Creative Community 101: “What if we…?”


Designer Heidi Kao, who penned the vines and branches, adjusting cover objects in preparation for production photography.

Creativity is hands-on and communal.  My students will tell you I regularly rant that we are essentially embodied and the solitary artist is a destructive myth (this sometimes involves standing on tables, and always includes gargantuan arm gestures). So, as this book contract came together, I was challenged to practice afresh what I preach. How could this new venture honor embodiment and community?

To attempt an answer, I’ve spent the last year beginning conversations with, “So– I’m not sure this would even work– but what if we…?” It’s been scary: my ideas could be stupid, the drafting is public, and I’m asking people to invest themselves in ideas that may fail. We’re in it together; and time, money and reputation (those currencies of the finite) are at stake. But to borrow a friend’s favorite phrase: “Not easy, but worth it.”

One of the earliest “what ifs?” was the idea of crafting a cover by working with students in Bethel University’s Art & Design programs. Thanks to design faculty and a publisher game to experiment, and a group of students willing to begin working for free, we opened the project to advanced design students and offered a contract to the winner.


Reviewing second-round developments from additional designers including Brita MacInnes and Allegra Rose.

Art and community are messy, but, damn, are they rich.

By risking collaboration, I now know the work a dozen more artists, have stronger relationships with my colleagues, have helped emerging designers launch their careers, and better understand my own work.

Talking with Allegra, and Jessie, and Brita, and particularly Emily and Heidi, through their processes has helped me understand better– not just language or my own text– but ideas, and the human mind, heart and spirit: the ways we can connect and include each other, the ways we can probe the world.


Sketchbook iterations from Allegra Rose.

And I’m less lonely. Going public with work (especially memoir) can seem like a project in ego, but publishing is also a writer’s avenue to community. Getting a book out in the world allows me to participate in rich conversations with people who are fascinated and perplexed by some of the same ideas I am. By collaborating on the cover with my embodied community, those provocative, enlightening conversations have already begun– and will be able to last far beyond an evening’s reading.

Emily and Heidi on their design process:

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Our process was anything but glamorous. At our first meeting, we came up with several ideas from using unconventional materials like glass, water, or live plants to attempting new fabrication processes. Looking back, we laugh at how far-fetched those initial ideas were. But we realize now that those early steps in the process fostered the kind of creativity we needed to embody April’s vision.
Later that week, we sat down in the studio and began aimlessly doodling and experimenting with discarded pieces of drywall. We were getting nowhere fast. It wasn’t until we started referring back to April’s words and discussing how her content and style related to who we are as artists that we were able to gain a sense of direction. In playing to our strengths, we decided that Heidi would execute the drawing and Emily would focus on the sculptural and digital editing processes. At the end of the day, we had  several visual compositions in ink and drywall that we were excited about.
During the execution process, our design continued to evolve. Once the drawing and sculptural elements were completed, we were able to experiment with different compositions quickly—which was one major advantage to creating a tactile, analog design. We presented several versions to April and, with her guidance, began working through the final iteration. Once we had a strong foundation, we were able to focus on other important details like typography, use of drywall elements, and overall composition.
The final design was really a product of who we are as designers and who April is as a writer. In the end, we surprised ourselves with what we were able to create. Though it wasn’t always easy, the process of translating our physical work into a thoughtfully designed book cover proved to be an experience that exceeded our expectations.

Heidi and Emily’s two-person show, Architectural Junkyard, begins this week. Opening reception Tuesday, January 14, 4:30 pm. You are cordially invited.


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