Sandra Alland presents the first of two articles featuring artists who work against, outside or despite the ‘mainstream’. This week Sandra chats with bookish folk, following up next week with dance, video and drag artists. Featuring Rowan Hughes, Jacq A, Maddy Burnhope and Bani Amor.
When I got the news I was going to be DAO guest editor, I got to work right away. Well, I relief-cried first because I had no job and it was almost Christmas. But then I started planning, because there were tonnes of skint, queer, non-binary, trans, disabled, neurodivergent and deaf artists I wanted to showcase.
My first plan was to interview people I admired for their non-careerist creativity, with questions specifically about projects outside institutions or the ‘mainstream’. The answers I got were extraordinary. But this week, every time I started writing about them, I wept. By engaging with art that moved me, I became aware I was in mourning.
Many of us are mourning an unnecessary and mass loss of life, an absence of care. I’ve experienced grief throughout austerity, but with COVID-19 my social media timeline is a ruthless reminder of a system that’s been there too long. Disabled and elderly people coerced and forced to sign DNR forms. Personal carers removed from service. Racialised ill people denied hospitalisation, while Royals and Boris Johnson get the best treatment. Black or undocumented people arrested for going outside. Many folk struggling with inadequate food and housing, and unpayable bills.
It’s clearer than ever that art is indeed no luxury. It’s part of what’s keeping me alive, both literally (because in two weeks I have no other income and had none before the crisis) and again literally (because without it, my mind wouldn’t be able to cope). We all know books and zines can, in fact, save the world. Or at least save some of our souls while we make a better one. These small interactions with book people have definitely kept me from despair. I hope they open up pockets of hope for you, too.
To begin my conversations, I talked to someone who doesn’t write books, but instead constructs them. Bookbinder Rowan Hughes creates blank books, stationery, and designer covers and bindings.
“I guess I do feel a little outside of the mainstream as a self-taught binder,” Rowan says from their flat in Edinburgh. “I think that can leave you prone to feeling you’re not good enough, or somehow not a ‘real’ artist.”
Online learning is vital for Rowan, as attending classes or finding a mentor is usually beyond both their financial and physical possibilities. Web-based sharing and selling of work is equally important to them as a chronically-ill, neurodiverse, queer and disabled person: “Many of the ways that other bookbinders sell their work, like at craft or book fairs, exhibitions and so on, are essentially inaccessible to me. I can’t drive, so transporting my work – especially in the quantities you’d need for a fair – is difficult and often impossible.”
Long travel distances, high costs, and inaccessible events have kept Rowan from finding income and sustainable in-person communities. But social media sites have provided a fulfilling and welcoming environment.
“It seems like there’s always someone to help you out or support your work,” says Rowan. “No matter what your skill levels are. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge… And as many of us are disabled or chronically ill, there’s no shortage of creative approaches to adaptation.”
Because of the amount of labour and expensive materials, bookbinding costs are often high. But as someone with experience of being low-income, Rowan still creates simpler and cheaper books on request, and works within limited budgets where possible.
“I’m a big geek, basically,” Rowan answers when I ask why they hand-sew pages and covers together. “I’ve always loved learning and, whilst reading is less accessible to me than it used to be, there’s a fantastic culture of online knowledge-sharing in the book arts and leatherwork communities… There’s also a great feeling in the accomplishment of creating something that will be treasured.”
This idea of something treasured resonates with others I interview. Writer and zinester Jacq A has an ongoing personal project – telling stories for their friends’ children. “I make it so the children can be stars of the show,” they tell me. “It’s something I wish I’d had as a child.”
As a bisexual, non-binary, fat, disabled and Black survivor, Jacq feels shut out of most art. They explain, “I never see anyone who looks remotely like me unless I go to a Gauguin exhibition, and his work is seriously problematic. Money is a big issue for me too. Plus so many of the places feel quite unwelcoming.”
Jacq is excluded from the mainstream UK book scene – despite having published widely: “I’ve had over 50 short erotic stories published, 49 of them in US anthologies. There is a massive racism problem in UK publishing. They’re aware of it, but do very little to resolve it. I’m too ‘different’ for them.”
It’s not only big-name publishers Jacq finds unwelcoming. They’ve experienced plenty of problems with ‘LGBT’ publishers (“it’s Lesbian, Gay, Gay and Gay only”), and racism at zine fairs in London and elsewhere. They recently made a zine called ‘Bigotry in Progressive and Left-Wing Spaces’ to bring attention to the barriers multiply-marginalised people face.
As with their zine-making and storytelling for friends’ kids, Jacq is drawn to crochet for both joy and healing: “I learned to crochet when I was 10 years old. I had to block out much of my younger years due to the very abusive and violent environment I lived in. I have a condition called Dissociative Identity Disorder, wherein I have several alternate personalities. Two of the personalities remembered how to crochet in 2019, just as I was about to turn 50.”
