An Interview with Charles McCleanon

October 18, 2017

Charles McCleanon is a local photographer who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. A Chicago native and a retired Dean of Information Technology at City Colleges, McCleanon’s appreciation of 35 mm film inspired him to begin his photography career 25 years ago. He formed the company CGMcPhoto and began shooting political campaigns, street fairs, weddings, and community events. He eventually channeled his skills into digital photography and now combines his talents with a passion for travel that’s resulted in countless breathtaking images. You can catch his show through the end of October on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library and meet him at a closing reception at 7 pm on Wednesday, October 25. We recently spoke with him via email about his artistic origins, creative process, and future photography goals.

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in photography What inspired you in the beginning? What inspires you now?

Charles McCleanon: My initial interest commenced when my best friend Lenard was drafted into the army and became a battalion photographer. Upon his return he continued to pursue his interests by shooting, printing and developing film. I helped him build a darkroom in his apartment, and my interest was peaked. I began studying and learning the basics including types of film, lighting, speed and composition.

After he moved to California, I purchased a camera and started a portable darkroom of my own in my kitchen. Having to set up and take down my equipment was a daunting task. Eventually, I transitioned to a stable and dedicated darkroom space. I purchased better equipment and devoted every available hour to improving my technique.

As my skills increased, I was offered work and realized this could actually become lucrative. I met a fellow photographer who worked for the City of Chicago whose photography interests were political. We hooked up, started a company and began shooting freelance for city, community and political events. We were pleased and honored to be hired for both of Mayor Washington’s campaigns and inaugurations.

Although I sought to earn a living (and quit my day job), I discovered my true calling and passion when I began to travel. Being able to seize the intangible beauty of nature or an iconic landmark for posterity is truly inspirational.

EPL: Can you give us a window into your creative process? How do you choose your subjects?

CM: The visual concept is everywhere; however, the art of shooting is to translate on to film and print what my imagination formulates. I am moved by symmetry, colors and movement. The simplicity of different lighting effects on a subject is fascinating. Sunrise and sunset are two of my favorite times. My mind’s eye visualizes how the photo will translate on paper, and I am ecstatic when out of 30 or 40 shots I successfully capture one of the precise moment I first saw in the viewfinder.

Local Art @ EPL

EPL: Can you walk us through the conception of a specific photograph?

CM: My thought process for each photo varies and is easily influenced by my moods. A perfect example is the truly surreal black and white series “cloud segment.” They were shot on a bleak, nondescript day when I was taking a walk on a North Shore beach without my camera. As I ran for the car to avoid the obvious impending storm, I spotted unusual cloud formations. Having my camera in the car (never leave home without it!), I was enthralled by the rapid movement of the approaching storm which changed in the blink of an eye. The transitioning shapes created movement like crescendos in a symphony. I was in awe and knew that I could only recreate these unique shots if I continued shooting.

Ironically these pictures were shot in manual mode and post production was minimal. I think they speak for themselves. I was able to capture and print exactly what I saw. The fact that they are black and white makes them one of my most accomplished and prized photo series to date.

EPL: What are your future goals and plans as an artist? Do you have a travel destination you’re eager capture on film?

CM: As I have found my niche in nature, my love of travel presents unlimited opportunities to explore the postcards of the world. My wife is a great lover of all things water related, as evidenced by my many waterfalls and coastal scenes. Our next vacation will be to Costa Rica, but I would love to shoot the Serengeti and the Egyptian Pyramids.

EPL: How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? 

CM: I truly appreciate the creativity of my fellow artist. The Chicago scene is very competitive which further motivates me to find extraordinary subject matter and capture its pure essence through unique visualizations which will fascinate the viewer. If I can inspire and attract one’s interest for more than a fleeting glance, perhaps this will motivate people to see the world as it truly is, a never ending rainbow.

Interview by Russell J.

An Interview with Evanston artist Jim Parks

August 19, 2017

Jim Parks is an Evanston artist who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. In 2015 – after a long career in theater, radio, and television as the host of HGTV’s “New Spaces” – he converted his dining room into a studio and devoted himself “to producing the art that had been waiting inside all those years.” You can catch his exhibit The Bloomz Collection through the end of August on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library, and you can find more of his nature-inspired acrylic paintings by visiting his website. We recently spoke with Parks via email about his vibrant “botanical abstracts,” getting inspired by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and his dreams of the artistic big leagues.

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in art? Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create?

Jim Parks: I was always the kid with the pencil or paintbrush. In fact I was six or seven when I first heard the word “artist” applied to me. But since my working life was spent either in show biz or broadcasting, I was a doodler until October 2016 when, at the age of 65, I changed our dining room into a studio and got serious about painting. Since then I’ve been fairly prolific, working mostly on 40” x 30” canvases. Many of them are on display on the second floor of the library right now. There was no single insight that sparked a need to create. Rather, there was a constant observation of nature that was begging me — rather insistently — to represent it all in paint.

