming nature to it. In that case I use it to boldly and increasingly populate the pages of that book with bumper stickers and commentary from the news cycle that employed racial tropes present during the earlier periods covered in PAST Present: DC. Plus in the making there is some twisted enjoyment in using the same typeface of Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine to aid the reader in making connections between how candidate and later President Obama was depicted with how ordinary Black citizens have been portrayed in popular culture for centuries: as apes, animals, dangerous, lazy, stupid, etc.

Center spread of "Past PRESENT: DC". Historical maps are overlaid with racial slurs, stereotypes and political insults.
Detail of Past PRESENT: DC. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In I AM and YOU ARE, there is minimal text. Mainly captions with an introduction in the former, or with extended colophon, the latter. Both are set in Scripps College Old Style and were printed at Scripps College Press. SC Old Style is a bit fussy, and there was definitely a feeling of claiming it to make space for and acknowledge the pain and experiences of Black women and girls in a way that those drawers of type had not. I expect in some way it was also for me to make space for myself and the work I am trying to do as an educator within that studio. Typesetting those succinct captions that call out, acknowledge and play with stereotypes, but also pain as well as expressing joy and pride. At the end of the day I am typesetting and using the power and the history of Goudy, Scripps  Press, Scripps librarian Dorothy Drake, the typeface to say subtly and completely these Black girls and women matter as we know the Scripps students since the school’s inception matter.

Final page of "I AM", which includes a portrait of the artist and a text caption: "Not credible."
I AM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: If race and racism inflect design, technology and aesthetics, what are we to make of art that doesn’t grapple with those dimensions of, say, typography or printing?
And on a related note, how do you bring those questions into your teaching?

TB: I think the silence speaks for itself. If you have no interest in addressing race or racism, then you avoid the conversation, and happily remain in your bubble. Which I’ve found Book Arts folks to be very good at doing.

With all the white letterpress printers and Book Arts folks making prints and work about anti-racism or for Black Lives Matter protests this summer, I just wonder how much is performative, because none of their work ever addressed such before May 25th, 2020. And I wonder how many Black artists they are drowning out of the discussion. How many will still be interested in these issues on May 25, 2021 or 2025 or 2035? How many simply used their privilege to center themselves in the discussion and assuage some guilt instead of amplifying the work and voices of Black artists?

I expect in many ways my presence, my body, my Blackness, within the field, the studio, the classroom brings those questions forth. Course development is an exciting and at times imperfect space to explore issues, topics that the field typically does not. I’m honest with students in my seminar classes like Race & Identity in Book Arts that there is little to no relevant discourse or scholarship within the field, so we may have to make it ourselves. Or in my studio courses like this semester’s The Artist’s Book: Representing Blackness we are making our own path with the help of Black artists working in printmaking and the book form to study their work and strategies. We forge our own path, because these artists have been ignored and not received the scholarly analysis they deserve. There is no wealth of articles or books to form a foundation for the class. Instead we hear directly from the artists in studio visits, artist talks, a variation on students interviewing them (see scba.omeka.net), and ideally over the course of the semester the students simultaneously become researchers and artists in the conversation. Basically we’ve cut out the middleman for now until scholarship in the field catches up.

LS: I love this approach — what Book Arts lacks in history it makes up for with living artists. Can you talk about how your art and teaching practices inform one another?

TB: From teaching, I have a better appreciation of printmaking and book techniques as well as from students a greater flexibility and desire to experiment. It is interesting to me that the things that I try to instill in my students — flexibility, willingness to experiment and break through your own expectations to see and maybe shift what you are capable of doing — are all things that they help to reinforce in me and my teaching and studio practice. Through the teaching, I also get to explore the spaces and people ignored by the field, and then work to write them in. 

Whenever I am conducting DIY investigations or independent research, attending talks/panels/conferences or taking workshops, I am always looking with an eye to expanding what I teach and how I teach. I am always looking through a pedagogical lens and from the view of a student. Attending even a poorly organized and taught class should make me a better teacher and stretch my knowledge base, skill set. 

The artists that interest me are varied, but in my own research my focus is primarily on Black artists, who are typically not part of the conversation in the field. In my research I search for them with the goal of writing them back into the Book Arts field. I do something similar in my courses and in my role as Director of Scripps College Press.

The list of artists that I share with students in assignments, host as visiting artists is diverse. The push that many instructors experienced this year to decolonize their syllabi, I did not experience in the same way. Though I did re-interrogate my syllabi. With a course like Representing Blackness, it is more important to substantially foreground Black artists like multimedia artist and printmaker Daniel Minter of Indigo Arts Alliance or papercut artist Janelle Washington or printmaker and founding member of Black Women of Print Delita Martin, but also to allow students to look at how they present themselves and their communities versus how their white counterparts represent Blackness. If we are discussing my Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013), then we should also examine artists’ books on slavery by book artists such as Maureen CumminsThe Business is Suffering or Fred Hagstrom’s Little Book of Slavery (2012). If we are examining, Clarissa Sligh’s It Wasn’t Little Rock (2004), then we should be interrogating work by white artists about the civil rights era such as Clifton Meador’s Long Slow March (1996) or Jessica Peterson’s Unbound (2014) or Cause and Effect (2009). While I am more interested in what a Black artist says about their experience, culture, history, I think it is valuable to see how their approach or connection to the subject matter contributes or does not contribute to the artwork. Is there a care and respect that they bring to the work that a white artist cannot? Why are they making this work? I think it is an important conversation to have within my classes and with my research.


Interview with Hope Amico — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Portrait of Hope Amico wearing a "don't hurry" lapel pin.
Hope Amico. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: Can you talk about accountability and motivation? Generative constraints like making Eulalia in one sitting, using collage to make drawing accessible, even the Keep Writing Project all seem like a way to encourage art-making. 

HA: I’ve never had a regular job. I waited tables when I was younger, so I always had sort of a wacky schedule and could do what I wanted, which was great until I started getting more serious about making art. Then I realized that I needed to give myself some kind of structure, and it helped make sense of all the projects I wanted to work on. Like, I’m going to make this thing every month or I’m going to do this meetup every day or every week or whatever. It just helps me keep focused and motivated. It’s a way to organize all the ideas I have, and then, when I don’t feel like doing one thing, I always have another project to work on. 

I don’t really get stuck. I can’t think of the last time I had anything like writer’s block. I think I have too many projects going on at any one point, so I just shift to another project. I sometimes have a hard time thinking of a good idea for the Keep Writing Project, but I keep a running list of ideas. I have definitely made some just to get them done, but then I usually get really excited about the next two or three. It’s important for me to have self-imposed structure because otherwise I wouldn’t necessarily have any structure at all.

LS: It sounds like zine fairs play that role, too? If you know that you’re tabling soon, it’s another deadline or an opportunity to get something over the finish line.

HA: I definitely go for that, and I definitely don’t do it most of the time. A couple projects did get finished in time for zine fairs, but Eulalia was supposed to have been finished in the fall for St. Louis Small Press Expo, and just got put on the table. I am constantly reprioritizing plans. 

LS: It seems like you work collaboratively a lot, and that can be another form of motivation and accountability. 

HA: There are two kinds of collaborations. I started doing individual collaborations a lot more during the pandemic, just signing up for things that sounded really fun. A couple were, like, somebody would just work on something for an hour and then mail it to you. I was like, great, I can work with that level of commitment right now. You’re giving me something to work with, or I can just send you whatever I worked on for an hour. So I don’t have to think about the end product. You don’t have to worry about where it fits in with anything else. 

I’ve also started working quite a lot with my partner on collages, because the first couple months we were together, we were living in two different places. So we were sending things through the mail. We’re old friends, and we had worked together on zines years and years ago. So I gave him some collage I was working on. He went to art school and taught art for a while, and we just have really different ways of approaching it. But I thought it might work and I’m really excited about it. It encourages me to think about things differently.

The Ghosts of Suicide. Paper collage with thread. Image includes a vintage photo of a group of senior women riding bicycles together.
The Ghosts of Suicide. Hope Amico with Adam Charles Ross. From the series We Live for This, 2019. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

I have also been doing a lot more meetups since before the pandemic. Meeting in groups to work on projects, but then making art together because we’re working together. And part of that is honestly because I’m not particularly extroverted. I’m really shy and getting older, and I keep moving every few years. So it’s a way to make friends, an excuse to talk to people I like, trying to be in some sort of group where we get to make work together.

LS: How much do you think about the community that you’re building in an art framework? You could frame it as Social Practice, that the meetup itself is the art. Does that resonate with you?

HA: Definitely. I’ve recently started the virtual Morning Coffee Collage meet-up. We meet twice a week and we just work. We aren’t making art together. We sit and we don’t talk; we just check in at the beginning, say our names, talk about what we’re going to work on, and then after an hour and a half, we talk about how it went. And that’s it. We leave our video screens on so there’s someone there the whole time when you’re working. I put my computer back, and sometimes the thing I’m doing that day is cleaning my studio (which is currently a camper). But there’s somebody there, so there’s some accountability. Also hearing what other people are working on and giving each other little encouragement helps. 

The times when I need to clean or write letters or do something that isn’t collage, it’s still important for me to show up — not just because I’m the facilitator, but because I really appreciate that interaction twice a week. Those kinds of things have just been more important to me. It’s about showing up to make stuff and not about what I’m making. Even though I sometimes make work I like there, that’s kind of secondary.

LS: That’s interesting, the idea of leaving the video going. There is an aesthetic component there that could be really fascinating.

HA: I borrowed that from a friend who was leading a writing group that met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So I scheduled my meet-up for the off days. One thing they emphasized was leaving the video on and checking in at the beginning and end. I took the parts I liked and adapted it, knowing I had friends who didn’t want to talk that much on camera but would show up to work. And it’s been nice because a few of the people who come are people I’ve had in classes, and since I left New Orleans and haven’t been teaching. 

I’m about to teach my first class since leaving. I really miss my classes. I missed my students, and so it’s nice to see some of those people regularly again and feel that same connection and community, even though we’re in different places now.

Rubber stamps, ink pads and Christmas cards made from the stamps.
Demonstration for the online class, Hand Carved Stamps for Holiday Cards. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: My next question was going to be about teaching — how it connects to these ideas of accountability and collaboration. And more generally, how do you balance that with your practice. Is there a tension between the two or is it a virtuous circle?

HA: So far I have mostly taught my own classes out of my studio, so I have a lot of control over the timing and the schedule and how much work I put into it.

I generally think it’s really helpful and inspiring. I frequently have repeat students. It’s really fun. I’m a pretty flexible teacher, I mostly try to get people just to make stuff. I show them techniques but when somebody figures out a different way of doing something, that’s exciting to me. I don’t feel threatened as a teacher; I feel excited that somebody else has figured out a better way. 

Going back to that experience of taking so long to figure out what a pamphlet stitch is — if somebody else is like, you could just do this — I love that, it’s great. I find it really helpful.

I think the promotional and the organizational parts get a little tiring, because I’m the only person promoting the classes and that stuff takes a lot of time. It’s really draining but it’s worth it. If this was my only job, it’d be great. 

LS: On that more logistical, economic side of things, it seems like you’re pretty explicit in supporting grassroots organizations through sales and by boosting them on your website. Do you see overlap between the content of your art and the values of those organizations? Or are you just using your skillset to financially support them?

HA: I think a little bit more of the latter. I don’t think that my artwork is explicit, so I think if I didn’t say anything about those issues then people might not totally understand where I’m coming from politically, and what causes I might support. 

I write about it a lot. I’ve been getting more and more vocal, but I’m not, say, making a bunch of really obvious anti-cop artwork. My work is usually more subtle. 

But I think it is important to support these organizations. In the past couple months I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to send some of the money that I get for things I do to these people, and draw some attention to them. I have a monthly newsletter, and my June newsletter, instead of talking about my work, was just lists of organizations. Like, if you don’t understand what’s going on and you don’t have any idea how to talk about police brutality, here are really basic resources for you to read more about it. If you already know some of this, here are some other resources, ways to talk to different people. Or here are places if you just want to send money. So I just gave people a really long resource list and I got a lot of positive feedback about that, which was really nice. It’s been a struggle because it always feels like I want to be saying and doing more, but it doesn’t always seem authentic.

Letterpress-printed Christmas card with festive red and green borders. Text reads: All I Want for Christmas is the End of White Supremacy.
All I Want for Christmas is the End of White Supremacy. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: You found a solution where you can educate people about local resources and smaller organizations they might not have heard of.

HA: Right. I mean, a lot of my postcards are positive affirmations and encouragement, but I also want to be able to talk about social unrest, and why it’s important to vote, and why a lot of people don’t want to vote and why that’s also a good point — all these different complicated issues — I feel like I can’t just do it on a postcard. So I try to bring up some small part of that. For example, a recent postcard had a quote from Ross Gay about caretaking, so I asked people how they are taking care of people around them. It’s a really indirect way of saying that what’s important is community and the people around you. So what are you doing to connect with your community? At this moment I don’t need to frame it as, like, how I feel about cops, but rather this is the thing that’s important, so let’s talk about that and draw people out.

LS: So where do you situate your practice in terms of, say, the Art World with a capital A compared to your local community? Who’s your audience? Where do you feel like your support comes from?

