Thursday, November 29, 2018

Incunabulum Deconstructo!

An incunable, or sometimes incunabulum, is a book, pamphlet, or broadside printed in Europe before the year 1501. As of 2014, there are about 30,000 distinct known incunable editions extant. 

Extantadjective (especially of a document) still in existence; surviving.

Deconstruction is a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.

Consider the above a bracket to bend around the following notion: What is the stingiest structure that can be called a book? What is the most basic element that defines bookness? If you picked up a physical object, where is the line between, "I am holding printed pages," and "I am holding a book."? 

It is the kind of question that could only come up in graduate school for artists' books. But it is exactly the kind of purely theoretical question that I find compelling. 

One page

So here is what I learned: In book design, the basic unit is not the page. The basic unit is the spread. Spread refers to the pages of a book laid open with both the left and right page showing across a gutter. So a book must have a spread and a gutter. 

Page spread with unfolded gutter

What else? Well books must have a page turn. The primary action that defines book reading is opening the book and revealing a spread. That means a book must have a cover where the book begins, a page turn, a spread reveal, a second page turn to close the book, and a back cover. That is the minimum structure that can be called a book.  

The examples you find here are worth a read. They are the result of a collaboration with Joseph Lappie. The premise: I would put words in his mouth, making him seem like the worst kind of egotistical young artist who believes the things he makes are hugely important and that his career is meteoric. In return, Joseph would put words in my mouth as if I were an older, established artist trying to give unwanted advice about how to make it long term in the arts. We would each make three deconstructed books poking fun at one another, but more broadly at cliche attitudes abundant in the academic graduate school experience. 

The problem of display: If you make books intended to be read in an intimate, one to one reader/book experience, then there is always a challenge when asked to display your work in a gallery setting. Do you set books out under glass, make them available only to be handled with white gloves, as a video projection of all the spreads, converted into an installation of some kind? At what point are you no longer displaying the original book but instead displaying something inspired by the book? One of the things that drew me to this project was that the beauty of the deconstructed book is that the open spread can be display like a horizontal broadside, and it behaves similarly to a one to one reading. 

back cover

Incanabulum Deconstructo!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Second Verse Same as the First

This is a simple concept because simple concepts are what I'm capable of. To make things is good. To make things for people to hold is a way to make connections. 

This simple tea bowl form is my favorites to throw.
The way it rests in the hand is a comfort.

With Color Theory for Baby Boomer I thought of each spread as a brick shaped  block of color.

God's Country is (a collaboration with Joseph Lappie) intersecting narratives about growing up as church kids in the form of a small religious tract.

The Least Painful Compromise is 144 pages in six signatures. Each signature has original photographic narratives, design, and fiction. The gaps between each signature serve as leaps in time within a story of one family’s history with tragedy.

An international collaboration in which I contributed as small sliver.

A zine about W's US foreign policy. 

ROOM was an ambitious collaboration between myself, Karol Shewmaker and Brad Freeman. With contributions by many visual artists, photographers, book artists, and writers.

The North American version of my first two novels were published in  early 2017 under the Gallery imprint of Simon and Schuster, This image was taken in the basement of my local, independent bookstore at the the time, Anderson's Books. The manager allowed me to unbox the cases myself. Thanks to their support and that of my Chicagoland community, I was the best seller for that location for the first half of the year. So my titles were a qualified best seller!
(forced enthusiasm indicated by the explanation mark)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Can it be both Egotistical and Altruistic?

This is a simple concept because simple concepts are what I'm capable of. To make things is good. To spend a life making is a good use of time. To make thing with other people is a fine way to build understanding and community. To make things for people to hold and feel is a way to reach out and make connections. To have something to say and attempt to say it in a way that grabs and has the potential to causes people to shift thier perspective is a magic trick. 

I moved and it has me unsettled. I watch the news and it has me unsettled. Caring and worry are so entwined it can be difficult to function. So I tried a simple thing: share what I've made. It's about all I'm good at. I started with a series of posts on social media. What you find below is a sample of items posted elsewhere. I hope you like them. 
Hand-sewn blank book. Flat back with a folder that tucks around the spine to hold the cover sheets in place. This structure walks a line between traditional craft binding and playful meta-structural constructions that allude to expressive potential.

