Book Trailer Number Two: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

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Though she lives across the country from me, I was able meet Katrina Alcorn a few days after agreeing to do the trailer for her memoir, Maxed Out; American Moms on the Brink (Seal Press). When I sent her my mailing address for the deposit she said, “Oh! You live in Brooklyn? I’ll be in Brooklyn tomorrow!”

We met for coffee at a light-filled, white-washed cafe, recommended by my cousin, who always knows all the cool places.

Our conversation was of a piece with the cafe: pleasant, airy, invigorating. I walked home feeling so inspired and hopeful. The mid-morning sun was golden on the low buildings on Smith Street. As I walked home it slowly gave way to raw late-morning brightness shining on the buildings next to the BQE.

I hope you like the trailer. I had fun making it. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Below, a few deleted scenes that I really liked but that didn't fit into the final piece. (Funny how that's so often the case. A painting teacher in college called those little precious bits cherries and said you have to be brutal and paint over them.)

Embracing Revision

If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, you might want to stop reading this post right now and bury yourself in the book instead. It’s a book I’ve been avoiding for a while, having heard so many good things about it. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is my all-time favorite book about writing, and it’s held my loyalty somehow. I didn’t want any other book to take its place. Fortunately, Bird by Bird is not better, just different, and wonderful too. The book is filled with anecdotes and proverbs I’d love to scrawl on the wall above my desk. Here’s one that took me by surprise. Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow, who says that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s a wise instruction not only for writing but for life, just as the subtitle of the book promises. But for me, it was a hard pill to swallow. First of all, I hate driving at night for exactly that reason. I am forever worrying about what’s just beyond the headlights. I am satisfied with nothing less than a full panoramic view of the horizon.

And when I read a book, it takes all of my willpower not to peek at the last pages. If an important character is going to die or a plot twist lurks toward the end, I would very much like to know about it up front. You know, before I get all involved and everything.

It is the same with the story of my own life. If only I could see the whole arc of the narrative, I could prepare myself in advance for comedy and tragedy, heartbreak and delight, and all (my subconscious believes) would be well.

In fact, being the curious (i.e. nosy) person I am, I would also like to know what’s going to happen next in everyone else’s life (and I bet you would too). It’s why we refresh our social media feeds countless times a day. It’s why we ask newlyweds, “When are going to have kids?” and first-time parents, “When are you going to have another?” and college freshmen, “What are you going to do with that degree?”

I think this speaks to our collective anxiety about doing things “right” and in the proper order. It’s as though we believe that life unfolds along a balance beam, laid out for us in a clean, straight line. Best to train our eyes on a clear destination; one misstep could be disastrous. But, of course, our lives are not so linear and predictable. And thank goodness for that.

Erin Loechner wrote recently about life (and art) as a cyclical, rather than linear process. She put it this way: “we’re continually refining and transforming and backsliding, hoping that we’ll end up a little closer to B than A. But oh, there are times when we’d rather be A. Where we aim to experience rebirth, rather than death—a starting point instead of a finish line. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about life—it’s a series of circles, not lines, isn’t it? A continuous spiral, cycling around and around until we reach a new point of view, a new dot to spiral from.”

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen, Fabled Innocent

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I usually focus on historical women who have accomplished a whole lot, against all odds and expectations given their oppressive historical contexts. Today I wanted to spotlight a historical woman who didn’t really do much. She was only queen for nine days, and most of that time was spent inside a dungeon. Then she was killed. Before her seventeenth birthday.

What I think Jane Grey’s story represents is a necessary counterweight to the often triumphal stories of the women that grace our history books—those few exceptional ladies who managed to rule countries, win wars, write books, etc. and are given lots of retrospective pats on the back for it. (And sometimes a more subtle “hey if she could do it, what are y’all complaining about!” as well.) Jane Grey is instead a woman whose time in the spotlight was brief and whose fate was largely out of her own hands. In that, I think she better represents the plight of many women in her time, and lots of other times. But either way, we know very little about her.

What we do know: Jane Grey was an English noblewoman, born around 1537, whose father became the Duke of Suffolk (hereafter referred to as “Suffolk” because of wacky British landed title conventions). As a sixteenth-century teenage girl related to royalty, she was clearly ripe for some strategic marriage alliance-ing. For a time it looked like she’d be marrying her cousin, Edward VI, a son of Henry VIII who would become king. Instead, she was married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland (hereafter referred to as Northumberland—see above).

Remember that this was all in the midst of that Protestant Reformation thing. Note that Edward VI was kind of on Team Protestant. But there were others on Team Catholic. Important background.

Edward VI was king for a short time. Then, on his death bed at the age of fifteen (!!), Edward proclaimed that, rather than his half-sisters and fellow wacky Henry VIII brood members Mary or Elizabeth (IDEA: Muppet Babies-style animated show “Baby Tudors”), he should have his successor be Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland and his fellow pro-Protestant conspirators allegedly brought about Edward’s change of heart. Jane, as it is, was a devout Protestant. Hence, she and her husband Guildford (real name) ascended to the throne on July 10, 1553.

