The first part of Al Davison and Yen Quach’s Future Echoes — the debut release from BMP’s Liminal Comics imprint — releases today in a digital edition.
We are excited to present this interview by Liminal Comics editor Alisa Kwitney with Future Echoes creators and collaborators Al Davison and Yen Quach, who talk about working together on Future Echoes, the origin of the story’s concept, and their perspectives on contemporary comics and issues of disability and representation.
Alisa Kwitney (AK): Al, when did you first get the idea for this project?
Al Davison (AD): Sept 3rd, 1988. I recently found my original notes and sketches. I was suffering a temporary bout of blindness and increased paralysis, the onset symptoms of M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). I woke up blind and unable to walk in my third-floor flat. I started to hallucinate as a result of fever and later malnutrition. So the idea came from that situation: What if a disabled man was trapped in a building and couldn’t trust his senses? The notes and sketches were done whilst still blind.
AK: Yen, how did you get involved?
Yen Quach (YQ): I had been working with Al on the pre-press work for Spiral Cage and just around the studio space quite a lot once I graduated from university, so I guess you can say pretty organically, as Al asked if I’d be interested in working with him and Alisa on the Future Echoes project. We had previously collaborated on a mini-Sandman series of illustrations, trading off ‘stages’ of drawing on the same page, so working on Future Echoes feels like a nice step beyond that. It’s fun, and such an honor to be asked aboard this project.
AK: Al, what are the benefits of working with a young newcomer to the comics industry?
AD: I find it hard to think of Yen as a newcomer! Yes, she’s only been working a couple of years, but apart from her talent, which is self-evident, she is extremely well organised, knowledgeable, and hard-working. It’s like working with an old, long-established fellow professional, just without the ‘old’ bit. Oh, and yes, ridiculous amounts of energy. People often wrongly assume Yen is my apprentice. She assists me, yes, but we are an equal partnership and learn from each other. We both enjoy trying out new drawing techniques, new art materials, and like to challenge ourselves and each other.
AK: Yen, what are the benefits of working with an experienced artist and writer?
YQ: I’m picking up a lot of invaluable experience through being able to see how Al works his craft. He doesn’t work from a written script, so I can’t exactly pop the top of his head off and pick his brain (haha!), but I do end up asking questions about why Al has chosen to have [x] words or [y] shot in the panel, and we have a nice conversation about the process. It’s back-and-forth and we’re on equal ground as creators, so it’s pretty relaxed. Well, for me at least! I realise I’m depending on a lot of Al’s experience, which is a privilege.
AK: Al, what do you think about the role of disabled people in comics, books, film, and TV? How has it gotten better over the past three decades? How has it remained the same?
AD: I think there has been definite progress, but sometimes it seems there is one step forward and three steps back. There are still very few prominent disabled characters in comics, or in other media, and most of them have get-out clauses: Charles Xavier can walk when it fits the plot; Oracle, the most important disabled character in mainstream comics, has been cured. Daredevil can see better than a sighted person… Appropriate casting is the biggest issue. American TV was way ahead of Britain in that regard, then they jumped back ten years and cast an able-bodied actor as a wheelchair user in Glee, which seemed to legitimise ‘cripping-up’ again as a valid option. The same is happening in terms of race and LGBT-themed work, with whitewashing on the increase once again in films like Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Exodus and the casting of a cisgender man as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. On the plus side we have creators like Yen, Gail Simone, and Marjorie Liu, amongst others, creating wonderfully challenging and inclusive work. So I’m an optimist while aware there is still an awful lot of work to do.
AK: Yen, how has your role on the project changed over time?
YQ: The division of work, as much as you can say for a collaboration that mixes our work in traditional and digital space, was pretty clear from the outset. I like to be organised so that what needs to be done is clear, and that has helped to keep things from being confusing.
In addition to being the principal artist for Amelia’s segments, I’m also lettering the comic, which has been a nice skill to develop and helping to wrangle all the files. Being able to collaborate remotely thanks to the Internet has been a great resource, too, and has been a good way to make sure that the project can run smoothly. But to get back to the question: I think my role on the project has stayed more or less the same!
AK: Al, you were very outspoken on social media about the problems with the movie (from the novel) Me Before You. Do you feel that this project is a creative response to some of the issues you raised?
AD: Yes, even though it was originally conceived much earlier. There are still very negative views on disability: for example, the Me Before You film, and the book it is based on, epitomise what has become known as the ‘better dead than disabled’ mentality in Hollywood and other media. I wanted to challenge that. I also wanted Yen on board, partly because there is an intersection between my experience as a disabled man and Yen’s experience as a woman and as a person of color, I knew we’d be on the same page. We’ve had many discussions about our various experiences dealing with prejudice and discrimination.
Having also been lucky enough to attend numerous conventions and other events with Yen, travelling together, it has been interesting and upsetting for me to see her facing different but equally difficult challenges than I do as a wheelchair user, and both of us having to deal with ignorant comments and assumptions on a regular basis.
All this has certainly informed the work.
AK: Yen, you have been illustrating the Victorian female protagonist’s story. Even though society has changed a great deal since the 1800s, are there ways you identify with Amelia’s struggle as a woman and an artist?
YQ: It’s absolutely true even now that being female-presenting is more difficult in society. as it is still very patriarchal. Looking at it intersectionally, I’m also a person of color (POC), and that has an additional layer of challenges, though I do have the privilege of being cisgendered and able-bodied. I’m still only a fledgling, but I’m optimistic since social media and the Internet have made it that much easier to get myself out there and connect with others. The future is promising as attitudes shift to become more open and accepting. ♥
AK: Al, a similar question for you: how much do you see of yourself in Harlan?
