ChattZineFest and Interview With Artist Megan Kelley

chattanooga library
4th floor of the Chatt Public Library

A couple of weeks ago I went outside my comfort zone and booked a table at my first zine fest. The Chattanooga Public Library was hosting its first annual ChattZineFest, and boy am I glad I went. (Thanks Sonja, for giving me the scoop.) I wasn’t sure what I was in for, and wasn’t sure my work even qualified as “zines.” Being a letterpress printer (most of the time), I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I did a little research to see if I could fit in, and decided to make digitally printed versions of a couple of my favorite letterpress printed books. That’s something I’ve been itching to do for a while, and this was the perfect excuse for me to get on the ball. I ran my little HP printer through its paces, and I was shocked at the good print quality. I still wanted some handmade touches, so I letterpress printed the cover of “Migration” and screen printed the cover for “I Want a Crayfish’s Heart.” Both are sewn pamphlet structures (and are now available for purchase in my Etsy shop). 

The text above the door of the top floor of the library really said it all. I was running late for my set-up, so it wasn’t until after I’d thrown my table together, been warmly greeted, and sold a few books that I saw the text painted above the main entrance. It was a good sign, I thought.

zines
do mine count as zines?

It turns out that zinesters are some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever met. (I still felt like I was having a heart attack when I read an excerpt at the open mic, but that seems to be a habit I can’t shake.) I abandoned my table a few times to wander through and meet the other writers and artists, and I was blown away by the scope of books that were on display. For those of you who image a zine as a photocopied thing that is stapled down the center, you’re in for a surprise. Those old-school style zines are still in the mix (and finding them sparks a little thrill, like finding Al Green on vinyl), but folks are going all out now with their printing, doing some high-quality digital output, and still adding handmade touches like pamphlet sewing and machine-stitching. Surprise of the day: I met David Helton, who was also there with his very first zine. If his drawings look familiar, it might because you solved his hidden picture riddles in Highlights magazine when you were a bit younger than you are today. 

Some of my favorites are pictured below (from left, clockwise): “Midsize Mini Comics” by David Helton, “Marta” by Alison DuPey and Tara Harris, “Break ‘Em Up…” by Dave from Chicago, “We’ve Changed,” by Sofia Arnold, and “Concerns, no. 4” by Megan Kelley. 


When I wandered over to Megan’s table, I was struck by the range of her work. An artist based in Nashville, TN, she has all kinds of irons in the fire–from zines to printmaking to an interactive online game called The InBound Lands. Megan was kind enough to chat with me later about her creative process and some of her current projects. 

chattzinefest
LF: What got you into making books and zines? What do you like most about this medium?
 
MK: I came to zines by way of comics, actually. I have always been a reader and a writer, but being introduced to comics outside of the superhero genre – through Spiegelman’s MAUS in high school, specifically – made me realize the power of the story of the ordinary person, and that we didn’t have to be Marvel, DC, or Dark Horse to write them, that these were stories any of us could tell. My undergraduate thesis work followed independent comic books (and similar web mediums) as contemporary visual media, and I began really pursuing creating my own work and working with other artists and writers. Zines were a natural component of that.
 
What I love best about zines are the diversity of stories and storytellers, and the ability of these storytellers to reach an audience through a tactile, meaningful way. It’s truly a democratic medium; not to stand too long on the soapbox, but as our culture faces growing issues of net neutrality, censorship, and a rise in “bought” (promotion-based) media, it’s more important than ever to produce and disperse alternate conversations outside of conventional media and storytelling routes. We are a much more diverse world than our primetime television and bestseller lists might have us believe, and there’s nothing more powerful than the feeling of not feeling alone anymore.
 
And in a simple, fundamental way: it’s fun. It’s deeply creative and expressive. And it’s deeply connective: we come together with shared passion and make something awesome, and that’s a beautiful thing to help thrive.
 
LF: Where are you based? What’s your studio like? 
 