Nine days pass. And they’re kicked out.

The villainess in this little story is Mary, who became queen after Jane. Mary was Team Catholic all the way. When she made her claim to the throne, she had Jane, Guildford, and Jane’s dad Suffolk imprisoned in (where else) the Tower of London. Suffolk was set free shortly thereafter. It might have ended there—even though Jane and Guildford were found guilty of treason, it seems that even Bloody Mary realized that the two didn’t deserve to, you know, die or anything. That would just be messed up.

But then.

A dude named Thomas Wyatt started a rebellion in order to reinstate a Protestant ruler to the throne (his pick: Elizabeth instead of Jane). Wyatt’s Rebellion had many supporters, including Jane’s dad, Suffolk. Mary wasn’t having any of it. She quashed the rebellion, killed Wyatt, and, because Jane’s dad was involved, ordered Jane, Guildford, and Suffolk all beheaded.

There’s a famous painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London (see it, it’s gorgeous) by Paul Delaroche called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. The incredibly lifelike figures on the wall-sized canvas include the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who leads the blindfolded Jane to the execution block; two weeping ladies in waiting; and the executioner, leaning on his large axe. It’s an incredibly striking scene—Jane is all in white, practically glowing with innocence, literally being blindly led by a man to her gruesome fate. It made an impression on me to the extent that years later I felt compelled to write about her. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, such representations of Lady Jane simply perpetuate her role as an abstraction of female helplessness and innocence, even a Protestant martyr. It’s important to remember that she was a real human being, a highly educated noblewoman with her own beliefs and ambitions (though these were likely largely overridden by those of the people around her). Maybe she would have made an excellent queen! Who knows? Her cousin Elizabeth certainly did. But you already know about her.

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing jenny hollowell?

In my last column, interlaced throughout was a yearning for second chances. For Jenny Hollowell, her focus lies on a second book, a project that hearkens back to the arduous task of completing her first novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. All of the same fears, insecurities, and thoughts of isolation when writing come back with a fury, but Ms. Hollowell has taken this second leap, and fights right back. She currently resides in Los Angeles with husband, and two daughters. A more extensive write-up on her can be found here.

- Samantha Bohnert 

I am working on my second book. I’m two years into the process and suspect I have about two more years to go. The first book took about four years too. I’ve had some well-intentioned friends express surprise that a second novel could take as long as the first. They’ve said to me, “But you know what you’re doing now.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since writing that first book, I possess exactly one new piece of relevant information: I’ve done this once before. But it isn’t easier. I am finding that my experience only makes me more aware of when a sentence isn’t working, or when a character feels thinly drawn, or when I’m settling for good enough instead of truly good. It is still a daily battle to dig deep, to be clear, and to grapple with meaning in a way that feels true and worth telling.

One of the many destructive trains of thought a writer can follow is that every other writer knows what they’re doing, and that you are alone in feeling lost, incapable some days of rendering even a simple sentence with clarity. This is the myth that too many of us believe: that to "normal" or "real" writers, writing comes easily. That it’s never a slog for them, that they never feel hopeless or come up empty.

Writing is isolating enough without feeding the illusion that we’re also alone in that sense of lostness. I suspect that writers at any stage of their writing lives—whether we have two years under our belts, or ten years, or thirty—are mostly doing the same thing. We’re sitting at our desks feeling not quite up to the task. But if we wait for the moment we feel truly ready for it, well, we would never write a word.

This is where belief comes in. Finding the faith, however irrational, that this will all amount to something in the end. The good sentences will add up, and the bad ones will get discarded, and eventually you will have written something great. Yes. This. Will. Happen.

Sometimes that belief originates from a person in a writing group, or a teacher, an agent, a friend. Maybe they read a few pages and see the promise. They write, “Keep going!” in the corner of the top page, and that’s reason enough to do as they say, to keep going and see where the going takes you.

Sometimes that belief comes from someplace more unexpected. From a painting, a dream, a stranger. While writing my first book I had a chance encounter with a swami in Los Angeles. He stopped me on a sidewalk in Los Feliz and told me he had just seen a vision of my future. This was outside of Skylight Books, and I had just been wandering the aisles, flipping through novels and daydreaming. His sudden appearance—in flowing orange robes, by my parking meter—felt magical, like turning a page and meeting a new character.

He wrote my initials down on a piece of paper to show that he could “see things about me.” Then he wrote my husband’s. “Was I right?” he asked. I nodded, rooted to the ground. Then he said what he wanted to tell me. That he could see that I was having difficulty with a very big project, but that the situation would improve and the project would be completed the following year. Then he gave me a talisman, a small wax seal, to carry for luck.