AD: Well, I see aspects of myself in both Harlan and Amelia. My background is closer to Amelia’s in terms of circumstances, being from a lower-working-class family, as someone who didn’t own a pair of shoes till I was eleven. Though she’s definitely more physically confident than I was at her age. My experiences of being viewed as a desexualised non-physical being who was only considered valid on any level because I had a ‘talent’ is certainly in line with Harlan. Having a ‘talent,’ yet on the one hand being continually told I wasn’t good enough to compete with my able -bodied peers, while on the other hand still being expected to perform like a circus animal to justify my existence, probably resonates with both characters. I mean, I’ve had an art director tell me that he didn’t hire the disabled because they smelled bad. I’ve had one comics editor say he wouldn’t consider any projects featuring disabled characters because he didn’t want to be remembered as the editor who labelled me a ‘disabled creator,’ and another who said he wouldn’t consider me for any superhero books because obviously as a wheelchair user I couldn’t possibly understand how to draw action. When I suggested that would mean no one could draw Superman since no one could fly, he said I shouldn’t be so bitter, and might be better off going into portraiture! So the cliche of working twice as hard, often to get half as far as an able-bodied person, is true to my experience. But the Internet and the increasing affordability of self-publishing is levelling the playing field to a degree. Still a ways to go, though.
Al Davison is a comic creator who has worked extensively for DC/Vertigo on such titles as Vermillion, House of Mystery, The Dreaming, and The Unwritten. He has also drawn Doctor Who comics for IDW, but is probably best known for his graphic memoir The Sprial Cage, which explores his experiences growing up with Spina-Bifida, a condition he was born with and was not expected to survive. He is currently working on the sequel, Muscle Memory: A Survivors Tale, which is being supported via Patreon. Al also has a comic book shop and studio, The Astral Gypsy, in Coventry, U.K., which he runs with his wife, Maggie, often — and always ably — assisted by Yen Quach.
Yen Quach is an award-winning freelance artist, illustrator, and comic artist who works in both digital and traditional media. Reflecting the world with curiosity and creativity, she began the #draweveryday challenge in 2013 and has not missed a day yet. Yen holds a degree in Illustration & Animation. When not drawing, she moonlights as the Astral Assistant for Al Davison and records her forays into the real world through urban sketching. You will rarely find her without a sketchbook of some form.
Halfway through sixth grade, my family moved from Roselle, a diverse working-class neighborhood, to Freehold, New Jersey, an upper-middle class predominantly white living. Thus began the year of silence.
Out of protest, sadness, depression, and puberty I vowed to my parents that I would never ever speak to them again. I later apologized for it, as it was said out of frustration more than anything, but the behavior remained. I wouldn’t speak over a certain volume. I wouldn’t make eye contact when I spoke. I wouldn’t speak unless addressed. My teachers called it selective mutism; my parents called it stubborn; and now they call it ironic. I didn’t have the words to call it anything. I didn’t know that I’d never be more grateful. If Roselle stayed home, I would have never found speech.
Five years later, high school theatre didn’t work out so I followed my best friend to the speech and debate room for the first meeting of the year. According to Mr. Drummond, my first ever coach, there were three fundamental tracks to the art of speech: limited preparation (LP), public address (PA), & interpretation events (IE). Limited preparation events deal with extemporaneous and impromptu speaking. Public address events deal with researching, writing, memorizing and performing informative, communicative, humorous, and persuasive speeches. Interpretation events deal with dramatic and humorous acting events. They showed all three at the Welcome Back Showcase. The president of the team performed a poetry interpretation program, and the power he exuded was enviable. Thirty people in one room stopped and listened in complete silence with full attention for ten minutes to one man. He held the entire room hostage. I had never seen that before. At fourteen years old, I thought, to be a part of a distinguished league of high school speakers, leaders, and influencers (which included Josh Gad, Zac Efron, Oprah, Brad Pitt, Kal Penn, and even more) would have been an honor—one I wasn’t sure I deserved, so ninth grade was a silent year regardless.
I started to compete more regularly in forensics (also known as speech, debate, 4n6, often confused with football or dead bodies) in the tenth grade, doing humorous interpretation and improvisational acting. Improvisational acting was the event that made me. Improv taught me everything about interpretation, everything about acting, everything about self-determination, everything about speaking as a cognitive process and everything about heart. The first time I finaled at a tournament I brought home a tiny fifth-place motorcycle trophy for something I never thought I could do, which was make people laugh with the sound of my voice, and I cried.
Soft voices never really harden, they just get heard.
I got serious about speech after that. I spent hours in the library reading books, suggesting them to all of the novices who had trouble finding literature to perform for competition. The next year, I took on the challenge of teaching the novices the rules and conventions of speech, which meant I had to learn them. Begging my parents to attend the George Mason Institute of Forensics (GMIF), a summer camp for speech kids taught by collegiate performers, definitely turned the tide. I studied and watched the final rounds of the National Tournament every year in someone’s New Jersey basement. Me and my friends who also were serious studied elocution, differing philosophies of acting, the principles of minstrelsy & oratorical education. We held house practices in people’s basements. We practiced monologues over and over for each other, recorded them for ourselves and played them back. We choreographed ourselves. We recorded ourselves. We read each and every ballot after each tournament in a McDonald’s booth. I bought two obnoxiously bright green speech suits and wore them with pride. I read literature, considered the themes I wanted to pick out of the author’s words and what method of interpretation I could take every week. Something that would effectively break walls but not make too many waves. I spent countless nights memorizing and perfecting and trying to get better.