Spread of a photographic artist's book. Images, text, and design are mine. In this book I focused on the ways the spread images brake over the gutter, the figures crammed and askew and uncomfortable in a way that relates to the emotional tone of the text.

Democratic Multiple is a term applied to inexpensive artists' books printed in an open edition and distributed to readers in non-gallery settings (like workplace or home). Or something like that. The idea is they are portable art for the masses. It's a strata of the AB field that makes the most sense to me.

A more recent collaboration with book/collage artist Mike Koppa. Each book is about the size of a stack of postcards, for reasons related to content and source images. 

I spent a long while working in ceramics. This Raku platter is twenty-one inches across and made for wall display. The joy of these pieces is playing with the concave curve of the platter and figure placement as it relates to runny, hot glaze and figure abstraction for creative purposes. 

Jeffrey Johnson of RedHerring Jeff is a great illustrator and asked me to participate in a children's book project he orchestrated. I produced a post modern take on the Brave Little Tailor. 

Tear Here is an artists' book with loads of hand craft. It uses images of torn and sewn military uniforms, statistics, perforated pages, book structure, and original narrative to look at the high rate of amputations in the Gulf War. 
My first novel. Published by Simon and Schuster in the US in early 2017. Cover image by Joseph Lappie. Typography by MaryNeal Meador.

A throwback zine project. I typed the content on an old electric typewriter.  Photocopied to increase or decrease font size. Pasted up the layout (including faux paper clip). Scanned and laser printed the finial version on cheap copy paper with a half pamphlet stitch. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Next Thing

Contradictory impulses vie for influence over most the big decisions we make as we move through life. One set of competing impulses is Change versus Familiarity. On one hand, we want things to stay interesting, want to learn new things, grow, strive, excel, and evolve. There is a drive to self-actualize. For goodness sake, self-actualization is the crowning motivation of psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. 
Maslow's Pyramid

Conversely, Change is hard. Routine is comforting. In a stressful world full of challenges and dangers (perceived and real) the idea of holding tight to what we know is reassuring. There is a legitimate reticence to introducing anything new because when ones life is on the edge of collapse, one slight shift can threaten to send the whole thing crashing in on itself. 

For both of those dueling reasons, we make changes for the better, and those transitions feel incredibly hard. Recently I moved from near Chicago to around Kansas City - for many good reasons. But it has made me question the point of continuing to make my way in the arts. It may be the only thing I am particularly good at. But that is no longer enough motivation. For a couple months, I’ve been wrestling with this. 

This kind of over-thinking and self-analysis is common. Over the years I’ve come to recognize the times when I’m not productive and considering giving-up as an important part of my overall creative life. But this time feels different, perhaps because I'm not in my normal place, with the usual people, and already known variables; perhaps for other reasons. 

Some other reasons: 1) My third novel remains unpublished. 2) My daughter is far away. 3) Our life is hectic and requires daily scrambling to keep all the parts moving. 4) My fourth novel is half-finished and not getting any more finished. 5) My second child is nearly grown and will be out of the house before I know it. 6) I generally feel alone. 7) I don’t have a creative community. 8) The publishing process makes me feel like a commodity, not an artist; and not a particularly in-demand commodity either. 9) Idealistically I've clung to a notion that if I make the right thing, the world will bend toward me rather than me being forced to bend to the shape of the world. This is an obvious formula for disappointment as any clear-headed person could have seen before committing one's life to it. 10) General anxiety about aging. 

The above whinging may make you feel tired of my self-pity. Me too. So I have found an answer. A writer friend of mine, Jason Hodges, reminded me of something. When writer Harry Crews lost his young son in a drowning accident, he received this advice from his uncle. “What you are going to do is what comes next.” It is a simple idea. You move ahead because that is the direction life is moving. Paired with that, Jason also made it clear that at some point you stop working for your own self-aggrandizement and you start doing the things you do because it is a good example for those who may be watching: your children, your students, other writers, other artists, friends, lovers, anyone your life happens to be in view of. That seems true.

Some degree of selflessness is required to be a friend. A bit more perhaps to maintain a relationship. A considerable amount is demanded by parenting, by teaching. At some point your life is not yours at all. It belongs to others and you just take care of it as best you can while it’s in your power to do so. 

