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.


Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography
Woody Leslie
H.F. Henderson
2019
Ugly Duckling Presse
uglyducklingpresse.org

5 × 7 in.
128 pages
Binding: Smyth-sewn
Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap

Understanding Molecular Typography Cover

Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers.

I struggled over how to review this book, and made the determination to identify it as a work of fiction (satire, specifically) and review it as such. I hesitate to out the work as fictional because much of Understanding Molecular Typography’s impact comes from its convincing appearance as a work of nonfiction. Ultimately, I decided that the book’s subtlety and humor can withstand a review. Furthermore, I had already reviewed an earlier edition of the book for Abecedarian Gallery and spoiled the surprise. Portions of this post have been adapted from that review.

Understanding Molecular Typography looks like a work of popular science, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. This new edition from Ugly Duckling Presse purports to be a reprint with a new introduction by the artist Woody Leslie. In reality, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-narrative fiction created by Leslie himself. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start, and Leslie’s new introduction playfully adds layers of misdirection. He describes coming across the book during his time as a graduate student, and discusses the work’s historical vicissitudes as well as its influence on his own practice.

Understanding Molecular Typography Inside Spread

Before addressing the work as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s to the 1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of molecular typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard nonfiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Details in the bibliography, for example, lend a less dry humor that helps clue the reader into the work’s fictionality. In contrast, a straight-faced absurdity operates in the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) and the extraordinary profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

Understanding Molecular Typography Bibliography

Beyond the text itself, Leslie has a keen sense of that para-textual apparatuses that lend books authority. Though librarians will be pleased to see this new edition has a legitimate ISBN, the collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse provided other opportunities to play with para-text. The back cover features a blurb from none other than Johanna Drucker. In character as a scholar, she praises the astonishing achievements of H.F. Henderson. Her comparison to Zdanevich is part of the fiction, but nevertheless situates Leslie’s work within a history of artistic explorations of language.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

Leslie does directly discuss his interest in letterforms and language in the introduction, but even here one must read between the lines. In the book’s first edition, little details about the artist tethered the book to reality. Now, the dynamic has flipped and Understanding Molecular Typography fictionalizes its creator. Leslie’s autofictional account of discovering Henderson and dedicating himself to the study of molecular typography deftly satirizes academia and the professionalization of art. The esotericism is an absurd addition to the tradition of mythologized artist personae. Joseph Beuys has his plane crash, and Leslie his library.

In freeing Leslie from necessary truths like colophons and contact information, Ugly Duckling Presse plays the perfect co-conspirator. Reprinting an obscure or underappreciated work is certainly in their wheelhouse. Furthermore, they list the book under “art, nonfiction” in their catalog and provide a deadpan description of Henderson’s book. The smyth-sewn paperback with a foil-stamped cover retains the general appearance of the first edition, and does a good job of selling the deception. The book is slightly larger, and the layout is roomier and more readable than the original. Underneath the paper cover, the book is covered in a lovely pattern of molecular typographic diagrams. Understanding Molecular Typography is a well-designed book. Most importantly, it looks perfectly ordinary.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co-opted the trappings of academic publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Nevertheless, the book is humorous and unpretentious throughout. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader. The great irony of the book, which so irreverently lampoons science, art, academia, and publishing, is that it is such an excellent example of art as a form of interdisciplinary scholarship.

The Job

The Job
Woody Leslie
2019
Large Home Tiny Idea
woodyleslie.com

4 × 5 in.
32 pages
Binding: 5-hole pamphlet stitch
Ink jet cover and laser inside

The Job, cover

The Job is the second book in Woody Leslie’s “Tiny Ideas” chapbook series. Through his imprint, Large Home Tiny Idea, Leslie harnesses the authority of the book form in order to examine everyday phenomena, often through the lens of language. The Job achieves this by reflecting on Leslie’s experience working in restaurants, and the familiar struggle to balance work with one’s outside interests. Tellingly, that tension never resolves. The workplace that inspires the book is, in Leslie’s words, “no place for creative writing.”