One day, my voice just crystallized in front of me and I realized that the silence was over. No one could ever get me to shut up now. Not even myself. Even if I wanted to. My coach once told me, if you want to be able to change the way you speak, you have to change the way you breathe. Well at point, I’d went from choking to gasping. That’s where the art comes in. The body’s oral system works hard for those ten minutes. The more you are able to control your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your brain…the more you are able to become an extension of yourself.
My first dramatic interpretation (DI) in speech was of the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals my senior year of high school. Performing the words of that piece allowed me to fall in love with prose again. Warriors Don’t Cry is a compilation of Beals’ high school diary, a sixteen-year-old girl who was part of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas surrounding the civil rights fight for desegregation. It told the story of a girl trying to make it to seventeen. Approaching my senior year as one of the few Haitian-Americans in a predominantly white school and neighborhood, I was just trying to get to seventeen too. Beals spends pages and pages going through her tumultuous year in Little Rock, holding no parts of herself and the experiences of her classmates back. The themes of hopelessness and the titular advice got me through my senior year of high school. I only semifinaled at our district tournament, meaning I never qualified for high school nationals. But according to Melba, warriors didn’t cry. In the face of injustice, the warrior spirit is flexible. The strength to leave home, go to George Mason, and pursue collegiate forensics competitive success would have been lost on me without Melba. She allowed me to exist outside self.
It was the first time I had ever heard it from my own tongue and the love of prose overwhelms me still. And this love now consumes a community. I’ve met some of my closest friends in speech. People meet their soulmates in this activity. Watching someone bleed for you will always leave tiny scars. We, as a community, heal with constant love.
In 2017, me and my duo partner won the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament in Duo Interpretation, performing a programmatic ten-minute piece about modern day lynching in America. We dedicated our performance to lynching victims around the country and the Memorial of Peace and Justice newly erected in Alabama dedicated to these victims as well. We worked hard to include all sorts of groups and accentuate the details of this performance out of respect for ourselves, the literature, and the activity. Using my voice to speak for groups I can adequately represent allows survivors of injustice to tell their stories and live on. Using my body as their vessel has been one of my greatest honors. Here is where I developed the ideology that we are all walking this Earth considering each other, and that the inside matters more than we will ever know but the outside matters because it protects what’s inside. We would not survive without shelter, and the body we inhabit is shelter. Identity is always grabbing at our bones. So we stand up when we can. I do believe that those who are truly and inherently neutral comply to the system and therefore aid systems of oppression. Along this vein, those who do speech are the ones consistently disrupting the status quo.
I’m currently a rising senior at George Mason University, majoring in Public Administration. There are a lot of reasons I love GMU but I can definitely say that I picked and attended my college for speech. Graduating high school, I knew hell was a place without speech. Hell was a world where that could get taken away in an instant. After I graduated high school, our coach and our program stepped down. After my sophomore year in college, our Assistant Director of Forensics stepped down too. This year, after the Director of Forensics for our team left, I don’t think our team knew how to breathe. We were already walking around with open wounds. I have been doing speech and debate for seven years. Seven years ago, I didn’t have something that I knew would never give up on me, ever, as long as I never gave up on it. Speech has been the greatest love of my life. I have never practiced unconditional love before. But after the year our team has had, speech was the world’s most beautiful rose, with dried blood on the thorns, accepting the community’s flaws as necessary evils. Out of love for my art, I have lost sleep, lost job opportunities, lost focus in school, lost money, lost people, and almost lost my mind.
The biggest nightmare about speech is that it is such a diverse and beautiful community full of gorgeous and talented people who spend their weekends laying at the feet of a panel of men. They bare their soul and ask for a fair rank and are given back sexism, racism, classism, and problematic rhetoric time and time again. Microaggressions within the community began to creep on me. Judges and coaches in our community have always held all the power. They are the ones who decide who advances and keeps speaking. They’re usually older, straight, white males. To appease speech traditionalists, droves of us have been made to wear pantyhose, heels, full makeup, forbidden to wear pantsuits, and made to alter our bodies in sometimes unhealthy ways. Coaches have told me to smile wider to appear likeable even at my breaking points. It has made me stretch parts of myself for the amusement of those in power. Some have belittled the stories of survivors, pitted traumas against each other, criticized appearance on ballots more times than I can count, said things that they would never say to anyone’s face about things they would never be able to understand. Being judged on how beautiful I can make struggle, how appealing I can make my suffering, how pretty I can make myself cry for the benefit of an audience whose integrity has shifted has made me question the art of competitive public speaking recently. Highlighting the voices of people who didn’t have this platform was the most rewarding thing, not the trophy. Speech has made me who I am today but I have to recognize the hurt it has caused me as a young black woman. As the next generation of competitors rolls onto a field of so much potential, we have no choice but to leave it better than when we found it.
The speech community allows one to be able to participate in the facilitation of emerging action in this era. Entering a defining period of this world, the importance of voice has never been more compromised. Being part of something that bolsters an era of change, the words behind a revolutionary thing, has been integral to our heart. These messages deserve a home and an eternal story. Leaders, icons, competitors, coaches, and speakers like the ones I have gotten the privilege to compete against do the real dirty work under the grassroots in my head. Speech has provided a place for us as artists, creators, makers, and influences of great societal innovation. Language has always been a gift worth regifting. Every summer, working GMIF turns me into witness as young people grasp the power of voice and advocacy through words, their own and others, as a tool for social innovation and cultural change. The kids there keep something beyond themselves going and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet.
Claudia’s studio was perched in a corner of the second floor of a rickety old nineteenth-century mill that had been converted into artists’ spaces.