As he walked away, I remember experiencing two thoughts at the exact same time. That was insane. And oh, thank God! His prediction was mystical, irrational, and exactly what I needed. I needed to encounter the radical belief that I would finish my novel. I needed someone to say that it could be done and that it would be done, that it was a foreseen conclusion.

Now, as I work on this second book, I try to hold on to that sense of belief as the sentences pile up slowly and as my page count ebbs and flows. I’ve kept the talisman that the swami gave me. Sometimes I go entire months without thinking of it, and then suddenly I will. I will remember it because it has been a dry day, or a dry week, or I’ve battled with a difficult scene, or I’ve cut pages that weren’t working, pages that used to feel just fine. I’ll remember it because I need it.

Then I pull the seal from its hiding place and hold it in the palm of my hand. I make myself remember. It’s not finished yet, but it will be.

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

strong female characters

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

An Insufficient Fare Kind of Day

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It’s an insufficient fare kind of day.

A spilled soda kind of day.

A drop a dirty fork on a customer and he rolls his eyes at you kind of day.

A your best friend misses his flight to come visit you kind of day.

An if I try to fold this blanket I’m gonna freak out kind of day.

A day when the murderer of a black teenage boy goes free.

A day when your heart feels numb and clumsy as a gloved hand.

A day when you realize that everyone you know is sad for the same reason and that’s the one thing that makes you feel better.

A day when the murderer gets his gun back and the prosecutor smiles and says she’s proud and you wonder how did these people get to be in charge and what is wrong with us?

A day when your friends go to a rally and walk all around Manhattan and miraculously people still have hope and rage and energy left.

A day when you sit in the yard after work drinking a beer with the guys, listening to them talk in Spanish, using your four verbs, laughing at stupid stuff and cheers-ing over and over again. And you know it doesn’t change anything but it makes you feel better.

And your boss’s cousin talks about how jail is so easy these days it’s like daycare and you crack up.

And you look at the sky and think about how you are just a tiny spot on the globe.

And you are more than usually aware of the complicated, simple humanity of everyone around you.

I have nothing very smart to say about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and racism and the American justice system. There are so many people saying smart things all over the internet, I’m sure you have read them. I don’t know if I should even try to talk about it, but I can’t really think about anything without also thinking about that.

I have been reading so many heartbreaking, infuriating articles over the past few days since George Zimmerman was acquitted. I have also been doing a bunch of stuff to prepare for my wedding, which is on Saturday. My emotional state has been blurry, as if the good and the bad cancel each other out, complimentary colors mixed together to make a non-color.

I've been looking through Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change to find readings for the ceremony, and this passage feels particularly apt at this moment:

"The other morning I woke up worrying about a dear friend's well-being. I felt it as an ache in my heart. When I got up and looked out my window, I saw such a beauty that it stopped my mind. I just stood there with the heartbreak of my friend's condition and saw trees heavy with fresh snow, a sky that was purple-blue, and a soft mist that covered the valley, turning the world into a vision of the Pure Land. Just then, a flock of yellow birds landed on the fence and looked at me, increasing my wonder further still.

I realized then what it means to hold pain in my heart and simultaneously be deeply touched by the power and magic of the world. Life doesn't have to be one way or the other. We don't have to jump back and forth. We can live beautifully with whatever comes--heartache and joy, success and failure, instability and change."

I can't let my heart go numb. I have to have a big, wise heart that has room for all of these things at once.

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

The Volume of Silence

In 2010 Marina Ambrovonic had a retrospective show at MoMa, as part of the retrospective she performed a new piece: The Artist is Present.  I don’t know why I was unaware of this show while it was occurring, but I only recently heard about it.  The Artist is Present invited attendees to sit across from Marina in the gallery and share a moment of silence.  Just sitting in silence.  The piece spawned facebook groups and blogs devoted to photos of the participants.  People smiled, people cried, people looked confused.  Marina was serene.  She was present.  It’s amazing and beautiful even to read about.

I wrote my final paper in my Modern Art class on one of Marina’s performance pieces.  I can’t honestly remember which one anymore, it was second semester of my senior year and I was more focused on my thesis than any other papers. But I remember parts of the research; I remember reading about her previous pieces, notably walking across the Great Wall of China to break up with her longtime boyfriend.  Marina and Ulay were/are both artists, they performed and worked together during the 70s and by all accounts were a passionate pair. When the relationship was no longer working, they decided to set off on a journey: they each started at a different end of The Great Wall and started walking.  In the middle the met, hugged, and said goodbye. The second half of the walk was the start of the next Journey.  After that moment in the middle of China, the said goodbye and didn’t make contact with the other again.  Until Marina’s retrospective, when Ulay came to participate in The Artist is Present.

This is one of the most beautiful, most touching things I have seen. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch.  I’ve changed my desktop background to a still shot, to remind me.  Remind me of the beauty of passion and the importance of the journey.  Remind me to look into someone’s eye, to try to truly see. Remind me of the volume and multitude of things that can be expressed without speaking a word. It touches my heart.