HA: The people who write to me or subscribe to the postcard project, and the people who buy zines generally, are sort of similar to me — a little introverted, interested in a lot of the same ideas ideas, interested in the personal side and the aesthetics of my work, but also in the underlying politics of it.

The people who take my classes are a little different. They tend to be a little older, which is super fun. It’s people who are just enough older that they feel like my mom, and they have time and want to make art. There are also groups of younger people, too. I feel like a lot of that audience is people who are interested in creative practice and might not know those words for it, but are interested in making stuff and learning about stuff and feeling inspired and supported and connected, even if they’re not sure how to do that.

Hope Amico converses with viewers about her work in a gallery.
Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: There are so many people that fall into that category, without the vocabulary, who might think they’re alone. How much do you focus on building community in your classes? Or does it happen organically?

HA: When I teach classes in person, it’s usually six to ten people. I have a couple of one-off classes, but I prefer to teach four-week series. So over four weeks we all introduce ourselves at the beginning. We do some sharing, we do some collaborative games. So even if everyone doesn’t talk to everyone during class at least people are aware of each other and chat and share.

I wasn’t sure how that was going to work online. There were a lot of reasons I hesitated to teach online, and I was thinking about what is important to me and my classes. And one thing is that interaction. So how do I bring those kinds of interactions into my virtual classes? The first online class went okay. I think the best feedback I received is that, even though students signed up mainly to learn a skill and maybe secondarily to interact with people, everyone told me they felt like they were a part of a group. For me, for an online class, that makes the class successful.

LS: On this idea of community and working with other people, when you publish other artists, how does that change your positionality? A lot of zine culture (and art in general) can be subversive, but publishing someone else’s work requires you to be an authority, or at least to advocate on their behalf.

HA: Hmm, I don’t print a lot of other people’s work but I sometimes ask for submissions. The original idea for Where You From was to have people write about their hometowns, and I didn’t edit what people wrote to me. I just told them, I want you to write about your hometown. What is your relationship to your hometown? And I asked, kind of half and half, people I knew who had stayed in or near their hometown or returned to their hometown and people who had left. Why was it better to stay or leave? Why it worked for you, or if it didn’t work for you, why? And then I’d ask for a drawing or photograph of their hometown. So it was interesting because I didn’t edit people’s things. I was mostly happy; there wasn’t anything I wished I didn’t print. I really wanted it to be, like, if you submit it, I’ll print it, because I want to hear the whole thing. Which was hard. I wrote an introduction, and I would write a piece in each one. But at that point, that was the first time I had asked for other people’s work in my zines.

There are a few people whose work I like a lot who I’ve offered to print but we haven’t figured out a way to do that yet. 

Where You From numbers 1-4,  "stories about leaving" and "stories about returning".
Where You From? Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: What are the barriers to making work that you’ve encountered when you’re teaching or talking to other artists, and what advice might you have to overcome them?

HA: So the things that students tell me are the hardest part are making time, and worrying about an end product. And thinking that you’re not talented enough or creative enough, or that what you’re saying isn’t new or just doesn’t feel important.

I think the best advice I can give is: practice. Make time and space, even if it’s just twenty minutes a day. Every day make something. Draw or write, set aside a special place, or go out, but do it every day. 

For me as an artist, I also try a new technique over and over, like solving a problem as many ways as I can without thinking if it is the best solution. For example, I make these really silly collages when I’m working at my Morning Coffee Collage time, and I don’t necessarily care about them either way, except they’re fun. But then I realized that it was actually similar to what I do in my other work, so it’s just practicing.

LS: You mentioned that your studio is in a camper, and that you just moved. Since it seems like making space and time is so important, could you paint a picture of your workspace and how that’s a reflection of your practice?

HA: I have a print studio where my press is. It is in a shared community artspace so, because of COVID, I do most of my non-printing work in the camper. I moved to Portland in March with this small camping trailer that I towed behind my truck. The house where I am living with my partner and his kid is not big enough for all of us and my art studio. So I set up to work in this camper. The kitchen table became my desk. The benches hold my tools and my printer. I just set up a cork board for keeping track of projects. I have a little rolling cart full of all the supplies for collage and letter writing. I usually have piles of things next to me because I’m not that organized. The bed area and bunk store all my zine and postcard stock and some class supplies. My kitchen cabinets have mailing supplies instead of food in them. The fridge has sparkling water and chocolate that is hidden from — more from my husband — than the kid, so I have some secret snacks. I love having lots of decoration around me — photos and postcards and rocks and plants, I find it comforting rather than distracting. 

I come out here and work — not every day — but it’s nice. It’s essentially like a crowded separate room, out of the house, which helps. It gets frustrating because it doesn’t feel very organized since I moved in March and then just got the rest of my stuff two weeks ago. So I still feel like I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s really nice to have a place that’s quiet.

Vintage camper-turned-art studio with paper cutter, collage supplies, journal and coffee mug.
Hope’s camper studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: Are you working on anything exciting right now?

HA: Yeah, I wanted to write a zine about moving during the pandemic and then I kept waiting for the pandemic to be over to start it. Now I’ve realized that I don’t think there’s an over part. I think I should just write it if I want to write it. So that’s certainly in my head. I am wrapping up a lot of collage series I’d been working on, so I’m thinking about maybe some kind of online art show at some point. 

I love teaching and I am glad the first class went well, so now I am slowly adapting a longer class series, like 4–6 weeks. And I have so many new postcard ideas for Keep Writing!

LS: Good luck with those classes! And thank you so much for your time.

Interview with Hope Amico — Part 1 of 2

Hope Amico is a collage artist, trained letterpress printer and former community bike shop volunteer, living and working in Portland, Oregon. She is the force behind Gutwrench Press — a letterpress shop, zine distro, and home of the Keep Writing Project, a postcard subscription she started in 2008.

Hope Amico sits smiling in front of a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress in a moving truck.
Hope Amico. Image courtesy of the artist.

I spoke with Hope via Zoom on October 19, 2020. The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Levi Sherman: What brought you to books and zines initially? And what has kept your interest?

Hope Amico: I did a lot of writing in high school. I knew a little about poetry chapbooks at that point, and then one of my high school friends brought me a zine. He started a zine, and I helped with it, and eventually I started my own.
I went to school for printmaking so that I could make letterpress printed covers for my zines. I wanted to learn different ways of bookbinding and ways of making more interesting and more elaborate zines.

LS: So you already had zines in mind by the time you chose a college major and delved into printmaking?

HA: Yeah, I didn’t even go to school until I was in my thirties. I went to school because I found out I could get in-state tuition, and they had large-format printing presses and large-format papermaking materials. I already had done some papermaking and some letterpress printing and some bookbinding, so I went as an undergrad with a small portfolio of these miniature books I had been making in my studio.

LS: How would you say that experience changed your practice? 

HA: I had the studio before I went to college, but not a lot of equipment. Then in school I met Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress. She was an adjunct, teaching a Book Arts class that included just two weeks of letterpress. At that point, she was running her business alone and she was like, “you should come be my assistant.” I became her sort of intern for a couple months. I worked there throughout school and again when I returned to Louisiana a few years later. I was really lucky in that I had access to her print equipment and to her as a teacher. She was very encouraging. Also in school I became dependent on having access to some kind of printing press. I started my Keep Writing letterpress project in school, November of my freshman year. By the time I graduated the project was well established so I needed to find a way to print every month.

Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. The card includes a poem titled "life will devastate us" and a prompt about taking chances for love.
Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: I guess it would be a good time to explain a little bit about that project — what inspired it initially, and how it exists now in a pandemic when more people are thinking about ways of connecting with one another remotely?

HA: It was 2008. I had a lot of pen pals and had just moved to Baton Rouge for school. I wasn’t on Facebook and I wanted to be able to keep in touch with my friends. I had this idea that maybe people would sign up for a sort of newsletter, and I wanted to have a project every month. I had all this equipment around me, and I wanted to challenge myself to make a new postcard every month.

I mailed the first card to a bunch of friends and went to the New Orleans book fair with a sign-up sheet. I was like, if you give me a dollar I’ll send you this thing for two months and then — I don’t know, I don’t know what I’ll do after that. And like sixty people signed up in the first couple months. People were surprisingly interested. I was really hesitant to ask for money from pen pals for doing something I kind of already did, but I wanted to consolidate my mailing list so that I could keep up while I was in school.

The first cards were photocopied or made with stamps before I could use the letterpress equipment at school. They were single cards, and some were collaborations. Around the third year I hit upon this idea of making it a folded postcard so that it tore in half, into two cards.   There was a postcard I designed that could stand alone, and there was a question that was related to it, and people would mail back the second half. And that’s how it still works.

It’s always been a challenging project to explain briefly, but suddenly people seem to get it. I don’t sell in person right now, but I have an online shop. I sell fewer subscriptions, but more strangers are signing up online. 

Close-up of Keep Writing Number 124 with overprinted wood type of various fonts.
Keep Writing Number 124, August 2019. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: Do you mind me asking how many subscribers you’re up to?

HA: It pretty much hovers around 150 with some fluctuations. 

LS: I found out about your work when you sent me Eulalia #3. I alluded to it in my review, but I’m intrigued by this twenty-year gap between issues in the series. What does that say about how you think of seriality? 

HA: With all of my zines I have a really specific idea of what I’m doing. I’ve had five multiple-issue zines and I’ve done a couple of one-offs, but I have really specific ideas — usually it’s thematic. I was around twenty when I made the first Eulalia. Even then, I didn’t really draw very much. I wrote a bunch, but of course, I didn’t know I would become a printmaker. I didn’t know much about printmaking; one of my first prints ever was on the original cover of Eulalia #1. But I had this idea: what if I only give myself this tiny box to fill with words or pictures? It means I don’t have to draw a lot. It means I don’t have to write a lot. I’m terrible at self-editing; I want to go on forever. So it contained a really small idea, and the focus of that issue was about an interaction with a specific person. So when I thought of redoing it twenty years later, I found the first one. I really liked this concept of giving myself these parameters.

I work in series now, and they’re really quick. I think it’s just about giving myself parameters to work within and I create an idea to work on, like a prompt almost.

Eulalia #3, a two-sided zine using the dos-a-dos structure and pamphlet stitch binding
Eulalia #3, 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: Well, that’s a good segue to my next question. Is there a tension between working with the book as a medium — where the ultimate form is somewhat predetermined — and your process-based, conceptual approach, where the making of the art might matter more than the final product?

HA: Ooh, definitely. The postcards are also a good example because the past hundred of them have had the same structure.

With zines, I kind of go back and forth between wildly experimenting with form and then realizing that I also sell at zine fests and like to keep them somewhat coherent so people know what they’re looking at. So, a zine that’s all over the place in size, form and structure has to balance what I want to do with practicality for the reader. Is it something I need to display easily, or am I just interested in trying something out?

LS: So the book form provides a way to pursue whatever experimentation, whatever media you want to work in, and still know the outcome will be relatable for an audience.

HA: Exactly. It provides me with a recognizable structure that I can alter and add to and experiment with.  

LS: I’m wondering about how you approach collage as a medium, conceptually speaking.

HA: I started teaching a class two or three years ago called “I Can’t Draw,” thinking a lot about how I went to school for art but I’m not great at life drawing. 

In my final semester of school I had the option of taking what they called Drawing Workshop. My teacher believed you that something was a drawing if you said it was a drawing. So I just loved that idea that whatever I presented in class was a drawing if I could defend it as a drawing, and that was fine with him. So it was in my last semester of school, and I was doing these huge handmade paper hot air balloons and working on my letterpress project, so I had all these scraps of handmade paper and I just started sewing them onto paper, essentially building 3D collages and trying paper cutting. I just decided for that class to keep trying lots of different things because my final project was nearly complete. I started experimenting with making large work because I didn’t make large work, and making drawings, and essentially making large collages — and it was great, I learned a lot. I don’t remember what anyone else in class said about my work; I just remember just being really excited.

I came back to that idea later when I wanted to start teaching. It’s so freeing to make work like that. Not worrying about making something that looks like a bird, just trying to assemble all these ideas and not getting caught up on the idea that I can’t draw bird, but finding an image of a bird or finding other ways to represent a bird or an emotion or an idea or a place through snippets of other people’s imagery.

Beauty's Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Surrealist image including baby birds stacked like nesting dolls in an auditorium.
Beauty’s Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: What’s the relationship to the materials that you’re working from? Do you keep a big stack of papers and scraps? 

HA: I just finished moving my studio two weeks ago. I went back to New Orleans and got the rest of it, and there’s more than one box labeled “favorite collage materials,” which is funny because I don’t use a lot of images from books or magazines. I like patterns and textures, and I have lots of different ways of layering them. I also have bins of handmade paper from when I was making paper. I keep materials with the excuse that they are for my classes — images, alcohol markers, inks. My friend Thomas Little is an ink maker in North Carolina (he’s on Instagram as a.rural.pen). He sent me materials to make my own ink, and I did a lot of drawings with that. So I have a lot of materials that I want to work with, and start experimenting with them and then realize that I like some of the work that comes out of it.

LS: So where does that leave the original pieces that end up in the zine? As somebody who could otherwise make collages that stand alone, what becomes of the pieces that go into the books?

HA: The drawings and collages that have been used in zines were made, more or less, knowing what they were for. I keep those pieces as they are. I don’t do anything else with them. I think I’ve actually lost some of the originals from the last Eulalia in the move. I remember seeing some of them on the floor. I feel like they’re done. I don’t need them to be something else.

