Our ongoing interview series! Tell us who you are, what you’re doing that’s of note and why, oh why, are you rocking that boat?
Among his many other accomplishments, Ray Hsu is a published poet and a lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. He takes the tools of capitalism to move “us” beyond its current dominant forms and to redistribute power, searching for poetic form in the entrepreneurial world. In anticipation of our upcoming issue, SAD Mag’s Katherine Chan interviewed Hsu about starving for art, hypothetical time travel, and of course, our current favorite topic: high school.
KC: So Ray,
RH: What up, Katherine?
KC: Which memory sticks out the most from your high school years?
RH: I remember once, my drama teacher pulled me aside and said, “Hey Ray, I know you find all of this, as in high school, really boring, but I just want you to know that by the time you get to university, things are gonna be a lot better.” That struck me as a really powerful acknowledgement of how boring he realized all of this was. That struck me as piercing the illusion that all of this was worth anything.
KC: Why did he say that to you?
RH: You know? I’m not sure. Maybe because he saw something in me that he recognized? I mean, I remember when another one of my drama teachers pulled me aside and asked me, “Hey Ray, I know you’re really creative, but would you be willing to starve for your art?” And I thought about it for a second, and I said, “No. No, I wouldn’t be.” He seemed really disappointed, and I got the feeling that he was looking for a certain answer. And I’m—I’m still not willing to starve for my art. I don’t think that anyone should have to starve for their art. I don’t think that anyone should have to starve.
RH: Yeah. So it was interesting, the moment when he pulled me aside.
KC: Say, one day, you time travelled back to high school. What would be the one thing that you would do that you never did?
RH: I remember one day when I was in school, looking into the mirror and thinking about how ugly I was. I remember thinking, I wonder what things will be like in the future. Looking back on it, I feel as if I could see my former self, my younger self, on the other side of that mirror, and I wish I could say to that Ray, don’t worry, everything is going to be okay.
KC: I can’t believe you felt that way. Were you going through something specifically, or it was just…
RH: It was just life. It was just the feeling that I didn’t know what my role was in the grand scheme of things.
KC: I understand that. That’s nice.
RH: There used to be this insurance or investment company, maybe they’re still around, called Freedom 55. They used to have these commercials that played on TV all the time, in which it shows some young version of a person, and then an older version of the same person, presumably 55 years old. The younger version person is all swamped with stuff, and meets the older version of them, who seems really well taken care of, financially well off, etc. The younger version asks, “What happens to us?” The older version says, “Don’t worry, everything is okay. So-and-so has happened and this person has gone and done that, and everything’s okay.” The younger version asks, “How did that happen?” And the older version says, “Well, we went with Freedom 55.” So, basically, that captured my imagination as a kid. If I could meet the older version of myself, I really wondered what the older version of myself would say. I was super obsessed with this idea of, not quite time travel, but something like this.
KC: So, if you could change one thing about the high school that you went to, or high schools in general, in any aspect, what would it be?
RH: More awesomeness.
KC: What does that mean, Ray?
RH: Well, okay. I remember one time when I was brought in, as a writer, to a high school and the English teacher convenes the class. We all meet in the library. So, imagine around the perimeter of the library room, [are] all these students and they’re all looking at me from their chairs, and I’m standing up and I’m like, “What is the awesomest thing that we could be doing right now?” They’re like, “Uh…what? What do you mean?” I’m like, “Anything. Seriously, anything.” And I can’t remember if they said something like, “In here, right now?” And I was like, “Or whatever, anywhere.” One person goes, “Well, we would be outside having ice cream.” Then everybody laughs. And I say, “Okay, why don’t we do that?” And they laugh again but are like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “No, seriously, what’s keeping us from doing the thing that we’d rather be doing than sitting here listening to me?” And they all look at the teacher. The teacher’s like “Uh…” and apparently there was this really good ice cream place down the street, and it was sunny outside. There was, in my mind, nothing keeping us in that room in high school, other than the fact that there was some sort of magical, conceptual electrical fence that’s surrounding the place, that it’s like, even if you took away the fence, people wouldn’t leave, because they believed that the fence was there. You know, this is the panopticon. You know, or you think you know, that there’s a guard watching, and somebody’s gonna come down on you, but the guard may not even be there.
KC: But realistically, logistically, how would you increase awesomeness? Like in that situation you just talked about? That would have to be changing something really fundamental. The reaction from the students—they have the agency to look at the teacher, and they feel like they have to abide to something, like you said exactly, an invisible fence. So to change that would be to get rid of that invisible fence. What would be even one step towards doing that in reality?
RH: I think so much of that depends on the position that one occupies relative to the institution, relative to that fence. The very idea of what counts as a student carves them off from the rest of whatever they are. So, as a teacher, I can be attentive to that. As a student, I can do all sorts of tactical things. Now, this is all Michel de Certeau kind of stuff, where it’s like, when I was a student going through high school, I would do weird ass shit all the time, because for me, so much of what I was doing was pointless and what I was being asked to do was pointless, to a point where I would put in 160% into my presentations, because that was the only way that I could infuse anything about my educational experience with meaning. It didn’t seem like a lot of people around me cared, except for maybe my friends, with whom I was working on this project. Meanwhile, there was someone that I knew, a friend of mine, when she was going through high school, during the first few years she did the barest minimum, because she didn’t see the point in what she was being asked to do, and teachers hated her. And then, she realized, Oh wait a second, in order to get to university, which is where I wanna go, at this certain grade I need to start producing high grades and all that kind of stuff. And then, she switched into high gear. She started doing all these things necessary to produce high grades, and teachers hated her for that! Because it was clear that she was just, basically, working the system. When she felt it didn’t matter, she didn’t do anything, or did the minimum. When it mattered, she started working accordingly, and that requires a level of understanding of the educational system as an economic system, in which there’s a return on investment on effort, and you invest proportionally to the kind of return that you wanna get. And when things don’t count, you don’t invest, because that would be an expenditure of resources that is simply not rational. The way she went through things was, one might say, the opposite way of how I went through things. Where I put in 160%, it was excessive. It was not rationalizable, except for the fact that I wanted meaning. For her, the system didn’t contain the possibility of meaning.
KC: Do you think that teachers have an almost demanding expectation of their students being ignorant of how the system works?
RH: I think that teachers can be delusional, insofar as they are invested in having meaning, over and above being able to examine what it is that the educational system might be. And I think that that can be parallel in students, as well. It’s kind of like if one is a teacher and one states one’s identity as a teacher, there’s so much that’s reinforcing about one’s identity as a teacher. Kind of like all the platitudes around teachers being heroes, like firefighters, you know? The people around me are perpetuating exactly that: the nobility of teaching. And that, I think, obscures or perpetuates the delusion. It’s the fact that in order to do one’s job as a teacher, one might have to identify in this illusory way. I know I’m sounding rather Marxist, like the mystification—
KC: Mystification of teachers?
RH: Sure, it’s ideological. It’s kind of like one must believe in something in order to even articulate it. Why might teachers be invested in their own nobility? It’s kind of like one might be told what one is doing is noble and therefore is extracted more labour than is compensated, financially speaking. Let’s compare this to artists, or any job in which it’s immensely desirable, because there’s this aura around it. So, wait as second, you’re a teacher, right? You love what you’re doing, right? So we can pay you less and you would still be doing it, right? You’re an artist—
KC: You would starve for your art, right?
KC: No, but you won’t.
RH: I think something can begin there, yes.