 

Lemon

Two memories.

1) 3rd grade. My friend Rebecca’s mom was an artist, like my mom, and she did a painting for our class based on Charlotte’s Web. I wanted everyone to know that my mom was an artist, too, so I suggested to her that she should paint our class a picture of the Boxcar Children (you know, in her spare time). She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn’t ever seem to get excited about making things that were other people’s ideas.

2) Junior or senior year of high school. Sitting on my bed, looking at an art school course catalogue, and thinking, “All of these majors look really cool...except for graphic design. I would never do that.” The page about the graphic design department had an image of a lemon. I recoiled from it the way one might a person whose behavior reminds you too much of your own secrets—the kind of reaction so strong it deserves to be examined, but usually isn’t.

I spent most of my life assuming that no matter what kind of artist I was, I would never, ever be a commercial one. Like, it would be much better to work at a job I don’t care about at all, than to compromise the purity of my artistic expression.

I came of age, after all, during the grunge era, and if I learned anything from Kurt Cobain (and from my mom), it was to avoid being a sell-out.

Now it’s 2013 and lo-fi has become an aesthetic found in car commercials and Taylor Swift videos, twee is an insult, and punk is an exhibit at the Met. Sleater-Kinney broke up and Carrie Brownstein is on TV making fun of the hegemony of the DIY aesthetic (“put a bird on it!”) We’re in a brave new world, people.

The friends I have who make art either:

a) Are commercial artists in one way or another (even if they also have a fine art practice)

b) Are part of academia

or

c) Feel like they have no idea how to make a living as an artist, and have a job doing something else.

I’m not sure if this is just me growing up or an actual cultural shift, but I do feel like the successful artists I’m aware of these days seem less like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites and more like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites. I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the Ben Stiller character because he kind of betrays Winona Ryder and he's such a people pleaser, but...he’s trying. Ethan Hawke is just stealing candy bars and making fun of her dress and sitting around the house acting like he’s above it all.

I’m almost done with the book trailer I’ve been working on—someone else’s words, someone else’s story, but my aesthetic and my visual interpretation. The overall “voice” of the project isn’t purely mine, but I believe in it to the extent that I feel good about putting my name on the finished product.

I’m thinking about that lemon. I remember the paper, it was matte. I remember the colors, yellow and green. It was a nice lemon, you know? You can do a nice still life painting of a lemon and photograph it and make a cool graphic image of it. You can do whatever you want with that lemon. It's a lemon, it's not going to get mad at you.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

A Guide to the Many, Many Markets of London

mind the gap

Columbia Road Flower Market

London loves markets.  More than any city I’ve been to, London has a market for everything: for food, for vintage clothes, for Sunday strolling, for flowers, for techno music for children (no, really).  They’re full of shouting British shopkeepers and one of a kind souvenirs, of puddings made of blood and maps from the 1600s, of fresh crepes and live guitar music.  They offer an experience of London at its finest and most distinctively London, but there are so many that it’s often hard to figure out where to begin.  This week, Zack and I are hosting our first visitor (hi, Matt!), for whom I’ve narrowed down the London market experience to its best and most diverse:

For anyone who likes to eat their way through the day: Borough Market, Borough Market, Borough Market.  A definitive London foodie experience, Borough Market has been operating in its present location by the Thames River for almost a thousand years (2016 will mark the thousandth anniversary).  You’ll find fresh baguettes driven over from France that day, pistachio kibbeh, pitchers of Pimm’s Cups, venison burgers, Spanish chorizo, fresh fudge, and all of the fruit and vegetables you could ever want.  Go hungry and sample your way through the stalls with a cocktail or cider in hand; if you commit to one of the more meal-like options, the grass in front of Southwark Cathedral makes a great place to settle.  Borough Market is open from 11 – 5 pm on Thursdays, 12 – 6 pm on Fridays, and 9 – 5 pm on Saturdays.

For people who have at least one plaid shirt in their closet, and maybe a pair of black rimmed glasses: Brick Lane has basically everything, from amazing live music to all types of prepared food to vintage bric-a-brac of all sorts.  Flip through a vintage record collection, slide on a fifteen-pound fake leather jacket, and grab yourself an Eton Mess (a jumble of the biggest, most glorious meringues you’ve ever seen, whipped cream and strawberries).  Pick up a CD of techno music designed specifically for children, and then make your way through the Indian restaurants, where proprietors will shout as you walk by to lure you into their establishments.  While you’re there, pop into Sunday UpMarket (with more established shops, as well as many design stalls and amazing Tui Na massage) or the Old Truman Brewery Vintage Clothing Market, the name of which says it all.