It took up a double city block in the crusty New England hamlet of Easthampton, Massachusetts. You could wander around the building for hours, peering into studios and wondering what kinds of production lay hidden behind closed doors. The utility sinks in the hallways were scuffed and stained from years of paint, dye, and glazes scrubbed off hands and elbows and tools. Behind one door, a potter pressed dried leaves into sheaves of clay. Down the hall, a fashion designer commandeered a room full of machinists making handbags. There were other bookbinders, like us, but with their own niche; one worked with metal plates and hinges, another did one-of-a-kinds and made her own paper. On the bottom floor, the glass blowers’ molten wads inflated to airy bubbles, their metal poles suspended over the ribbed metal ramps that slanted into the parking lot.
Beyond the wide berth of the building, the Oxbow River bent around a ragged edge of forest, an elbow of blue under the sky.
At Claudia’s we made books from paper and cloth and leather and thread. We flipped folios with clean fingertips and stitched them together with long lines of linen run through beeswax. We slicked them flat with a smooth file of bone held in the palm. We hummed along to Afro-pop on the radio. We broke for lunch at noon.
Claudia’s studio was a corner on the second floor, with dusty factory windows and long work tables. The floorboards were uneven as a buckling pier, splintery ridges encrusted with old dog-eared clips of linen, pared leather, and lumps of glue. Shelves lined the walls stuffed with bolts of binders’ fabric. Rolls of leather with scrappy, irregular edges in bright colors slung out from the racks as if trying half-heartedly to escape.
The dyed leather was used for the covers of deluxe editions. Having enough of one color was part of the problem-solving. Editions required consistency, and with hand-dyed skins, we scrutinized the shades at hand and selected them to match with near perfection. Each buttery skin was fitted for maximum usage with as little scrap left over as one could manage. The strategy was to place the board template just square to the edge of the last traced rectangle, avoiding the calloused crescent around a stray bone hole. Before you traced, you had to be sure your territory was without any blemish or meaty thickness. And we always made several extra—some would get wrecked under the pairing blade and others discarded if the tooling went crooked.
Claudia liked to tease me about how much I’d sigh during the workday. I’d zone out to the cobwebs dancing in the breeze or close my eyes to the sunlight breaking through the windows, the smell of beeswax warmed in the palm and the smoothness of the bone folder against my thumb. Then I’d snap out of it and unknowingly expel a huge exhale. Mostly my thoughts were straying to why. Why was I here, not just in Claudia’s workspace, but in this life, in this body, in this mind? Maybe these are the thoughts that preoccupy the minds of most new adults, but I struggled to reconcile my existential wonderings with the daily tasks of living. Newly out of college, I was taking both an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic. I felt split, bent, cockled as the books I fished out of the bathtub at night, when I roused, suddenly, to find myself in water. In bed I rolled like a bolt of leather in Claudia’s storage shelves and did not dream. Each morning I got in the car and drove a flat ribbon of country road to the studio. If I passed a deer, a wild turkey, or an eagle soaring overhead, I hardly noticed.
A well-bound book is exactly the same width at the spine as it is at the edge. You have to accommodate for the thickness of the thread in the way you design the binding. Do it sloppy and the book bows out at the edge in a V or sags pigeon-toed from the spine. It needs to be straight-backed, with an even integrity, a weightless flip of pages, square, solid, light and luminous.
An edition might be twenty, or thirty-two. Or any number, really. One. Sometimes it was just one.
Barry Moser’s bible was an edition of four hundred. That was why I had a job. All in all, it was close to a thousand bound books we made: eight hundred vellum-bound editions plus one hundred deluxe editions, with a lot of extras in production in case damage occurred at any step. Claudia had to hire three extra assistants for the bible project. Lisa and Alice and I joined Marc, her long-time apprentice. The five of us spent long days folding and pressing and stitching.
Each bible was a two-volume mammoth bound in goat vellum stamped with gilt lettering in a buckram box. The vellum was white and the pages were white with a soft deckle; even the binding tabs were white, horny and pocked with tiny pores on one side, soft leather fuzz on the other. Everything in it was white except for the ink, which was black, with the occasional bright red heading letter. The paper was handmade in Texas, letterpress printed, sent to the artist for the wood engravings to be printed, then on to us to be collated, folded into signatures and sewn into place. Our fingers ran the ridges of the faces of Moses and Noah. Some of the faces we recognized. Barry lived one town over and used local models.
One day a week I went to Barry Moser’s studio to act as his assistant. While I organized his press and prints, I marveled at the intricacies of his engravings, and wondered how the models felt being captured in character for posterity. I imagined the conversations Barry initiated, inviting strangers and acquaintances to pose for photo shoots at his rambling house way out in the country packed with rowdy dogs. Was everyone he asked willing and eager to pose for him, this renowned illustrator? Who felt lucky, who was skeptical, who declined? Not all the models were nude but some were, particularly a teenage pregnant woman who appears in the bible in several prominent prints. Somehow, he proved himself trustworthy, this white balding man with a big Southern accent, doughy hands, and an eye for beauty. How did this young pregnant woman come to disrobe for him in his studio under photography lights, offering her ripe youth, her stillness? What long stretches of silence I imagine etched the room, while her corduroy bellbottoms and tank top lay in a heap on the floor, and Barry’s pencil worked over the paper like so many tidelines washing ashore. Did he choose her because he knew she needed the money? Or was it just her look, something in her face that captured him, a velvet beauty, her burgeoning hips?
I was modest and shy at Barry’s but secretly a part of me wished he’d ask me to model. I had never been looked at for hours or appreciated as art—and I craved it. I wanted someone to see my body as worth recreating in line. If an artist spent their time tracing my body, incorporating my face into their design, I might allow myself to feel valuable in a way I had not before. I wanted to be an artist as much as I wanted to be art. If I were transformed into image, captured as such, I might finally see myself as lasting.