LS: It’s fascinating to me that the original can be a precious, auratic object that the zine merely reproduces, or just some scraps of preparatory material that are thrown away. I’m interested in how different artists approach that.

HA: I have the original drawings for Keep Loving Keep Fighting #9 somewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve used them in other collages. Or I might make copies of them or just add them to the ever growing scrap pile of things I give my students to work with. I have so much stuff, I can’t hold on to everything.

LS: Another medium-specific question I have is about sewing. What does it mean that you use sewing as a structural, functional thing in your bookbinding but also as a mark-making device within the drawings and collages on the pages?
With Eulalia #3, I noticed that the thread is similar in the binding and in the collages, so there’s an interesting reading experience — it feels very integrated, but it also makes you aware that one is the real material in your hand and this other is a flat facsimile.

HA: I’ve used sewing in my work structurally but also as another way of drawing, as a different texture, as another way of making lines. 

Eulalia #3 is my first collage zine, and I was so excited that, even though they’re digital color copies, you can still recognize the sewing. The stitches flatten somewhat, but they still look fairly close to the original collages.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: The space inside of us is so much larger than we know.
Eulalia #3, 2020.

I haven’t thought about it, but I’m glad that you pointed out that there’s sewing both in the collages and in the book structure. I used to sew all my zines because they got too thick to use the Kinko’s long-arm stapler. I sewed them because it was easier in some ways. Then I saw a copy of Dream Whip, and he just uses a rubber band. I was like, man, that’s so much easier. Most of mine are rubber band bound at this point.But with that structure, in particular for Eulalia, I like to match the thread to the rest of the concept. Not just filling the squares on each page, but also that each cover uses a lightly patterned paper, some kind of pale color, with printed text in that color, and using that color of thread so it’s all cohesive.

LS: I like that you use a simple three-hole pamphlet stitch, but by adopting the same material and technique in the functional part as the content, you’re asking the viewer to acknowledge that it’s handmade. It could have been a rubber band or a staple, but a different kind of labor went into it.

HA: That’s funny, because — well, I didn’t know what a pamphlet stitch was until school, or maybe right before I went to school. So I probably had ten years of bookbinding making up all sorts of three-hole stitch things that were not as efficient, and showing other people who were trying to help me bind books and doing all sorts of wild things that were so much harder. And then teaching the pamphlet stitch afterwards, it sort of blows people’s mind how simple it is and how effective. So coming from a place, not from Book Arts, but from people learning the basics, people are really impressed by that. So for me it seems really fancy even though it’s just a pamphlet stitch. It’s a little more effort, but it’s really nice. The bindings used to be so much messier, but they hold together now.

LS: Right, it was an opportunity for me to remind myself that what I assume is a default binding is actually a thoughtful, elegant solution. I enjoyed having to think about sewing as an integral part of the picture plane as well as the structure.
You also work in sculptural handmade paper, so I’m wondering if you approach the book as a sculpture. Certainly the dos-a-dos structure, which can physically stand up, has more of a sculptural presence, but it seems like your focus is more on writing and image-making, sequence and pacing.

HA: I tried in the past to make my zines a little more uniform for the sake of coherence. Because the writing and the themes and the way I approach the writing in all the issues of Where You From have changed, the letterpress-printed covers are all really similar. 

For Eulalia #3 I definitely wanted to make a dos-a-dos binding, but that was only part of the motivation for this. I had already made Part One, the Before side, and I hadn’t printed it. It was just sitting there and sitting there and then some other things happened, so I wanted to deal with the things that were going on and make a new set of work that related to the first, as a sort of foil, and I realized that that the dos-a-dos was the perfect form. I had wanted to try it, and then realized I had these experiences that would make that form work.

I’ve done really sculptural books, but I like making zines with more subtle artist book aspirations.

Interview with Marnie Powers-Torrey

Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography from the University of Utah and a BA in English and Philosophy from the Boston College Honors Program. Marnie is an Associate Librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she serves as head of the Book Arts Program. She is the faculty mentor for book arts designations and teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books, and other courses for the Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the College Book Art Association and her work is held in collections nationally.

The following interview was conducted via email from April to October 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Levi Sherman: You studied English and Philosophy before getting your MFA. How does that background inform your art?

Marnie Powers-Torrey: Like many who find their way to book arts, I’m an in-betweener, a generalist. I took 18–21 credits a semester as an undergrad because I was interested in everything, except the football. I loved physics, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and working with raw materials. Boston College was a great liberal arts school with limited visual art (no printmaking). I was fortunate to study Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, Becket in Dublin, and the modernists and postmodernists in interdisciplinary, philosophy, fiction, and poetry courses. My honors thesis was a constructed space comprising drawings and ceramic pieces, in response to multiple translations of the Tao te Ching. In retrospect, I recognize that my formative years were towards the realization that words, marks, textures, colors, and composition all communicate equally well, and never as strongly as when united. When I took my first book class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I knew that I’d found the haptic, interactive experience that would keep me engaged for the rest of my life.

LS: You note that book arts seems to collect people from other disciplines. Why do you think we in-betweeners and generalists end up here?

MPT: New students frequently share that they’d felt as if they’d dwelled in the margins — until they found book arts. Terrible pun, but it seems that book artists often find we are on the same page. I’m a big fan of Dick Higgins’ concept of intermedia — a space between the knowns, in between ways of doing. When we venture down into these chasms, we are explorers mapping our own paths that tend to intersect with others’. The possibilities are endless.

LS: Since you mention ways of doing, can you talk about the relationship of process and product in your work? I’m especially curious about the differences between creating a single work and producing an edition.

MPT: I love to put ink on paper, but I’m also engaged with many other practices: collage, paper folding, papermaking, mark making, photography, sewing, knitting, etc. As production manager and master printer for the Red Butte Press, I really enjoy the required planning and attention to detail. I find that the repetition of printing and binding is both meditative and generative. 

Chapter XXIV open to the title page with the book's enclosure open in the background.
Chapter XXIV. 2013. Craig Dworkin; David Wolske, Designer; Marnie Powers-Torrey, Production Manager and Master Printer. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey

With my own letterpress work, I typically have a rough plan for the print day, but I tend to be very responsive on press, doing no digital design. At SMFA, I was working very freely with few concerns for craft and controlled technique. I was far more committed to process than product. After twenty years of being involved with fine press, I find equal satisfaction in unfettered making. When I work individually or collaboratively on one-of-a-kinds, I can work entirely intuitively and authentically, without concern for next steps. In either modality — heavily planned or more spontaneous — I think a lot while in a flow state, developing concept in conjunction with doing.

LS: That spontaneity is so foreign to me! Do things ever just not work? Or are you not even thinking in terms of success or failure when you’re in that flow state?

MPT: Right, I don’t have a goal in mind with unique works. My focus is on each action/change feeling/looking right. Shaping a visual composition parallels the construction of a sentence. As I place marks/words/shapes/colors/textures in relation to one another, the entirety begins to make sense. Typically when I write, I don’t follow an outline, but let one sentence transition to the next. I place visual elements in the same way, creating a syntactical relationship that connotes meaning for me, and I hope, articulates significance to the viewer. As I commit more time to a one-off, my desire for things to work does heighten, but ultimately, I’m in it for the satisfaction that comes from making. I also find joy in planned production, working toward a defined end point. Either way, the next step is a matter of responding creatively to the previous step.

Front and back cover of "Cities & Justice" displayed standing up with the spine facing the viewer.
Cities & Justice: A Visual Translation with Subtitles of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Do you take a similarly intuitive approach to collecting found objects? Or do you have some idea how they might make their way into your art?

MPT: I guess I don’t necessarily see these methodologies — spontaneous or strategic — as mutually exclusive. Streetcombing is a practice of chance coupled with curation. When I walk with family and friends, they may pick up an object for assessment that ends up in the trash bag. My decision, as it were, is based on concerns that are both practical (can I accommodate this debris in my basement studio that also serves as the family’s laundry room, hockey locker, RC car garage, and tool room?) and aesthetic/functional (does this object have visual value as a rare/unique object and/or can it be printed?). The pinnacle of aesthetic, functional, and practical value is a small rubber object with an interesting pattern that sits on a single plane — a readymade stamp. Also, whether I love circles because they represent and are metaphors for so many things or because they are so commonly found, I can’t say. But I do love the circle, and its enduring relationship to the square.

LS: Books seem inherently related to collecting. Is there a connection between that kind of collecting and streetcombing?

MPT: Though I hadn’t thought of it this way before, yes I do see this connection: a book is a gathering of pages, an accumulation of ideas, a curated and crafted collection in and of itself. Books are a place to stick things that you find (out) — to share and archive. Books provide a means of documentation, sequencing, self-expression, communication, cataloging, indexing, etc. No wonder that humankind is so inextricably drawn to and engaged with these collectable objects. 

Open view of the accordion book "META-FOUR" which contains found natural objects in box-like sections.
META-FOUR. 2016. Beth Krensky and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Since you mention both sharing and archiving, I wonder about the role of the reader in your work? Who is your audience, and how do they inspire, inform or activate the art?

MPT: This question circles back to process. Though concerned with (my) work’s ability to communicate, I don’t actively think about audience when working alone. I do consider how things might be interpreted, but rely on an internal barometer. At the Red Butte Press, we think a lot about whose hands the book will find and how form, content, and design will be received and impact the reading experience. Often, I work collaboratively, which similarly demands effective communication and an externalization of process, resulting in more circumspect evaluation. In the current publishing and economic climate, it’s difficult to forecast audience. We can hope that private collections will continue to acquire expensively-produced editions and one-offs, and recognize that the democratic (equitable) multiple is most effective for wide distribution.

Installation view of "Archive of Now" with an array of printed boxes containing driftwood and other found natural objects.
Archive of Now. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

By communicating authentically and thoughtfully, my intention is that we (the book and I) will connect with viewers and create a mutual understanding, though both author and readers maintain distinct perceptions. For example, as I work on individual boxes for the ongoing project Archive of Now, I am interested in preserving and elevating natural objects. I contemplate these relics and then preserve them in custom-built reliquaries which are embellished with prints from mass-produced objects. I (type)write what I see in the object that is absent in the man-made. At each venue where the boxes were shown, a broad range of people have engaged meaningfully with the work, and through this inquiry and response, the installation as a whole is activated. Viewers often comment on the remarkable yet inexplicable fit of the text with the objects and are interested in my writing process.

LS: On that note, tell me about your writing process, and whether it differs from installations to bookworks.

MPT: Typically, I respond to the visual with words, though at times I do begin with a particular text. I don’t know if I’m writing as much as finding words that aid visual communication. I think of writing as a focused practice, whereas what I’m doing is producing sequential imagery that sometimes needs textual support. It’s important that the viewer be able to do some of the work and draw independent conclusions. The gaps between image and text, where the reader engineers the connections, provide space for deep engagement. I see all my work as book work, so no, I don’t think my ideation and conceptualization are divided based on structure.

LS: I’m interested in that continuity; that you see it all as book work.
Where does that leave the relationship between, for example,
Archive of Now and Roadside Attractions? The core ideas seem similar, so what advantages do you gain by approaching them through installation and book, respectively?

MPT: There are some advantages to hanging art on the wall — it becomes more visible and invites collective engagement. It’s easier to find spaces to exhibit wall pieces, and wall hangings built for display. I do regret sacrificing the haptic experience with wall work, but having multiple modes of distribution increases opportunities. Also, I inherently identify as a book artist, and my definition of book is very broad. I’ve never been interested in divisions between media, technologies, and text structures.

Array of the 4 books in "Roadside Attractions" open to display various inside spreads with geometric imagery printed from found objects.
Roadside Attractions vol. 1–4. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

As we’ve already talked about, my process is responsive, and with these two series, I’m responding to objects — considering what I can do with them, how they can best tell their story, how I can use them as tools and materials. These questions lead me to decisions around technique and structure. Access to tools and technologies along with available time and space — really my daily routines — also factor heavily into my making. As a working mom who is also a maker, I need to be able to fit my practice into available time slots, and my “equipment” at home is very minimal. Thus, I prefer to have creative work in process both at the Book Arts Studio and at my home studio.

Lastly, I’d add that when I investigate an idea, it’s primarily experiential. My research is daily life, including the massive amounts of media I consume everyday — and the daily details inform my work directly. Frequently, I get into a groove with a certain tool and material set, and the possibilities are just too numerous to limit to one methodology. Work that is currently in process is another example of my working on parallel tracks. I was invited by Cindy Marsh to work on a project with a couple working titles (Tobacco Hands, Habits of Mutuality), and together we are constructing a large fiber installation that each of us will also likely publish as a one-of-a-kind book.

Close-up of a sewing machine stitching pieces of letterpress-printed paper.
Tobacco leaves in process: walnut-stained cotton and tobacco paper with letterpress printed narrative being stitched to form an eight-foot leaf. 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Does that balance of family and work change the content or style of the art, or just the process? Do you have any advice for other artists struggling to juggle those demands?

