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Indy’s independent publications on the rise

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on December 30, 2014. Some content, style and formatting changes may differ from the original.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of Hoosiers gathered to escape dismal December weather in a celebration of the written word and the prospect of free drinks and snacks prepared by one of Indy’s top chefs, Neal Brown. The occasion was the release of the sophomore issue of Ex. Ex. Midwest, a locally produced food and culture magazine, in the cozy confines of PRINTtEXT, a periodicals shop on the corner of 52nd Steet and College Avenue.

Ex. Ex. is the latest in a fresh crop of independent, niche publications with Central Indiana roots. Despite the daily death knell tolling from the steeples of established national print publications, local editors aim to buck the trend and elevate the businesses and individual voices on their pages in the process.

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT.

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT.

“This seemed like an incredibly potent marketing piece for our whole industry and for the city of Indianapolis,” says Polina Osherov, editor of local, fashion-focused magazine Pattern. With a circulation upwards of 3,000 in addition to its online readers, Pattern is arguably the most prominent publication to come out of Indy in the last few years.

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

Another of Indy’s largest cultural exports is a bilingual magazine focused on arts entitled Humanize. The publication was cofounded by Spanish-born and Indy-raised editor Karla D. Romero in 2009. Released free digitally, Humanize has bolstered its readership to more than 2 million with five years and 21 issues under its belt. Romero, an IU journalism grad, launched the mag after quitting her job in corporate communications for a travel agency in Madrid. She kept the publication alive after returning to Indianapolis two years ago.

Like most of Indy’s start-up publications, Romero has yet to reap the financial benefits of her efforts. “With my blood, sweat and tears,” she says of the funding for Humanize. “That’s really it. We do it for the love of the art form, I guess, if you can call it that. We don’t really make a profit. We put in a lot of money, but it’s just something that we do because we love it, and we think it’s a necessity.”

Osherov echoes Romero when discussing her motivations for launching Pattern, “This was just purely an exercise in being creative and giving an outlet to people.” The magazine serves as a vehicle for her larger goal of uniting the artists, designers and other creatives who comprise what Osherov calls Indy’s “maker’s movement.”

Local designer and Pattern contributor, Amy McAdams attests to the impact that Patternhas had on the creative community. “It sounds so cliché, but I really think the designer community in Indy is as strong as it has ever been,” she says. “When I started out, there were no opportunities like this on a local level. By giving us the chance to create together, Pattern has moved a lot of the local talent from competitors to collaborators, which is great.”

A commitment to quality was one theme that came up time and again when speaking with the leaders of these new media. “My goal is to help the team put out a great magazine that is timeless and that people want to read,” says Ex. Ex.‘s resident chef and contributor, Brown. “It’s that simple, and that hard.”

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

Ex. Ex. stands for Exploring Expedition — a term inspired by the United States Exploring Expedition that propelled the country westward in the early days of our republic. For the magazine, Brown partnered with the folks at CODO Design and the content team at Metonymy Media, with whom he had worked on marketing his restaurants Pizzology and The Libertine, as well as his local food event Dig-IN.

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

Photo by Ben Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT

“The point isn’t to go comparing Indianapolis to Portland or the Midwest to the South or anything like that,” says Ex. Ex. Editor Ryan Brock. “The whole point is that we’re giving it the expedition that the Midwest hasn’t gotten for a long, long, long time. Not just to talk about the hip stuff or the cool stuff or the good stuff, but just anything that we can find that’s interesting.”

While the first issue dealt largely with Indiana stories, the follow-up featured a deep dive into the bar menu at Chicago’s Spaggia and a conversation with former Top Chef contestant and Louisville restaurateur Ed Lee. Brock believes interest in the magazine will grow naturally as its scope of coverage expands, which he hopes will attract contributions from writers outside of Indianapolis.

Given the quality of the content coming out of Indy these days, PRINTtEXT co-owner Benjamin Blevins says the relative affordability of those publications has made them top-sellers in his shop. “The majority of [our titles] are $20 or more,” Blevins says. “So, a lot of the local ones are kind of underpriced in a way. I think if Pattern were from Berlin, we would be willing to pay $28 for it.”

Humanize plans to craft some retrospective content in honor of its five-year anniversary, which will revisit the artists and stories the magazine has covered since launching. “A lot of the artists featured, especially in the beginning — artists, filmmakers, musicians — have either gone completely off the grid or are now doing incredible things,” Romero says. While she’s proud of what she has accomplished with Humanize, Romero is hardly resting on her laurels.

