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:

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

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.


Triptych Cover Unveiled: Evangelical about beauty

As cover design began, Jessica Henderson, the designer and professor who oversaw our unusual process, asked me to describe my aesthetic. I said, “I’m sure this isn’t going to help, but my design aesthetic is gorgeous. So much of what comes out of evangelicalism is ugly– it’s essential to me this book subverts that. I’m, frankly, a little evangelical about it.”

No, I’m not good with jokes. But it’s a testament to their aesthetic, skill and insight that cover designers Heidi Kao and Emily Swanberg got exactly what I was trying to say– that day, and from the pages of Triptych.

The cover is gorgeous. And, as with any beautiful thing, that means it is wise, elegant, carefully crafted and fascinating– what another great, faithful designer, Mike Cina, calls “an object of desire.”

More about the process of designing Triptych will come along soon, but we wanted to recognize the cover in its own right. Emily and Heidi’s work was responsive, but they created an independent work of art that can be admired even without the story behind it.


Kelsey on the cover: Kelsey
Design, develop, and choose a cover that will connect the reader to the story before he or she knows what the story is? No pressure.
The process of cover design presents the challenge of keeping creative and practical concerns in some kind of balance, or at least a helpful tension…or at least a non-hostile coexistence. I’ve also found it to be a surprisingly personal process—not something I was expecting, considering I wasn’t the maker of the text or the cover. The first design meeting I attended included an early proposal of the image that is now the cover, and my gut reaction was “This is it.” I tried to keep that reaction from influencing the way I saw other proposals, but part of me secretly thought the job was done right then and there.
Of course—thankfully—April is much more thorough than that, and “the cover” continued to be a topic of probing and thoughtful conversation for several following weeks. Every opinion required justification and an examination of both the text itself and each designer’s experience of reading the text.
My first attempts to explain  my gut reaction came in terms of opposites:
“I like how it embraces the mystical with the vines, but also the logical geometry in the triangle structure.”
“It really commingles the natural with the crafted.”
“I like that the vines just feel ominous, but also beautiful—and then there’s this solid, almost comforting, structure in the midst of it.”
I could pull out plenty of individual examples from the book to support any of these claims, but I grew frustrated with my inability to verbalize why it was this cover seemed to connect me to the story in a way the other proposals didn’t.
Then one day a friend pointed out that the white color scheme emphasizes the spiritual focus in the book, which sparked a recognition of one of the themes that makes this book so important to me: It doesn’t follow the common spiritual association with the color white—cleansed, pure, etc.; instead, white represents an absence, anticipating a presence.
No third-grader uses the white crayon—on most paper it doesn’t do or show anything. Blank sheets of paper, freshly fallen snow, bridal gowns—all connote the empty and untouched, but an ‘empty’ and ‘untouched’ that is soon to be colored in or filled.
In both spiritual and relational experiences (and the commingling of the two), April and the Triptych readers grapple with absences of desire, satisfaction, clarity, divinity, and the longing for “a relationship with both substance and meaning, truth and presence.”
Suddenly all of those dichotomies felt lit up and projected onto a much larger screen.
Which fills the absence more—the vines or the structure? Or do they both merely divide up the absence in different ways? Where is the presence of God experienced—in the logical or in the mystical? Or do these merely help us cope with the lack? Is God ominous or beautiful, him or her, comforting or wrathful, personal or indifferent—or are these all merely 26 letters rearranged, a grasp at “a puzzle, a flame, a fight”?
My hope is that all of you will somehow connect to this cover. Maybe the connection will be logical, maybe it will be instinctual. Maybe you will fall for the vines or be intrigued by the geometry. Maybe you will hold the book in your hand and speculate for a long time on what the title word could possibly mean.
My hope is that this cover sparks a recognition in you like it did in me, a gut reaction that prompts reflection and, perhaps, revelation.