EPL: How do you describe your paintings? Do you see yourself as fitting in with any particular artistic movements or styles? 

JP: I’ve been describing my paintings as “botanical abstracts,” meaning they are based on flowers but with my own twist. When you get up close, it’s easy to lose the connection to the image of any particular flower and find yourself lost in an abstract, undefined world. In fact, when you examine the foliage that surrounds the star of the show (the flower) it will be like staring at the foliage in a garden and becoming aware of the complexity of activity in the shadows. I think that’s pretty cool, and I spend a lot of time trying to get the subtleties of the shadows right. The Impressionists were marvelous in their observation of nature and worked to express it in paint. I stand in awe of the symphonic use of color in a Monet water lily painting or the diversity of texture in a Van Gogh so I guess I identify most closely to Impressionism.

“Orchids #3”

EPL: Can you describe the techniques you used to create a specific painting?

JP: I work exclusively in acrylics. Acrylics dry amazingly fast – except for the newest generation, called “Open.” The downside is that I don’t have the time to work in other colors while they’re wet, as I would in oils. The upside is that I can apply many, many thin layers rather quickly, and this builds-up effects. The lower layers shine through the upper layers so there is a depth that can be achieved. I call this layering “maturing” a color because it isn’t a flat tone out of the tube. The layers give the original color more depth, more gravitas.

EPL: What are your future goals and plans as an artist?

JP: I want to develop a body of work that becomes accepted into the higher levels of the gallery world. I just started a series that takes a step beyond the pretty pictures I’ve been making for the last year and a half. The series will still be grounded in organic forms of nature but will add other elements. One of those elements is based on the work of stained glass artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany. The nature of stained glass is to isolate a shape — a leaf, say — in a framework of black leading, making the color of the leaf more dramatic as the light shines through. The leading that wraps around all the leaves, all the shapes, forms the overall structure of the piece: very solid, very defined. I like that structure, that drama, and I can approximate that in paint. We’ll see if the gallery gate-keepers salute.

EPL: How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

JP: I love Evanston; I’ve lived here since I was nine. At the moment, I’ve got paintings hanging in four different locations in downtown Evanston, so I couldn’t ask for more acceptance. Evanston as “Tree City,” with the lakefront and all the majestic trees, has always been inspirational.  Every walk by the lakefront yields a new idea. Chicago has the River North gallery district with its gravitational pull in the art world, and I’ve got my sights set on that world. And then there’s always the big leagues: New York. Stay tuned.

Poet Profiles: Aozora Brockman

April 25, 2017

poetEven though National Poetry Month is winding down, we’re not done celebrating here at EPL. This Sunday, April 30 at 4 pm we’re thrilled to welcome poets Aozora Brockman and Anita Olivia Koester as part of the 2017 Evanston Literary Festival. Both will read from their latest collections, and in anticipation, we recently spoke with Brockman via email. Raised on an organic vegetable farm in Central Illinois, Brockman is the author of two chapbooks, The Happiness of Dirt and Memory of a Girl. She is the recipient of the 2015 Jean Meyer Aloe Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and her poems have been published in the Cortland Review, Fifth Wednesday, Reckoning and other journals. She lives, works, and writes in the haven of her family’s farm. You can learn more by visiting her website, and below she discusses her poetic origins and inspirations, her writing process, and her superb poem “Bottomland.” Enjoy!

EPL: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry? What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?

Aozora Brockman: My very first poems emerged as improvised songs when I was young. Some winter evenings, as I went out to feed and water our chickens and goats, the rhythm of my feet crunching on the packed snow set a beat, and my arm swinging my empty egg pail added a counterpoint. When I opened my mouth, words would come tumbling out and follow a melody I made up on the spot.

I am easily overwhelmed by sensations and sounds, so spending whole days cooped up in the house in the winter listening to the constant chatter of public radio made me feel like a helium balloon blown too full. So I loved those rare moments of solitude and silence, when it was just me and the moon and the snow, when all of the words that I had shoved down inside of my throat floated out into the cold air. Most of the time the words were strung together randomly and didn’t make a lot of sense, but at times I found myself singing thoughts and feelings that reflected deeply what I needed right then to express.

I think this is what I love most about writing poetry—sometimes, when you sit down with a pen and paper and allow yourself to write whatever comes into your mind, you discover something deep inside of you that needed to come out into the world. Suddenly something clicks into place, and whatever was vague inside your mind is now concrete, right on the page. I’ve been hooked on that feeling—of empowerment, and joy—since I was young, and that has kept me writing.