So my next thing is to finish Old Punk. When that is done, we shall see what comes next. And so on. The same as always.   

Saturday, August 4, 2018

From my notes

Kansas City
This summer has been eventful. Primarily due to selling a house, buying a house, packing belongings, living in temporary housing, and moving from Chicagoland several states south and west to the Kansas side of the stateline in Kansas City. This makes the eighth state I’ve called home.

The move is, taken as a whole, a good thing. However, it has been a challenge to my writing practice. I did manage nearly a hundred and fifty pages of my new manuscript, as well as an article for JAB and an artists’ book (Little JAB Book), assisted in writing the first episode of a TV series based on my novel Missing People, and a few short pieces of fiction such as this character study:

He lifts his head to see her walk in. She wears a bright yellow skirt, her tan knees flashing as she quick steps to the counter. For Harris her entrance is like the first bright rays of the summer stabbing through the oppressive gloom. His mood is immediately lifted.
He sits taller, considers his wrinkled outfit, tries to smooth his hair with his hand. He leans his head to smell his own armpit. Not offensive. He takes up his napkin square, crushes it in one palm and holds it over his mouth as he quietly clears his throat, taking the opportunity to gauge the relative strength of his stale coffee breath. All preparations made, he is ready to discover her name.
She turns and moves back to the door, a paper cup with a tea tab dangling from under the plastic lid.
He draws breath to call to her. He has nothing to say.
She leaves, turns the corner, vanishes from his view; from his life.
Harris is destroyed. He slumps and knocks his forehead back on the hard, cold marble tabletop. His mood that much darker after the momentary flash of hope.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

To Be Poemed and To Poem in Return


A writer and poet from Gainesville Florida, Jason E Hodges, did something remarkable. He poemed me: 

Open Letter to Brandon Graham 

Time slips by or maybe
I’m slipping as time goes by me?
Not every day is a drag
But it seems the ones
That involve passing by the TV
When the news is on
Can really bring me down
I’d much rather walk outside
Stroll down the path with my friends of the woods
Like a raccoon named Sugar
She’s so large
So big
I believe from
Eating out of the ice cream store’s dumpster
Down the street from my home
She waddles from the weeds and peers at me with
Dark curious eyes
Then slowly makes her way back into the brush
There’s also a deer I’ve named Brownie
Her husband Buck Owens and their child Jane Fawn-Da
Also come to say hello
A turkey named Loner
He is always alone
And a rabbit named Tag
It runs to me then backs away
Then back to me then away it runs
They all seem to be so much more entertaining
Than anything on the tube…
And Brandon
I still wonder how your writing is going from time to time?
I wonder about all of my friends
Who practice the craft of words
Along with my own thoughts of what next to write?
Lizzy Worth is still doing her thing above us
In that far away land called Canada
I’m sure she still scribbles words
Her cat Plumb
Most likely meowing in circles around her
As she pulls words from the air like magic
And arranges them on paper
Illian Rain is up there too
Her cat’s named Leroy
I’m sure he meows
I’m just not sure how much it affects her writing
Whatever the case
Illian and Lizzy are such strong voices
From the land of Canada
And Brandon
I still talk to Lizzie Woodham from across the sea
Emailing words through wires way over there
She’s patient with me and my questions
About her writing
About the places and things that make up Europe
From Scottish Snow Flakes
The Irish Sea
The smells and sounds of the streets of Soho
But most of all she listens to me and my wandering mind
What a friend I have in her!!!
And Brandon
Mallory Smart is still out there somewhere
The windy city I believe
Or maybe the city of wind?
She loves coffee, you know?
She writes and publishes
Publishes and writes
Words swirl around her mind
Like a cyclone
At least that’s what I believe they do!
When I met Mallory
Another person that loves “The Beats”
It gave me hope for the future
And Brandon
I still think of your encounter with Burroughs
It still makes me smile
And Brandon
I still wonder if we, us, and our friends in writing
Will ever have a name associated with our work?
With our lives?
Like “The Beats” or “The Lost Generation”
I’ve pondered this question for years?
So, I will now take it upon myself to name us
“The Holding Generation”
There! I’ve coined it!!!
I feel we are holding onto hope
Holding onto anything
That tomorrow will be better than today
That moms and dads will be able to hold
Their children after a day at school
That the kids will carry books instead of bulletproof jackets 
Holding onto the thought 
That maybe just maybe People will stop killing each other 
Holding onto the idea that society Will somehow someway get their act together… But most of all 
Holding on 
While we continue to write and create art 
That’s all I can do anymore