For those with green thumbs, or craving a slice Dickensian London:  You’ll hear the scene on Columbia Road before you see it.  Thick British accents are shouting through the air: “Every-fing for a fiver!  Don’t trust the other fellow – you want leaves that are dead already, go over there.  You want brilliant, bloomin’ blossoms?  You know where to go!”  Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the flower market is worth a trip for the characters that fill it, and for the feeling that you’ve somehow stepped a century back in time.  Columbia Road itself is worth a peek too---it’s filled with charming old map stores, little vintage shops, and more than one saliva inducing bake shop.  The flower market is every Sunday from 8 am till 3---come toward the end if you’re looking to buy as the prices drop.  On a sunny day, there’ll be live music as well.

For lovers of antiques and/or Hugh Grant:  Perhaps the best-known market in London, Portobello Road has been featured in many a movie, including the aptly named Notting Hill.  While the street is winding and picturesque any day (even if the said hill is more like a light slope), Saturday finds vintage dealers from all over the country pulling out their wares: I’ve seen boxing gear from the 1930s, pocket watches from the 1700s, a collection of bells from the sixteenth century.

For people who want what’s cool before the cool thing even knows it’s cool: Brixton is currently in the middle of a (wanted or not) gentrification, and its market is no exception.  Tiny, trendy restaurants featuring all that is free-range, organic and innovative mix with shops halal meats and Reggae CDs, wigs and exotic spices.  With far fewer tourists than other markets, Brixton is worth a stop on any day of the week, although Saturday brings a rotating flea, craft or baker’s market, and Sunday a more traditional farmer’s market.

Because punk will live forever:  Famous and famously funky, Camden Market is the place to go for the most comfortable possible version of an alternative scene.  Fight your way through the tourist oriented stalls selling Union Jack flags and screen printed T-shirts and you’ll find one of the most renowned Goth stores in town, vintage furniture worthy of a movie (one of the stalls, in fact, is owned by a studio set designer), and plenty of people inconspicuously selling cannabis of all kinds.  Grab a liquid nitrogen ice cream (the lychee rose with cardamom pistachio topping is to die for), or pop into my favorite teashop in London, Yum Chaa – I recommend the Om Tea, a white-nutmeg-blackberry blend.

This, of course, is just a sampling of my favorites---I could go on for days, including Spitalfields Market, Angel Market, Greenwich Market, Piccadilly Market and more.  Have you had a chance to explore the many markets of London?  What’s your favorite?

Snapshots

Snapshots

A series of visual and lyrical snapshots by Molly McIntyre

Walking down the newly sun-baked Brooklyn streets, sunglasses on, carrying a bag full of fruit, passing the tattooed girl who owns the gelato shop walking her tough little bulldog (of course she would have a bulldog!)

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First Things First

A few months ago, I wrote about the advice that made writing a thesis feel effortless. It sounds simple, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before: write first thing in the morning. It’s something Julia Cameron recommends for anyone on a creative journey, even for those who are not writers. And in general, I think she’s really onto something, especially in terms of creating a sustainable practice. Let’s revisit those precious morning hours, though, because sometimes they’re not as straightforward as they seem. When is first thing?

Perhaps, like many, you don’t have much control over the series of events that unfold in the moments after your eyes blink open. You wake to a crying baby or a hungry cat. You wake in the evening because you work at night. You wake at a different time each day because you are on call or work different shifts. Many of us don’t wake on purpose but because we have to, after too little sleep. Much of the work of this world, especially when it comes to caring for living beings, is unpredictable.

Many have waxed poetic about those first moments after waking, which precede the cares of the day and still linger on the edge of dreaming. I can vouch for the magic of those moments, especially when combined with a first glimmer of morning light. If you can swing that delicate combination and dedicate those moments to your most pressing creative errand, sometimes or always, I hope you will.

And if not, never fear. I am quite sure that many great and wonderful things have been created by the light of the moon. Perhaps first thing, for you, is simply the first moment in a 24-hour period when you can snatch up a few quiet moments alone. You can leave those snooty morning makers in the dust; it might just take a little more effort to keep from getting in your own way.

Which first thing?

Let’s say you do have some control over your waking moments. You’ve turned in early, so you can rise before the sun and before all other living things within a ten-mile radius. Now the question is: what will be your first thing? Will it be writing your three longhand morning pages, as Julia insists? Will it be yoga or running or meditation? Maybe you have many loves, and you know you can’t fit all of them into that first morning hour.

The idea of cultivating a “first thing” habit to support a creative practice can be very effective, especially when tailored to the needs of the practitioner and her life. It may be even more effective, though, and less intimidating, when counterbalanced with another bit of advice. “God-willing,” a wise friend once said, passing along to me advice she herself had received, “it’s a long life.”

When what you need most in this world is a kick in the pants, I hope you will pay attention to the former and ground yourself in a practice of putting your first thing first, whatever that may be. When what you really need is an extra hour of sleep or a shorter list of “first things,” consider that you may only be able to do one very small thing in a day but very many over the course of a lifetime.