MK: I am based out of Nashville, Tennessee, and do the majority of my practice in this city. Much to the dismay of my partner, my cat, and my roommate, I maintain a studio in my home – all I’ve ever really needed was a tatami, a hot plate, and lots of workspace – where I do most of my production-based work (material hoarding, painting newspaper racks, costume prototyping, and creating a thousand of something, etc). It’s a messy “Artist’s House” and looks a little like the Natural History Museum on some serious sleep-deprivation; needless to say I don’t have a lot of visitors there!
 
I also maintain a public studio at the Platetone Printmaking, Paper and Book Arts co-operative in SoBro Nashville where I invite people to visit me: Mondays and Fridays from 2 pm to 6 pm, and by appointment. Known informally as “Messner Point,” it serves as a casual store, design office, and physical gateway to The Inbound Lands (an online text-based adventure game that I developed). It gives me a grounding point for my printmaking work and helps me get back fully into my own head. Though I work very intensely there, it’s a place for me to converge and rest.
 

LF: What’s your artistic process like?

 
MK: I’m at the heart of things a Maker – I break things, I improvise, I poke and prod – and in many ways, an Archivist – I keep, I record, I translate. Often in my process, I fall into the roles of a Sensemaker and a Storyteller – what is the narrative of this thing, and how does it relate to me and you? – and a lot of my work is the actions or results of performing those roles. 
 
I spend a lot of time digesting and working out what I’m wanting to do – whether that’s printmaking, writing, drawing, social practice facilitation, design, whatever – and so I do a lot of  note-taking and “talking over” before starting a project. Though I do a lot of consideration beforehand, thinking about what my goals are, how they look, and how they happen, in actually working I rely on a discovery process as much as possible: a wu-wei approach to being open and reacting to intrusions, changes, and alterations in the process of doing (especially when painting, carving, or writing) while keeping a cohesive idea or theme. It keeps the process open and interesting for me, the maker, and brings up new questions and challenges in this and future work. I am very much invested in continuing to ask questions of what and why I’m doing.
 
LF: You seem to wear a lot of hats. What inspires you most? What are the driving forces behind your work?
 
MK: I think at first I may seem a little all over the place to folks – I have a lot of diverse influences and my practice is very interdisciplinary, very transmedia – but I also like to think that the more time you spend with my work, the more you realize that all of those threads are from the same spool of thought, that all I’m really ever trying to do is follow the line back to the bigger source. In my best work, I try to make each thing an immersive experience, for me, for the viewer, ideally for both of us.
 
I keep drawing from and being pulled to Narratives & Interactions: the “Big Picture” connective tissues that knit value and meaning into a static image or work, that make it something bigger than just a single moment. I am most satisfied when a work can accomplish that, no matter what medium I work in.
 
LF: Who are some people that inspire you? Tell us about some folks that have influenced you and your creative process.
 
MK: Brecht is quoted as saying “The Whole Universe interests me,” and that’s pretty true for me also: I look at world-building, large shifts, riptides, connections, and try to make sense of them all. I draw just as much influence from scientists and collectors/curators – people who engage ideas – as I do from artists who engage image. I love to catch up with the worlds of epidemiologists and disease specialists; astronauts and architects; writers and birdwatchers. I follow a fair amount of game development companies, too: Naughty Dog and Cyan and Quantic Dream and Team Ico and Team Silent and Bethesda. It’s the worldbuilding aspect, they’re so good at making these things live on past the initial gameplay.
 
I still read a lot of comic books, and will always have a soft spot for Chris Ware’s so finicky geometry, and for great storytellers like Warren Ellis, and I think Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” changed my life. I like looking at antique postage, currency, and scrip, and curiously enough I keep looking at people whose work is very different from mine: ceramicists and minimalist sculptors like Anish Kapoor. And I have a lot of influence from the professors I studied with at Western Kentucky University; there was a strong drive to connect with community and be aware of your audience, and they fostered in me the desire to work hard and make work accessible to a broad conversation. They’re amazing people and I still keep in touch with many of them. There was such a cooperative and communicative atmosphere there, and it taught me to appreciate one of the most valuable lessons: that someone times you’re the student, and sometimes you’re the teacher, and to be open and available in both cases.
 