I’m not as brave as my friend Jason perhaps. I like to keep my idealism sheltered behind a barrier constructed of self-mockery and pretend cynicism. Though I don’t think the fa├žade is fooling anyone who bothers to pay attention. Anyway, I wrote a poetic prose response:

An Open Letter to Jason E Hodges
Jason, your poem knocked loose an old memory of walks in the woods. My grandfather, who was a sexual predator to his step-daughters but a kind old-man to me, used to walk me along winding and lush lakeside paths and point out the trees and vegetation we passed. As we rounded a shady bend we came upon a low flowering shrub roiling with bright humming birds. They mostly darted away at our approach. A few of the bravest lingered until we were close enough to touch them, then buzzed away in a frantic whir of blurred wings. 
“Honeysuckle,” my grandfather nodded at the plant. I nodded back meaningfully. “They are crazy for the sugary nectar.” He demonstrated. He ripped a pale yellow flower from the stem, pulled a hard nub at the base of the soft petals and slid a moist white string from the heart of the blossom. “This part is the style,” he said. “But I call it delicious.” He grasped the soft filament between his pursed lips and drew it out, as if preparing to thread a needle. He said, “Ah.” Then he told me it was my turn. I remembered and mimicked his actions. The taste was not of honey, but was mildly sweet. My grandfather smiled at me. I picked more flowers and slurped them as I walked. 
Back near the house we passed a fern. He said, “Watch close.” He extended one uninvited finger, slowly encroaching on the plant’s personal space. The green leaves curled at his presence, recoiled from his advances. “See,” He said. “Some plants act like warm blooded animals. They know when you’re near, they hide when they hear you coming. That’s why it’s good to keep quiet in nature, listen to the earth and the wind, the rustle of the leaves and the squirrels digging in the undergrowth. I listened. 
I few years later my aunt and mother confronted my grandfather for his chronic emotional and sexual abuse. It was only half-planned, the confrontation. It happened in the kitchen as we finished a meal of country ham and green beans that had been canned fresh from the garden. It was Christmas Eve and I wanted to shake my presents and get to bed so Santa could do his job. After the rupture of initial emotional accusations and emphatic denials, taking sides and making excuses, the kids were sent into the den to watch a big-eyed cartoon version of the miracle virgin birth of baby Jesus. 
My grandfather died a couple decades later. My grandmother was there physically, if not emotionally. She seemed glad to have it over with. Her last years were spent insisting she was unaware of what her second husband had done to the children from her first marriage. Her kids mostly let her have her lies. What was the point in hurting her. 
Jason, your poem made me consider the way a writing life shapes the writer, how the divisions between being and doing feel thinner every year. It made me think of how the places we live, and the spaces we pass through seep into our bodies and our writing. You know Hindus believe plants have souls; that vegetation can hear and feel and even remember. Western science backs up much of that, except the soul. The soul makes scientists uneasy. 
Jason, when I think of the love I had for my grandfather and how it has settled into a sour, raw feeling in my stomach, I remember those ferns. I think of the unintended ways our lives affects every living thing we come close to. And I wonder how much those shy plants knew.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On Loss and Weightlessness

1965 Ford Econoline truck

A week ago today my father Robert G Graham passed away in Roanoke Virginia in the same hospital where my little sister was born decades ago. At the service I told a story:

In December of 1974, about a month before my fourth birthday, my Mom was stressed that she hadn't managed to drag out any of the the Christmas decorations. My little sister was about six months old and had been sick a lot. My mom was wrung out. She felt it was her job to make the house homey for the holidays and couldn't manage it. To help my dad said he'd take me off her hands and go buy a Christmas tree.

A few months before he'd bought a '65 Econoline truck in red for seven-hundred bucks. It was a cabover design with the 144 cubic inch straight six cylinder engine encased in a metal shroud called a 'doghouse' between two bucket seats. It didn't have power steering or power brakes and had a manual transmission with a column shift - also called 'three on the tree'. My dad liked cars and said he'd get the truck to haul stuff around as needed. But mostly he wanted something to tinker on. So that late-winter afternoon he helped me get my hat and gloves on and pitched me in the passenger seat of that strange little truck. He didn't buckle me because the truck didn't have seat belts. They'd been removed at some point and didn't seem essential.