“I’ve just started a new magazine here in Indianapolis,” she says. “We’re releasing it in February. It’s called Eñe. Basically, what we’re going for is a magazine about Indianapolis in our language, because we have such an enormous Spanish-speaking population. So, I’ve been putting a lot of work into that the last few months. This is the first time I’ve told anybody about it beyond the people that are involved in the project. Everything is looking amazing.”

Photo by Benjamin Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT.

Photo by Benjamin Blevins, courtesy of PRINTtEXT.

Eñe will serve as Romero’s first foray into print publication. The magazine, which will center on politics and culture, will be distributed all over the city. “With Humanize, my goal was always to print, print, print,” she says. “It was never a possibility, because it was so expensive. Especially, when we were in Spain. When we moved here, we were already established with digital, so I decided that this magazine was going to be established as print and online as well.”

Like Romero, Osherov has no intention of slowing down, though her ambitions extend beyond online and print media. In August, Pattern opened a shop on Mass Ave. The multi-use space was designed by Christopher Stuart at LUUR as an “incubator” for Indy’s maker community, with retail space, a conference room for work on the magazine, and enough flexibility to host a variety of events. Pattern also recently applied for a grant, which would fund a 20,000 square foot space catering to furniture designers, fashion designers, metal fabricators and much more.

“One thing we’re finding is that most of our designers have reached capacity,” Osherov says. “So, you’re at a point where you’re so busy producing your orders that you don’t have time to market, grow and design more … They can go into this place that’s going to be in downtown Indianapolis and talk to somebody face-to-face and have samples created or do small runs and large runs. This is a super-exciting time. There’s a lot going on.”


The Zine Scene

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website on January 27, 2015. Some content, style and formatting changes may differ from the original version. 

When I was a kid, like most little boys, I loved upending things. My cousins, my brother and I shared a babysitter while our parents worked. In the summer, this meant a lot of time spent exploring my aunt and uncle’s expansive backyard off Westfield, north of Broad Ripple. A creek wound through their yard, with plenty of stones, logs and various natural objects primed for upheaval. Beneath those decomposing stumps lie entire civilizations of animals, insects and critters — each toiling away at whatever task defined its nominal existence.

Though I’m much older now, I still enjoy flipping over the occasional rock and exploring the subcultures that lie beneath. Recently, I wrote an article about several glossy, beautifully designed magazines aiming to elevate the reputation of independent, Midwestern publications along with the stories and people held within their pages. Beneath that echelon of publications exists a subset of writers, artists and creators working within a medium whose origins pre-date our country’s founding.


Courtesy of John Clark

“I want people to have access to the tools and the knowledge to make their own publications,” says Wendy Spacek. “I think it’s empowering. I think it’s democratic. I think it’s feminist. It’s a necessary act. The zine or small-press object or ephemera is an intimate form.”

This belief led Spacek and a group of like-minded individuals to start a crowd-funding initiative with the goal of purchasing equipment to launch a nonprofit publishing collective. They raised around $5,000, obtained the equipment they needed and began publishing Snacks, a literary/arts zine. “We had a lot of different exploratory meetings about how it would function, where it would be,” Spacek says. “We had a space locked in, and then the roof blew off. So, we never got into that space, and it just kind of fizzled out.” For it to take off, Spacek says it’s going to require the right people who are interested in it and have the time and capacity to do it.

One group who Spacek believes might prove the “right people” to pick up the pieces where Indy Pub Co-op left off is Fountain Square’s General Public Collective. With two professional printers of their own, GPC plans to offer affordable, small-run printing as a service with the aim of making their shop financially sustainable.

“With what we have, we can go up to 12×18 format books,” says Jason Pittenger Arnold. “With those we’ll be able to do photo journals with full photo scenes or literary works or illustrations — anything really.”

Arnold has overseen the small-press collection at GPC since its inception. The titles GPC has in stock run the gamut from self-published books of poetry, such as  Whisper Fights, co-written by Indianapolis’ own JC Neuman and Erin Brady, to weightier international publications, such as Marfa Journal. “When we began, it was just my interests,” Arnold says of his selections as curator. “Since then, I’ve just been feeling it out and seeing what people are interested in. It’s just sort of webbed out from there. There are still some that I’m experimenting with and have a dozen copies still after seven months. [He laughs.]  Obviously, no one liked that.” He says he’s still learning what to bring in, since they don’t have a giant inventory. They’re keeping it minimal, but the style of it will constantly change.”