But it wasn’t until I took a class with Rachel Jamison Webster through the Creative Writing program at Northwestern that I dared to think of myself as a poet. Growing up, I felt there was a clear difference between poems that I read in school—which oftentimes confounded me—and what I was writing. I used poems as a kind of short-hand for longer essays, and I hardly knew what I was doing with form or enjambment or rhythm. I remember that I was terrified of taking the Reading and Writing Poetry course with Rachel because I thought I would fail at writing “good” poems. Thankfully, I was wrong! Not only did Rachel convince me that I was capable of writing poetry, but she also encouraged me to delve deeper into myself and to write with sensitivity and bravery. She taught me that there was great freedom in writing poetry—that I could be wholly, unabashedly, myself—and that poetry has the power to rupture structures, to heal, and to make people feel tremendous emotion.

The poems I wrote before meeting and learning from Rachel were more reserved and filled with imagery of the vegetable fields of our farm. I still derive inspiration from the beauty of our family farm, but the poems I write now are emotionally open and probing.

EPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

AB: Ideas for poems often come to me when I’m weeding or harvesting on our farm. The repetitive movements of swiping a hand hoe around seedlings and brushing dirt up against them, or gathering up a bouquet of pink beauty radish and twirling a twist-tie around them engages my body and mind in such a way that I feel intimately connected to the dirt, bugs, birds and woods that surround me. This meditative space is conducive to poetic inspiration.

Sometimes I see something gorgeous and fall in love—a butterfly emerging from a emerald cocoon or a spider spinning an intricate web—and have to write about it, or sometimes I am digging up sweet potatoes and the joy of it sparks an idea. My father likes to say that when he’s working on the farm, he’s not composing songs or writing the next great American novel, but that his mind is essentially blank, fully concentrated on the task before him. I’m not writing poetry while I’m working either, but something about being completely engaged, on hands and knees in dirt, allows my mind to wander off and settle on an idea. Most of the time I am so busy on the farm that I forget the idea or image during the course of a physically intense work day, but usually it comes back to me again while working in the field and sticks in my memory.

When I sit down to write, I close my eyes and think of an image or scene that struck me. I try to remember how it felt to be in that moment: what I was touching, what I was smelling, what colors I was mesmerized by, what voices or sounds I was hearing. Then, with words, I try to recreate that memory as vividly as possible so that it can enter into someone else’s mind. To do that, I have to translate images and hard to describe feelings into language—which takes a lot of trial and error. But I always want my reader to be right there with me, feeling and seeing and hearing through my eyes and body.

For me, the most essential ingredient to writing a good poem is an openness to, sensitivity towards, and love for the world around me. If I am closed off to the world, or fearful and anxious of what surrounds me, my poems become one-dimensional or forceful. Because I fear something, I want to see the world without depth and ignore the complex chaos just below the surface. This way of seeing and feeling makes my poetry substanceless and devoid of truth. I believe the best poetry does not try to bang the reader over the head with an argument, but rather reflects the world in all of its complexity, even if it reveals something ugly or heartbreaking.

I haven’t always felt that poetry was so connected to love and openness—in fact, I think I’ve just recently come to this conclusion. It has been almost two years since I graduated from college, and for most of that time, I found it very difficult to write poetry. As a young adult facing the realities of climate change, political instability, racism, sexism and everything else, I felt an immense weight on my shoulders, and, filled with terror about my future, I retreated inside myself. But this spring, I finally feel myself opening up again, and love and hope are brimming in my heart. Poetry is brimming in me, too, because for the first time in a long while, I am seeing the world clearly and with care, and I want so much to share what I am seeing and feeling, and to connect with others. Poetry, it seems, is all about wanting to connect, and though I probably knew this on the surface-level before, I know this with conviction now.

EPL: What poets have inspired you? What are you reading right now?

AB: Rachel Webster inspires me immensely. Her poems quicken my heart when I’m reading them, and images and thoughts and feelings grow so big inside of me that I have to put her book down to write a poem myself. I feel very connected to her poetry, and that bond lets me break free from where I am stuck in my mind, and hurtles me into a new realm of thought.

I also love Joy Harjo’s poetry, and Audre Lorde’s poem “Power” is one of my all-time favorites. The work of Anne Sexton, Franny Choi, Nicky Finney and June Jordan fascinate and inspire me.

I am reading Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch right now, which is a joy! My grandpa, Herman, adores Wendell Berry and he and my grandma Marlene gifted all six of their children with a copy of the book this past Christmas. My grandpa, who is an avid lover of poetry, always asks me when I see him if I’ve finished reading the book yet. I’m happy to say I am now halfway through it! As a farmer-poet, Wendell Berry infuses his poems with the cycles of the seasons and laments our destruction of the earth. As my grandpa explains it, instead of going to church on Sundays with his wife, Berry spends his Sabbath walking in woods or sitting on his porch, writing poems. I am inspired by this idea and hope to be a farmer-poet like Berry someday.

EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?