RED SHOES

word traveler

What’s left when someone disappears? Only memories? What can the relatives hang on to? A sweater, a favorite book with scribbled notes, a shopping list on the refrigerator, a comb, a pair of shoes. Familiar and insignificant objects that suddenly become special when who used them every day is no longer with us.

Not much more is left from the women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since 1993, hundreds of women have been murdered in this desert city. Many of the bodies have never been found, no faces to be kissed one last time by the parents or the children. Estimates have been made by the local newspaper and they don’t aim to be accurate–878 women killed between 1993 and 2010. Not much has been done by the local authorities, and there are a very large number of women who are still lost.

As Haruki Murakami wrote in Dance, Dance, Dance, “Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.

In Ciudad Juárez, pasted on storefronts and house walls, you see photographs of the missing women. «Disappeared. Contact us if you know something». Sometimes the remains are found in the vast desert that surrounds the city, sometimes they are not, and the families keep praying and hoping. The homicides continue, and the women usually come from poor families. What expect them are tortures and rapes, and cold nights and hot days in a desert that becomes their tomb.

In honor of the hundreds of women and girls killed in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican visual artist Elina Chauvet started «Zapatos Rojos» (Red Shoes) in 2009. It's an art project that consists in lots of pairs of red or red-painted shoes to commemorate the cases of violence against women in the whole world. Her first work was realized in Ciudad Juarez—she, together with other people who acknowledged the “feminicide”, collected 33 pairs of red shoes and arranged them in place to simulate a protest march of absent women. Now it goes beyond the border of Mexico. This silent march arrived in my hometown, too, and I'm so proud about it: two installations occupied Piazza Vecchia (the Old Town Square) from May 12th till May 15th. It’s “public art” because people were making it. Everybody could contribute–many women were donating their old shoes, and painting them in red before leaving them in the piazza. It was nice to see families doing this together.

No words were needed, because those shoes were telling the stories of emptiness and torture of those who were left behind.

This quote from Murakami’s book somehow seems perfect to me:

Dance," said the Sheep Man. "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don'teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you'restuck. Sodon'tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou're tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon'tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance.

The Art of Uncertainty

process_header

Whenever a friend expresses doubt about moving forward with an art project, I tell them that the artist’s job is to feel that doubt and move forward anyway. It is our willingness to deal with uncertainty that makes us contributing members of society. Our job is to feel afraid that what we want to make is stupid or embarrassing and keep going anyway. That is hard work, and somebody has to do it. If we are sure that people are going to like what we make then we are probably doing something wrong—unless it’s a birthday card for our best friend, and then we should feel pretty confident that they’re gonna love it.

It’s easy for me to say all that when I’m talking to a friend who I’ve seen make excellent work in the past. I don’t have to deal with the fear, because I can look away during the process and just wait for the amazing art to come out at the end. But personally, when I feel that sense of uncertainty, a lot of the time I cave. I either quit what I’m working on, or I feel more excited about making something I think will go over well, because it looks like something I’ve seen/made before.

So this weekend I challenged myself to make something just for myself. The rules were that I wasn’t allowed to think, edit, or quit. I just had to draw exactly what came out, and then cut it out. I’ve spent so much time holding myself back and trying to plan out my art so that it will fit into the world—more specifically, my world. I want the art I make to match my personality. I try to be a nice, smart, comforting person, so I want the art I make to be those things too. When I draw without editing I feel like what I make is kind of weird. Maybe perverse. Repetitive. Crass.

But it felt so good, just to be in that space. Just to follow my rules and tell the judgements that came up, negative (“This is stupid! I still draw the same things I drew when I was 15. I was so depressed then. I don’t want to be depressed!”) and positive (“Maybe it’s not stupid, maybe I’ll show it to people and everyone will love it and I’ll get a gallery show because I let myself be freeeee!”) that they just didn’t matter. They were all judgements and so I wasn’t supposed to listen to them.

Part of me wants to say that letting myself make something without listening to my own judgements was giving myself a gift, but I think that oversimplifies it. Allowing/forcing oneself to make things without knowing how they’ll turn out, without listening to fear, is not simply a selfish pursuit. Art is a mirror. The lack of self-judgement comes out in the work, and when people see it, that openness is mirrored back to them. When I hear music that is really raw and strange and daring, when I read a book that is unabashedly honest, when I see art that is decidedly “uncool,” I feel happy. I feel like the world is more forgiving and has more of a place for me. I think we all have the capacity to contribute more of that forgiveness and freedom to the world. It’s funny how painful it can feel to do it.

The Vortex

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Philly is a vortex.

My friend Sarah just reminded me the other day. Psychic Jackie, who all our friends swear by, told Smoot once. There’s a vortex under the art museum—that’s why people get stuck. I moved away seven years ago and I still feel the pull.

When I lived in Philly, I was very ambitious for the immediate future. I was always making plans to put on an art show, to bake a strawberry pie, to go on tour. Now, older and living in New York, I’ve become ambitious in a different way. For the first time in my life I believe that if I persevere on the path I’m on, it’s possible I can eventually make a living doing art.