Small-press publications have played a historic and vibrant role in the United States. Pamphlets and broadsheets served as the rallying cry of the country’s revolt against colonial England. In the 1960s, alt-lit publications functioned as the mouthpiece for the countercultural movement sweeping through what would become today’s baby boomer generation. However, the medium is not sole proprietorship of the underground. As recently as 2013, U.S. Army troops with the 303rd Psychological Operations Company were dropping leaflets over southern Afghanistan.

“Grove Press, that did Tropic of Cancer. They really made it, singlehandedly in a way, possible for the gates to be opened,” says John Clark, publisher of arts and literary zine, pLopLop. “It sounds impossible, but it really is kind of exciting, because that happened in my lifetime; 1960 was when Tropic of Cancer was in paperback. You can get it everywhere, but a year before they were actually arresting booksellers.”

Clark launched pLopLop in 1991 as a vehicle for his writing and artwork. It didn’t take long for the zine to outgrow its humble origins. For the third issue, which featured the theme of feces, Clark was able to pull off a coup when he enlisted his hero, Charles Bukowski, as a contributor. “I started corresponding with him, and every exchange I got more info,” Clark says. “At first, it was through his publisher. Then he sent something with his post office box as a return. Then, when we started publishing him, then I had his home address.”

Clark’s strategy was simple: He sent a self-addressed envelope along with a request for some work. Much to his surprise, it worked. “It was so cool, because I opened up this thing, and it was like, ‘An editor asked me to write this poem about sh-t. I can’t write a poem about sh-t,'” he says, paraphrasing Bukowski. “Then he gets on a roll, man. ‘You know when you’re in the supermarket, and you see somebody buying toilet paper, and you think ‘Ah, I’ve caught them.’ It was just hilarious.”

The fourth issue included an excerpt from a previously unreleased Jack Kerouac book entitled Old Angel Midnight, additional original poetry from Bukowski, and a self-portrait by none other than Kurt Vonnegut. “It was just a matter of, let’s do it,” he says. “The first couple of issues, I mean, I’m not proud of them, but that’s how you got started. So, if anybody asks for advice, it’s just do it. If you wait for something perfect until it’s complete, it may not happen. So, just get it out there.”

A fresh crop of Indianapolis writers and artists are putting Clark’s DIY advice into action. Dimitri Morris is one such individual. Morris oversees Headdress Records, a label that operates out of Westgate, an all-ages venue and community center on Indy’s Westside. In addition, he plays in the band White Moms while spearheading his own musical project, Chieftan. In its first year, Headdress released eight albums — all of them on cassette and digital. The label has released a couple of zines as accompaniment to their musical endeavors.

“The whole idea we’ve got going on, as far as coupling the zines with the cassettes or whatever release that we’re doing, is that whenever you’re in your car, you have the cassette to listen to,” Morris says. “When you’re in your house you have the zine to look at, which reminds you of the cassette. So, it gives it almost the feeling of synergy. It makes it a little more full-circle.”

After three years at the helm of Soft River Reading Series, which showcases local and traveling writers on a monthly basis at various locations across Indianapolis, Spacek acknowledges the correlation between music and small-press literature. Through Soft River, she has taken on an unofficial role for upstart Midwestern publisher, Monster House Press as a distribution agent. Monster House’s leadership is divided between Bloomington, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio, with contributions from much farther away.


Photo by Whitney Walker

“The way that Monster House Press is organized has really come out of music culture and punk culture. The way that you tour when you’re in a band, and the way that your record label might be in a different city than where you live, and the way you might record in a different city than where you live — regionally mostly. They’re all musicians — every single one of them,” Spacek says of the Monster House crew. “So, I think they were heavily influenced by that life. When they went to create something for their writing and for the writing of their friends, they took that framework and used it.”

After taking note of the small-press publications pouring out of Central Indiana these days, the formats and styles prove as varied as the day is long: chapbooks, broadsheets, comic books, tour diaries, photo journals, concert listings and on and on. The sheer volume of it all can prove staggering. Some are printed in basic, black and white. Others are immaculate, in full-color. “The reason that I’m attracted to these little publications and to zines and that culture, is that they can be so incredibly beautiful and so diverse,” Spacek says. “There are so many different kinds of zines. It can be fascinating.”

Though pLopLop has been defunct since 2010, Clark has recently toyed with the idea of reviving it. He says he’s inspired by the uptick in literary activity across Indy these days, and is humbled by interest from folks like Benjamin Blevins at PRINTtEXT. In the past, pLopLop featured writing and artwork from all over the country. For the next installment, Clark is thinking about a more localized approach. “That’s my idea for the next one, maybe doing all Indianapolis,” he says. “I think it’s just a matter of carving out the time.”

Photo by Whitney Walker

Photo by Whitney Walker

Written by Rob Peoni