Lastly I am so fascinated by fan fiction writers, people who take the strings of a world and weave something larger from them; I think a shamelessly-not-secret goal is to one day stumble across fan fiction about the universe or characters I’ve made, to see things from someone else’s perspective.
 
 
 
LF: I love that you do these projects that are collaborative and interactive. Tell me a little about IBL–how does it work? what’s the story behind it? –what are your hopes for this project?
 
MK: Sometime in 2008, I began writing down this mental landscape I was building inside of my head, this place based off of all the places I had lived as a child (which were a lot) and altered by all of the ideas and reoccurring personal symbols I had been digesting for years. I think in many ways, much of my work deals with self-portraiture and perspective, and this world is a mother lode of being just that.
 
I have always been interested in immersive experiences and world building – books, films, video games, installations, archetypes, environments, trips to different cultures, languages – and as this world grew – and I began to “spend” more time there, thinking about it, rewriting it, “exploring” it – it began to need more in order to flesh itself out. I started making artifacts – physical objects – that engaged this world or were from this world, and making them available to myself and others. It was a start.
 
I’ve always been a gamer – video games, tabletop and online roleplaying, and especially the early computer games like Zork and then Myst – and whether or not a work is based in social practice, I’ve always enjoyed interactive elements to the works that I do. As I trundled around the idea of the internet and considered different ways to bring people even more into this world, the idea of having an interactive world, one that player changed (and that ideally changed players) felt very natural. I played with a few variants before deciding on an Interactive Fiction platform for the time.
 
The game follows the rules of Interactive Fiction, and the player uses a basic set of commands to navigate the world. In addition, there are “Outbound” or “Real World” elements that run parallel to and intersect Inbound gameplay. In the first region, these were largely reward-based: I mailed postcards out to my beta testers, ran contests for in-game suggestions, put out limited-time geocaches, etc. As the new Forest and Canyon regions are being written, I’m printing currency and scrip that I’m sending to various street teams around the world to disperse for players to redeem in-game or through Messner Point, and I’m incorporating in-game clues into Outbound locations, such as a bonus puzzle solved using visuals found by visiting a newspaper rack I’m redesigning through the Nashville Scene #Scene25 project.
 
I want a full experience for players, a place they can visit or even inhabit, a place that challenges them and yet appreciates them.
 
LF: What’s most rewarding about what you do? What makes you happy about doing these kinds of projects?
 
MK: The most rewarding thing is probably when someone really finds their way into a piece, no matter what it is. I love hearing how people connect to work and the stories it might awaken from their past and inspire in their futures. I say that I love “talking shop,” and it’s true: I hope to share the accessibility of making work and encourage others to put their own voice out there.
 
LF: What do you like most about interactive projects and collaborations?
 
MK: Engaging with other people is fun, just to start with, and it’s that pure joy of trading ideas back and forth with other interested people that brings me back to collaborations and interactive work again and again. But I like being able to give a voice and share a voice. On a personal level, collaborating with other artists and with audiences helps me refine my own voice and work – articulation has always been how I find my way into and out of knowing the truth of what I’m trying to do – and it challenges me to think of my work from other perspectives. How does someone else see things? What did I mean to say and did it translate? And on a bigger level, collaborations and interactive pieces are about a larger conversation: what are we trying to say? What is our bigger truth? And how do we have fun saying it?
 
 
 
 
Megan Kelley can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. To see more of her work, visit her website StudiOmnivorous, and check out The InBound Lands, where you can play the game for free. Also check out Platetone, the community studio for printmaking and book arts in Nashville, where you can often find Megan in person. 
 
Thanks for the chat, Megan–and thanks to Aggie Toppins and the folks at the Chattanooga Public Library for putting on such a fantastic First Annual ZineFest. Huzzah!
 
Want to share info about your favorite zines and zine fests? I’d love to hear your picks and see some links in the comments!