For more about Ray Hsu, visit his website or follow him on Twitter. Stay tuned for more High School Q&As on sadmag.ca as we prepare to launch our next issue.
It’s difficult to describe Vancouver-based cultural “badass” Amber Dawn in a single sentence–poet, editor, teacher, mentor, filmmaker, performance artist, and now award-winning writer, it might actually be easier to list all of the things she isn’t. She is the author of Sub Rosa (which received a Lambda Award in 2011), How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (which won the Vancouver Book Award in 2013), and most recently, Where the words end and my body begins, a debut poetry collection which continues to draw outstanding reviews. One thing is certain: Amber Dawn is a literary force to be reckoned with.
SAD Mag was lucky enough to chat with Dawn about her teenage years to celebrate the upcoming launch our High School edition. Turns out, Teenage Dawn was every bit as cool as Adult Dawn, even if she didn’t know it yet.
Tell me what you were like in high school: would Teenage You get along with the person you are today?
I don’t think I’ve changed that much since high school. Back then I valued humility and kindness, and yet I was a badass who liked to kick holes in walls, still do. I coloured my hair red then, still do. I listened to Bongwater and Siouxsie and the Banshees then, still do.
Any strange high school hobbies?
Shoplifting. Food mostly, I was hungry. I became so good at stealing food, I’d steel foot-long submarine sandwiches for other poor students short on lunch money. For a while, It became a daily “thing” to see if I could nab a couple of foot-longs and a couple cans of 7 Up from the cafeteria.
What did you think you would become after graduation? Were your sights already set on becoming an (award-winning) author? Or did that come to you later?
Many kids leave the small community I’m from after high school. Most go to Toronto. But I heard that Vancouver was like Canadian San Francisco (and Toronto like New York). I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do with my life after graduation so I came to Vancouver before my 18th birthday to be a “Canadian San Franciscan queer hippy punk.”
What was your most mortifying teenage moment? If you could send Teenage You a letter (or maybe an instant message) about it from the future, what would it say?
I was bullied a lot. I could draw a great number of mortifying memories of surviving bullying. But all these years later, what truly darkens my memory are all the times I was a bystander to witnessing other kids get bullied. It took me a long time to learn about strength in numbers organizing. I wish I could have banded proudly together with all the other outcasts back then. This is what I would tell Teenage Me: build your army of misfits now. Love each other. Keep each other safe. And try smashing the system while you’re at it.
Find out more about Amber Dawn on her website. Stay tuned for more High School Q&As on sadmag.ca.
Matt Muldoon is the owner of Knuckles Industries: a rapidly ascending design company that just released (to much publicity) their new 60/61 furniture series.
Based on vintage Americana and old-school airplanes – the pieces were built with 6061 aircraft grade aluminum – the collection marries craftsmanship and not-quite-functionalism. Does a shoe rack really require speed holes? Of course not, but then, it doesn’t not need them.
Things are going well so far at Knuckles Industries: the 60/61 series was recently featured at Vancouver’s IDS West show, and has been lauded in publications from The Globe and Mail to Montecristo Magazine.
But back to Matt – what kind of person is it that comes up with this stuff?
A Total Hick
Matt was born in Nanton, Alberta, and describes himself as a hillbilly. He grew up going to scrap yards and buying materials on the Bargain Finder, and at fourteen, he built his first piece: a go-kart repurposed from a smashed-up motorcycle.
As an adult, Matt divides his time between Alberta and B.C., and runs his business a bit like a farmer coming to market. He works mostly out of his shop in Calgary, but wheels and deals in Vancouver. While on the west coast, he lives in an enviable loft space on Main and 2nd, but still misses Alberta’s Wild West vibes.
“The part that was hard for me in Vancouver was it sort of separated me from being a hillbilly,” he says.
“It’s a very different scene in Vancouver. Even if I could build a go-kart out of a motorcycle in Van, someone’s going to arrest me if I drive it down 2nd the way that I drive it at home.”
A Serial Killer
Not really, of course. But Matt admits that he looks like one – a little bit – when he’s staying up all night in his shop, alternately listening to classical music and Nine Inch Nails.
“I just fall back to Trent Reznor at eleven or twelve o’clock at night,” he says.
And then there’s his love of machining and clean lines.
“I prefer that surgical look.”
An Awesome Boyfriend
Recently, Matt’s girlfriend needed a new countertop. So Matt built her one, out of some 90-year-old barn wood that was presumably lying around her apartment.
I think there was very little planning that went into it,” he says.
Sounds like a fun date!
A Real Straight Shooter
More than anything else, Matt deals in authenticity. He describes himself as a half-designer, half-fabricator, and is capable of building any piece that he comes up with. He takes pride in his work; loves quality, well-built materials; and believes in completing a project in its entirety.
“I have an obsession with the 1930s and the 1940s, and everything that was made then. Sort of that Americana manufacturing days, when people went to work and made what they did and they were proud of it, and it turned out really well,” he says.
“I have this thing with the work pride of days gone by.”
Vancouver won’t stop growing: expanding outward and spiraling back in, rebranding old neighbourhoods and finding names and spaces for new ones. New people are the overlooked catalyst for all this outward change. While a fresh condo development shoots up into our field of vision, a new city dweller slips easily into the periphery.
Zakir Jamal Suleman, director of The Belonging Project, is attempting to bring the experience of Vancouver immigrants to the foreground. Through a series of six video interviews, posted weekly to The Belonging Project’s website, Suleman and his collaborators address the question of what it takes to belong in our notoriously antisocial city.
Suleman, a philosophy honours student at UBC, was inspired both by his own experience as a Second Generation Khoja Ismaili Canadian and by a 2012 report published by The Vancouver Foundation. The report claimed that one third of survey participants struggled to make friends in Vancouver, and fifty percent of recent immigrants felt the same feeling of social isolation. These results resonated with Suleman, who describes his own process of belonging in Vancouver as a complex one: “You are born here, but there are still questions–where is your culture and the culture you are living in, how do they mix, where is home for me, is it here or is it there…”
He conceived of The Belonging Project as a means to help Vancouverites combat this isolation and connect with one another. Video interviews are a uniquely immediate way to break through what Suleman calls “barriers to entry,” allowing website users to hear a stranger’s story in the physical space of their daily life. Whether you are watching on your laptop or your phone, the project website creates a virtual space for immediate intimacy. Suleman hopes that these online interviews can be more than an “abstracted story,” the goal is that “those connections be something real and something that…people can gravitate to just like a real conversation.”
The interviews are certainly real. The brave participants share a lot in their interviews: stories of depression and illness, as well as revelations about the joyfulness of finding connection. All the videos are six minutes long, a challenging timeframe to try to convey something “true to the complexity of the people we were talking about.” Despite the time constraints, everyone who worked on the project does an admirable job of covering as wide a range of experience as possible.
As important as the voices of newcomers are to the project, the experience of First Nations people in Vancouver is something the project is also intent on exploring. As Suleman says in the website’s video introduction, “Vancouver is built on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, so that means we are all from somewhere else.”
Ultimately, The Belonging Project aims to create a point of connection based on disconnection. Suleman explains that “we were trying to explore something that is, I think, common to everybody.” The irony of dissatisfaction is that it compels you to speak up: something Suleman has noted himself. “Think about complaining about the weather, something that people in Vancouver are champions at…I think that it is actually really great that people are dissatisfied, because you can use that dissatisfaction to motivate you [sic] to do something about it…One thing you can count on is that everyone is dissatisfied in some way.”
