“When You’re Bored = Make a Book”: A Collaborative Conversation

Sally Brown Deskins:
What was your first collaboration of art and poetry?

Laura Madeline Wiseman: The first project I collaborated on was at the Prairie Center of the Arts in Peoria in 2011 while I was a writer-in-residence there. That year, the Prairie Center hosted a dinner that welcomed all current and former residents in the area, local artists who had been awarded studio space, and all other art enthusiasts in the area. Along with other artists and writers, I met the artist Kate Renee (formerly under the name Kate Johnson). She did whimsical art with weird and crazy eyes, a sort of comic book mix of bright colors and bold lines. I asked her if she’d like to do a series of broadsides created and printed at the Prairie Center. She said yes. On our last weekend, we printed a limited edition run of the series in the print lab. Within weeks of the printing, I had sold all of them. My first collaboration felt organic, fun, and playful. I think there’s something fresh and delightful when art and poetry are combined. The interpretation of poetry that happens when paired with art offers a new way of looking at words and art.

What was your first collaboration of art and text?

SB: I suppose it’s unfair to go back to childhood, but I used to write and illustrate books all the time (perhaps because when I would whine to my mother about being “bored” she’d say: “go make a book or something!” So, when you’re bored = make a book). One I still have is called “The Silver Dollar” about a girl who finds a silver dollar at the circus and decides to save it for a car (or something like that). In high school I made a self portrait and wrote the words to Boys II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye,” around my face (I was dramatically going through a break-up), and I ended up trashing it.

In college as an art student, sometimes I’d print with pastel or pencil my journal writing on my drawings to add a layer of meaning or texture.

In more recent years, I worked as an art model and then decided to create a literature event around this idea of beyond the flesh and pages. Bringing in writing by various poets and authors on different themes, and performing it nude was a whole new level of performance art and text collaboration! With the Lit Undressed performances, I invited artists like Wanda Ewing to write excerpts and imagery from the poems and fiction pieces we were to perform on the models’ nude bodies. I remember her saying it was fun to explore skin as canvas! (She was of course very respectful and knew the models prior to the event.)

What was your next collaboration?

LMW: My next collaboration occurred the following year at the Prairie Center. I collaborated with Adam Wager on three projects, the first a series of broadsides that combine photography and poetry, the second a very limited edition series of postcards, and the third, several webpages of responsive design that combined graphics, video, audio, and poetry. You can visit the site on your laptop or on your smart phone or tablet here. Also while a writer-in-residence, I connected with Robert Rowe, the editor of Gold Quoin Press. He sought to publish books and broadsides by letterpress as he practiced, taught, and thereby reinvigorated the art and handicraft of letterpress and book making. Though he’d worked with local artists and writers in Peoria, he hoped to connect with artists and writers who’d been awarded writer-in-residencies at the Prairie Center. He invited me to submit poetry for a broadside. I selected ten new poems I’d just written. We met at a local coffee shop to discuss what might work well with his letterpress and his team of designers at Gold Quoin Press. He selected my poem “The Pomegranate.” Over the next few weeks, he experimented with layout, art, paper, and ink, giving me the opportunity to view and offer input on his design and ideas as he developed them. When he showed me what he thought was the best, I agreed completely. It was a lovely, stunning design. He did a limited edition press run, finishing up the run after I’d already left the Prairie Center. Later that summer and before the new school year started, he was traveling through Nebraska and we had a broadside signing party one afternoon where we signed and numbered each of the prints.

I should say that though not collaborative in the same way, my poetry also has been featured in two calendars that combine art and poetry. My poem “Ten-Speed” was the July poem with art by Sue Taylor Perez in the 2012 Nebraska Poets Calendar by Black Star Press. My poem “Drinking the Witch’s Brew” with art by Megan Louden Sanders is the feature for May and a page from Intimates and Fools is the feature for December in the Les Femmes Folles 2014 Calendar: The Female Figure. I’ve also been lucky enough to have cover art specifically designed for my books and chapbooks—Elayne Safir for Women Write Resistance, Megan Louden Sanders for First Wife—and I’ve been lucky to be able to have art by other artists as my book covers—Jen Landis of Pincurl Girls for Branding Girls, Elayne Safir for She Who Loves Her Father, Lisa Link for Sprung, Zelijka Hassler for Stranger Still, Megan Louden Sanders for Spindrift, and most recently, Lauren Rindaldi for Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience.

What was your next collaboration, Sally?

SD: I came back to using text in my artwork a few years ago after Lit Undressed. From Lit Undressed came the online journal Les Femmes Folles (named after the exhibit Wanda Ewing also curated for the above mentioned event) featuring five women artists examining the female figure.

As a woman artist finding her voice, I found it helpful to hear how other women did it. So, I began using excerpts from interviews for LFF on my artwork. I grabbed little snippets like “Being a woman artist is a double-edged sword,” (Wanda Ewing); and “I was a feminist before I knew the word for it,” (Marilyn Coffey) and wrote them along my body-prints, a new form of self portrait I was exploring for another Les Femmes Folles exhibit in 2012. These weren’t deliberate collaborations (i.e. I didn’t work with them to create the pieces), but they were works using the interviews, text and art. As was my last series of work on motherhood, where I brought in famous and infamous mother-artists speaking on motherhood, to write in text as I worked through being a mother-artist myself. My favorite was “Mothers cannot become artists/because they already are” (Amy Shimson Santo). Discovering writing that expresses what you’re feeling is divine. I feel it makes great context and background for my pieces—usually the text is tiny, so viewers have to come up close to read it.

