Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WL: That’s a good question. 

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

WL: Yeah, maybe—that’s interesting.

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