The Belonging Project is a model for turning discontent into connection, one that Suleman hopes will continue beyond the initial six video outline. A community gathering is planned for September 19th, a way of gauging the success of the project and attempting the tricky work of translating an online platform into real space. “We want to get people together, people who have been watching… all these stories, and get them into a room,” he explains.
As quickly as Vancouver is growing, it is still small enough for the idea of a community gathering to feel apt. By asking Vancouverites to “take a moment, grab a coffee, and meet a new neighbour,” The Belonging Project reminds us how close we really are to the people who share our city.
The Belonging Project will be hosting a community art show at Untitled Art Space (436 Columbia Street) on Saturday September 19th. The event runs from 6 – 11 pm. To find out more, follow The Belonging Project on Facebook or visit their website.
Katie So is bent over her iPad when I meet her for coffee on a rainy Monday morning. So is answering emails (“like always,” she sighs) which doesn’t surprise me, because the illustrator-cum-tattoo artist has already inked two of my friends and seems to be fielding more tattoo requests than she can handle. “I’m just learning about the tattoo business,” she says, “And I can’t say no to anybody, which I think I have to start doing soon!”
So helped open Black Medicine Tattoo last May with owners Joel Rich and Daniel Giantomaso, in exchange for mentorship from Rich. Vancouver born and bred, So has been practicing art since she can remember. “I always grew up in a really creative home,” she recalls, “So it was always like, everything, all creative materials were at my disposal.” Her move to tattoo work was motivated by her desire to progress her career as an illustrator. “I guess I was in a spot where I was just doing art and I wanted to…get it out there any way I could, and make money doing it,” So explains. “I met Joel [Rich] and he tattooed me. I asked if he wanted and apprentice but he [said] ‘Not really, but I’ll help you!’”
So says that attending an arts high school put her off the idea of pursuing visual art, but that she rediscovered her love of drawing during a gap year. She then registered in the Capilano IDEA Program where she realized that illustration, rather than graphic design, was what she was passionate about practicing. So was attracted to comics because they allowed her to combine her habit of creative writing with her drawings. She has since put out three print compilations of her work: Destined for Misery, Bad Boyfriend, and Attempts at Positivity. So’s work––narrative driven and punchline-heavy––is both hilarious and honest, and her ability to capture awkward moments, pathetic self-pity, and heartbreak is so accurate, it’s uncanny.“The comics kind of started almost as a way to laugh off my problems,” she says.
The magic of So’s work is that she manages to create scenes that are deeply personal but touchingly universal. Panels from Destined for Misery show a tired girl hunched over in identical positions eating dinner, sitting on a toilet, at a drawing table, and laying in bed. The cheeky caption reads “Slouch Life.” “I hated autobio comics, like: ‘I feel that way, too, but it’s just making me feel worse,’” she says, “So I guess I just wanted to approach it with an air of humour, and that was my reaction to the way I was feeling, and thats how I worked [my feelings] out. The problems are real but you should be able to step back and laugh at it a little bit and realize how ridiculous things are sometimes.” (See her panels in Bad Boyfriend to laugh out loud, and cry internally).
What makes So’s tattoo work so interesting is the dark edge that is present in her illustrations and comics. Shaggy vampire bats and dark haired ladies with cold eyes dominate her online portfolio. She can be both cutesy and gruesome in one drawing. Her somber aesthetic translates beautifully to blackwork tattoo. “I wanted to keep drawing for illustration rather than drawing for tattooing,” she explains. “It took me a while to get the effect that I’ve got in my illustration and bring it across tattooing. I definitely had to learn how to adapt designs for tattoos, because sometimes shapes of things aren’t going to work on somebody’s body. I still really wanna maintain my illustration style throughout tattooing.”
“Tattooing was one of those things I was like ‘I want to learn how to do this,’ and I just did it every day. I still have so much to learn but if you wanna get shit done you just gotta do it,” she says of her learning process. The transition to tattooing was creatively and financially necessary; it allowed So the freedom to pursue her art and make ends meet. “I’m proud that this last year was kind of when I took the plunge, like ‘Ok I’m gonna be an artist full time.’ I think I could have done it a long time ago if I had just done it but I was too scared that I wouldn’t have any money or anything. If you just do it, you figure it out and you force yourself to make money.”
I ask So what it feels like to put her hard work on someone else’s body. “I’m always scared when I finish a tattoo and I’m letting it go,” she laughs, “I hope they take care of it and I hope it heals well because it’s my art walking around. It’s nerve wracking, but also super exciting [to] see someone walking on the street…I’m like, ‘Oh I did that!’”
So’s wisdom to artists looking to take the leap into self-employment is to “just go hang out with people you think are cool and talk to them and tell them that you think they’re cool. Chances are they already think you’re cool, too.” Her final nugget of knowledge before we bundle ourselves up against the relentless downpour: “Please, get tattooed on a full stomach!”
“I’ve always had a purpose to my creativity,” says Pomona Lake, a Vancouver graphic designer and artist. She found that purpose fast and early, when an image from a high-school art project went profoundly, monumentally viral.
This particular picture shows the back of a woman’s legs with her skirt pulled up. Running up her left leg is a sequence of markings, each labelled with a different qualifier, starting with “matronly” just above the ankle and finishing with “whore” just under the cheeks. It was a simple and scathing commentary on sexism – “I think that art came out of feeling my sexuality for the first time,” Pomona says, “feeling sexualized by external people,” – and it understandably took off.
Just 18-years-old, fresh into her first year of design at Capilano University, she suddenly became to thousands of people worldwide the face of young feminism. She was inundated with messages, both caustic hatemail and proclamations of support from likeminded supporters worldwide. She was interviewed by major publications like The New Statesman and cited in university classes across the globe. At one point it took her to Belgium to battle a racist group who co-opted the concept for their own agenda.
Few creatives get such an all-encompassing response to their work, especially as a teen. And even people decades older would have been hard-pressed to handle it with Pomona’s level-headedness. While the outpouring of support was empowering, she didn’t let the anonymous attacks faze her. “It’s really easy to see through the hate mail,” she explains. “They’re just scared.”
Although she’d been declared an expert, the unexpected success of the photograph was what actually sparked Pomona’s activism. At the time the piece came out she didn’t even identify as a feminist, she was just working off her own experiences. “I realized I was completely ignorant and needed to know things,” she says. She embarked on a serious self-driven education, focusing on feminism but spiralling into other areas, and hasn’t slowed since.
Today Pomona makes a point of offering her design services to deserving people and companies that otherwise couldn’t afford them. During business hours she works at Yulu PR, which she describes as “the Robin Hood of PR firms.” Off the clock she helps out worthy causes.
Through her work she hopes to change the flawed and unbalanced system of capitalism by gaming it from the inside. It’s not that she thinks the system is run by some cat-stroking, monocled super villain. She just recognizes that most people are looking out for themselves – “everyone’s just dumb, not evil,” – and with a little readjustment life could be a lot more fair for everyone.
She’s a proponent of “liberating funds,” using money earned through her work in responsible ways like shopping at small, local businesses, finding alternative ways to meet needs, and re-investing in the community. It’s all part of her life mission, which she’s honed down to this: “To open eyes and ears and bring people together.”
She pauses for a second, thinks, then nods. “And fix bullshit.”
Imagine this: you’re a Vancouver comic—and dang! You’re pretty good. In fact, you were recently a Yuk Yuks fast tracker (a program where Vancouver’s finest up and comers are hand-picked to work consistent nights, among other perks). Night after night you’re getting out around town and killing it.