Specifically, I think it is possible that I can eventually make a living doing illustrations and animations. I never used to think of those things as distinct from just ‘art’. In Philadelphia, making crafts and cards and drawings all seemed like basically the same thing. When did they start to seem so separate from each other?

I thought of all this because making my wedding invitations brought me so much pleasure and satisfaction, even though (or because) it was just a small project to share with friends and family. Because it was strictly a personal personal project, not for a client or to try and put in a gallery, I experimented, I tried new things, and I persevered, blithely confident that I would figure it out in the end. I even worked with a team and didn’t get all uptight the way I normally do. In short, I let go of a lot of my normal hangups.

When I completed the first one, I looked at it and thought, “this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made!” Which may not be true, but which is the appropriate feeling, I think, on completing a project. And which is not what I usually think these days—I’m so worried about being consistent, living up to my own standards, pleasing the client.

The thing I’m trying to learn from this—the thing I’m trying to remember—is that making things is just that: making things.

Graphic design or illustration or art or crafts or puppet show or pies . . . the drive behind them is the same. The impulse to create doesn’t need to be informed by market realities. It’s about diving deep and coming out shaking and surprised. It’s about figuring out problems and their solutions so quickly they’re inseparable. It’s about joy.

American Apparel-style creeper advertising

strong female characters

A couple weeks ago, I complained about the Dove campaign and its pseudo-inspiring message of “You are more beautiful than you think.” While there are definitely merits in this message, and there are definitely some refreshing strategies that Dove employs—showcasing women of different shapes and sizes, for example; focusing on empowerment rather than sexualization—it continues to prioritize women’s looks, and their relationships with their looks, which subtly bolsters their own goal of selling beauty products. Not to mention the corporation that owns Dove also owns Axe, which has plenty of problems in its sexualized representations of women. Now I want to go to another extreme of problematic advertising. I call it: Is there anything creepier than American Apparel ads?

Gah. American Apparel ads. They make my skin crawl every time they pop up in the upper right hand corner of a Gothamist website or on the inside partition of a downtown bus stop. All of the photos of the female models look like they were taken by a ‘stached man who picked up underage girls in a windowless van and then used a low-fi camera as he posed them across a bedbug infested mattress in his roachy partly-furnished apartment, giving them the creepiest stage directions possible. (Have your mouth hang open. Spread your legs really awkwardly. Give us some armpit.) The models aren’t actually underage, of course, but they tend to be non-professionals and styled in a way that makes them look adolescent. Their hair is bedheaded, they wear no makeup, and they style the mostly innocuous American Apparel catalog (though they do tend towards the super short, and I still don’t get what a “bodysuit” is for) in the most sexed up way possible.

So the plus side of this creeptasmagoria is, I guess, the realism. In the age of Photoshop and flawless, fat-repellent models that were born without hair everywhere except the tops of their heads, it’s mildly refreshing to see the super-unretouched photos of women with a bit of back flab, child-bearing hips, the occasional unsightly mole. It really is. To the extent that it’s presenting women as they really look, it’s a good thing.

But whoa. That’s the only “good” I can come up with here. Because everything else about it is so wrong. The realism in question is ultimately employed to give the viewer the impression that there’s a semi-conscious high school teenager in their bedroom waiting to be seduced. It’s hypersexual and extraordinarily male gaze-y, and it’s a major contribution to the objectification-of-women canon that American advertising seems intent on compiling an epic volume of. Not to mention, it feels like we are seeing way more of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney’s deepest fantasies than we ever wanted to, way more than should ever be made manifest.

Which begs the question: if Dove overemphasizes a normative “beauty,” and American Apparel oversexualizes a physical “realism”—if Dove plays into the insecurities of the female gaze, while American Apparel plays into the objectification of the male gaze---where is the happy medium? What kind of advertising could possibly get it right? It’s hard to say. As it is, advertising is so much an extension of our culture’s already existing ideas about beauty, sex, and women that it’s hard to know where problems begin and end.

It's also quite the sad state of affairs when one has to go to an American Apparel ad to find "realism" in women's advertising. My ending request, the potential for compromise: could we have some of the unretouched-ness happening in ads other than Dov Charney's artistic vision of barely legal 1970s porn?

XXXV. Provence

postcards from france

Bridget’s host family has one of those beautiful provençal country houses that you see on the covers of Peter Mayle books. From Agnès’ apartment, it's a 45-minute uphill walk to get to it, which is one of the reasons I love to visit. On the way I pass Cézanne’s old painting studio, and once I crest the final hill, I am rewarded with a view of the Mont Sainte-Victoire over the olive groves. It’s not something I see every day.