MPT: Yes to changes in content, style, and process in response to domestic responsibilities, as my ideas and practice are formed directly from daily life. I don’t necessarily feel that my work is autobiographical, but even when working collaboratively, the marks I make derive from my present awareness. Motherhood is the single most riveting experience I’ve ever had/am constantly having. Everything I have experienced after conception — a maturation on steroids, perhaps, or maybe an internal earthquake — is seen through a different lens. When my kids were younger, I needed to express this directly in MAMASELF, a nine-year visual journey I documented in conjunction with subsequent births, feedings, arguments, formative nothings, and celebrations. Now that my kids are teenagers, I feel like it’s more about sharing this life with them, and I see my family, colleagues, and friends as collaborators in all that I do. For me, compartmentalizations just don’t stick. I function much better in the gray.

Inside spread of the book MAMA-SELF, standing up and open. Rough red shapes overlap below text that reads "ours / MAMA / MOTHER"
MAMASELF. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Can I hold you to the second part of my question — do you have any advice for other artists struggling to balance it all?

MPT: Obliquely, that’s my advice. More to the point: make what you need to say with the tools at hand in the time that you find. Ensure that making fits into your regular practices.

LS: Thanks for humoring me. Can you speak particularly to the relationship of teaching and art-making? How does your approach to art inform your pedagogy? And vice versa?

MPT: Art is drawn from life, regardless of approach and intention. I find it more efficient to direct my resources toward adjacent if not overlapping activities — as a colleague of mine, Crane Giamo would say, “feeding two birds with one scone.” Living feeds making feeds teaching feeds making feeds living feeds teaching…I think of myself as more of a facilitator than teacher. Modeling practices, techniques, ideation, etc. allows me to be authentic. However, I rarely use my creative work as exemplar for students, aside from when talking about process/production. By introducing students to my methods and approaches, exposing them to diverse work, and at times making next to or with them, I hope to give them agency to apply skills and ideas in ways that best serve their vision.

LS: You mentioned an ongoing project with Cindy Marsh — what works-in-progress have you feeling the most excited right now?

MPT: During the beginning of the pandemic, I was finishing up the organization of a festschrift in honor of Bill Stewart, researching and making masks, teaching myself to knit, and working on binding past editions. I felt like I had been given the gift of space and time with the lack of a commute. Then life suddenly became too busy again, and I’ve been prioritizing making through correspondence works with others — the gentle tug of supportive expectation helps me justify to myself the import of creative work, I guess, when there is so much to do. I’m working on a hanging piece (a box) that responds to a discarded, editioned artist’s proof by Wayne Kimball which will be part of a collective exhibition of artists working with the same print.

"Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt" - boxed assemblage with print, animal skull, driftwood and bird nest.
Process image of Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

I can’t wait to return to the Tobacco Hands project (another working title Habits of Mutuality). Cindy has recently finished building the first hand whose leaves I produced and has printed additional leaves for a second hand. For the third hand, I have pulled excerpts from oral histories collected by Cindy and me from a family rooted in Tennessee tobacco farming. I have loads of tobacco and cotton paper and reclaimed runners, doilies, and tablecloths from Tennessee thrift stores. I just need to find some time and space in my basement studio turned teaching recording studio.

Two sheets of cotton and tobacco paper drying.
Cotton and tobacco paper in production (dry down). 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Do you think this pandemic and the challenges this year has brought will change the way you approach art in the future? Have your beliefs about the role(s) of art changed?

MPT: Yes, I think so, even over the course of our conversation here. More definitively than ever before, I see art as clearly essential. Yes, I find visual art useful in expressing and disseminating ideas, but it has also become an increasingly important survival tool. Making toward a mutual understanding builds meaning, is discursive, and opens a space in between positions. Visual language is often less explicit than text, and in many ways can afford to remain less decisive and open to interpretation. As a methodology of coping, of knowing, and of being, art is absolutely essential for both the individual and the community. We need it in our lives.

Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.


LS: Given the ongoing reckoning around equity and representation in the arts, how are you approaching representation in the collection?

KG: We know network-based approaches often reinforce existing disparities, so it’s important to me to take that into personal account when I consider our curatorial impulses, and to continually question my own frame of reference. By encouraging artists who are unknown to us to show us their work, we want to challenge the ways in which our own privileged worldviews might leave us removed from the concerns of underrepresented artists.

TH: We have thought about it and continue to. Part of the reason that we had such a great breadth of response is that we didn’t ask specifically for work from particular genres or media. Our artists aren’t all printmakers or all young; there are poets and writers in there, which also strengthens our approach. I also like the idea of artists coming to our attention that we don’t know, and wouldn’t have otherwise, through the project.

KG: Yes, the breadth of genres that function within this form gives us more latitude to practice curatorial discretion. We want to prioritize a balanced collection across disciplines that currently overrepresent white artists.

A handful of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Did you pre-plan the genres that organize the website, or did you come up with categories once you began receiving the books?

TH: We had an idea of standard categories for both genre and media that artists could choose from when submitting their works. We did do some editorial work in making suggestions to artists about assignments we felt were more appropriate. 

One thing I like about the project is that it’s stealthy. The format is simple and self-contained, and it still gives me a thrill, even though I’ve been making books for a long time. 

That’s all we needed to do this work. It wasn’t about artists’ books. It’s about the power of the medium, not about the medium itself. That’s why I’m less affiliated with writing that discusses what artists’ books are; whatever you’re feeling when you’re doing it is more interesting to me than some of the discussions about it. But I think it is really stealthy that QPL is introducing a bunch of people to book arts.

KG: There’s a double-edged sword for a book artist, where in order to make a living from your work, you often have to sell that work at a price that undermines the ethos of producing an artists’ book. I think most artists working this way have reservations about the fact that their books are sold to institutions for three and four figures. It seems like they would really ideally like their work to circulate, but the economic circumstances are limiting. One thing I like about our project is that it promotes a consideration of artists’ books from a perspective that prioritizes distribution.

Looking forward, I love the idea of inviting artists whose work is usually inaccessible and coveted, as a way of creating an opportunity to collect among those who don’t usually get to own art. When you print something out from this collection, you have ownership of that work. You’re really getting to handle somebody’s work, and it requires you to be complete.

Cover and interior view of First the Others, Now You by Patrick Johnson. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: As you move forward and add new books, are there any gaps in the collection that you have identified and hope to fill? Or are you still exploring and seeing where it goes?

TH: I would love to invite someone who does children’s books. If someone who already does them was interested in the format, it would be really quite a sweet gift. 

KG: I’d love to see research enter the collection—non-fiction that is well-sourced and considered, but available in a way that’s more easily understood. And I think we can use more poetry.

TH: I agree. I love the example of David shields’ book, Measuring the manufacturer’s stamps produced by Hamilton Mfg Co c1910 – c1950, which is this kind of oddball little thing, but will be darn useful as a reference tool for a bunch of people. I have had the pleasure of working with David. The form can hold a lot. We certainly haven’t exhausted it. 

KG: H.R. Buechler’s book, Granular Luminosity, is one that responds to the form foremost as an image field, although it can also be understood as a codex.

TH: Pati Scobey considered that with her book, o. It’s beautiful as an image, and she’s inviting people to color it, but she put a lot of work into making sure the drawing would resolve itself in a pagination format. More of that would be cool.

Open view of Granular Luminosity by H.R. Buechler. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: It’s very difficult to succinctly evoke the spirit of an artists’ book — are you two writing the descriptions on your site or are they provided by the artists?

TH: We asked the artists for a blurb and gave an example to help, because we needed something succinct. In a few cases, we edited or wrote them.

KG: We built the site as artists were working on their books, and shared its password so contributors could see it evolving in real time. As part of this, we had dummy content in place, like books with invented names by famous artists. One placeholder was reportedly by van Gogh, so the blurb said something like, “A tortured artist and his easel in France.” That was another way of demonstrating the spirit we wanted to capture.

I tend to give dry, straightforward answers in those instances. I loved that some artists used the opportunity to say something that was true, but maybe in a way that was more oblique or emotionally resonant.

Front and back covers of o by Pati Scobey. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Tell me about EveryoneOn and why you decided to have a philanthropic angle to the project. 

KG: We knew it was a privilege to work on this project. In making the effort to attract an audience, there was an opportunity to use that attention to underscore more urgent needs. QPL depends on access to digital communication, which highlighted how important it felt to advocate for digital equity—especially because so many students are without internet access right now, and require it to use tools that are crucial to their education and sense of well-being. EveryoneOn brought all of those pieces together.

LS: If you want to brag about how much money you raised so far, feel free to report on the fundraising.

KG: The project launched four days ago, and we have raised $535.* Moving forward, as we potentially see users returning to the site over time, we hope our audience will be suggestible to making donations they may not have yet.

[*QPL had raised $1,000 for EveryoneOn by August 5th.]

LS: That’s incredible! Especially for a new project. Congratulations.

KG: We were both surprised by the metrics. We had visitors from 22 different countries on the first day of the project. It was fun to see the Forbes article get picked up by Latest Nigerian News and Samachar in India. It’s so exciting to imagine people in different countries all making the same book at the same time.

The QPL donation page, which directs proceeds to EveryoneOn. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Opportunities to have a book in an exhibition or collection on another continent would normally be rare. This is a great way for physical copies of books to proliferate further than they could otherwise.

KG: Yes, and that would certainly be another gap in the collection: international works and works that aren’t in English.

TH: That’s one reason I regret that not every artist put their name on their book. I wish that it wasn’t quite so anonymous—It’s something to think about as we go on.

KG: The possibility that you could come upon a book and not know how to find out more about it is disappointing. When the first works started to roll in, Tracy also mentioned that we might have put an imprint on the books.

TH: That’s partly why I’m interested in this cataloging question from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Those standard questions in cataloging are hard to deviate from, which makes it challenging when certain things don’t fit. Will Amelia put down QPL as the publisher? That’s a question. The city of origin is another standard notation in a catalog record. Another approach was shared by Lyn Korenic, the director of the Kohler Art Library, who told me she would catalog the URL for their artists book collection.

Double page spread of Book of Random Tables by Amze Emmons. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: I’m interested in whether the Quarantine Public Library is a meta project, a publication in and of itself. Born-digital artists’ books are overlooked, and haven’t always fared well in an institutional setting. I wonder if it will be collected digitally in addition to the hard copies.

KG: There are so many projects that are born physically and then cataloged digitally—it’s odd to think about this project working in the opposite direction. It’s a point of frustration for me, and a sort of an inescapable problem for web designers in general, that this thing that you make will eventually no longer be supported. (There have been times that I wanted to see a digital artist’s book, but could only see thumbnail images of it in Johanna Drucker’s book.) We are coming up against that same question now as we think about how to future-proof the website. What type of developmental considerations have to be taken into account? 

TH: It’s interesting as a preservation question because the project is ephemeral, in the sense that it came out of this really specific time and the response to it. That underscores it so much. But in the long term, the idea of a digital place that supports books that can be downloaded and assembled—that is a preservation question. I have training in preservation, so I’m always interested in that.

LS: Especially with a website. For example, you were describing the fictional placeholder books you had added to the website, which maybe affected the outcome of the contributions — will that be documented? Are you preserving what goes on behind the scenes?

TH: We do have some screenshots because, as I said, I want to see this again. There were some really beautiful mockups of early pages, but I don’t know if we have them all.

KG: There are some. The challenge of digital preservation is that it has so far relied upon static media to capture these forms, but building a website is much more fluid than what that can account for. It’s difficult to document in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible.

An early version of the project’s website. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Do you want the Quarantine Public Library to persist for as long as possible? How far into the future do you plan to add to it or support it?

TH: It depends on our time and abilities to keep doing the project the way we have, and figuring out at each stage how to do the next steps. We are committed to growing through the end of the year. I’ve been thinking about listservs that have been really important to me, on book arts and letterpress history; sometimes they have to shop around for an institutional home. They seem so old fashioned, but they’re hella permanent compared to other things. I really don’t know the answer to the question, but I would be interested in thinking about an institutional home. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know. 

KG: I’d say it depends not just on how we feel, but on what the response is and continues to be.

LS: Is there anything that you want to ask one another while we’re all on Zoom together?

TH: I look forward to talking with Katie in the coming weeks about some of the things that came up here, especially the preservation questions. We’ve had a pretty close view for a while. We aren’t exhausted by it by any means; it’s still very stimulating and exciting, but I don’t feel right now that I have had enough time to zoom out. I am excited to consider what will emerge from that. I think of the project and the work we’ve done as being for us, with benefits for other people. And I feel perfectly happy about that. If it is a model for people to think, Things are all fucked up, and I don’t know what to do, and I feel despair, and they see QPL and think, That’s really cool. I could do something like that — that would make me very happy.

Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 1 of 2

The following interview took place via Zoom on July 20. It has been edited for clarity.

The Quarantine Public Library homepage. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

The Quarantine Public Library is a collection of artist-made books, which can be downloaded, printed and assembled for free. The project launched in July 2020 under the stewardship of co-founders Katie Garth and Tracy Honn. Though not explicitly about the pandemic, the Quarantine Public Library is very much a product of this time, so I was eager to speak with Katie and Tracy during these early days of the project.

Tracy Honn (left) and Katie Garth (right) with QPL artist Kathleen O’Connell at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s 2018 Wayzgoose. Courtesy of Jim Moran.

Katie Garth is an artist in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Katie has a background in graphic design and book arts, and enjoys teaching, writing, and presenting on topics related to contemporary print practice.