The catch? You also get up in the morning and go to your nine to five job. What I’m saying is, in this particular scenario, you may be funny but you put your pants on one leg at time like anyone else and you know it. In real life, this mix of talent and humility combines to make one Stuart Jones.
This month I got to chat with Stuart, a real life nice guy (please refer to his joke about why this may mean you’re not sleeping with him) who loves food but sensibly draws the line at dog. That part actually didn’t make the interview cut, but trust me, it’s true.
Stuart Jones: I’m just gonna’ grab a coffee.
Kristine Sostar McLellan: You drink coffee this late?
SJ: Well, not regularly. [Dramatic pause] But on a Friday?
KSM: Cut loose!
SJ: I’ve been pretty wiped. Waking up early and then being on shows at night.
KSM: How often a week do you go up?
SJ: Two or three times a week. On a regular week. On a good week, four or five.
KSM: And you’ve been doing this with a full time job for how long?
SJ: Almost a year.
KSM: Do you remember your first set?
SJ: I was talked into it by some people at work. This was in Kelowna and a colleague was going to try. I thought, I’ll give it a shot. I had a few topics written down, but some people are just natural performers.
KSM: Are you?
SJ: Half and half. I think of all these people who are way more charismatic on stage.
KSM: Your material is probably funnier the way you deliver it.
SJ: There’s a way to perform it… But I’ve also found that it seems like a cheap trick if you put too much energy into it. Because a lot of the time it seems funnier if someone is screaming.
KSM: Totally. Okay, back to the beginning. Was this something you thought about before?
SJ: Sort of. I had a few premises, but it was pretty nerve-wracking the first time. I had six or seven people there for support, and the other comics were supportive.
KSM: I think that comics are generally supportive to first timers here in Vancouver, too.
SJ: Depends on your material.
SJ: Well, there’s quite a few newbies and all their jokes are just shock. It’s like, this is what you find funny? Can’t you find humour in something else? If someone’s like that, or extremely arrogant, they aren’t going to get much support.
KSM: How soon did you do it again?
SJ: The week after. It was a cool show hosted and run by Tim Nutt who’s an awesome comedian in Kelowna. I remember watching him on the Comedy Network in middle school, so it was really cool that he was there. And he’s got a great laugh. If you can make him laugh, it’s awesome.
KSM: Who are your other favourites?
SJ: I like Doug Stanhope. Bill Burr. I like Brian Regan. He’s like as far as you get here, and Stanhope’s way over there [motions a spectrum]. Regan is totally squeaky clean. That’s his great appeal.
KSM: What do you think you are?
SJ: I never found dirty stuff to be too funny.
KSM: Do you ever enjoy that kind of comedy?
SJ: It has to be clever. A lot of comics have great admiration for someone who can be so funny, and be completely clean.
KSM: There’s an interesting fixation on that. Like how Jerry Seinfeld feels he’s let himself down if he swears because there was another, better solution. But sometimes it just feels good, and it’s funny, and whatever! [Laughs] So what if audiences laugh when you yell or swear? What’s so wrong with that?
SJ: Well that’s the argument. Your goal is to make people laugh.
KSM: I think that anything, if it’s funny, is kind of worth it.
SJ: My friend Amy has this great bit. Both of her parents are clowns, so she’s got this bit about the first time her parents had a safe sex talk to her. It ends with her pulling out a balloon animal balloon and going, ‘so they gave me one of these and said to be safe. I had some fucked up expectations.’ She thought it was kind of cheap to use a prop, but I think it was necessary for the joke. It’s not cheap.
KSM: It’s funny because you’re supposed to be fearless and able to tackle anything. Then there are these weird, arbitrary lines about what is and isn’t okay. Is it more about worrying what other comics think?
SJ: I don’t know. You don’t want to deface the profession of comedian.
SJ: If you’ve been on stage ten times and you’re doing just this horrible stuff. [mocking voice] Oh freedom of speech! Don’t call yourself a comedian. It’s the same reason I can’t go to a music open mic, strum a guitar not knowing what I’m playing, then smash it on the stage after and be like, I’m basically The Who.
KSM: Tell me about your worst show.
SJ: Hmmm. I have a temper.
KSM: Do you? I didn’t know that!
SJ: I’ve gotten very angry on stage before.
KSM: Tell me about that reaction.
SJ: I can tell you what my worst heckle was. It wasn’t even like a true heckle.
KSM: But it rattled you.
SJ: It was a fundraiser in Kelowna. I was doing a joke and a woman in the front row turns to her friend and goes, so am I driving you home? Like, they’re already planning how they can get out of there. It was, ohhhhh, awful.
KSM: I was about to say I love that… [Laughs] But I’m sorry that happened.
SJ: No, it’s funny in retrospect.
KSM: It’s funny because it’s totally different things than people expect that leave you feel feeling gutted.
SJ: Other heckles, like, you suck! They’re like, whatever. Or, you’re not funny! It’s like, well, some people think I am. So there.
KSM: What’s the best way that you’ve dealt with it?
SJ: One time I asked this person who making a lot of noise if they were a smoker and they said yes. So I went, well, why don’t you go for a smoke?
KSM: That’s good! Most people don’t realize that heckling isn’t usually insults. It’s mostly people trying to be helpful. Like, I love that too! And you’re like, shhhhhh, you ruined my punchline.
SJ: And sometimes there are jokes where the entire premise, entire bits, can be thwarted by a quick, simple fact. The whole premise of the joke is wrong to begin with. And then I can’t enjoy the rest of the joke because it’s based on this false premise.
KSM: So you overthink things.
SJ: I find continuity errors.
KSM: But when it’s going fast, the audience doesn’t care. People seem to have an inherent interest in comedy. Actually, the question that I get asked most often is why I do it. What do you say to that?
SJ: I say it’s fun. It’s awesome. It’s a good creative outlet. You have to be creative somehow.
KSM: So what’s your end game?
SJ: I mean, I’m kind of a realistic person.
KSM: I can believe that…
SJ: Yeah. [Laughs] I don’t expect myself to get super famous. That’d be great, but, at this point I would just I would like to be able to live comfortably in Vancouver.
KSM: Off comedy?
SJ: I mean, if I could, and not be broke all the time. I just started a TFSA. [Laughs] I’m trying to play it smart. As a realistic goal, I would like to be able to keep my job and just do shows around BC. Get to Just For Laughs. That would be great.
KSM: I think that’s more than realistic. You will do that. So what, if anything, is off limits in comedy for you?
SJ: I don’t think anything is off limits. But I do think there has to be a joke, or something clever, or a point about it. It just has to be clever. Cause, if you’re doing something that is very edgy or controversial and you’re not making a good point, then you just look dumb.
KSM: I hear two things. It has to be funny and it has to make a good point.
SJ: Ideally. But that’s just my sense of humour. That’s just what I find funny. Some sort of opinion.
KSM: And continuity.
KSM: Okay, what’s one thing that you think people don’t know about standup.
SJ: I don’t want to say that it’s more rehearsed than people think, but to some people it looks like they’re making it up on the spot.
KSM: If you’re good, yeah, it looks like that. And what’s one thing that people don’t know about you.
SJ: I’m not a very interesting person. Hmmm, let’s see. I could list off a bunch of things. I’ve got really bad eyesight. I could burn things with my glasses. They’re like magnifying glasses. I’m a nerd, most people know that…
KSM: Something we don’t know, please.
SJ: I play magic cards. And I love pizza. Well, everyone knows that.