AB: “Bottomland” is a love poem to the black loamy dirt of our fields, and to my brothers, Asa and Kazami, who played in the dirt with me when we were still too young to help out on the farm. I found with this poem that it is very difficult to describe how we played with the dirt, and the joy of it, to a reader who isn’t intimately familiar with our farm. I mention a “burdock hole” in the poem, for instance, and I am sure that most people have never even heard of burdock, much less know how it is harvested.

Burdock, called gobo in Japanese, is a long black root that extends up to three feet into the ground. To harvest it, we take spades and shovels and dig out around the three rows of burdock, careful not to cut through the roots in the process. The deep and wide hole that remains after we’ve dug out all of the burdock looks almost like a grave. When my brothers and I were little, we’d be just as tall as the hole, and while my dad—who I call Otōsan—hurled shovel after shovel of dirt out of the hole, we would have nothing to do but immerse ourselves in the soil all around us: feeling it, smelling it, looking at it up close, or even tasting it. (My brother Kazami was infamous for eating handfuls of dirt!)

During one of those burdock harvests, Asa noticed how some of the dirt Otōsan piled up next to the hole came trickling down the side of it, and since the edge of the hole wasn’t perfectly smooth, the streams of dirt would catch on little knobs and ruts on the way down. Asa showed me how to take a handful of dirt and let it run down the side of the hole, then gather it up from the bottom and run it down again and again. We observed how the finest dirt would settle on the knobs and ruts while the coarser dirt would tumble all the way to the bottom of the hole, and something about this process was beautiful and fascinating to us. I loved to touch the dirt that coated the knobs and marvel at its rabbit-fur-like softness.

When Asa read Memory of a Girl, he told me “Bottomland” was his favorite poem and that it made him nostalgic for our childhood. I wrote “Bottomland” to remember and relive the most joyous moments of growing up on our farm, and the poem makes me nostalgic too. What I miss most is being able to derive so much happiness from playing with what surrounded us—dirt. Since not many people grew up playing the way we did, it is easy to feel that what I remember from my childhood is imagined or not real. But “Bottomland” allows me to capture those memories, and live again the days when the bottomland field was my whole world.

Talking with Evanston artist Kristen Neveu

April 20, 2017

local artistKristen Neveu is an Evanston artist who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. A painter and collage artist whose work has shown at Woman Made Gallery, the Beverly Hills Art Fair, Evanston Made, and in the personal collection of Community actor Joel McHale, Neveu threads Americana and nostalgia into her mixed media pieces to create “patterned, patchwork storybooks that embody a yearning for the past, with connections to possibilities for the future.” You can catch her show through the end of April on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library and meet her at a closing reception on Thursday, April 27 from 6-8 pm. You can also find more of Neveu’s work by visiting her website, and we recently spoke with her via email about making art after her day job, her intuitive creative process, and the friendly Evanston art scene.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in art? Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create? What drove you in the beginning? What drives you now?

Kristen Neveu:  I didn’t start making art until after college and after I started working my 9-5 job. I was a Communication Studies major in college with a minor in Anthropology. I moved to Chicago and got a job at Tony Stone Images (which a few years later turned into Getty Images once it was purchased). I was a Photo Researcher. It was a somewhat creative job, but I felt I needed something else. The office job situation always makes me want to create instead of watching television when I get home; it’s like I need to unwind or empty my head and escape. Art is therapeutic to me.

Also, growing up, I had a musical outlet in that I played the piano, sang in choirs, played the clarinet… and I think I was trying to replace that outlet.

Waiting in Faded Sunrays

EPL:  How do you describe your collages and paintings? Do you see yourself as fitting in with any particular artistic movements or styles? Do you work in any other mediums?

KN:  My paintings and collages are intuitive and I don’t plan out what I’m doing; I just jump in. I paint over layers if it’s not turning out the way I want. I’ve been told the patterns in my work remind people of Gustav Klimt, and while I like his work, I wasn’t inspired by him in my work. I also take photos and have had a show that featured my photos of classic cars along with collages. Often, I use my own photos in collages too.

EPL:  Can you take us through your creative process for a specific painting?

KN:  I start by making a layer or two of paint and smudging it for patterns or adding drops of water. I then build patterns from the marks that are made on the canvas. Working bottom to top, I build winding patterns with circular or square shapes that evolve into floral shapes at times. I then figure out my title or what I’m addressing in that particular painting or collage and if it’s collage, fit in my figures or objects. Next, I work with the background colors or paint over patterns if there’s just too much going on. I love subtracting work once it’s there to find a more beautiful pattern.

EPL:  What are your future goals and plans as an artist?

KN:  I’ll keep creating art as long as I can. It makes me sane and gives me happiness and balance. I submit my work to galleries and shows, and I work with interior designers on projects. I still have my day job, but it gives me structure and I can work at night and on weekends. With the day job I’m not stressed as much to worry about creating work that I think will need to sell and be commercially successful.