Élodie, Bridget’s host mother, is stick-thin, blond, and tan. She knows that Agnès and I don't get along, so she frequently invites me over to their house for Sunday lunches. She smokes constantly, comme un pompier. Like a firefighter. My memories of Élodie are of sweet smoke wafting out of the kitchen, her whisking away at something that she probably won’t each much of, an apron tied tightly around her small waist.

Every time I arrive at their house, out of breath and slightly sweaty but beaming, Élodie and Isabelle, her equally blond and beautiful daughter, seem just as baffled as the last time I walked through the front door. You walked all the way here? Uphill? We can come pick you up!

No, thank you, I say, feeling like I’m repeating my lines in a scene. I’d rather walk. I like being outside. They shake their heads and laugh at how American I am.

Before lunch starts, Isabelle sneaks away to smoke cigarettes out of Élodie’s sight. She is only 15 years old and thin like her mother, but obsessed with losing kilos. The Sainte-Victoire winks at her where she is hiding behind the chimney, but she pays it no attention. Flicking ash onto the rosemary bushes growing around her, Isabelle checks her phone, stubs out her cigarette, and heads back inside to push food around her plate. 

The Reconstructionists

lisa congdon header

We're thrilled today to share an interview with Lisa Congdon about her project The Reconstructionists. To say we're big fans would be an understatement. Her work is consistently gorgeous, and this project is no exception.  Every Monday, The Reconstructionists showcases a woman who made history or helped shape our world (Maria Popova does the writing, and Lisa does the illustrations). The illustrations, along with the short piece of writing, bring the featured woman's work, life, and passions to light, and leave us considering how we might impact our world. You can find more of Lisa's work here, and read about her life, inspiration, and side projects on her blog.

Hi Lisa! Can you tell us a bit about how and why this project came to be? 

I’ve had this idea for a couple of years that I wanted to do some kind of project or book that celebrated women who I admire or who have been influential in my life. Maria and I had met about a year ago, and I began reading her blog. I came to quickly learn that she and I were drawn to similar female artists, designers, scientists, writers and thinkers. Last year, as if by kismet, Maria asked me to hand letter some of Anais Nin’s quotes to feature on Brain Pickings. That initial project brought us together for the first time as collaborators. I love Maria’s writing style and her commitment to generating interesting, thought-provoking content. So this past summer I approached her about collaborating on this larger project together.

So far, you've profiled a wide range of women. How do you and Maria choose your subjects? 

Maria and I have been compiling a list since August. We add the names of women who have or given us hope or whose contributions have left us in awe. That makes it subjective. We don’t intend for this to be inclusive of all noteworthy women or even the “Top 52.” That would be virtually impossible to choose! The women we are featuring are women who are special to us, who have influenced our touched us. So in that way it’s a very personal project for Maria and me. We won’t even be able to include all the women we’d like to include, but we will get to celebrate many of them this year through the project. And maybe expose people to women they might not have known about otherwise.

People are notoriously hard to capture on paper. Is there a point in your illustrative process when you feel like you've "gotten" your subject? Is it in the eyes? The posture? Something else? 

Yes, and let me tell you, the more alive (or recently alive) and well known the person is (at least by their face), the harder it is to capture them perfectly! I really struggled with both Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem for that reason. It is in the eyes and the mouth---and I always ask my partner: "who is this?" And if it's someone she should know and doesn't recognize, I worry! Sometimes I am not even sure I got it right, but at some point you just have to say "good enough" and be done.

Have there been any memorable responses to this project? 

The day we launched, Chelsea Clinton tweeted about it! So that was cool.

The Reconstructionists comes about at a time when feminism and womanhood are hot topics. How do you think your project fits in to the larger discussion of women's rights and place within society?

I don't know that we are necessarily attempting in any intentional way to be part of that larger discussion. Except that all of the people we are featuring are women, which I suppose is a statement in and of itself. As Maria wrote in her introduction to the project on Brain Pickings, we want to celebrate women we admire without pigeonholing the project into a stereotypical feminist corner and/or only engaging people who are already interested in women's history or women's issues or politics. It is true that we may be contributing to the conversation through highlighting the contributions of the women we feature. Most of the women we feature have contributed enormously to art or culture or science despite hardship of some kind. In some cases that hardship was sexism, and other cases it was poverty or homophobia or racism or disability, or a combination.

How do you think these passion projects affect your creativity in your other pursuits? 

I could not work as an illustrator (wherein I mostly illustrate other people's ideas, stories, etc) without personal projects. I do at least one personal project every year and have for several years. Don't get me wrong. I love what I do as an illustrator and pattern designer. I love my clients and the fact that I can draw and paint for other people for a living. But I get all my creative energy from personal work and pursuing personal passions through my art. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. The Recontructionists is something I really look forward to working on every week.

What's next? 

There is a lot of interest in the world about making The Reconstructionist into a book. We want to make sure if we do that we are thoughtful about how we do it and with whom we partner. We know that if a print version is meant to be, just the right partnership will come our way. For  now we are just enjoying the online experience and response.