Jacq recently crocheted an elaborate LGBTQIA+ Pride blanket (pictured above). Like Rowan, they find that art-making can aid both self-protection and community:
“Crochet is great for my anxiety. It’s also great for starting conversations with strangers!”
Writer and illustrator Maddy Burnhope is another artist who struggles with the concept of arts community.
“I haven’t considered myself part of any artistic or literary ‘scene’ for a few years now,” she tells me from her new home in North Warwickshire.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but my coming out as trans in 2014 was going to force me to completely overhaul my life: end toxic relationships, find and make healthier ones, relocate from Bournemouth to the Midlands, and get a diagnosis of EUPD (formerly called BPD) to add to my Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus. In so many ways, I’m not the same person whose dream it was to be a writer and illustrator.”
After all the upheaval, Maddy writes more slowly and less regularly. She explains, “My main ‘project’ is learning to exist beyond survival mode. When the work helps to that end, to connect with people and deities I love, it gets done. The rest of the time, I hope I’m building stronger foundations to make more work, just by living more and more as myself.”
Maddy is known for her skilful and hard-hitting poetry about ‘freak shows’, Christianity and evangelical ableism. “I’ve always been drawn to writing, art and whatever else as spiritual practice. Devotion to God – or the gods as I now see them,” she says. “I think when I was a Christian I was equally drawn to that and repelled by it.”
Having recently reconnected with Celtic Paganism, Maddy tells me that living near the most-likely site of Queen Boudicca’s last battle against the Romans has inspired a new rush of poems and paintings. Her writing has changed with her, but retains themes of the spiritual.
“What’s pushed me to conceptualise my work almost entirely this way – as well as disabled work, trans work, work about mental illness and trauma – is that life happened, and I began using words, art and spirituality to heal complex PTSD.”
On Instagram, Maddy has created a series for the eight pagan Wheel of the Year festivals, or ‘sabbats’, consisting of photos of small altars she made. Each photo is accompanied by two poems, one exploring her attachment to the main theme of the festival, the second a ‘setting-down ritual’. The following is an excerpt from “A Promise to Brigid: for Imbolc”:
we need a word about
what is meant by birth:
we have been reborn
so many times, laboured
through so many phases
but still this void
beneath whose hearth
flames crackle, spit, hiss,
inviting family only so close
Mostly housebound and unable to attend events, gender/queer travel writer Bani Amor also has no contact with mainstream arts spaces. But their writing appears online in such places as Bitch and Teen Vogue.
At 32, Bani recently started re-issuing zines they made in their early twenties. They’re currently sold out of the first two issues of ‘everywhere all the time’. But once copy shops are open again, they hope to reproduce Issue #3, delivered to your door with hand-made and one-of-a-kind packaging.
When Bani was starting out as a writer, zines were a source of access to a more ideal readership. They tell me from New York, “I was motivated to make them because I was trying to break into freelance travel writing and feeling limited within the genre. Zines gave me the freedom to write outside of the gaze of white travel editors and readers.”
When I ask about their experience of travel writing’s (non)recognition as literature, they reply, “Travel writing is often considered lesser literature – I know a lot of writers of colour who resist the label of travel writer but whose work clearly falls within that category.”
Even when the genre is embraced, there’s a racialised hierarchy. Bani explains, “I think the books that are taken more seriously are by navel-gazey white writers. Looking at the homogeneous, mainstream landscape of travel writing, I generally consider it inferior writing. It’s pretty easy to be white, travel, write about it, and get published. Easier than it would be to try to get a book published in another genre.”
[Visual description of video: This is a brief video by Bani Amor. In a portrait frame, it shows Bani’s hands placing a gold-coloured wax seal onto the back of an envelope. The wax also affixes a reddish-brown leaf and a small branch of white flowers. The seal itself illustrates a tree branch. Bani says, ‘One-handed, yo. Yay,’ as they stamp the impression into the wax and let go.]
The intricacy and detail of Bani’s zine-making process reminds me of Rowan’s bookbinding, Jacq’s storytelling, Maddy’s altar-poems. There’s a delight and care in their process and form that goes beyond simply publishing the text of a story. Hand-written and typed before being photocopied, and in bright colours, the zines pop. Bani’s personalised touches, like gorgeous hand-sealed wax envelopes with flowers pressed in, again bring me back to this idea of the treasured. The painstaking resistance of bodies in pain.
In a world of cold reproduction and fast-streaming horrors, these small hand-made pieces of joy can bring healing through contemplation. And they’re packed with urgent stories to remind us how to keep going.
Artists’ Instagram Accounts
Sandra Alland bio (audio):
Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.