The Job, inside spread 1

Though it touches on political issues, The Job remains resolutely personal. The writing expresses a common sense solidarity with fellow food service workers (and a visceral resentment of those who profit off their work) that is more sympathetic than an ideological label. Even when Leslie uses insider slang, the specificity is relatable rather than exclusive. Many readers will have shared the experience of starting a new job and finding something funny or confusing, only to accept it and forget how weird it is until they quit or another new employee joins. In fact, the similarities among jobs – whether the author’s or the reader’s – is another powerful political point made implicitly through the observations in The Job.

Fans of Leslie’s work will find plenty of continuity with previous pieces. Considered alongside his 2011 comic, The Adventures of Super Cafe Douche Bag Man, The Job shows the evolution of Leslie’s work-inspired art. Words and Vegetables (2017) shares its highly detailed introspective style. The organization of ideas, not quite stream of consciousness, is similar to Some Definitions of Vegetables (2019) and Parsely (2016), with which it also shares an emphasis on the visual arrangement of text on the page.

The Job, inside spread 2

The visual treatment of text in The Job is subtle, but it is enough to put this work of nonfiction into dialogue with visual poetry. In some passages, the text is treated as prose. Elsewhere, enjambment gives a more poetic feel to the few lines on a page. The conversation with visual poetry begins in earnest on the fourth spread, where a map of Leslie’s workplace is rendered on the recto. Interestingly, it’s not clear if the representation is spacial or temporal, or some psychogeographic mixture. This uncertainty is later complexified when the same layout is used to visualize Leslie’s body, mapping the aches and pains of restaurant work.

The Job, inside spread 3

As a text in the book form, The Job does more than visual poetry alone. On a basic level, layout on a page or a spread within a codex is different than, say, a broadside. For example, a recto that says only, “Waste.” has a different meaning than the same word with the same amount of white space around it on a broadside. The page is a unit, and the word uses (or perhaps wastes) the entire unit. A similarly sparse page bearing the phrase “I quit.” highlights other features of the codex. Has the author quit writing; are the subsequent pages blank? The way the turn of a page conceals and reveals adds to the impact of The Job – it would be a different piece outside the book form.

The Job, inside spread 4

Leslie also engages the codex as a mnemonic device. In the first half of the book, he writes:

So much of The Job is about short term memory.
Remember for five seconds to ten minutes,
and then forget.
Too many things are the same,
or slightly different, repeated over and over.
You must forget each to remember the next.

The same text, with identical formatting, repeats in the second half of the book. The self-reflexive relationship between form and content tempts the reader to flip back to the first instance. Is the phrase the same or slightly different? The codex is ideal for this sort of non-linear access.

Even with this short text, Leslie takes full advantage of these affordances to play with linear and cyclical progression throughout the book. The page as a temporal unit is disrupted to convey a quintessential experience of an unsatisfying job: the days are long, but the years are short. The opening page features the repeated phrase, “We set up the blocks, they knock them over.” Time crawls by, and the page ends with “Day after day.” Later in the book, Leslie ruminates on mopping:

Leaves.
Slush and salt.
Mud.
Grass.

A whole year flies by, just like that. The stakes are raised as the pamphlet’s bulk shifts from the reader’s right hand to the left hand. Will the author escape The Job and focus on his creative work? Or will an earlier phrase repeat and place the reader back into the cyclical existence of wage labor? The suspense of each progressive revelation is heightened in the user-determined, time-based medium of the book.

In fact, The Job’s successful marriage of form and content points to the historical role of the chapbook as a democratic form. Leslie is subverting the authority of the book to assert the importance of the personal and quotidian, but he is doing so within a long tradition. The Job is noteworthy for the ease with which book art, visual poetry and non-fiction meet and make meaning in a humble pamphlet. Perhaps it is a large idea in a tiny home.