The portraits Barry created flipped as we double-checked collation. Jonah’s head emerging from the sea, the spade of a whale tale over his shoulder and between them the ragged ocean. Jesus shadowed under his crown of thorns, the sky cutaway in successive curves like a Van Gogh, as if rearranging its atoms around him. An aerial view of Paul on the prison floor in rags, alone but for the rats and his quill and paper, his bald head the focal point under the eye of some spider on the ceiling, or God himself, as if perhaps he is not so alone as one could be without faith.
Some people use the bible like a guide, a map for living.
I don’t know how often we thought of it as The Bible. To us it was just another book, bigger than most and of a much larger edition than usual. It was the faces of our town and the images of our current events: famine, suffering, raging waters, mothers with sick children, archaic only because of the text.
Smaller projects were tucked into our schedules amidst the bible. A slim volume of poetry on hand-dyed paper with a filigree drypoint tipped-in the frontispiece. A bright and brimming collection of New York art in homage to Allen Ginsberg, rich with original prints and photographs, scribbled with pencil signatures: Nan Goldin, George Condo, Brice Marden, Yoko Ono. Books that sold for more money than I made in a year. An edition of two hundred. An edition of twenty-seven. An edition of forty-two.
An artist might hire Claudia to bind a one-off collection of original drawings. A polished-up sketchbook, a sheaf of watercolors. Or to rebind an old first edition of something rare. Wormed pages foxed with brown spotting. Paper as delicate as the thin crisped flowers we found pressed within eighteenth century diaries.
The bindery air held the warm melty smell of hide glue in the hot pot. The wheaty aroma of buckram wetted with white glue to binder’s board. The rhythmic rrrrip and patter of the bone folder running the fold of a folio and the soft slap of pages flipping. The occasional Ow! or swear at a finger stick from the sewing needle. Most editions carried at least one small speck of blood from a binder’s finger, a faint brown dot, having been delicately wetted with clean spittle, the enzymes able to dissolve most of the stain, such that when dry it goes unnoticed, or if noticed, would more likely be read as a small fleck of fiber in the paper’s pulp by any eye other than a binder’s.
On Claudia’s work tables, cloth-covered bricks lay atop pages properly collated. We kept the windows cracked when the sun was strong. Clicker knives lay scattered about next to pin cushions of needles and spools of linen thread. Cob webs stuck to the outer window frames, and a thin layer of dust covered everything inside. In the winter, the radiator clanged like some ghost in the basement making a one-man band of all the building’s lost and pilfered tools.
We bound a small edition of When There WereTrees, a collaboration between the poet Nancy Willard and the artist Michele Burgess, a slim book with an olive silk cover, light enough to float on your fingertips. Each page a different hue from golden to cat-eye green to russet brown, sheets of mulberry paper hand-dyed from the barks and leaves of twenty-six different species, tipped together in an homage, like a blood bank of trees. When opened, the whole thing unfolded in a long accordion—a thick forest in brushy charcoal-like drypoints, black on green, and a concrete poem that fluttered the breath.
Central to any bindery is the boardsheer, a table that could seat ten comfortably for dinner were it not for the horizontal blade at one end and the rulers and grids embossed in its surface. The boardsheer blade runs a gleaming three feet of sharpened steel, set into a long black iron arm with a thick round handle. The blade slices through board and leather and the fibrous weave of folded papers with a hefty crunch, your reflection smeared in its violent slant.
Claudia knew something of my struggle. Through bits and pieces of her history I gathered she had gone through much worse. Death and injury scarred her past. She was mostly alone in this world. If she had relatives it seemed they were distant; we never met them. She didn’t ask about the medication I took or the way my symptoms threw me off-track some days while others I was calm and focused, but I could tell she saw what I was going through. She saw the broken parts in the process of mending, the rifts I struggled with within myself. I think she had been through something destructive in her youth. Now, mid-life, Claudia was a well-designed construction, elegant, ornate, spine straight, the fabric of her long black hair. She knew where she had been and where she was going. She’d started apprenticing for Leonard Baskin when she was a teenager. Throughout her young adulthood, she learned from all the masters she could access. She went to Europe, studied hard, practiced her trade, she was devoted. The bindery was her everything. I’ll be doing this until I’m blind, Claudia once said, or even after.
Claudia did all the gilt tooling and leather inlay herself. We watched silently, knowing we’d never want to try, nor would she ask us—errors were too costly. To emboss leather with gold she lay a sheet of acetate painted with a film of eighteen-karat over the skin. The tooling iron warmed until it was piping hot. She grasped it by the wooden handle and guided the adorned metal wheel to crunch a decorative edge into the leather, impressing the pattern quickly, each crevice filling in an instant with a thin layer of gold. Claudia had a collection of vintage wheels patterned with lines, dots, undulating twines, arrows, and fleurs de lis. She kept her wrist soft and steady for a straight line and her eye at the leather’s edge. A mistake is not salvageable. If the line wavers—that’s one skin lost.
To stamp the title in gold she compressed the metal typeset letters to a block grouted with thin strips of nickel, inserted it in the iron, and flipped the switch. Once the metal was too hot to touch it was ready to crunch into the leather with an attentive amount of pressure, too much was gauche, too little ineffective.
Before she glued tiny cut leather inlay pieces to the cover, she beveled each one. When rubbing leather inlay on a cover or spine she taught us to always lay a thin sheet of paper over it and work the bone folder lightly to prevent the leather’s spongy texture from getting pressed and going shiny.