EPL:  How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

KN:  It’s a friendly environment for artists in Evanston and Chicagoland. I know a lot of artists from my years here, and I reach out to them a lot. Next month I’m exhibiting at Swell Gallery in West Dundee, and one of the owners of the gallery I knew back in the day from Around the Coyote in Wicker Park.

Interview by Russell J.

Poet Profiles: Anita Olivia Koester

April 14, 2017

April is National Poetry Month, and here at EPL we’re celebrating with a very special poetry event. On Sunday, April 30 at 4 pm we’re excited to welcome poets Anita Olivia Koester and Aozora Brockman as part of the 2017 Evanston Literary Festival.  Both will read from their latest collections, and in anticipation, we recently spoke with Koester via email.  A Chicago poet and editor for the lit journal Duende, Koester is the author of the chapbooks Marco Polo, Apples or Pomegranates (forthcoming), and Arrow Songs which won Paper Nautilus’ Vella Chapbook Contest. She is the recipient of Midwestern Gothic’s Lake Prize, the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Award, and the Bread Loaf Returning Contributors Award, and her poetry is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, Tahoma Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere.  You can learn more by visiting her website, and below she discusses her poetic origins and inspirations, her writing process, and her excellent poem “Confessions of a Childless Woman.”  Enjoy!

Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry? What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?

Anita Olivia Koester: I published my first poem in December 2013, and I would say it was my first or second serious poem. Before that I wrote poems here and there, but had always intended to be a novelist and therefore I read novels. I hardly knew how to read a poem back then, nor had I been exposed to much contemporary poetry. That poem was unlike anything that came after it, mostly because it was written as a fictional poem and from a man’s perspective. I haven’t written a poem from a male’s perspective since. My poems, though often mythical and imaginative, are essentially autobiographical. And I suppose in some ways that first poem was as well, as it was about a husband who cheats on his wife and is experiencing an almost paralytic guilt. Sometimes acquiring empathy for the people who have hurt us can begin the healing process.

Though I had known since childhood that my desire was to become a writer, it wasn’t until I divorced that I was able to start out on the journey to finding my own voice. And many of my poems revisit this theme, the odyssey of a woman in search of her voice, the many beasts she must slay along the way both societal and internal. And for me this journey involves a tremendous amount of loss, and even guilt for leaving one life behind for another. When I first started writing, I was writing fiction, and then I began performing poems at open mics when I lived for a time in Paris. Even though I was always nervous to go up on stage, I loved how immediate the emotional connection could be with other like-minded people. If I read a poem about my father people would come up to me afterwards to tell me about their fathers, and there was a palpable feeling of celebration of emotion and language that I had never known in my life. Nor had I ever felt part of a community before, when I was married I lived an isolated life. I suppose I started writing poetry because of poets, because poets are some of the most welcoming, curious, and interesting people I’ve ever met, and in many ways it felt to me like I had discovered a new family.

book coverEPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

AOK: I feel like my process is always changing, not necessarily developing, but changing. I don’t allow myself to ever say I can only write in one state, and therefore I can allow writing to happen at any time and in any place. I probably write more often than not at home on my computer, but I compose poems on walks to the park, on trains, on planes, in the morning, just as I’m falling asleep, in the shower, while I’m washing dishes. And many times those poems are never put to paper, they just form within me and drift off or perhaps lay in wait (I doubt it though, since I have a terrible memory). But if the piece strikes an emotional cord with me, eventually I will find my way to my phone or computer to write it down, I wish I could say I still wrote on paper, but it’s become a rare occurrence. Not all of these compositions become poems, and even those that do, do not always get sent off to journals. But, they will stay in my files and when I’m feeling stuck I can look to them for lines, words, or images.

Occasionally I write a poem that never has to be revised or reworked, and often times these are my best poems. But even then they’re usually built off the back of lesser poems, I might write five or ten poems on one subject before I finally write the poem that gets it right. And then there are the poems that go through countless drafts, and that is when poetry is like chipping away at a boulder in order to end up with one good quality nugget. Sometimes the poem can seem so small in comparison to the process of arriving at it.

I couldn’t possibly claim that my poems always have the essential ingredients, but when I read poems, I respond to the emotional quality of them first. I always want to be moved by a poem. Beyond that, it varies. I’m personally fond of lyric poetry, poetry that is concerned with the musical elements of a poem – syntax, alliteration, prosody, assonance, slant rhymes, anaphora, repetition, and such. I like to be transported or enraptured by the language itself even at the expense of meaning. For me, the words should dance, or sing, or at the very least sway and hum. I’ll take those poems over poems of wisdom any day. Knowledge can be rather cold. I’d rather read a person’s messy and scattered thoughts that in the end only culminate in experience than be told anything definitive by a poem.

