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.
“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.
“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.”
Written by Rob Peoni
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 7, 2015. Some formatting and style changes were made since the original publication.
Jonathan McAfee made a big splash last summer with his What People Like About Me Is Indianapolis exhibit at Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. The show featured 15 portraits of Indy’s most famous author. Half of the paintings sold during the exhibit’s opening reception, and the rest sold within a couple of months afterward.
“I had painted him a few times, and people would buy him. He’s got a great look to him. He looks like a cartoon,” McAfee says. “Indianapolis, in general, is just really all for Vonnegut. They just really like Kurt.”
The success of his Vonnegut exhibit — his first sold-out show — gave McAfee the confidence to quit his job in PR at Bohlsen Group. So in January he began to pursue painting full-time. He believes the work he’s producing now is the best of his career, as he focuses full attention on furthering his style and technique.
“I’m taking way more time on my pieces,” he says. “I still paint pretty quickly, but I won’t say a painting is done now until I am 100 percent happy with it. Before, I would not wait until the last minute, but I’d book a lot of deadlines and have to get things done. I wouldn’t give it the same attention that I’m giving things now.”
On Friday, McAfee will debut 16 new paintings in a show at 3 Mass Gallery for Emerging Artists. The show will feature four portraits of local hip-hop musicians Oreo Jones, Sirius Blvck, John Stamps and Grey Granite. The idea came to McAfee as a cross-promotion of Chreece – a hip-hop festival in Fountain Square that Jones is organizing as a benefit for Indiana music archive and nonprofit Musical Family Tree.
“I had painted a bunch of different celebrities and icons over the years,” McAfee says. “I had grown pretty tired of doing that. I didn’t feel like I was getting to the spot where I was growing as an artist. I still enjoy painting people, and I had been interested in what these guys have been doing locally. I just feel like they have a really neat aesthetic going on. I like their style; I like their music.”
McAfee often listens to hip-hop music while painting in his home studio near Garfield Park. He prefers to paint along with music that has a strong backing beat. He says the music occasionally bleeds into the color choices in his work. “When I hear music, I see colors,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s influenced by the album art itself, but, typically, whatever I’m listening to I focus on those colors because of the album or maybe a music video associated with it.”
Beyond the appeal of McAfee’s new subject matter, Friday’s show is significant, because it will be his last solo exhibition as an Indianapolis resident. McAfee will move to Denver with his wife at the end of the summer. “I feel like I need a change,” he says. “I’ve grown complacent over the last several months to where I need to go somewhere and start fresh, make new contacts. It’s scary, because I don’t know anybody out there really.”
McAfee and his wife chose Denver after falling in love with the city during a visit in March. His wife has a background in parks and recreation management, and the couple was looking for a city with more outdoor amenities. While visiting Denver, they stopped in a gallery at the suggestion of friends. McAfee introduced himself to the gallery’s curator, and told her he was a painter from Indianapolis who was considering a move. Much to his surprise, the girl enthusiastically confessed to being an Indy ex-pat. McAfee showed her a few postcards featuring some of his work, and that’s when things got really weird.
“I showed her the postcards and she looked at it for a second and she goes over to her computer and says, ‘Is this you?'” McAfee recalls. “I look at it, and it’s an image I painted — a portrait of the painter Basquiat. It was hanging at the restaurant Pure in Fountain Square. Her dad, who must still live here, snapped a photo of it, sent it to her and said ‘I think you might be interested in this guy.’ It was really kind of serendipitous, because this was the only gallery that I went into, and she kind of had heard of me in a sense.”
Though McAfee is scared and intimidated at the prospect of starting from scratch in a new city, he’s hoping the move forces him to kick his painting into high gear and work even harder. In the meantime, he is excited about sharing his latest work and celebrating some of Indy’s most talented, up-and-coming rappers. “Maybe I am painting some icons that are in the works right now,” he says. “Contemporary icons. I think they’re going on to do some pretty rad sh_t. Who knows, maybe I’m the first one to paint their portrait?”
Stop by 3 Mass Gallery on Friday (July 10th) at 6 p.m. for McAfee’s exhibit entitled Peace-key Whees-key. The event is free and open to all ages. Or find out more info via Facebook. For more info on Chreece, follow along with updates from the Aug. 29 festival via Facebook and Twitter.
Written by Rob Peoni