We drove from our house on Kennedy Street just off of Williamson road out toward Blue Ridge Virgina. It was dusk when we pulled into a gravel lot of a cut-your-own tree farm. We hustled down the rows and he found a tree while there was still enough light to see. He laid on his back in a skiff of snow and reached under the tree with his saw. Pretty soon the tree fell over and he hefted it by man-handling the middle of the trunk in one hand. I grabbed a fistful of branches to feel like I was helping and had to run to keep up with his long stride. He paid, pitched the tree in the bed of the truck and we piled back in.

He edged up to the road and revved the engine. Dad was a Nascar fan, he'd even been on a pit crew for a sponsored stockcar that ran at Daytona when they still raced right on the sand. There wasn't a lot of traffic on the two-lane, but he wanted to have some fun and he liked to drive everything like it was a muscle car. A big delivery van was coming and he shot the little truck out in front of the van, arced us into the far lane. My passenger side door came open. I guess I hadn't closed it right or I grabbed the handle and pulled it open myself. I don't recall that part. What I do remember is slipping off the seat. I was still in a seated position, but I was out in space, nothing  holding my body up.

I was in the space where the closed door should be and heading to a ditch along the side of the road. My dad couldn't stop, the van was on our ass. He clutched, continued to steer with his left hand, and snatched me by my wrist with his right as my legs started to drop from under me. He yanked me back in. Shifted into second, popped the clutch so hard my door slammed closed. I was safe again; in the truck with my dad. 

The headlights of the van were blinding and Dad quick shifted again and put some distance between us and the near tragedy. He leaned over the big steering wheel and gave a nervous laugh. He said, "You doing okay over there buddy?" I must not have given him a convincing response because he told me, "You're okay. You're fine." We sat like that a few moments. He got serious and said to me, "Now there's no reason we need to tell your mother about this." And I don't think I ever did.

I told a couple other stories about my dad taking action, formative memories from my first seven years or so. Then I shared what an especially cruel disease MS was for a man defined so much by his physicality, what a painful process it was to see the slow-motion devastation of that disease slowly eroding his body until he wasted completely away. In truth, I wasn't strong enough to deal with it too often. After a nomadic professional life as a first-gen computer programmer for hire, a divorce or two, and a progressive illness, he settled back near his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins. They did most of the heavy lifting and emotional work of being with him day to day. 

It strikes me that hearing he was nearly dead, that he would die within a few days, was like that moment when I came sideways out of that old truck. Lost and falling, nothing to hold me up. But then my wife hugged me. My kids held on too. Some of my Dad's people helped me to coordinate arrangements, or simply encouraged me. As far apart as we've settled in life they still treated me like family. But most unexpectedly my literary agents each sent me kind and thoughtful notes, shared some similar experience of their own. Another writer, Michael Walker and his wife sent a nice note. Friends, artists, writers. . . my community grabbed hold of me and kept me from flying into an emotional ditch. 

I kept moving with as much grace as possible, worried if I stopped I'd never get going again. I harbor a secret concern that I don't process emotions quite like the rest of the world, that I feel deep inside but the pathways that lead to the surface are obstructed. Everything stays trapped and spinning out of control slowly chewing up whatever they grind against. And in hindsight I've started to reverse engineer some of the stories I told at the funeral and recognize that sound adult choices were not a big part of my father's parental strategies. Funny to look at my own upbringing through a parent's eyes. 

 My long standing professional/creative goals include building a network of like-minded souls who somehow innately get me. The death of my father showed me I have that community, it has slowly formed without me realizing. Don't get me wrong, I'm operating without a net now that my dad is gone. I'm a little lost and dizzy, an emotional vertigo is simmering that I expect to linger for some time, maybe from this moment forward. But timing is everything and the importance of a few well intentioned words sent from across the Atlantic at the right moment made a huge difference. The love of distant family and the physical presences of my wife propped me up when I would have fallen over. For everyone who sent a good thought or shared a kind word, I'm thankful. 

Robert G Graham. Air Force upon completion of basic training.