If you liked Stuart Jones as much as he loves pizza, you can catch him at Yuk Yuks where he will be advancing to the second round of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Competition in August.
Cynara Geissler is a triple threat: a pioneer of the fat-fashion blogging scene, an accomplished author and speaker, and a kick-ass cat mom. She also has an impressive collection of feline-adorned apparel (and her darling feline, Autumn, sports an anthropomorphic bowtie). Having recently given a talk at the local launch for the essay collection Women in Clothes, Geissler was the perfect person to converse with about the wonders of felines and femininity and what it means to combine those two elements in apparel.
Megan Jenkins: Hey! Let’s talk a bit about your history in fashion blogging.
Cynara Geissler: Well I started posting outfits of the day in a LiveJournal community called Fatshionista, and it was exclusively about fat people finding fashion. There’s also a Flickr group called Wardrobe Remix, where people post their street style—that inspired me. It was great, because it was people from all over the world, people of all different races, creeds, and financial backgrounds. I was always sort of interested in fashion as a community because you’re inspired by other people around you and your style evolves because you’re pushing yourself. I was never really an individual style blogger for that reason, I prefer to be a part of collective groups, because I see it as sort of an artistic endeavour.
MJ: Could you tell me a bit about your work with Women in Clothes, and other projects that you’re involved in right now?
CG: I’m not actually in the book—which is funny, people just assume I’m in the book—but they invited me to come and just give a talk. So I gave a talk on something that I call “Toddler-Grandma Style.” It’s basically just about how toddlers and grandmas in society are the least viewed through the male gaze; they’re not considered sexy. There’s an episode of Glee where Kurt says, “She manages to dress like a toddler and a grandma simultaneously,” and that’s like, the ultimate insult, right? Because she doesn’t know how to sex herself up for a man, or how to be desirable. So in my talk I said that I think more people should adopt this way of dressing, because we all have these weird internalized rules that I think are mostly about dressing for the male gaze. And I think that when you start dressing outside of that, you just start to have way more fun. People would always say to me, “You can pull that off,” and it would leave me thinking, “Well no, I don’t have a VIP pass or something that allows me to do it. I just do it.”
[I also] just sort of encouraged people to wear a million brooches, or wear more than one print at a time—you don’t always have to be wearing a beige suit. That’s apparently what adult women are supposed to be wearing to be taken seriously.
And the thing about patriarchy is that you’ll never be taken seriously. It’s kind of a loser’s game. There’s this idea that if you’re close to desirable, there’s more to lose, or something like that, but the fact is that there’s always going to be people that will ignore you because you’re a woman. So you might as well dress for yourself, and dress for joy and have fun.
I’m also guest editing the Culture issue of [local magazine] Poetry is Dead, so that’s coming up.
MJ: Would you say that there’s been a rise in popularity of cat apparel and related items that correlates with the influx of YouTube videos?
CG: Yeah definitely, I think the advent of Lolcats especially is tied into the popularity of cat-printed items. It’s great for me, because it used to be hard to source really zany cat prints. I think we’re definitely in a boom for cat clothes, like with laser cats, Keyboard Cat . . . We’ve got a lot of high- powered cats now. Nyan cat, and of course Grumpy Cat, Lil’ Bub. I think it used to be like, Garfield, instead of generic cat prints. I remember there being cats on stuff but it was mostly cartoons, it was not this idea of wearing a realistic cat, which I think was really connected to spinsters. I actually just read an article on how cat imagery was used for suffragettes in Britain, around first wave feminism. Men would compare women to cats to try to infantilize them. So it’s like the existence of cat memorabilia could be found in these little pockets, but now it’s reached critical mass.
I think it could be the tools we have at our disposal now—it’s much easier to take photos, and to circulate them, and at the end of the day, cats are funny, and warm, and they do dumb stuff and try to fit in really small boxes. When I was growing up, I’d never have known about Maru, in Japan, but now we get to enjoy the circulation of images and videos from all over the world.
MJ: Do you think that the cat lady image has been reclaimed?
CG: I do, actually. I think the whole cat image is that you’re supposed to be like a sex kitten, which of course is fine to adopt if you so choose, but then if you’re not a cute cat, you’re a weird cat spinster lady. Like from The Simpsons.
I think Taylor Swift and her kitten Olivia Benson kind of signals a young, cool cat lady and there’s no longer this automatic association with spinsterhood. Now I think we can all sort of joke about it, whereas a few years ago you might have been hesitant to be associated with that at all, at the risk of your dating prospects, you know?
But I don’t think it’s just women who enjoy cat-printed items either now, like Urban Outfitters has put out cat-printed ties and button-ups [for men], so that makes me think that the image is sort of crossing gender lines too. I do think that for a really long time cats were associated with domesticity, and were feminized, while men would go out hunting with their cool hunting dogs. It’s funny to consider how cats have shifted culturally. I think they’re semiotically slippery. Like you have Hemingway Cats, which are associated with masculinity, because Ernest Hemingway had a bunch.
MJ: Is there solidarity in being a cat lady?
CG: Yeah, I think so! Spinsterhood has more pride associated with it now—obviously it comes from a very antiquated, patriarchal idea that if a woman is not married by the age of 22, she’ll just be a burden to her family for the rest of her life. But we’re maybe shifting away from thinking of women as being most valuable when they’re connected to a man, so I think there’s a bit of subversion in the cat lady idea. We’re supposed to feel sorry for the cat lady, but I think that we’ve now accepted that it’s better to be happy, and single, and living as a lone woman than just settling for a crappy dude. Pet love feels very unconditional and uncomplicated in a way that trying to be with a significant other sometimes isn’t.
There’s a reason Swift is sticking with Olivia Benson, just making music and joking about being a man-eater. It’s pretty great. I’m happy if she’s the new poster girl for being a cat lady. I hope that it represents the sort of refusal to settle for a crappy guy just so that you can feel secure or feel bolstered by male approval. I think we all still sort of seek that validation—I think sometimes you’ll appreciate it more when a man compliments you rather than a woman, which shouldn’t be the case. In being a good cat lady then, I think you just have to care more when a cat compliments you. That’s worth way more.
You can follow Cynara’s general bad-assery on her twitter account.
For the full article (and many more fabulous, feline-focused reads), pick up a copy of The Cat Issue (Issue 18), in stores now at participating locations. Sad Mag subscriptions and back issues are also available through our website. This interview has been condensed and edited.
We are now well into the winter months but the phrase “Winter is coming” (not just a pop culture reference!) is one that haunts us Canadians even on the balmiest summer days. Love it or hate it, we can’t avoid having some kind of relationship with the winter.
Brie Neilson and Ian Moar are local artists and musicians who recently collaborated on a show exploring the connections we have with our longest season. The exhibit ran from November 20–December 19 at the Lookout Gallery. These two are worth keeping on the radar—it’s always a pleasure to see what they’ll be up to next.
SadMag: What was your process for coming up with inspiration for this exhibit?
Brie Neilson:After moving back from Montreal last year, I was over for a visit at Ian and Tracy’s (Ian’s wife). We were talking about project goals and Tracy said, “Hey you two should do a painting show together!” We were lightly brainstorming different themes and someone jokingly blurted out something Game of Thrones related and we ended up settling on ‘Winter is Coming’.
Ian Moar:We instantly started getting cool winter images, so we decided to go with that theme.
SM: Do you feel that there’s something about the experience of winter that is quintessential to a Canadian artist’s identity?