I think my understanding of poetry and poetics has deepened immeasurably since I started writing poetry, and I still have much to learn. It’s one of the things I love about poetry, the continual discovery of just how many ways there are to write something as common and as oft-written as a love poem. It’s hard to appreciate a poem until you’ve read a thousand of them, but once you’ve read a thousand of them, you can’t wait to read a thousand more and go back and read that first thousand again and again. Poems alter depending on the reader and their engagement of it, where they are in their life and what they are feeling, and in that way the life of a poem – as long as it is being read somewhere by someone – is endless.

EPL: What poets have inspired you? What are you reading right now?

AOK: Oh gosh, I’m always reading 10-30 books at a time. I’m an exceptionally slow reader of poetry, and one reason I love chapbooks is that I can sometimes finish them in a sitting or a few days. Otherwise, I can spend months reading a book of beautiful poems. Each poem is often like a long story compressed, and sometimes I’m so emotionally exhausted after engaging with one knock-out poem that I have to put the book down. (I don’t recommend reading this way at all.) In order to force myself out of this way of reading I sometimes sit at the park and just read a book of poems out loud from cover to cover and let it wash over me without allowing myself to overthink or analyze which I can always do later. We had precious few warm days this winter in Chicago, but on the last warm day I went to the park and read Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is a remarkable book for both the gentle quality within the strength of his voice and for how diverse it is formally. Another one of my favorite books that came out this year was Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School, which I might be reading for years since each poem is so emotionally intense it’s like a kick to the stomach and yet the poems are also complex and intellectual.

Other books currently on my nightstand include, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Roger Reeve’s King Me, Marianne Boruch’s Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s Hour of the Ox, and Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A. And then there are those poets that my poetic universe revolves around, and those currently are Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, and Larry Levis.

EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?

AOK: “Confessions of a Childless Woman” has a rather long history. It began at the first writing residency I ever went to, a magical place tucked away amid the cornfields of Nebraska called Art Farm. Because I had all this time to create and was surrounded by visual artists, I found myself inspired to do a photo shoot with a number of vintage mannequins I found on the property. Some of the torsos were in the trunk of an abandoned Peugeot which smelled rank when I opened the rusted latch to pull them out. It was the kind of place where you might find some odd pile of materials to repurpose, basically a creative person’s ideal setting. And this one mannequin in particular spoke to me because of a crack she had running down her side. That mannequin – and one other with a beautiful though weatherworn face – became the main subjects of a self-portrait series I did in which the mannequins were placed in various roles I’ve lived. I’ve exhibited this series in a few places in Chicago including the public library, and people always remark on how eerily emotional the mannequins seem.

I spent a great deal of time both shooting and editing the series, as well as printing, framing, and exhibiting them, and now since I’m too lazy to find them another home, they decorate my apartment. The crack running down the one mannequin’s rib cage and breast has so occupied my imagination I’m sure I’ve dreamt about it. In some ways it was cathartic to take some of my emotions and place them on these mannequins, and in other ways it left me exposed and vulnerable. It gave a kind of physical shape to my own psychic pain. One of these photos became the cover of my first chapbook, Marco Polo, and other ones have gone on to be published in journals and books, though I never sold one of the prints, I think in part because they can be disturbing, though not to me.

The poem itself explores my deepest personal struggle, one I share with so many women. We are still brought up to think that a woman who doesn’t ever experience pregnancy and childbirth is not a really a woman.  If we cannot have children, we feel shame and perhaps unworthy of love, and if we chose not to have children, or it just never happens along the way, then we feel guilty, like we are perhaps not whole. This places such tremendous pressure on the woman, and so in the poem I pose the question of why can’t the aberration – the deviation from the norm – be beautiful, be celebrated. And what does it mean to be an aberration, how is the word defined? As it turns out the word has such a wide range of definitions – none of them particularly positive – and yet the definitions themselves are beautiful and poetic and have to do with light, images, seeing, and even the movement of celestial bodies.

This poem was published in Tupelo Quarterly along with two of the mannequin photos which I digitally manipulated to engage further with this poem. Visually, the poem mirrors the crack in the mannequin, which creates a duality that further illustrates my own struggle between two possible selves, the one with children, and the one without. The last line becomes a kind of suture – yes, these issues seem to separate women, but they ultimately draw us together on a deeper level. The poem is also about distortion. The first line is deliberately not capitalized in a kind of rebellion against norms. Everyone who looked at this poem – excepted for the editors who published it – was bothered by that, and at times I was too. But that was exactly the point! As a writer I find it important to always be interrogating ideas of normality as well as language, societal structures, rules and laws.  If we are not vigilant, all of them can be used against us.