Tracy Honn is a printing history educator, curator, and printer living in Madison Wisconsin. She is senior artist emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directed the Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing. She serves on Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s executive board of directors.


Levi Sherman: How did the idea for the Quarantine Public Library come to you? Was there a kernel of it before the pandemic?

Tracy Honn: There was a kernel. I had told Katie I’d always thought it would be cool to have an exhibit of artists’ books using that format, and that they should be downloadable, but just in casual conversation. 

Katie Garth: I heard Tracy’s idea and thought, “why not?” We could do it now—we had the time. 

TH: It would never have happened if Katie hadn’t said, “let’s do it.” Although I had the spark, Katie really has the abilities to do this. We shared sensibilities in terms of the library — the way the ideas got developed and the things we care about — but I feel like Katie had a better sense, much earlier than I did, of how it could function and really be a library. Once we decided on a name, a lot of the work came from gut. Don’t you think?

KG: I think it was gut. And there was a sense of urgency, even if, after a certain point, it was relatively self-sustained.

TH: We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, so the artists had a very quick turnaround.

KG: Many told us that having one specific thing to focus on, and a deadline by which to be held accountable, was helpful because of how much feels really vague and abstract right now. They said, “I haven’t been able to make anything lately, but I can do a one-page book.”

Detail of 20/20 by Phyllis McGibbon. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: Many of us were feeling like we couldn’t really make art—what’s the point? With so many large questions, it’s hard just trying to focus. This was a very precise goal that had a certain positive “whoo!” feeling about it.

KG: I also got that feeling from working on the project itself; it gave me a sense of purpose. The point of the website was for an audience to enjoy it, but by the time it launched, that felt like dessert, because the work had already been meaningful.

LS: Can you talk about the process of working on a collaborative project in the middle of a lockdown?

TH: So often, you’re side-by-side at the press, or working things out in person. But we both like to email and text, and actually, I think it worked brilliantly. From home, you can be more responsive.

KG: The lockdown was not much of a limiting factor, because we’ve maintained our friendship over a distance for a long time. I can’t think of how we might have approached the process differently.

Double page spread of Letting Off Steam by Olivia Fredricks. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: How have your backgrounds in art and design prepared you for this project?

TH: I’ve done a lot of collaboration, and earlier in my career I was really interested in it as a subject. I’m always fascinated by collaboration, especially in Book Arts. I just worked on a book art show that’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW–Madison right now, and one section is all about collaboration. 

KG: It was incredible to have to articulate my thoughts to someone else. There were several moments where I certainly would have made a mistake if I were working alone, but because I was talking things out with Tracy, I only fell on my face in front of her.

I learned a lot from Tracy about taking communication seriously, and about the benefits of writing a really good prompt for your group. She showed me a lot about the ethics of situating yourself clearly and being responsive to the artists in organizing a project like this.

Double page spread of (NOT) OK by Sage Perrott. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

TH: Because I don’t have the technical skills that Katie has, I felt like she was having to do more work, but it really worked out very well. It’s very blended. There is a lot you can point to and know that it’s Katie’s work, and I think it’s important to know that—but I’ve always liked that when people work together, it’s not so important who did what, but that you share a sense of ownership. That doubles your success.

Because Katie has a background working with clients in a design setting, there is a good way in which she’s not too attached to something. She cares about it— we both feel really passionate about the project—but it didn’t feel like, “Oh, you don’t like the thing I did here.”

It makes it more fun, really. The stakes weren’t really ever high, except for us, because we cared about it. That’s a cool thing; nobody was telling us what to do. 

KG: It’s funny to hear you say you felt like I was doing the work. This just didn’t feel like work at all for me. There was real joy in the fact that we were only accountable to each other, even though—or maybe because—that is the most important kind of accountability to me. It was both motivating and freeing.

LS: What’s something that you’ve learned so far? 

KG: I was surprised by how many happy returns there were. My web design background taught me the difficulty of influencing user behavior. The idea that we could design a website where people would not only click the button, but then print out a design and fold it into a book, and then read it, and then take a picture of it and share it with us—that was a tall order. But when it started happening, it felt so rewarding. I had never experienced that level of interaction within a digital project before. 

When we were discussing technical underpinnings of our prompt, Tracy asked, “what if someone is printing this on a press?” I asked, “do you really think people are going to be hand-setting type for this?” And sure enough, Walter Tisdale sent us a photo of his book, To Thine Own Self Be True, alongside the wood type he used to make it.

Walter Tisdale’s work-in-progress for his book To Thine Own Self Be True. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: One of the things that I really got from this was being introduced to artists I didn’t know. Also, I don’t work digitally—I like the tools a lot, but since I retired from the university, I have access to fewer of them—so it was kind of fun to get back into that just a tiny bit.

It did make me aware that some artists (my peers probably) were less technically inclined. It’s fun to have those groups together. Someday we’ll have a party. I’m looking forward to having all those people meet each other.

KG: Yes, and as someone who is more comfortable with digital interfaces, I really enjoyed working with the artists who weren’t as familiar with those tools. It was important that everybody could be brought along. 

LS: If someone could see behind the scenes of the project, what would they be surprised by?

TH: Our secret power might be that I worked in libraries for most of my career, so I know a lot of librarians. Katie knows librarians. We’re both printmakers, and we know printmakers. Katie said—how did you put it?

KG: Librarians love to share, and printmakers love to distribute.

TH: There is a power in calling it a library. It could have been framed as an online exhibit of artists’ books, but affiliating with an institution that’s powerful in a democratic way felt really beautiful. 

Cover and double page spread of Q: Quarintimacy by Keli Rylance. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Yes, I’m interested in that choice to make it a library, especially during this pandemic. The library remains a trusted community institution at a time when art institutions are coming under fire for racial inequity and massive layoffs. What is special about libraries, and how does that relate to the art world?

KG: I think about libraries as ideally bringing things that might otherwise be out of reach into a more inviting space. One reason why this project felt important now was because there has been a collective loss of public space. We wanted to make one small but welcoming place that gave our audience permission to explore, and to have access to our community. 

TH: It really did come out of that experience of feeling a loss. We tried to make it transparent for users that it was for people. It is a gift. The thing about libraries is that circulation is a really powerful idea. These books don’t exist in any editions; they’re not for sale.

I just learned from a colleague, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, who works at the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology that she is going to print out every one of the books and catalog them. I’m interested in how that will work—they will be in a library as well as being part of this idea of a library.

KG: There’s something potent about these editions as endless. Among its many duplicates, your book won’t have a unique number—but it’s special because it’s the one that you made.

TH: Yes. And that also invites the possibility of the audience becoming inspired to make a book of their own design.

LS: How can artists get involved? Are you still looking for contributions? 

TH: We curated by selecting the artists up front, and trusted that people would know what to do if they stayed within the format that we described. We didn’t edit content and we didn’t solicit specific content, although we did add content ourselves.

KG: We will continue to add books by invitation, but we are interested in seeing work we aren’t yet familiar with. If an artist wants to make sure that we have seen their work and will take it into consideration, they can email us at quarantinepubliclibrary@gmail.com. Another way to get involved is to make your own book using the pagination template on our tutorial page. Whether or not it is part of the collection, we want to see it.

TH: I have this fantasy of someone sending us a picture showing that they made all the books—the whole library! That’s what I’m waiting to see.

An assortment of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

Interview with Sarah Nicholls

The following interview took place via email from May to July of 2020. It has been edited for clarity.

Sarah Nicholls leading a themed walk in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Sarah Nicholls leading a themed walk in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist who makes pictures with language, books with pictures, prints with type, and animations with words. She combines image, visual narrative, and time in prints, books, and ephemera that are often research-based. Sarah is interested in urbanization, local history, climate change, the history of science and technology, alternative economies, found language, and the history of publishing. She has written a collection of self-help aphorisms, published a series of informational pamphlets and printed a field guide to extinct birds. Her most recent book is Solastalgia, a book about islands, both real and imagined, that are in the process of disappearing. Sarah’s limited edition artist books are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

Levi Sherman: Artists should always consider their audience, but the fact that your publications are informational emphasizes that relationship. Who are you hoping to reach, and what change would you like to create by informing and entertaining them? I’m thinking especially of your Brainwashing From Phone Towers pamphlet series.

Sarah Nicholls: Audience should be the first thing you think about when planning a publication. It’s important to know both who you are trying to speak to and what you’d like to tell them. It helps to clarify things for myself. I have a list of people in mind when I write a pamphlet: people that I think will be interested in the content, people I’m excited to speak with, people I haven’t seen in a while but who I would like to keep in touch with. Also people who are interested in supporting the series in general, who have become part of my community. Some people I specifically send one issue to, because I think that person would be particularly interested in the subject matter. Some are close friends who get all of the pamphlets I make. Some of these people are people already interested in artist books or printmaking. Some of these people have nothing to do with the book world, some of them have nothing to do even with art in general. By coming up with this list of people, I try to expand the audience for an artist’s publication, and by focusing the work on subject matter outside the world of art I can bring in lots of different potential audiences.

Since I’m speaking to lots of different kinds of people, I make a point of writing in a very clear, explanatory kind of way; the audience shapes the writing style. I want people to understand what I’m trying to tell them, without having to jump through hoops, or wade through jargon, or know secret handshakes.

The Liquid Fault Line from the pamphlet series Brain Washing From Phone Towers.
The Liquid Fault Line from the pamphlet series Brain Washing From Phone Towers. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Most of the more recent ones that I have made have focused on different aspects of the particular urban environment that I live in, in New York City, including local history, the built environment, the natural environment, and how all three combine to form a particular kind of place, which is under threat due to climate change, among other things. But many of the people who receive these pamphlets do not live here, and many will never visit the particular parts of the city that I am interested in. What I would like them to do, really, is to take the same kind of approach to their own surroundings: to ask themselves, what kinds of plants and animals live here? How did they get here? What is in the process of changing around me, and why? Who are my neighbors and where have they come from? What is at risk of disappearing?

LS: That sounds like an excellent segue into the role of research in your practice. How do you go about answering those questions?

SN: Research is a large part of my process; I usually start with a general theme for the year so that the research process isn’t all over the place and so I can build knowledge around a subject over time. Last year was weeds; this year is mapmaking. Sometimes the theme is relatively loose, sometimes more specific, but I find it helpful to structure my time and plan in advance.

The artist's bicycle at at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways.
The artist’s bicycle at at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I start by spending time in the neighborhood I am interested in. I mostly travel by bike, so I ride around, walk around, over a period of time and take lots of photos. The images in the pamphlets are usually based on photos that I’ve taken. I read about the history of a place, and try to see how it fits into a larger picture of the city. There’s a good reference collection at the Brooklyn Public Library on Brooklyn history that I’ve used a lot. There’s also a good collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This year I’m spending a lot of time looking at the digitized collection of historical maps of the city that NYPL has in their map division. I read everything I can about the current problems in a specific community, and try to identify the people and organizations that are working on them. Last year when I was thinking about weeds and spontaneous urban plants a lot, I read about that: where weeds come from, how they spread, how they are used and defined. Then I try to synthesize it all.

LS: How much of that synthesis happens in the studio? Is everything planned out before you start setting type or carving linoleum?

SN: Yes, after research comes the design stage; I draw a bunch of pictures, usually based on photos I have taken, and come up with the visual elements I want to use. I write a series of drafts of the text, starting with an outline that covers all of the things I think I want to include, then filling out that outline, then editing it down, editing it again. I make a mock up, then another mock up; the format of the final piece can change depending on the content. I know what I want to do before I start carving lino or setting type. As I set the type the text usually goes through a final editing stage; I don’t really know how it sounds until I start setting it. So setting it in metal usually helps me finalize the text and I think of it as part of the writing process.

Type lock-up for The World Turned Upside Down from the pamphlet series, Brain Washing From Phone Towers.
Type lock-up for The World Turned Upside Down from the pamphlet series, Brain Washing From Phone Towers. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: The pamphlets employ a surprising variety of sizes and structures, which change the reading experience through revealing, concealing, turning and expanding. Is variety a goal in and of itself, or does the structure simply arise from the content?

SN: Both. Surprise is part of the goal; I like sending something out as a surprise, that takes a surprising form, and I think that the variety helps with that. I also try to match structure and content. I’ve been doing these publications for years now and it also helps keep it interesting for me. 

Inside spread of Homesteading for the Urban Coyote from the pamphlet series, Brain Washing From Phone Towers.
Inside spread of Homesteading for the Urban Coyote from the pamphlet series, Brain Washing From Phone Towers. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: On the topic of serendipity, how did you come up with your subscription model where a friend receives a surprise copy? Do you have any anecdotes or feedback that speak to the sort of relationship that creates?

SN: When I first started making pamphlets in 2010 I just gave them to friends; I liked the surprise element of it, that I could send something to people as a gift. When you pull a print, you don’t really know what it will look like in advance, and that surprise is exciting. For the reader, when they receive a pamphlet in the mail, it mirrors that surprise. 