BN:When I lived in Montreal and winter was especially long and cold, it was very important to get out into it. To embrace it and use it—go skating and skiing and walking, and not hide inside. It was the only way to get through it. Many of my childhood winter memories growing up in BC were from our cabin at Whistler where we were always outside. Going back in was so nice, so cozy. I guess I like the contrast, the extremes.
Because we experience true winter here in Canada, I think it can make us more active people. And maybe more creative, because having seasons provides boundaries and limitations. Summer is wide open, while winter binds us—having the flow from one to the other is interesting and inspiring and provides momentum.
IM:Winter in Vancouver is such a different experience than the rest of Canada (with the biblical rains here) but I think winter shapes all Canadians, and the colder harsher places can turn out great artists because you’re not sitting around sunbathing on the beach, you’re escaping winter via music or painting or whatever.
SM: You each took a unique perspective on the winter theme. How has your relationship with winter shaped your pieces?
BN: I have a very positive relationship with winter. My paintings are all inspired by family photos: old and current and from all of my ‘homes’: Vancouver, Whistler, Montreal and Nova Scotia (where my husband is from). I went with a more literal interpretation of winter and ended up painting snowy landscapes and cabin scenes, my parents on the ski hill and friends in fur coats. I was hoping to evoke in the viewer the kinds of feelings I get when I think of winter.
IM: Winter for me has a bleak, dark vibe. Aside from skiing I could really do without it altogether. My pieces have a bit of that moodiness and darkness. I tried to combat my natural inclination to paint only ruins, graveyards and the like with some things a little more life-giving as well.
SM: Did this particular exhibit present any new challenges for you as artists?
BN:Timing was an issue! We thought we had so much time when we planned the show, but we both ended up cramming which is challenging and exciting, and almost always inevitable. Also, it was an interesting approach to plan the show and then make the work. Usually a show comes out of work, I think.
IM: I really have not painted much since I finished my fine arts degree in the late ’80s, so it took a bit to get my groove on. Hopefully this will kickstart me into painting on a regular basis as I really enjoyed the process of creating pieces for this show.
SM: Do you have any projects lined up next?
BN: I’ll be back to focusing on my music again. I have a gig coming up on February 6 with Arnt Arntzen at Skinny Fat Jack’s on Main Street.
IM:Not right now, but I want to keep the momentum up and try to get a show together in the not too distant future.
Christina Andreola is a managing producer at SHIFT Theatre Society, with past experience in stage management and directing. After chronicling one too many appalling dates, she and director Deneh Cho’ Thompson decided to pen the script for The Dudes of My Life, a look at what it’s like to balance family expectations for a life partner with what’s actually available in the world of Tinder.
Sad Mag: You’re used to being behind the scenes as a producer, director and stage manager. What’s it like being on stage now, and even more so, acting solo?
Christina Andreola: Being on this side is a little frightening. And it’s a lot of fun. At a certain point you just have to go. The metaphor I use is the train is leaving the station whether you’re on it or not so you just have to keep working. There was one day where I went through a year’s worth of theatre training in an hour. It was a lot of learning how to be on this side. It’s a lot harder than it looks, I should say.
SM: How did you and your director, Deneh, come to work together?
CA: One evening I went on a two in one (two dates in one evening). I came home from number two, which was a bit abysmal. Deneh is one of my roommates, and I was telling him all about it, and he said, “If you ever want to do a show about your dudes, let me know.”
One year for Christmas I got a big Moleskine notebook and I thought it would be funny to start writing down all the guys I interacted with on dates. And the same thing happened in 2011, 2012, 2013… we started plotting that material onto a graph, and looking through the history was a little terrifying.
SM:Was there one particular experience that sparked the writing of this play?
CA: That was “Survivor Liar.” It was the second of the two-in-one dates, and we were out at the Storm Crow for three hours and it was awesome. But as it was closing, I got up to use the bathroom and he had texted me instead of his roommate. It said, “Hey buddy, tape Survivor for me. Date’s going ok, not sure if I want to keep talking to her though.” I looked at my phone and I was mortified. I told him he’d texted the wrong person, and he was embarrassed. But then it was another ten minutes before they brought the bill over. So it was awkward. Then when we were leaving I told him, “Don’t worry, you probably feel worse about it than I do. It was nice to meet you.” He said, “Yeah, maybe I’ll see you again.” I turned around and called him a liar. So that’s “Survivor Liar.” It made for a great story to tell at parties, though.
SM:What role does your family play in the show?
CA: My mom is a big part of the show. She’s always been pro independence and telling me I can be whomever I want, and telling me not to settle for any guy. She’s always giving me advice and that advice turned into rules or guidelines, so she’s been the voice in my head. I have 14 family members, and we get together at all the big holidays. I’ve brought home a few people and it’s like the family gauntlet. So it’s one thing to have my mom’s set of rules, and to also know what I’m looking for in a guy, but then to balance all these other expectations gets pretty difficult.
SM: You reference the 90’s rom-com genre in the play. Do you feel a sense of loss connected to how dating’s changed since those days?
CA: It’s a very interesting world, dating online. I haven’t tried anything other than Tinder. It’s crazy to have to get to know a person by making a snap judgment based on their looks and a short write-up. Specifically on Tinder, which is just like hot or not. I’ve heard of Tinder parties where someone’s phone gets hooked up to the TV and then everyone swipes through the photos. I’ve had family Tinder experiences, where they’ve seen a profile I brought home and they all decided to swipe for him.
SM: What will you be working on next?
CA: We have a show coming up at The Shop in October for which I’ll be a managing producer, a role I’m much more comfortable in. It’s a spooky show, perfect for around Halloween time.
SM: How will your experience in the role of actor affect your perspective as a producer?
CA: It’s very eye opening. I’ve been put on a ban from doing any producing or going to meetings; I’m not allowed to do anything except learn my lines, learn my blocking, and act. The show is very prop heavy, too. Sometimes as a producer you can get caught up in deadlines and technical details, but on the artistic side sometimes you have to be open to working last minute on the script or making revisions right up until the end.
SM: What’s your favourite go-to drink for a first date?
CA: If I’m at the Narrows, Strongbow. Or a Michelada at Los Cuervos. Or whatever’s on tap at The Whip. I’ve got some regular places.
The Dudes of My Life is playing at The Shop Theatre August 19-23rd.
Peter n’ Chris shows are not easy to describe to the uninitiated. Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson turn minimalist stage sets into magic school buses filled with epic adventure and riotously silly comedy, using only energetic physical comedy, quick-witted banter, and the power of the human mind. I left their most recent Fringe Festival Show, Peter N’ Chris Explore Their Bodies, feeling like I had just witnessed a transcendent journey, while at the same time laughing my ever-loving ass off. Amazing that it was just two dudes in raggedy housecoats, right? Audiences seem to agree, and the duo piles up Canadian Comedy Awards and Best of Fringe picks like I pile up empty takeout containers.
With their penchant for exploring the outer limits of the creative possibilities of sketch comedy, it’s no wonder Carlone is resurrecting Vancouver’s Sketch Comedy Festival, at Granville Island from Jan. 23-25. The festival gathers together sketch performers from all over Canada and the USA, and also features local luminaries like the hilarious character comedian Andrew Barber, and the improv stars The Sunday Service. It also offers workshops by Chris Wilson, as well as by Mark and Kyle of the Comedy Network show Picnicface. Perhaps best of all, Peter and Chris will debut their new show Peter n’ Chris and the Kinda OK Corral, which promises Western homages, high noon showdowns, and something called “mouth explosions.” Sadmag sat down with the comedians at The Cascade and, while Chris pilfered Peter’s fries, discussed sharing a bed, growing as performers, and of course babes.