An Interview with “Pioneering Cartoonists of Color” author Tim Jackson

February 28, 2017

local authorTim Jackson knows a thing or two about cartoons.  A syndicated editorial cartoonist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Defender, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Herald, and many other newspapers, Jackson recently became a cartoon historian with the publication of his book Pioneering Cartoonists of Color.  Praised as “an unprecedented look at the rich yet largely untold story of African-American cartoon artists,” the Ohio native’s book provides a historical account of the black men and women who created editorial cartoons, illustrations, and 70-plus comic strips from the 1880’s to 1968. On February 27 Jackson visited EPL to discuss Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, and as an encore, he spoke with us via email about his motivation to write the book, his painstaking research, and the cartoonist Morrie Turner.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us a little about your background as a cartoonist?  How long have you been drawing?

Tim Jackson:  I always respond to questions about how long I’ve been drawing by answering, “Forever.”  There is one piece of art that is dated, making me seven years old around the time it was given as a gift to my grandmother.  My first inspiration would have to be my older brother.  I watched him draw and imitated him.

EPL:  What motivated you to write Pioneering Cartoonists of Color?  When did you first have the idea for the book?    

TJ:  I was motivated by the lack of information available about Black cartoonists in other books about cartoonists.  It became more important when I learned that there was going to be a celebration of 100 years of American cartoonists.  I created a website about Black cartoonists and illustrators so it could not be said there was no information about African-American cartoonists.

EPL:  Could you give us a sense of the research that was required to write the book?  Where did you track down the cartoons from the 19th and early 20th centuries?  Did you uncover anything surprising?  

TJ:  I spent hours upon hours searching through microfilm and digital databases to glean whatever information there was to be found.  My greatest source of comics and cartoons was the Vivian G. Harsh Collection in the Carter G. Woodson Library on 95th & Halsted.  My greatest discovery was the sheer number of Black cartoonists there have been from the 1880s through 1968.

EPL:  Who are a few of the cartoonists from the book who made an impression on you?  Why is it important for us to know about them?

TJ:  One of the artists that made an impression on me was Morrie Turner (1923-2014), creator of the first integrated comic strip “Wee Pals.”  Turner was one of the three African-American cartoonists who were accepted in the mainstream press following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

EPL:  Can you suggest additional books or resources for those interested in learning more about African-American cartoonists?

TJ:  Two additional books are Jackie Ormes: The First African American Women Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein and Dark Laughter: Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington edited by M. Thomas Inge.

Interview by Russell J.

An Interview with David Pritchett

January 17, 2017

David Pritchett is an Evanston educator and photographer who made his Local Art @ EPL debut with the 2015 exhibit “Daily China.”  Now through January 31, he’s back on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library with “On the Job” – a striking series of color photographs exploring working life in Nigeria, Wales, England, Saudi Arabia, and China.  Captured between 1964 and 2016, Pritchett’s fascinating images record farmers, entertainers, shop keepers, and sailors while examining how “work exists in all times, countries, and cultures.”  Off the Shelf recently spoke with Mr. Pritchett via email about the challenges of shooting in different countries, how he connects with his subjects, capturing a Nigerian snake handler on film, and what he hopes people will learn from “On the Job.”


Evanston Public Library:  Back in 2015 you made your Local Art @ EPL debut with your series “Daily China” before returning this month with “On the Job.”  Do you see any connections between your two shows? 

David Pritchett:  The connection between “Daily China” and “On The Job” is that when we look at others there are no others.  That paraphrases a Buddhist concept, and is not original with me.

EPL:  For “On the Job,” you shot in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, England, and China over the span of 50 years. What has so inspired you to photograph working life all over the world?  Did you encounter any challenges unique to shooting in the different countries you visited?

Shop Keeper, United Arab Emirates, 1980s

DP:  Simplistic as it sounds, my work in social contexts and surroundings so different from my own ignited and keeps aflame my desire to understand what I see and the surroundings in which I witness.  I’ve used some images in teaching my American students, but mostly I was acquiring a personal record that has become an extensive archive.   Never persistent in journaling, I use a camera to record and preserve my experiences. 

When I point a camera in some settings, subjects freeze or pose creating a more stiff, though authentic, image.  In others, photography itself may be considered invasive so I exercise patience and circumspection before shooting.  In most cases I ask, get permission, and shoot.  Without permission or under cultural restrictions, I leave my camera in my backpack, then watch and listen.

EPL:  Generally speaking, did you form connections with your subjects?  How did you go about doing so?  Can you describe any instances when you thought it was better not to take a photograph?

DP:  In some cases subjects wanted to be photographed, especially those who were performing or demonstrating a personal skill.  When one offers to take a photo of someone working, there is an act of validation going on.  Photos are a powerful medium, and most of us like to be preserved in photos at our work places, with our tasks, and with our work mates.  In other circumstances, I had become a part of the surrounding community and was not an unusual presence with a camera. 