When I started using the subscription model, I was worried I would lose some of the elements of the project that I loved: the surprise, the gift. But I also wanted to be able to circulate them more widely than I had been, and make the project more self-sustaining. So I gave subscribers the option to add a friend to the list for a year, in addition to themselves, which not only kept the surprise gift aspect but also meant that they circulated outside the group of people I already know. This means I get to be surprised, by who reads them, by where they end up, by having people come up to me at events and say, “My friend signed me up for this!”, by getting letters and zines in the mail from people who’ve gotten pamphlets and enjoyed them. I’ve especially enjoyed being at book fairs and having people come up and introduce themselves as readers who have gotten them through a friend. It’s one of the best aspects of it. This year, before everything blew up, I have been planning a series of events in conjunction with the series, and one of them was going to be a bird walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a NYC naturalist I met through the series, Bradley Klein, who became a subscriber himself after he was added to the list by a friend. There are people who subscribe every year, and have been receiving them for several years now, who I maintain a correspondence with. One of my goals was to build a community and I think it’s been successful at that beyond what I imagined.

LS: Tell me more about the community you want to build. What does it look like? Who participates? How does it differ from other communities within and beyond the art world?

SN: It’s a community that can shift and grow, that includes people who might not be interested in the art world, people who don’t feel comfortable in art institutions, people who would not come to an art event or talk or a gallery exhibition, though it also includes art audiences. I like to meet these audiences where they are at.

Nicholls giving an artist talk for a series of three pamphlets on Jamaica Bay, Queens at Shoestring Press.
Nicholls giving an artist talk for a series of three pamphlets on Jamaica Bay, Queens at Shoestring Press. Photo by Ana Cordeiro.

Since the pamphlets are nonfiction, information based publications, and since they are about specific places and the communities that live there, part of what I also want to do is build a community that thinks critically about the policies that build their environment. Who can afford to live in their neighborhood and who can’t? Is there pollution in their neighborhood and why was it allowed to be left there? Who is safe in their community? Who has access to green space and who doesn’t? By sharing information I would like to help people build more equitable communities, and ones that are more resilient to the challenges to come. This is particularly important in a time of climate crisis, because the communities who are most at risk are the ones with the fewest resources.

I would like it to be wide and diverse, but also engaged; I think it’s important for me that people read these things and think about them, and that a shift happens in how they think about the place where they live. Engagement isn’t always something that happens with artist books made in larger editions, even if they are intended to be widely distributed. There’s this point at the end of the New York Art Book Fair every year when people try to get rid of their copies of publications so they don’t have to cart them home, where it just seems like way too much paper that no one will bother to look at in a day or two. Sometimes books made in a large edition are purchased by someone, they take a photo for Instagram or whatever of their book fair haul, and then maybe the book never gets read, it just sits on a shelf. Ideally I want to have a relationship with my readers, where I can tell them a story one-on-one, in that reading voice inside their head, and they enjoy it enough that they send me something in response.

That happens often enough that I feel like the project is generally doing what I want it to do.

LS: One reason I started Artists’ Book Reviews is to get the books out of the tote bag and off the Instagram feed and actually read them. What kind of reception and support have you found in the art world? How important is institutional funding for a long-term, research-based project like this?

SN: I’m glad that artist books are finding readers outside the tote bag!

I think that I developed a way of working specifically so that I wouldn’t have to rely on institutional support. I can publish these pamphlets and distribute them without much in the way of infrastructure and the subscriptions cover the direct costs of production, so it’s a self-sustaining project. However, as time goes on, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I’ve been given support and an audience within a larger art world. This is partly because I’ve expanded the project to include events and neighborhood walks, which are open to the general public, and partly because I think that nonprofits and local grantmakers are particularly excited to support projects that can reach audiences outside the context of a traditional gallery art world. Institutional support is important in widening the reach of these projects; though the pamphlets can be made without support, I think that it’s important that the people they circulate among changes over time, and that the subject matter changes, to keep it fresh. One other thing about institutional funding is that I have less pressure to make the pamphlets a commodity, which means I have more freedom to distribute them at will to any audience I choose, and still have the project be self-sustaining. Engaging with different versions of the art world are important both in terms of developing an audience, as well as helping me to grow and develop in my own work.

Image from a walk on Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, a community that has sold their homes to the State of New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as an example of managed retreat from the shoreline. The neighborhood is returning to marshland, which will act as a buffer for residents inland.
Image from a walk on Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, a community that has sold their homes to the State of New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as an example of managed retreat from the shoreline. The neighborhood is returning to marshland, which will act as a buffer for residents inland. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It also tends to snowball a bit I think? I think opportunities lead to more opportunities, and I think that I’ve been doing them for some time now, and it’s built up some momentum at this point. I have received new funding this year from the Brooklyn Arts Council. And I have been given an exciting studio residency this year through BRIC, a Brooklyn arts and media institution that should start, fingers crossed, sometime this summer, depending on how the timeline goes for opening up. So I’m very lucky. And both are directly tied to the pamphlet series, and I am very grateful for the support I’ve gotten this year especially. 

I also think that times change, and tastemakers change. I remember very clearly that when I started working with books that there was a definite stigma attached to craft techniques like letterpress, and that the artists working at the Center for Book Arts operated in a completely separate, somehow lesser, version of the art world from the rest of the visual arts. I remember having arguments with my supervisor at the Center for Book Arts over the use of the word craft — he would insist on talking around the word on all official materials, we had to say “traditional artistic practices” instead of craft, because he didn’t want people to think we had craft cooties. There’s a significant gendered aspect to that. I don’t know how long this moment will go on, but being able to use serious craft techniques within a contemporary art context, and be welcomed, is something I am overjoyed to be able to do.

Inside spread from Solastalgia.
Inside spread from Solastalgia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: For better or worse, I think we’re also at a particular moment in terms of expertise and authority. I consider your pamphlets as a positive result of that trend, along with citizen science, guerilla botany, oral history, etc. I can’t help but think of the very first photobook, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Are we in another era of the amateur?

SN: This is an enormous subject.

When I teach letterpress, one of the things I try to communicate to students is the way this technology created a new kind of authority. I think I started printing as a way of being able to hijack that voice of authority, to use it for my own ends. It also brought knowledge and information and an audience to all kinds of new people, which made it possible for new kinds of writing, of political thought, of the development of science, in terrible ways and amazing ways. I think that pamphlets have been used to both create new fields of expertise, and to destabilize authority since the 17th century. I think that all science began as citizen science, as groups of amateurs experimenting on their own as a hobby. Citizen science was the only kind of science there was, and only later on became a profession. All expertise begins as an experiment.

In-progress map of the Brooklyn shoreline, a detail of the neighborhood of Red Hook for an ongoing mapping project that layers the historical coastline on the current one, alongside historical industrial uses, landfills, power plants, brownfields, highways, and public housing projects.
In-progress map of the Brooklyn shoreline, a detail of the neighborhood of Red Hook for an ongoing mapping project that layers the historical coastline on the current one, alongside historical industrial uses, landfills, power plants, brownfields, highways, and public housing projects. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I think that the new technology of print brought in an era of the amateur, just as the internet and social media has ushered in our current era of the amateur. There are enormous liabilities to this, as well as opportunities. I think that the overwhelming nature of current events is hard to process, and so when I print pamphlets now, I try to slow things down into something that is digestible, which is possible in this older technology. I communicate through pamphlets because I came of age in the 90’s (what my students might call the late nineteen hundreds) and have nostalgic feelings about DIY zine culture, about one person writing about their personal experience that they can share with a sympathetic community through the mail, but I am old now and have all these printing and binding skills. My 90’s experiments in zines have become expertise. I still think that people should make their own culture, outside of institutions. 

One of the things that leaps out at me about 17th century European pamphlets is how many of them are about the end of the world. This wasn’t just superstition; people lived through plague and the Thirty Years War and all these new forms of thought and technology and religion and then the sudden realization that the world was much larger than they had imagined. The world that they knew did actually end, and apocalypse was a useful metaphor to describe this. We’re not only living through a new era of the amateur, we’re living through a new era of apocalyptic imaginings. Our movies and stories are full of zombies, CGI skyscrapers sinking under the ocean, and dystopia. I find this comforting, both because everything eventually comes to an end, but also because after that comes a new beginning.

LS: That’s a fascinating history! I hadn’t made the connection between those early printed pamphlets and your engagement with our own apocalyptic climate crisis.

This raises the question of timing and duration. Are your pamphlets a warning? A record? A blueprint? Where do you envision them in thirty years, or 300?

SN: I think they do serve as both a warning and a record; I hope that I am able to raise awareness of the immediate need for systemic change, but I don’t think I am even close to being expert enough to draw a blueprint of exactly what that means. I hope to point people in a direction, and to raise enough concern to motivate action.

I also want to document the particular version of the city that exists today. Things here in NYC change drastically in a matter of years; the city that existed when I was in high school is long gone. The version that was here when I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 is also gone, when I visit that neighborhood now it’s almost unrecognizable. If you lived here even ten years ago, and then left, the city that you knew is no longer here. So I know that the version I live in now will be gone soon too, and I want to document what is here now while I can.

Watercolor study of Dead Horse Bay.
Watercolor study of Dead Horse Bay. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is how the city functions even before you take climate change into consideration. Neighborhoods will start to shrink in the coming decades, losing physical space to the water, and the city will become smaller for the first time in hundreds of years. The infrastructure we will build to try to shore things up will be a huge change  to our coastlines; hard infrastructure like seawalls and barriers will change how waterways look and act. I can’t even imagine what the city will look like in thirty years. 

And of course right now drastic shifts are happening, faster than I can even write about them, in how we are using our public space: in the streets, in our ways of relating to each other in public, in our transportation system. Overnight subway service is gone and might not come back, which means that city that never sleeps trope is no longer a thing. We’re using public streets to do all kinds of new things, at the same time that tons of traffic is coming back because people are afraid of the subway. I strongly believe that we’re at a turning point, and I look forward to finding out what the new version of the city that emerges from this moment of crisis will be like. I think we have badly needed a reset, so we’ll see what comes next. 

I have no idea how many copies of these things will be around in thirty years. They will probably circulate in ways I can’t foresee, which is interesting to think about. I treat them as ephemeral, sending them out widely, but I want them to be a record. So hopefully some of them survive, and I hope in surprising places. 300 years is more dicey. Will we have libraries? Mail service?  Will we have cities? Will we be on this planet? Who knows. Have you read New York 2140, the Kim Stanley Robinson book? It’s glorious; it’s a recognizable version of the New York City of the future, half drowned and transformed but still familiar. I found it comforting. I wouldn’t mind living there.

LS: Alas New York 2140 is languishing unread on my bookshelf, but I think we can all use a comforting view of the future right now.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work during this moment of crisis.


Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.


Grocery Store Conversations; inside spread
Grocery Store Conversations. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: Even as you’re dealing with words or letterstext as material or as an objectit does seem like the core is about how language is used by people, or misused. Can you speak to the divide between the material of the language as an object with its own ontological status versus language being this totally contingent, slippery, rules-based thing that people use.

WL: Yeah. I love language, and I love how messy English is.

If English were a very ordered, precise language in any degree—whether it was grammatically or in spelling or whatever—it would be so much less fun to play with. It’s because it’s so messy and it’s because English spelling is so inconsistent, and because it borrows so many words and roots from so many different languages, it’s just a lot of fun to mess around with.

LS: It sounds as though calling attention to the contingency of language is importantthe idea that a word could have meant something else or, in fact, means something else to other people or in another context. I think of what Aaron Cohick has called seamfulness, as opposed to seamlessness. What do we risk if we view language as seamless?

WL: I don’t know if we risk anything, really. But words and language exist in the world, so why not pay attention to it? You can get by in the world without paying attention to the way that words are written, or the existence of words. But in large part what artists do — and maybe that’s the kind of art that I’m interested in making — is forcing you to pay attention to these things that are part of everyday life that you might otherwise overlook. 

For better or worse, I am always hooked on words and language. So the work that I’m making is just making apparent my own interest in these words, how words work and what words are. Hopefully there are other people out there that also find it interesting, and that it appeals to them in some way.

LS: One of the classic answers to the question of what art is, is the idea of representing the unrepresentable. It seems like the unrepresentable that you’re pursuing is language itself, or the fact that language exists as both a physical, material thing but also as a relationship among people. 

WL: Right. I’ve always thought about how words have this duality. They can be written, visual things and they can also be spoken, heard things, and I like trying to insist upon both. 

That’s the idea behind Courier’s Text Atlas of the United States of America, that it’s a visual work, but it’s formed from text. And if it’s text, you should be able to read it, but how do you read text like that? That’s where the computer text to speech reader comes in, and then the performance came out of it. 

4 copies of Courier's Text Atlas of The United States of America; front cover and 3 inside spreads
Courier’s Text Atlas of The United States of America. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: The flip side of art as play is that it’s also a lot of work, and it takes time to develop the necessary skills. Can you talk about the role of discipline and craftsmanship in your practice? 

WL: I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of digital craft, which I think is something that is ignored a lot, particularly in the book arts world, where there are a lot of papermakers or letterpress printers or offset printers or binders, or what have you. The physicality of the book becomes the forefront of what the work is. I think being really skilled in InDesign or Photoshop or Illustrator is a tantamount skill to being a really good letterpress printer or papermaker, but for whatever reason those skills are glossed over. 

At this point I design pretty much all of my work digitally, primarily in InDesign or Illustrator. I am largely self-taught in these programs, which means that I’m sure anybody who’s gone through a graphic design program or knows how to use these programs really well would find things that I do kind of funny, but that feels akin to anybody who’s learned any craft on their own. They might have whatever quirks, but that leads to their own unique way of creating the work they do.