We followed a box-making recipe to fit each book with a customized construction that contained it perfectly: an eighth of an inch here, a hair of overlap, this measurement the same as that measurement. Snug and solid, with just a whuff of air as the clamshell lid closed. We made slipcases and boxes from buckram and bookcloth, assembling them like little buildings and letting them dry between cloth-covered bricks. Later we would cut and press decorative paper to the interior: marbled, patterned, Dutch liner, or Claudia’s handmade paste papers.
I moved to Massachusetts just out of college because it was easy. I had lived there the summer before and had friends I could move in with, connections for jobs. I wanted to move to New York City but knew I couldn’t do it until I felt more emotionally stable. I worked for a year at the health food store in the town mall and then started looking for a job with an artist, plastering my flyers around town and in buildings like Claudia’s. A friend gave me Claudia’s number. It was good timing. The Bible project had just landed in her lap.
“Have you made any books?” she asked me over the phone.
“Yes, a few?” I questioned, thinking of some scrappy attempts.
“Bring them,” she said.
Claudia showed me around the studio, every motion deliberate, wrist curled, words annunciated. She owned the studio and her voice and body language. Her hands briskly rubbed her stiff apron. Her long black hair was a bun stabbed with a pencil. When she stopped to press a mound of metal into gold, her upper lip twitched but otherwise she held still until she was sure the positioning was perfect.
I showed her a couple of stab books I’d made with collage covers of vintage magazines held together with black gaffer’s tape from my filmmaking days. They didn’t open well, she pointed out. She asked about a small velvet cover I had made crudely on my sewing machine to fit over a store-bought journal. “This is a sweet one,” she said thoughtfully, her strong hands applying a delicate touch to the amateur machine stitching. “You can start on Monday,” she announced, closing the little book.
In the bindery, Claudia’s strong arms swung the iron bow this way to loosen, that way to tighten. What was pinched in the clamp would stay for days until it dried hard enough to withstand opening and closure on its own.
Holding a hand-made book in your hands, it is an object, but it feels almost alive. The buttery leather and cool, crisp vitality of the paper. The curve rimmed with a lip of a leather headband, the intricate spine stitched tight.
Claudia let me use the studio after hours to dye my own paper. I ordered bulk stacks of creamy smooth kitakata paper and white pulpy hoshi. One by one, I folded each sheet into small squares in the Japanese itajame method of paper dyeing. I dipped each little chunk into small tubs of dye that Marc gave me: carmine and lapis and viridian and sumi black. Carefully I unfolded each wet wad until it was its own full sheet again and strung them up on a clothesline to dry in the dusty evening air. They were Rorschachs of color, magenta and orange and indigo surprising me with their wild irregular patterns. Once dried, I layered them all between thick old blotting paper weighed down by wood boards and Claudia’s old irons so that they’d dry flat. I stored them in my flat file, like a collection of autumn leaves. I used a few of them to line small books and journals I made and I gave a few away to people who expressed interest. Mostly, I just liked to make them, to see the plain paper transformed so quickly into kaleidoscopic patterns. The colors free to bleed as far as the pulp would carry them, each layer of unfolding revealing a new arrangement, slightly different and veined with unique bands of white and irregular splotches, as if the colors were following something more like intuition than precision; beauty made from happenstance.
Sometimes Claudia would invite us to her apartment. A neatly organized city flat decked with sumptuous fabrics and epic bookshelves, the walls covered in gilt-framed art. Every object had been plucked for its unique beauty and elegance. At Claudia’s, I learned to entertain. She had a method designed to impress: Cotswold with quince paste and crackers at the start, a take-out pizza dressed up with arugula, olive oil, and salt, and red wine, always Koonunga Hill, passed invitingly to you once greeted and welcomed. She gave us culture. Together we saw the Gypsy Kings play at the Calvin. She took us to see Cesária Évora, that sad and exotic voice that we had heard Claudia hum along with in the bindery. She paid us generously, gave us bonuses, took us to Germany for an exhibition she was featured in. I felt so lucky to be under Claudia’s wing. She was a woman of the world.
I see Claudia when I spot a small woman walking briskly in a fitted dark coat. I think of her when I run my fingers over abalone buttons stitched to silk and when I catch the dusty smell of ink on paper. When I see antique marbled paper or a pattering of gold. Claudia used to tell me I was like her because I could walk into a store and go straight to the finest thing they had. Not that either of us would buy it. It was the eye for beauty and craftsmanship. “My kinda girl,” Claudia used to say of me.
In her apartment, prints and paintings cover the walls, framed in gilded wood, each one a small world, a thing of beauty, evocative, a gift. Behind glass in antique lawyer’s cases, her books are pressed together in tight rows striped with color. Atop a low white shelf, glass bowls are filled with stones she’s collected from years of walks along the beach that look like letters. The stones are cool hues of grey laced with white, rocks that whisper the shapes of the alphabet. A taffy-stretched E, the spider-web of an A, a slim slip of C. They are arranged in families, A through C, D through H. All the way to Z.
A slightly scuffed piece of paper could usually be salvaged with a white eraser rubbed gently and carefully as to not remove the tooth of the paper.
When I last visited Claudia, she was trim in a brass buttoned woolen tunic, something you might imagine a sophisticated pirate wore to tea with Charles Darwin. Silver strands whitened her thick black braid. Her hands swung wildly as she itemized her recent acquisition of European ephemera.
I remember her hands as she taught me to quarter a persimmon and her firm instructions: first, never try until it waxes rosy and readily accepts a thumbprint. It rested in her palm as she pivoted the knife conically around the calyx. Her gold-toned hands adjusted the gaping fruit to balance delicately on her fingertips while she halved it once and then again, each slice swift and sharp so as not to crush it. The persimmon, when placed on the plate, had the illusion of wholeness until she let go, and it splayed open with its own dripping weight.