Chris Wilson: That waitress is a smoky babe. She provides the smoke.
Sad Mag: So what qualities do you look for in a babe?
CW: Brunettes mostly. Smoky brunettes. Or just attractive women.
SM: Peter, you’re trying to gesture something…What do you look for in a babe?
Peter Carlone: That’s what I was trying to do, secretly gesture under the table. Great question! I have been told that my type is mousy small town angels.
CW: You can stop at mousy and just strike angels.
PC: You can stop eating my fries. Just a small town girl. Hardworking. Real innocent. Achilles heel for me.
CW : And if a girl is at all goofy…I fall in love with them.
PC: If a girl’s more powerful than me I am on board! I will follow them around.
CW : Same here with the power thing. A powerful goofiness.
SM: So how did you guys meet?
CW: I was attracted to Peter’s powerful goofiness. His smoky qualities.
PC: The real answer, not the really silly answer that Chris gave, is that we met at UVic. We were doing the theatre school there in the same classes and we started to fool around a bunch.
CW: Not physically…creatively.
PC : A little bit physically.
CW: Comedy is physical, but not sexual.
PC: And from there we did coffeehouse nights, which are basically glorified adult talent shows, and hosted awards nights and events and just did little bits here and there.
SM: Did you start performing the Peter n’ Chris show at Fringe Festivals?
CW: The first year we took it to Vancouver and Victoria. And our first show in Vic, I remember us almost selling it out the first shot. It went really well because we went to school there and we had all that support. And then we got to Vancouver, when we hadn’t moved there yet.
PC: In the basement of a church.
CW: We were at Pacific Theatre. We opened to seven people: our acting teacher, two friends, a reviewer, and two random old people.
PC: And one of them was the venue manager, who had to be there. And the two old people did not like it.
CW: No, they did not. They fell asleep.
PC: By the end, we had a pretty nice house, and we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, namely the critics. A lot of times people say “I never trust the reviews.” I agree you should never read them during your show, but after the show, take a read. That helped me
CW: What hurt the most about the reviews for the first show is that I agreed with everything they were negatively pointing out! I still think about some reviews we’ve had. One was the first sentence of a piece in Monday Magazine in Victoria that said “It starts off painfully. Dreadfully. Slowly.” And she just did three sentences like that.
PC: And it was a three-star review!
CW: And then it went on to say “but then it gets better.” So I was like “We fucked up the beginning. Ok.”
PC: You don’t want to be in the show that gets better.
CW: Another one that goes through my head all the time is that I was handing out flyers at a festival, and a lady said, “Oh, I already saw it” I told her she should see it again. And she said, “Once was enough.” In just the harshest tones.
SM: Do you spend a lot of time together when you’re traveling to different Fringe Fests around the Country?
PC: I would say too much.
CW: But it’s a great time
PC: Every different sleeping arrangement you can think of, we’ve done. Like sleeping in a basement, sleeping on an overturned couch, sleeping in a car.
CW: Same bed.
PC: Same sleeping bag.
CW : Me being in his bachelor apartment. Which is right now.
SM: How are you able to avoid driving each other crazy?
CW: I think in that first year we got on each other’s nerves more than we have since.
PC: We were both going through something we both had never been through before, putting ourselves out there for the first time. So everything that went wrong was either my fault or Chris’s fault. I remember saying to Chris that whole first year, “I am never doing this again for sure. That was my first and last fringe, definitely.”
And then by the end it just doesn’t feel so bad. And then the next year it was also really stressful, but then it just gets easier. Once you’ve learned how to climb that one mountain you can climb that mountain again. And I think the same thing happens with Chris and I spending a lot of time together. It’s the same thing as romantic relationships, too. You just get better at spending time with that person. And then you’re also at a place where you are free to tell them if you are annoyed. You can just say, “Go away! I don’t want to talk to you!”
CW: We just became very open with each other in terms of talking out problems. Whereas in that first year, we had the sense that if you’re gonna be in a duo with somebody, you can’t have problems! Every night that first year, we said, “So what do you want to do tonight?” We still hang out all the time, not just for business.
SM: You just hang out for fun.
CW: Just hanging out for fun. Like we used to when we were real tight friends. Hmm, I said that in a weird way.
PC: We are not friends. We are strictly business partners. I am definitely demoting him to business partner after eating all my fries.
SM: Chris, you moved to Toronto a year ago. How are the comedy scenes different in Toronto and Vancouver, in your experience?
CW: There are more shows in Toronto, that’s for sure. That doesn’t mean they’re all well attended, but the ones that are popular are very popular. If you wanted to get up and do a show every single night you could, but I don’t have a lot of interest in doing that. I’ve been seeking out a lot of standup in character shows. There’s more sketch comedy, there’s more of everything, but there are very few improv groups continually doing improv. In Toronto you do shows as an individual.
SM: Are there any comedic styles or acts that you don’t agree on? Things that one of you finds funny and the other doesn’t?
PC: Maybe? I like stuffy British things and absurdity.
CW: And I like those all as well. Peter sends me stuff online all the time and everything he sends me, I have a laugh at. He likes animation a lot, and I like all the same animated shows.
SM: Chris, how will you approach your physicality in sketch comedy workshop?
CW: I think we’re just going to approach it the way Peter and I do I’ll just get everybody to take a common story that we all know, like Aesop’s Fables or The Tortoise and The Hare and tell the story physically and have fun with it. And also playing with cinema. Everything we do is staged cinematically, we always think about it in terms of what the camera is doing. The audience is the camera.
PC: In the same way that a magician’s whole idea is what they have the audience focus on, the comedian’s way is “How do I make the audience focus on something?” Sometimes it comes down to literally telling them, “This is what you’re looking at.”
CW: Everybody knows movies, we all watch them, so if you do it on stage and hint at what you’re going for…
PC: They can do the rest of the math!
Sad Mag writer Grant Hurley first met Emma Lehto in October at the Alcuin Society’s biennial Wayzgoose, an event that brings together fine press printers, book artists, bookbinders, typographers and designers to celebrate the beauty of the book. Utterly impressed with her work, Hurley caught up with Lehto a couple months after the event to chat about her artworks and creative process.
Sad Mag: Who are you?
I’m Emma Lehto. I am a book artist. I work predominately with books and typography.
SM: When I first encountered your works at the Wayzgoose, I was really interested in the contrast between your work and that of others at the event. Many of the exhibitors there were working to create new books, whereas your pieces subtract from preexisting books to create something new. Can you describe a few of your artworks and the processes you took to make them?
EL: I was so pleased that the Alcuin Wayzgoose invited me back this year to the exhibition. I was invited the previous year too, and my work was definitely a juxtaposition to the majority of the work exhibited. I think it’s healthy to be able to see contrasting creations/ideas in the similar topics. Everyone can draw from each other’s work, regardless if it’s appreciated or not.
Most of my projects start with a very simple question, “What if I did __________ to a book? What would happen, and what would it look like?” All of my projects stem from my curiosity, and from there I just run with it. I can try to imagine what might happen as a result – but that doesn’t mean it will turn out that way. Assumptions never work.
What can I do without having the book fall apart? How can I alter the book form without removing the familiarity of it?
SM: Where do you begin in your process?