As Lesley Dill said about using text in her artwork: “I take this language, this literature, this poetry as if catching a ball, or hunting a deer. And then I intermix authors and language, and juxtapose with images, sculpture, and performance until it becomes something else. So, really, I am still a literature major. I weave it together to make my work. I find I am a good reader, rather than writer, of words. So I collect them and they affect me like little arrows of inspiration” (Les Femmes Folles interview, 2013). I too have been a longtime fan of the written word, and enjoy finding stellar script and using it in my work, like yours Madeline!

From Intimates and Fools

From Intimates and Fools

So yes, my most recent art-text collaboration has been Intimates and Fools, which is different in that I’m reading your text and deliberately creating work after it, instead of going around and selecting certain text to work with my art. Collaborating with you, Madeline, has brought so much more into my process and challenge as well! To think of new ways to integrate the text and ideas with my style and body-work.

Your most recent collaboration is Intimates and Fools?

From Intimates and Fools

From Intimates and Fools


LMW: Yes and it has been the most fun! I know we’ve talked a bit about our collaborative process in interviews in Wild Women Rising, Storyacious, and Blotterature, but since doing Intimates and Fools, I’ve begun to see and think of collaborations elsewhere. While at AWP in Seattle this year, I had the opportunity to visited the EMP museum, this eclectic collection of music, pop culture, and more. My favorite rooms were those dedicated to sci-fi and fantasy, many of which offered panels on the writers that I have admired, particularly those who have been lucky enough to have their books made into movies.

One display in the fantasy room offered information about a collaboration. C.S. Lewis, for example, had all of his Chronicles of Narnia series illustrated by the artist Pauline Baynes. She also illustrated books for J. R. R. Tolkien. Seeing that has made me think more deeply about illustrated books for children and adults and the ways that art coupled with language offers a vivid story that would be lacking if the words or art had stood alone. Recently I’ve taught and/or read graphic books by Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi and enjoyed the way the art and words play together to tell complicated stories such as those in Fun Home or Persepolis. I think about books that I read as a kid like The Snowy Day written and illustrated by the late Ezra Jack Keats. When I was in second grade, my class at Wright Elementary School in Ohio was so enamored by this book and the beautiful pictures, my teacher, Ms. Herman, located the author’s mailing address and we wrote him a letter. Of course, this was well before the internet and so we were all saddened when Ms. Herman’s letter was returned. Keats had died a few years before. When you think about what you actually remember from second grade, it’s a little astonishing to me to think it was an illustrated book with art and words that have remained as a vivid memory.

I guess what I’m most excited about is that I know I’m working on at least one collaborative project in the future that combines poetry and art. I’m very much looking forward to that process!

What new collaborations or art plus text are you working on?

 SD: I recently collaborated with figurative artist Rachel Mindrup and poet Fran Higgins to create this wonderful series which debuted in Omaha in April.  I body printed various parts with acrylic onto twenty large pieces of paper. Then I passed them onto Mindrup, who drew onto them various figurative poses she imagined with the body-prints. Then, she passed them onto Higgins who looked at the visual images and created poems that she scripted onto each piece. It all began with a collaborative film we did together (that Higgins produced) last year, “Mother-Artist-Model,” and evolved into this whole interesting series of work. It’s interesting to be the starting artist of project, and see how the work develops, sort of like the old “telephone” game—we each see it differently, and it becomes a whole new work. You can view some of them on Rachel’s website. We hope to exhibit them at galleries elsewhere, as well.

Another recent collaboration was creating zines with Omaha-based artist Scott Blake. Actually last year, when I was leaving Omaha, I curated a show, LFF…Ciao! for Omaha’s Caesium Gallery, including work by over twenty artists involved with Les Femmes Folles over the years. The exhibit included collaborations I had done with Rachel and Fran, Scott Blake, as well as JJ Carroll, Larry Ferguson, Greg Higgins, Mike Scheef and Ann Meyers. I had actually sort-of forgotten about all of these collaborations, so I’m glad we’re having this conversation. Each artist is different—with JJ Carroll, I gave him a set of breast-prints with which he created a really cool mixed-media collage piece. With Ferguson I worked as a model as well as with Higgins. Scheef used one of my body-print images to create a series of abstracted prints which worked as the poster for the exhibit. Meyers creates silk art, so I did some body-prints on silk, and she finished them with paint, which turned out really cool. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone.

Now I’m beginning to get to know your piece, TREED, actually in collaboration with you and my children. It is a wonderful, warm, spring collection of poems, isn’t it? Perfect for my children and I from which to create work. I’m looking at their children’s books and basically just outside in West Virginia, the hills have trees everywhere. My family is finally moving into a home on a couple of acres of land, where I’ll have my own art room again (!!) so I’ll have room to create some larger pieces to work with for TREED, all set in a very treed atmosphere!

Evidently, I really enjoy collaboration! And will continue it deliberately and subconsciously in all the work I do, whether with other artists and poets, my own children, with the artists I interview, or those on which I write.