I don’t draw and I don’t take photos and nevertheless I’m a visual artist. That’s probably why I’ve gravitated towards writing as a large part of my practice, and beyond that to writing with a hyperconsciousness towards typography.  I think if I had been aware of graphic design as a discipline when I was an undergrad, I probably would have studied that and maybe stuck with it. I get immense satisfaction out of minute details, like laying out pages, moving this thing a tiny bit this way or tiny bit that way, aligning things. A lot of my craftsmanship happens in this digital space.

Characters; inside spread
Characters. Photo courtesy of the artist.

And it also has to do with what I have access to. I’ve trained in offset printing and letterpress printing and certainly a lot of binding. Bookbinding I can still do very easily, but I don’t have access to printing presses anymore.

I also think a lot about how offset printing drastically changed the work that I was doing. I think if in grad school I hadn’t learned offset printing, I would be doing a lot more letterpress stuff. There’s certainly plenty you can do playing around with words, especially thinking about them as physical objects when you’re literally physically putting these letters together, but the process of offset printing allowed me to jump completely into this digital realm and I think I’m thankful for the direction that sent me in.

LS: What’s your approach to learning a new skill? Do you come across a problem and see that you’ll have to learn something, or do you learn these things out of interest and then incorporate them into your art practice?

WL: It’s a little bit of both. I love learning new things, but it’s a double edged sword. I get really frustrated with myself when I don’t know everything about something already. A couple weeks ago, I was putting the roof on this chicken coop I’ve been building. I’ve never done any kind of roofing, but I was getting really mad at myself that it wasn’t going very well. When I finally took a breath the thought came to me, “Why are you mad at yourself? You’ve never done this before. Ever.” But the frustration propels me to learn more I think.

In certain cases it’s a project that I wanted to make happen so I have to learn the skills to do it. This chicken coop is a prime example; I wanted chickens but we needed the coop, so I’m going to have to learn how to do all these things to build it. 

Learning new skills for me sometimes comes out of necessity—there’s no other way to get the task done if I don’t learn how to do this. Sometimes it comes out of affordability—if I can’t pay somebody else to, I will do it. Sometimes it comes out of shyness, because I’m afraid to ask somebody else how to do something. A lot of it just comes out of excitement to learn new things. And it’s not just tools and hand skills. Several years ago I taught myself how to identify all the trees in my neighborhood, and then wildflowers, and foraging for edible plants. 

I guess I think about the brain as a muscle that needs to be exercised like anything else, and I think that learning things satisfies that for me. 

LS: There is the satisfaction of making something, and the satisfaction of learning something, but those can be opportunity costs. If you only learn, you’ll never get the satisfaction of producing something. Where do you find that balance?

WL: I think I am impatient in a lot of ways, and that’s tied into the frustration of feeling like, “how come you don’t know how to do this thing yet?” I’m impatient getting good at it.

It’s breadth versus depth. I know a little bit about a lot of things rather than a whole lot about just a couple of things. I’m often envious of friends who are really good at something that perhaps they started doing when they were in their early twenties and they’ve been doing it for fifteen, twenty, thirty years. I’ve never really had that degree of focus on any one thing that might have evolved into a more cohesive or linear career. 

This is a constant battle for me: my stubbornness about learning things versus whether my time would be better spent doing something else that I am slightly better at.

LS: As an example, you’ve been working on some animations. How do you approach learning animation, in terms of technique and aesthetics? Where is that balance for you, learning how it’s done and learning how it should look?

WL: The animation has been fun because I’ve been playing around with the characters from my book, Characters. They’re already vector files, so it’s pretty easy to put them into other programs to animate them. I’m really good at the automatic parts, when you can just turn something or move something, but when you have to redraw something—which is a large part of animation—I really get frustrated with that part.

I’ve had this idea for a while to turn the characters into some kind of graphic novel that takes place in some kind of Wordland—the words are the characters and they also speak in words and the environment they live in is words. But I’ve been stuck with what the story is because I don’t often write fiction.

What I have enjoyed about the animation is the total newness, and how it’s gotten me re-excited about the characters, and caused me to spend more time with them. It has felt like another approach to realizing the Wordland in my head. The animation at this point has just felt like play, which I think is good for me because I don’t always play enough before I start taking things too seriously. So it’s play that maybe is leading to some ideas for a project that may be an animation or might be in book form.

LS: What’s the relationship between the existing book Characters and the animation? As an abecedarian is the book just the stable of characters that you’re working from?

WL: Last year I had been doing these drawings with letters, and when it came time for the next issue of Tiny Ideas, it felt like an opportunity to present them. An abecedarian was just a good structuring device for deciding which characters to put in, and what else needed to be created. Characters is essentially a specimen book. These characters exist in there, but they could have other lives elsewhere, and there are other characters beyond the book too.

Characters; inside spread
Characters. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: Are there other skills or new projects that you’re excited about right now?

WL: It’s the middle of springtime right now, and for me that’s garden season. Michelle and I always have a huge garden. Last year we had a pretty pretty big one. This year we were planning on having an even bigger one. We’ve both been working from home for the last two months, so the size of the garden is just getting bigger and bigger because we have more time to pay careful attention to what the seedlings are doing. So that’s a big project.

I’ve been enjoying giving myself permission to not feel like I have to be producing some kind of creative work, especially as I recognize that actually all these things I do are part of my practice in some way and that I will probably come back to creating something at some point or another in some fashion. That’s helped a lot with the pressure that I put on myself to make work.

LS: Is that pressure off because of the coronavirus? Is it being stuck at home and having all of that external pressure grind to a halt? 

WL: No, I haven’t really been actively working on a creative project in quite a long time, certainly not since 2020 began. I’ve been doing little things here and there, and I keep notes for ideas. But it’s been a lot more homesteading projects, and I started a new job which has taken up a lot of time and energy—in good ways.

I’m kind of amazed that a lot of artist friends are talking about how the only way for them to get through this Coronavirus pandemic is to make make make. I don’t feel that at all. I feel very little desire to be creative right now. So I’m thankful that I have the garden and the chickens to pay attention to, because that’s something that helps my day go by, that I can put my attention into without feeling like I should be writing or making a book or whatever it is.

Woody Leslie's garden
Woody’s garden. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: You’ve named your chickens after classic typefaces (and I think you did a nice job pairing their appearances, and I would imagine personalities, if that’s the right word). So beyond the obvious do you see other direct connections between animal rearing and art or design. Problem solving? We’ve been circling around this topic throughout the conversation, but how directly do you fold these skills or interests into your art practice or vice versa?

WL: It’s more that I’m working on trying to build a life that I want to have, and for years I’ve known that I wanted a place with a large garden. I love cooking food, and I love growing food and the two go hand in hand quite nicely. I’m super fortunate that I have the opportunity to have a place with a large enough backyard that I can do that.

Mostly it’s about building a life that I want, and because I’m interested in these different things, it’s about figuring out how to put them together. For sure, they’re all related in terms of how they feed into each other. A lot of my work is about food, whether it’s growing food or eating food or cooking food. That’s just because I’m often writing about my life experience, and that’s what a lot of my life experience is about. It’s like I’m building this world around myself in the same way that I build a book around an idea. Sometimes a skill set from one becomes directly useful in another.

LS: It sounds like you’re very intentional about constructing your life, and that seems correlated or enabled by self-reflection, processing feelings and memories through your art. Is all of the thought that goes into your books about the past directly related to this future oriented, intentional approach to your lifestyle?

WL: I guess it’s all coming from me, so probably. I think this intentional lifestyle, (which sometimes doesn’t feel very intentional), came out of finishing grad school and struggling with what I felt like I should be doing. I asked myself what I really wanted, and realized what I wanted more than anything was just to have a garden (and then made a piece about it called Future Farm Manifesto).

Future farm manifesto; recto
Future Farm Manifesto. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The garden in my mind was a place to grow food and satisfy those urges, but also a metaphor for a place to anchor myself. I have moved around a lot in my life. I grew up in Vermont and lived there until I was eighteen, and then after that I moved pretty much every year for a decade and a half. The most I’ve lived in any one place was three years. I was ready to plant asparagus, which takes at least three years before you can start eating it.

I’m interested in the idea of subsistence farming, which I feel like is something we learn about in high school with a negative connotation from our capitalist mindset, like “well, if you’re only growing enough for yourself then what are you doing? How come you’re not making any money?” I’m also really frustrated with the concept of a “job”—what is a job, why we’re so obsessed with them, what we value enough to pay for, etc. So on the one hand it’s very simple: all I want is like a home and a garden and to grow my own vegetables, and to put them up for winter. On the other hand it’s this complete dismantling of the capitalist system that we’re part of.

LS: “Where am I going, what do I want out of life” is a typical response to finishing grad school, so it’s interesting to me that you had fifteen years of tiny books to look back at. There were these diaristic micro-memoir records of what you’re interested in. It seems like you gave your future self a gift, a record of your values and interests. 

WL: I write letters to myself periodically, which are not art projects; they’re purely for myself. As a kid my dad would have us do this thing in the fall, usually around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, where we would write a letter to ourselves and then we’d stack it in the wood pile. Then in the spring when we got down to that point in the wood pile, you’d find your letter and it might be chewed on by a mouse a little bit, but there is a letter you’d written yourself six months earlier. I started doing this in college—write myself a letter and open it maybe six months later or a year later. As I’ve gotten older I’ve increased the amount of time. When I was twenty, I couldn’t conceive of what a whole year was. Now I write letters to be opened after five years. And I could see increasing that to ten years in another decade.

It’s less about setting goals for myself and more about putting a pin in the map: this is what I am thinking about and interested in now. I realize what I was interested in when I was twenty is really different than what I was interested in when I was thirty, and I’m not necessarily disappointed about how things have gone, it’s just they change. You don’t really know your own future, so I like that exercise as a way of helping me return to the thoughts that I was having at that time. 

LS: I like your idea of putting the pin in the map and locating yourself for your future self as opposed to trying to predict or preordain the future.

WL: I do sometimes write some predictions just because that’s also a way of pinpointing how you were thinking back then.

States I Haven't Been to in the Order I think I will
States I Haven’t Been to in the Order I think I will. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: My final question is on the subject of predictions for the future, your annual project, States I Haven’t Been to in the Order I think I will. This year you’ve got Kansas at the top of your list. Do you have any travel plans yet? 

WL: I don’t have any plans to go to Kansas. That project has changed a lot. When I first started doing it, it was just a fun thing to do, and a tongue in cheek response to another ongoing project, States I Have… The second year, it was easier because I knew I had some traveling plans coming up, so I was able to put those states close to the order that I was going into. And then in the following two, three years after that, I went to a lot of the states. I think I only have ten left that I haven’t been to, and it’s been a couple years since I’ve been to a new one. It’s turned into a different thing now that there are fewer states to go to and states that have less reason for me to go to. I might continue doing this project for twenty years, and North Dakota just stays on that list. 

But increasingly, then that becomes more reason to go to them. It would surprise no one who knows me that I would make a trip to North Dakota specifically to go to North Dakota.

LS: What percent of visitors to North Dakota do you think are there because it is the last state that they’ve not been to?

WL: That’s a good question. 

LS: I would wager some significant percent of people are there for the express purpose of crossing off the fiftieth item on a list.

WL: Yeah, maybe—that’s interesting.

LS: Alright, I’ve taken more of your time than I said I would. Thank you.

Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 1

I spoke with Woody Leslie via Skype on April 24. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Woody Leslie and his chicken, Lucida. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Levi Sherman: I’d like to start by talking about subject matter. Much of your work deals with the everyday, and a lot of people are suddenly stuck at home confronting that. Do you have any advice about finding meaning in these small quotidian moments?

Woody Leslie: I like to call it the significance of personal insignificance. There are all these very unimportant uninteresting moments that make up the entirety of our lives.

But I don’t think I have any advice for others on how to capture them. I’m not sure that I necessarily pay attention to these things as they’re happening. Often when I have a memory of some completely unimportant event, I’ll write it down. I collect snippets of memories and sometimes come back to them to turn them into a larger thing later. But I’m not sure I’m that good about actively paying attention to these as they happen. I think that’s why I’m interested in them, because why do I remember these things? They’re completely unimportant and yet they have stuck in my memory.

LS: You’ve raised the issue of timescalethese little moments that accumulate and become what life is about. So is it about time as much as the specific anecdote or memory?

WL: For me it’s mostly about memory. But time is of course part of memory.

LS: Some of your reflections on social interactions resonate with me deeply in part because they’re privateyou’re never sure if other people have the same thought or if you’re the only one. So, what’s the balance between what’s relatable for your audience versus what’s unique to you?

WL: I think it depends on what I’m doing. I think in earlier works, for instance going way back to the Tiny Stories series from One Page Productions—which are just these very tiny true stories. Those are all about just capturing the moment, and how can you encapsulate this small memory in a tiny space?

But with more recent work, it’s almost as if the story doesn’t matter, because as I have started doing these things with visual typography and playing around with the way letters look on the page, they become almost as much visual things as they are written things. Oftentimes I find myself knowing “this is the process that I want to do,” but not knowing what the story is that I want to treat that way.

3 copies of Parsely by Woody Leslie; front cover and two inside spreads
Parsely. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Parsely is a good example where I had a very clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do concept-wise with that book, but it took me a long time to figure out what the story was going to be. What was a story that I could parse out like that and then explode?