In Muslim contexts – Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – I was aware of social conventions and worked within them, never trespassing.  In Saudi Arabia, I was invited with my wife to join women weavers in visiting their work place and sharing sweet tea and coffee.  In a shaded yard we were shown the processes of shearing goat hair, weaving in ground looms, and finishing rugs and camel bags.  None of the women were veiled as I was non-Muslim and not harram (forbidden) to see their faces.  However, it would have been unacceptable for me to take photos of the unveiled women.  My cameras stayed in my backpack, those rich images now imprinted only in my memory.  I always respected taboos regarding nudity, death, burial, sacrifice, prayer, modesty, and propriety thereby avoiding pushing the cultural envelope without permission just to get an image.

EPL:  Could you tell us the stories behind the your striking photographs of the Nigerian snake handler or the train conductor in North Wales?  How did each photo reveal itself?

Entertainer, Northern Nigeria, 1965

DP:  In 1965 during a school holiday, two Peace Corp teachers and I got part-time jobs assisting a UNFAO (United Nations Farm and Agriculture Organization) team which was working a land tenure project in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria.  During our two week assignment, we attended two Friday markets which were held after prayers.  Markets were filled with local crafts, some manufactured products, and food supplies.  There were also entertainers like the snake handler or a young man with a chained hyena who performed for “dash” – whatever an observer wished to give for the privilege of watching.  I gestured to the snake handler that I wanted to take photos, which he acknowledged.  When I finished, I gestured a “thank you” and started to walk away.  He became stern faced and walked toward me with two snakes in one hand and an upturned palm.  I got his meaning, dug for the change in my pocket, and placed it in his hand.  He accepted, and we parted without me personally meeting the snakes. 

The train conductor was a “target of opportunity” image I took at a popular steam rail tourist attraction in Porthmadog, Wales.  He was a volunteer during the summer tourist season, dressed in a period costume, but holding another day job.

EPL:  What do you hope people will take away from “On the Job?”

DP:  I hope the photos – though captioned to provide some context – will coalesce around the idea of the universality and dignity of common, and some truly uncommon, work.

EPL:  Are you currently working on any new projects or preparing for any future shows?  Where can we find more of your work after your EPL show closes?

DP:  I am working on three new projects, as yet untitled, focusing on structures, machines, and settings in which people live.  I have been posting this exhibition on my Facebook pages, accessible with my name, David Pritchett.

An Interview with Poet Amy Newman

December 2, 2016

amy-newman1If Amy Newman’s On This Day in Poetry History is topping your must-read list, you’re certainly not alone. Poetry lovers here at EPL have been clamoring for a copy since the summer, and demand for her follow-up to Dear Editor only continues to grow. Described as a “dazzling new collection” by the NY Times, On This Day in Poetry History finds Newman exploring the lives of poetry heavyweights such as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Berryman in search of that elusive “moment when a person becomes a poet.” A wholly innovative mix of biography and stunning verse, Newman’s latest showcases what Image praised as her “true mastery [of the] ability to play with language.” We recently spoke with the Northern Illinois University professor via email about rediscovering poetry in Manhattan, the history and allure of the “Confessional” poets, the challenges of biographical poetry, and how her favorite poem from the book came into being.

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An Interview with 'The Ghost in My Brain' author Clark Elliott

November 1, 2016

clark-elliottOn the rainy evening of September 27, 1999, Dr. Clark Elliott was en route to DePaul University to deliver a lecture when his car was rear ended at a Morton Grove stoplight.  Shaken but seemingly uninjured, Elliott continued on to DePaul’s campus unaware he’d suffered a concussion that would dramatically alter his life.  In his remarkable new memoir The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get It BackElliott details the harrowing effects of his concussion along with his remarkable recovery almost 10 years later with the help of two cutting-edge Chicago doctors.  This Monday, November 7th you can hear Dr. Elliott discuss The Ghost in My Brain when he visits EPL’s 1st Floor Community Meeting Room at 7 p.m.  In anticipation of his visit, we recently spoke with him via email about the debilitating concussion symptoms he fought to overcome, brain plasticity, the groundbreaking work of Drs. Donalee Markus and Deboray Zelinsky, and the reasons he wrote his book.

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An Interview with Patrick Shiplett

August 15, 2016


Patrick Shiplett is an Evanston artist who is the latest to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL.  A cartoonist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, NY Times, and Washington Post, Shiplett’s exhibit features nearly three dozen cartoons he presented to the New Yorker’s editorial staff before they explained “there was no room for a cartoonist [his] age in their lineup.”  Titled Too Old for the New Yorker, Shiplett’s cartoon collection is currently on display on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Library where you can catch it through August 31st along with selected writing from his blog.  You can find more of his cartoons and writing by visiting his website, and we recently spoke with him via email about his artistic origins, pitch meetings at the New Yorker, advice for aspiring cartoonists, and his blog.

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