EL: If I have an idea for a book, I’ll test it out first. I usually begin by doing different test/experiments/variations of the same idea on different books. Not all books are made the same, so oftentimes the possibilities are endless, including cutting up pages, removing text (which alters layout of pages), breaking the spine, and folding pages, to name a few. It’s a constant science experiment. I still have one book sitting in a block of ice in my freezer – it’s been there for the past 3 years. Some experiments evidently last longer than others.
I just see it as problem solving, trying to find different solutions. Usually, I end up discovering new ideas this way as well. The story/topic of the book is never the focus: I’m far more interested in the aesthetic of the end result. It’s one big treasure hunt with a few paper cuts along the way.
SM: Can you describe one of your recent projects?
EL: In one of my book artworks, Amended, I started with the question: “What would it look like if I cut out all of the words from a book and then put all of the words in alphabetical order?” I really thought I would end up with 26 pages of words and two cut up books. Was I ever wrong. I had more questions than I did answers. I had 48 pages of words, and almost 2 pages each of the words “and” & “the” and a blank page for the letter x. (There weren’t any words that started with the letter x in this book).
During my time working on Amended, the process was very surreal as the words took new form. Seeing the words taken out of context and placed in alphabetical order, the individual meanings of the words were eliminated. I had removed the original intention of the purpose of the words. They were now isolated from the story.
However, on the flip side of this, the book was still intact, and everything was there except the text. The majority of the anatomy of the book was untouched: the binding, the pages, and front and back cover. The layouts of each page were present. You could tell when there was a beginning of a new paragraph, where the page numbers were, and most of the punctuation was left. By maintaining the anatomy of the books it kept the familiarity of what makes a book a book. Also by leaving those elements intact, it allows for a “safer” environment for an audience to approach the work and engage with it.
SM: One of the most memorable pieces of yours for me is the edition of War and Peace that you shot through with a gun. What was its genesis?
EL: It was a very basic “What would happen if I… Shot some books? Which came from the idea that “a telephone book can stop a bullet.” I thought, would it? How do I know a telephone book can do that? I’ve never seen it, just heard about it.
I had some books of folded up paper, twisted, and tied up. I just wanted to see what it would look like. As a result, some bullets lodged in the spine and it was interesting to see the paper that was folded suddenly juxtaposed with a path piercing right through it. You can see the entry of the bullet, and the direction of the bullet.
The books I chose to shoot were romance novels. There seems to be an abundance of them everywhere at any given moment. These books are cheaply made, thick, cheap and if I needed more of them I wouldn’t be scrambling to find them.
SM: It seems like you’re interested in some of the tactile aspects of books; I find your work really encourages an audience to note the physical nature of books before their content. What are some other projects that you’ve completed that contrast this approach?
EL: I had a book sitting in Coca Cola for over a few months (similar to the tooth sitting in Coke test) wondering would the book disintegrate? Well, not exactly. It turned into a sponge there wasn’t any liquid left after a few months and the book is now green and fuzzy.
Another book is sitting in hair relaxer. The book looks like it’s turned a few shades darker, the relaxer looks like it hasn’t changed since.
SM: Almost the opposite of something I’d like to hold in my hands! Any future projects planned?
EL: I always seem to have a few ideas brewing in my head. It’s just a matter of which idea to pick while its still fresh in my mind. Currently, I’ve been quite fascinated with paper construction and different layouts of text and mostly playing with the idea of introducing negative space into the book form without losing the familiarity or readability of it. If anything, I’m really looking forward just to where these ideas go and how I can play around with them.
Check out Emma’s work in the Mezzanine Gallery of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until January 19 as part of the group show Final Project. Also featuring the work of Kat Cortes, Tara Hach, Talent Pun, Carlo Sayo.
When Sad Mag first interviewed Jesse Donaldson, a couple of months ago, we were all aflutter with issue no.12/13 Mad Mad World and the amazing piece of Donaldson’s included in it. We were stoked to meet him at a rooftop launch party and misremembered the colour of his hair in the auburn glow of the setting sun. We asked him questions, he gave us responses, and we promised to hold on to the interview for him until closer to the launch of his first book, This Day in Vancouver.
Now that the book is set to be launched at the Portside on Nov 19th, and we’ve had time to dwell productively on what it means to have written such a book, we have more questions. Like, how many of your days did every day in Vancouver take to write? And what is your favourite day? The shark in the Georgia Strait? The declaration of an official town fool? In 365 well-researched and beautifully written entries, readers will have to judge for themselves.
Sad Mag: Who are you?
Jesse Donaldson: I ask myself that at least twice a day.
SM: Is there such a thing as a “literary scene” in Vancouver, and if so, how did you get involved in it?
JD: I’m not sure there’s a single, cohesive “scene” so much as a collection of smaller reading and writing communities, each with a different focus.
There’s the Vancouver Poetry Slam, which happens every week at Cafe Deux Soleils, where poets can share their work and win money, and hone their craft. There are the journalists – the old guard at the Pacific Newspaper dailies and the Straight, and the newer generation writing for folks like Megaphone and The Tyee. There are small, community writing groups like the West End Writers’ Group, who tend to be mostly passionate amateurs, and who share everything from portions of novels to upcoming blog posts. Then, there are the folks who write and publish legit books. I’m only occasionally invited to their parties – which is a wise choice on their part.
SM: What was the first piece of writing that you felt proud of?
JD: Probably a short story I submitted to a writing contest when I was 14 or 15. It had a snarky little twist ending, and I think it ended up doing rather well – first or second place. Up until that point, it had never struck me as something to do for anybody other than myself, so that was a nice little revelation. Before that, probably an epic comic book saga I wrote with my younger brother about a laxative with super-powers.
SM: What do you think literary life in Vancouver is lacking?
JD: More chances to drink heavily and bellow at each other.
SM: Favourite Vancouver writer/poet(s)?
JD: Oh, man. From a history-nerd perspective, Daniel Francis has written some of the most in-depth and interesting stuff about this city I’ve ever read. In that vein, Jean Barman’s book on Stanley Park, and Aaron Chapman’s book on The Penthouse are both marvelous reads, too. On the poet side of things, folks like Jillian Christmas, Chris Gilpin, and R.C. Weslowski continue to blow my mind with their insight/hilarity. Also, a Vancouver gal named Moira Walley-Beckett, who’s written some of the best episodes of the best television series ever made, period. This show called Breaking Bad that not many people have heard of.
SM: Favourite literary genre?
JD: Henry Miller.
SM: What is the book you fantasize about writing?
JD: I’m in the midst of finishing up a Canada Council Grant for a travel book I want to do about New Zealand. I rode a motorcycle around the country a couple of years ago, and I’d love to combine that narrative with some solid research and humorous observations about the place in general.
Either that, or an epic comic-book saga about a laxative with super-powers.
SM: Where are you as you answer these questions?
JD: Up to my nose in research for my first book, THIS DAY IN VANCOUVER, due out this fall from the good folk at Anvil Press. Which geographically puts me somewhere between a state of euphoria and a panic attack.
SM: Last album you listened to?
JD: M-83’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”. About a billion times.
SM: What are you most excited about right now?
JD: The release of my first book, THIS DAY IN VANCOUVER, due out this fall from the good folk at Anvil Press. Seriously. There are actual pre-sales, and a book launch at Portside on November the 19th, and it’s just in time for the Christmas season, and it’s chock full of photos and the layout looks fantastic, and it’s just generally a whole big pile of awesome. Bring your parents. Bring your friends. Bring your parents’ friends. We’ll drink heavily and bellow at each other.