Claudia could teach me everything about bookbinding if only I could snap to attention and learn it. But I couldn’t fathom mastering anything at that age. In my early twenties I wanted to roam. I wanted to wander. Or maybe it wasn’t so much what I wanted but all that I was able to do. To stay lost for a while longer.
I was half-bound, indecisive of my design.
Before it is a book it is paper, it is pulp, it is plant. It is a conversation, a sketch on paper in brushy pencil, a needle pulled from steel wire. It is the sum of processes and ingredients: flax, linen, cotton, goat skin, calf skin, wax, pigment ground from shells, from insects, pulled from trees and flowers, ink from pine pitch, from minerals and chemicals and oils. Before it is print, each letter is a metal bracket, a sculpture in relief, one brief sound.
It is an idea. It is a collaboration. It is a process-generated product. It is many hands and eyes and minds and tools. It is an edition. Of twelve, of seventy-five, of four hundred. Or sometimes, just one. An edition of one.
The six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail have nothing on the nurses who “took care” of me when I was interred in the mental hospital.
In three mental hospitals at that. All interred. Horrible nurses. They ranged from yelling in my face to stealing art from me; many of the “best” were apathetic or tried to be chummy while providing poor medical care, with a few gems. But then, aren’t there always gems on murderer’s row? Isn’t there always the innocent?
It’s hard to remember the innocent ones or the doctors who didn’t just pass me off. I learned the drill. Check off the correct boxes each day and get out quickly. The system is stark and scary and you get fed too much sugar and not enough exercise. Some of your fellow interdits are in to dry up; some have what you have and stay busy: don’t know what to do in group sessions, the outside’s just been too much, it’s all a crushing blow. And then there are the ones who are going to the state hospital. And they scare you. They downright scare you.
Pop. Your father’s assaulted you. Six. There’s aspirin waiting at the place you’ve been staying. Squish. You’re admitted and the new psych meds feel like the worst upper ride you’ve ever been on. Uh uh. You did nothing, you really did nothing. Cicero. You’re stuck here and you can’t get out without the right steps, the two-step, the back step, the Oh-God-Why step. Lipschitz. Shit, and now you’re making art.
I’ve made art before. I crash landed in an arts atelier in college, a collective that held a whole floor in a downtown building in Atlanta. It smelled like paint. It sounded like Tosca turning on the record player. It was called the Ballroom. At first, I understood paper. I was a poet and, inspired by another poet, I would not only read my work on stage, but I would frame my work and hang them on the wall. They sold. My friend invited me to exhibit in a miniature works show and I again turned to paper. It also sold.
So, I sold and I went fallow for a few years and I left Atlanta. And the Ballroom closed and it was horrible, but a house opened, a new Ballroom, and all was well again. In New York, I took up embroidery. I went to a free workshop in the park and I stitched up two cherries and I was a natural. I started to make miniature embroidered jewelry and mixed media jewelry and I sold them in a small boutique where I worked. I went on to make fabric and mixed media jewelry, which I sold in the gallery I ran for a time in Bushwick, and eventually on to fabric artwork, which I lit into and exhibited in Philadelphia.
Fabric artwork and mixed media stayed with me through Philadelphia and back to Atlanta, where I kept exhibiting, now for trade. I liked trading with other artists. I liked exhibiting in open call shows. The pressure was less. While I’d been featured in several papers in Philly for my last exhibition there, I hadn’t sold and I’d felt very out of place and I wanted to shrink back from everything. After all of that—the failed show, the relocation, the group shows—I took another break. I’d like to say it was as nice as the first break—a trip to France, years in New York, a ton of good marijuana, video games, fun and laughter—but it wasn’t. It was another failed marriage, an eviction, some transience and homelessness, the street, the shelter system, and the hospital system.
The hospitals had one thing going for them: art supplies and/or art rooms. The shelter in between had nothing; I thought the paper in the bookcase was free, but it was another woman’s and I got in trouble with her and apologized and let it all go, much like the coat I tried to take when I first arrived and didn’t realize the hooks were for people and the free bin was the only free spot for clothing, unless the Chaplin took you to get clothes from the store, which she did. It’s horrible being a newbie in a shelter when you’re staying for a while and there’s no one to guide you, because there’s not anyone at the shelter in Huntsville. Asheville’s shelter was good but not Huntsville’s, though I did make a friend. Still, apologies run true and I was able to navigate quickly. I was soon bumming cigarettes with the best of them and smoking the butts in the ashtrays when there was nothing left to be bummed.
The first and second hospitals were good for me. If you take the medication roller-coaster as good. It felt like taking speed, what they put me on. I went through waves of rushing symptoms in terms of gnashing my jaw and producing at lightning speed. I don’t remember what they put me on, but it was strong. I think it’s some of what they have me on now, some of which I’m currently tapering off because of the lasting effects. It’s taken a shift in psychiatrists, but that’s another story. They were horrifying, those initial doses of medication. But I made art through them.
By the third hospital, which had crayons and colored penciled and all the like, seven months after the shelter and the second hospital, I was too tired to produce.
I picked up something then that I use even now: a rapid, almost manic creative process using only what’s available on hand, basic office and school supplies. If it can be used in an office or school, it’s fair game to me. If not, it’s not. I started on abstract art and collage in the first hospital. I threw pencil on paper and tape—dirty, mucked up tape. I developed an intense love of using layers of white on white. It was like a great unlocking; and, while I hate that the medication did it, I can at least say I got something out of it. I got something out of all the turmoil and trial.