That’s a common problem for me, where I have this vocabulary of technique that I want to apply to the words, but I don’t know what the story is that I’m going to do it to. That’s part of the reason why I’m always just jotting down little memories and things, because then I can return to them and think, “Will this story work to explode it or treat it in this way?”

For the visual things I’m doing now, I can’t be too attached to the writing because the writing gets destroyed to some degree in the visual treatment. As I become more and more interested in them as visual pieces and less interested in whether or not the audience can discern what is written in them, it means that the stories have to be something that I’m less attached to conveying what the information is. If it’s too good of a story that I want to use somewhere else where the story is actually conveyed, it won’t work for those visual pieces.

That’s why I think sometimes these minuscule, unimportant stories work really well for this, because it’s the excuse to build this visual piece around, but it doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t get to story— they just missed out on some ten second dumb story that I would tell them over a beer, you know, it doesn’t matter.

LS: You raise an interesting point about the stories being just interesting enough, but not wanting to use up a story that might become something bigger. 

WL: Let’s say the work you were doing is taking a painting that you make and then you cut it up and then you stitch it back together to make a new piece of art, but if you get too attached to the painting then you can’t cut it up. With some stories I get really attached to my writing, and I can’t I can’t explode the typography.

LS: Do you always write out the text? Do you have a written draft even for these shorter stories, or if you’re composing them in Illustrator or InDesign is the layout part of the writing process?

WL: It depends on the piece. Parsely I wrote and laid out at the same time, with the exception of the main throughline text; that was the only thing that was pre-composed. But the rest of it all came in during the composition process. With some of the newer pieces that I’ve been doing, like Grocery Store Conversations, which is one of the Tiny Ideas—or these new pieces that are large format, single page, broadsides of a single tiny story—those ones, I have been working with pre composed text because it works better for the process that I’ve been engaging with. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t sometimes change to make it fit better with my typographic designs—when I’m so immersed in a story, spending that much time with the text, sometimes it changes. But for the most part recently I’ve been working with pre-composed text.

Screenshot of InDesign workspace
A work in progress in Adobe InDesign. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: You talk about these stories being a 10-second anecdote you would just tell to a frienddo you still tell these stories once you’ve put them in print?

WL: Yeah, and I feel really self-conscious about it. This has been happening to me since Tiny Ideas, which came out over a decade ago now. These stories exist in print and are out in the world and some people have read these stories. Sometimes a moment comes up where it feels like an appropriate story to tell, but I’m always self-conscious that someone hearing the story has already read it. It feels like telling a joke you’ve already told before. But I also don’t want to be so egotistical to assume everyone has read all my books…

I do find that once I’ve written the story that kind of becomes the de facto way to tell a story and so if I’m telling one of these stories, one of these anecdotes, it’s like I’m kind of performing or reading that story, even if the person doesn’t know that this has been been written, and I just feel very self-conscious about it because I’m aware that I’m doing that even if nobody else is aware that I’m reading this story from memory. Maybe it’s like hearing a band play a live version of a song that you’re familiar with the recorded version.

LS: There’s something profound about the move from oral to written culture and the reification of storytelling, but it’s funny that it’s happening on the level of an individual with these very small anecdotes. 

WL: Writing them down often feels like a confession. I carry these memories in my head, and by writing them down I don’t have to carry them anymore. They feel like little jewels, like these are things that I own and, by giving words to them I give them a physical existence in the world.

3 small books: Tiny Stories, Tinier Stories, and Tiniest Stories
One Page Productions’ Tiny Stories, Tinier Stories, and Tiniest Stories. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: Actually, my next question was going to be whether this is part of how you process these feelings, because it seems like a lot of your most intimate content is from childhood or adolescent memories. So, what type of processing is thatgiving them concrete words and putting them out into the world?

WL: Yeah, it feels like releasing them. I don’t have to worry about remembering them anymore because now it’s written down. For a long time I was really hung up on the idea of truth being the driving force behind them; that it didn’t matter if they’re inconsequential stories because they were true. True inconsequentiality was enough.

In Tiny Stories, I wrote a story about the first six-pack of beer that I ever bought, and several months after printing I realized I had written the wrong beer. I found it really upsetting—I had broken my rule of truth as the guiding force. So in a reprint a few months later—because I used to print these books every time they ran out—I corrected it. If you have a very early edition of Tiny Stories, it’s got a different beer than the later copies of it.

I’m less concerned about truth as the core principle driving the work now. Not that I make up facts, but I have a better understanding that memory doesn’t work the way that I would like it to. As I get interested in these visual typographic pieces, these memories are just the starting point, and the facts of the story don’t matter as much.

LS: What’s the processing time for one of these anecdotes? How much time passes between a social interaction or something that you want to reflect on and actually producing the book?

WL: Grocery Store Conversations was actually a pretty quick turn-around, where this event happened at a grocery store and I think I went home and wrote about it and that made me write about a couple of other incidents that happened in grocery stores. But then that sat on my computer for a couple of years before it turned into anything.

So not everything is a memory that just crosses my mind and I write it down; some of them are events that happened to me recently, or little musings, or maybe even what you would call a poem. But it usually takes a little while before they turn into anything.

Grocery Store Conversations; inside spread
Grocery Store Conversations. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: Artists’ books are interesting as a discipline because no one comes to it directly, so you can see traces of a photographer or printmaker in somebody’s practice. Is it fair to say that you approach artist books as a storyteller?

WL: Yes, I got into bookbinding through a very roundabout route.

I studied music in undergrad, and if you had asked me when I was 20 what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a sitar player. I started playing sitar when I was 13, and went to Wesleyan University thinking I was going to study ethnomusicology. At Wesleyan I also got really interested in avant garde, and experimental music—which is basically the other half of their music department alongside ethnomusicology—and took a deep dive into sound art. That’s when I started getting interested in the idea of storytelling, recording stories and piecing the audio bits together to create these narrative things.

Woody Leslie playing sitar outdoors
A young Woody Leslie playing sitar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Eventually that led to me writing my own little stories. Tiny Stories was heavily influenced by John Cage’s Indeterminacy (a series of one-minute stories Cage recorded). One of my earliest book projects, One Page Productions, started as a conceptual fictional publishing company, but to fill the books I had to create content, and it turns out I liked that part too. That’s how I got hooked on books as objects and started teaching myself a lot about book binding and learning about artist books.

So yes, it was storytelling that eventually that led me into books, but I was five or so years into bookmaking before I realized that I was a writer—which was obvious to everybody else—and that I had always been writing stories and creating narrative content in some way or another throughout all the work that I had been making, and that the books were a way of structuring the writing.

LS: You’ve talked about structure and authorial control, but what is it about artist books that makes them so good for storytelling that they have been a primary focus for your storytelling practice?

WL: I think it comes down to control; I am able to have my fingers in all parts of the process and make these things happen. And also when I was twenty-two or twenty-three first playing around with these things with One Page Productions, I didn’t know any other way to do this.

I think one of the reasons that I started writing is because I didn’t think of myself as a writer. With music, I had studied it, and so there was a lot of pressure that I felt like I was “supposed to be good at it,” whereas writing and and making books was very freeing because I hadn’t ever studied that.

It’s not like I knew anything about how to get my writing out in the world, or even really how to write. I was interested in these book objects because they were fun little things to make, and one thing led to another and that was the only way that I knew how to put my writing into the world. I think for me it’s just worked as a vessel to be able to create my work, put it into something and get it out into the world.

I just did my first book with a publisher—Understanding Molecular Typography, with Ugly Duckling Presse. It was a totally different experience to work with a publisher, and some things about it I really enjoyed. That makes me feel like well, the next big project that comes along, would I want to self-publish it, or would I want to try to find a publisher to do it? There are pluses and minuses to both.

4 copies of Understanding Molecular Typography by H.F. Henderson
Self-published 2015 edition of Understanding Molecular Typography. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: Ugly Duckling Presse reaches a larger audience, and mostly publish poetry. Who do you think your audience is and how does that affect what you make?

WL: It depends on the project. For instance, the Tiny Ideas series that I did in 2019, that was a very specific audience in that I put out a call for subscriptions and people subscribed, and that determined how big of an edition size I was going to make. Then I knew very specifically who my audience was. I made the edition size a little bit larger because I knew the subscriptions would grow over time, but by the end of the year pretty much all of the edition size was subscribed to. Being aware of your audience and knowing the people that’s gonna read this book does, for better or worse, change what it is that you’re producing.

In the case of Molecular Typography and the audience, that book has such a different range of people that might be interested in it. It could be graphic designers or chemists or anybody that works with writing, or librarians or type designers—anything relating to writing and words. Poets fit into that category.

Poets that are aware of books as objects and the production of books, I think that falls very nicely into Ugly Duckling Presse’s world, and that’s a good place for a lot of my work.

LS: For the subscription series, Tiny Ideas, did it add pressure literally knowing who your audience was? People always say to write for your audience, and that’s a very literal thing when you have a list of their names and addresses.

WL: Definitely. The whole idea behind Tiny Ideas to begin with was that they were supposed to be tiny ideas. As a way to get myself creating some new work, I made this subscription series where I would have to put out a new little work every two months without fussing over them too much. But that didn’t really work [laughs] because I still obsessed over them, and was worried that they’re not good enough—especially being aware “oh this person’s reading my book? I should do a better job with this!”

At the end of 2019, I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to continue Tiny Ideas into 2020. There were a couple of deciding factors there, one of which was that it was really difficult for me to try to put a book out every two months, and that I wasn’t good about the tiny idea thing—just making something quickly and putting it out there. I didn’t like the stress and pressure feeling that I need to create something.

I also found myself getting really frustrated by the means of production. I designed all the books in InDesign or Illustrator on my computer and then they were all printed at Office Depot, and anybody who’s ever tried to use a photocopier to make art knows how frustrating that is in terms of getting things to line up, or how much it costs. Having had access to an offset press in the past, I had these desires for a higher production value than I was able to produce.

I also started to wonder if I stopped putting out all these tiny ideas, maybe I could spend some more time working on a larger idea and make a larger project. I’m not sure how well that’s worked yet, but I don’t regret not doing Tiny Ideas again in 2020. 

LS: The edition was fully subscribed, so by all accounts, that’s a success. Did the fact that it was a successful project make that decision harder?

WL: Some of the same people who gave me the feeling of, “oh this person’s gonna read this book, I should do a better job,” expressed dismay that I wasn’t going to continue in 2020. That pushed me to consider continuing the series, but then I realized, am I making these for myself or am I making it for other people?

For a long time I think I’ve made art as a form of self-entertainment. It was a way to occupy myself and it satisfied my brain and my body in different ways. There’s also a certain amount of external validation that comes from making a book and putting it out in the world.

I’m also very interested in a very wide range of different things in the creative art world and outside of it. And I’ve long been aware of the fact that some of those things, for instance cooking—I’ve worked as a cook on and off throughout my life and I also cook a lot at home—satisfies many of the same urges that, say, making a book does in that there’s a certain amount of planning and research and prep and then production and action, and then consumption. It’s obviously very different, but it scratches some of the same itches.

And that has been the case for a lot of other things that I do. I cook a lot. I grow a lot of food. The last three or four months, I’ve been working on this chicken coop and building bookshelves and other things around the house—homesteading projects basically. It’s the same sense of satisfaction for me, creating these things, without the pressure of the external validation.

Chicken coop in progress
Chicken coop in progress. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I also can’t help but keep thinking, does my art matter in the world that we live in right now? I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle class, able-bodied male. With all these layers of privilege, does the world really need to hear another story from the likes of me?

I’m getting more satisfaction from drawing inward and doing these things around the house and these projects that feel kind of more important to my well-being. Less so from creating these books that go out in the world. So that came up in part of the decision of not doing Tiny Ideas in 2020. I make it seem like I thought long and hard about it and had these debates with myself, and really it was more simple. I decided not to continue the series, and later I realized all these things are kind of connected to it.

I think I just want on a long tangent and I don’t know if I answered your question.

LS: Not only did you answer my question, you answered my next three questionsremarkably in the order that I’ve written them down. Your work gives the impression that you would make it even if you didn’t have an audience, but not in a self-involved way; it seems joyful. What do you think of art as a form of play?

WL: I think it’s great. My wife, Michelle, brought up the idea of problem solving the other day. I was expressing some of these thoughts, and she broached this idea that it’s all problem-solving, which I think is a very good way to describe it. Having a story in my head and figuring out how I am going to turn it into a book and print it and bind it—all these series of problems that one has to figure out. I really enjoy that.

Building a chicken coop is the same thing, it’s just a different set of problems to solve. I’m feeling more and more like maybe I don’t have to create books and art to get the same sense of satisfaction. I’m enjoying the process of slowing down and doing all these other things. Maybe a book will come again at some point in the future.

But yeah, art as a game. I don’t think I’m that great with aesthetics. I don’t draw or take photos and so the idea of something that’s just kind of truly aesthetically pleasing is a little alien to me. Which is part of me realizing I was always a writer. All my projects are so idea-based. That’s why I call my imprint Large Home Tiny Idea, because I feel like I have this tiny idea and then I build this large home around it. It’s usually that tiny idea kernel that starts and then is either evolved through a game or through some kind of structuring element around it.