Interview with Sarah Nicholls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SN: This is an enormous subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WL: That’s a good question. 

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

WL: Yeah, maybe—that’s interesting.

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

Interview with Woody Leslie — Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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