In the second hospital, I started documenting. I drew everything I saw: orange juice lids, cones in the gym, crayons. I drew paper hearts taped to the window. I drew and drew and drew. I drew through them holding me down and shooting me with sedatives. I drew through my first cornrow braids, done by another patient. I drew through friendship and interminable TV and an art row where I painted little white mold objects—forgive me, I do not have the name of the material, it cannot come to mind—for members of my family. I drew through visitations that were awkward and hopeful for everyone. I drew through the pajamas my mother gave me that she used to wear.
The third hospital was another fallow time. I was exhausted and struggling to let go of my first career and become a full-time artist. I watched a lot of TV.
But I was able to come through again in the summer of 2017, able to re-center and settle into the life my soon-to-be husband allowed me, able to make art full-time without any other responsibilities. As I healed from my final stint in the hospital, I began to thrive.
And I’m still drawing. I draw dilapidated signs now—anything around Huntsville that catches my eye. And I make multi-layered collages about race and parity. And I write about disability and mental health and ponder mental wellness and using that term instead. It’s all therapy and psychiatric appointments for me and revisiting my diagnosis and understanding whether I’m just an artist and this is why I am the way I am, or if I do need some of this medication because of something bigger, for survival. We’ll start a family soon and I want to be able to tell them: Mommy is a fighter and we all need a little help sometimes and we all manage to get through holding each other’s hands.
And there’s always art to be made.
I would like to think I didn’t murder my life through this horrendous and gut-wrenching process—that I’m being let out on parole and not put away for life. I’m dancing with myself. And I’m dancing for myself and for justice and for those who have given up hope.
And documenting it all the way.
top photo: “trashcan 3” by Alicia Cole
Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.
I did a book report on Great Expectations when I was in the fourth grade. Night after night, my father and I read Charles Dickens’ melancholy albeit intricate account of Pip. I was fascinated by the language used as much as the story itself.
My teacher was shocked when I announced my report findings. It was clear that I’d certainly found something more than interest in a book a little too advanced for a fourth grader—I’d found my passion: writing.
Writing has been my passion and constant companion ever since. I always knew I wanted to write, but wasn’t sure which specific medium suited me best. Novels were enormous projects that took years of diligent research, editing, and unspecified quantities of coffee. Short form writing, such as essays and poetry, were outlets more aligned with my needs and voice. I wrote poetry all throughout high school, chronicling my first relationship, love affair with competitive swimming, and my own understanding of the tumultuous world around me. Though I was fortunate enough to win a few awards and read my work at hotels near the airport, I wasn’t quite sure how to move forward with this beautiful creative outlet. Poetry is a stunning visual and auditory art form, but didn’t seem to pay the bills.
In a move unanticipated by everyone, including myself, I joined a sorority when I began college. I’d just graduated from a small high school of 800 students and it seemed like a vibrant way for a shy young woman to make friends at a school of over 40,000. It paid off—I found much more than friends. Soon after joining, an older member posted a job opportunity in our community Facebook group about an SEO writing position with a nearby agency. I knew nothing about this type of writing but immediately took her up on her recommendation, wanting to try something new. Before I knew it, I was training in an office in Woods Cross, Utah, learning the ins and outs of writing social media regimens, SEO content, and press releases. I was completely blown away by the intricacy and detail that goes into every piece. Each article came with meticulously-selected keywords that had to be seamlessly integrated into the content a certain number of times, in accordance with the then-SEO best practices. Amidst the world of keywords, optimization, and marketing, I was also introduced to the challenge of social media marketing, which immediately clarified my career path. Through this first remote writing job, I fell in love with social media marketing, content writing, and advertising.
During and after the completion of my degree in English, I moved on to a few different agencies here in Utah. With their help, I discovered how to apply marketing strategy to the content I’d been writing. Under the invaluable guidance of my mentor, Kate, I learned how to identify key target audiences, promote posts, create relevant ads, and engage in meaningful conversations with audiences. Kate is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. She helped magnify my existing knowledge and artistry and empowered me to reach my professional goals. Soon, I felt comfortable speaking with clients on my own, discussing my writing ideas, and formulating strategies to fulfill their marketing goals in an authentic way. Most of the clients I’ve worked with so far are automotive, e-commerce, or health care. Each industry presents a unique challenge in their differing audiences, needs, and standards. I’ve adapted my writing voice to match each, creating a versatility that otherwise might not have been readily achievable. It’s a thrill to create art that serves as a conversation piece, sales tool, and key advertising strategy.
Social media marketing seemed simple from the outside looking in: make a Facebook post or tweet here and there promoting the business. However, after working with multiple advertising agencies, it’s fair to compare this emerging and distinctive form of marketing to an iceberg; there is a lot more underneath the surface than meets the eye. Facebook’s data suggests that a marketer has fewer than two seconds to make an impression on a user before they keep scrolling on their phone or computer. Obviously, this means less needs to be more when it comes to content. I’ve learned how to take my love of writing and transform it into pieces that not only satisfy the character limit but also grab the users’ attention within that short window of time. Each word must be selected with the utmost precision; it could literally be the difference between a sales lead and a dreaded “hide all posts” click or website bounce.
Social media marketing is as much about the writing itself as it is targeting and strategy; if anything, it’s reaffirmed that high quality content wins every time regardless of current trends. This doesn’t detract from or degrade more traditional forms of writing. Instead, it adds the unique challenge to say more in a smaller space. It adds an objective to your writing. I thrive on this challenge and the rush I get knowing thousands of people read my work every day. In retrospect, I’d like to think that little girl with her nose in a book would be proud of the woman adapting a timeless artform for contemporary use. Working in advertising has been a test of character as well as character limit—I can’t wait to see where this ever-changing industry takes me next.