A number of readers and subscribers have asked about issue 88.1/2. It should be coursing its way to your post box even as we speak. It features on the cover works from a crowd-sourced letterpress project developed by our Art Editor, Ryan Stander. It is as our a COVID project as you can imagine and as the world struggles to come to terms with the changing shape of the pandemic, it felt like a worthwhile cover that spoke to the diverse ways in which we are all called to understand how the pandemic has thrown into relief fractures in our shared humanity.
Complementing the cover is a short essay, an editor’s note, that describes the project. You can see more of this project here and read Ryan’s thoughtful and reflective editor’s note below.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.
Pursue _______________: A Crowd-Sourced Letterpress Project
Last spring, as the Covid-19 epidemic took hold upon our country and people isolated themselves in their home, social media posts began to emerge about new or rediscovered creative endeavors. Friends took up sewing, baking, painting, and other creative outlets. As public activities slowed, new life appeared at home. YouTube even made commercials to encourage learning, experimenting, and failing at new things. As an artist and art professor, I was thrilled to witness this new growth in creative explorations.
My father-in-law, who resides on an isolated lake in the middle of Saskatchewan, told me that he has recently taken on a verse from the New Testament as a guiding principle for this time. Thessalonians 4:11 reads: “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.” After serving twenty-three years as a busy member of Parliament, his post-political days are spent in the sacred space of his wood shop. Having stored his suits and ties, he now spends his days amidst piles of wood and sawdust, committing himself to making things for his children and grandchildren. Hardly busywork, he revels in the natural revelation of wood, marveling at its grain, color, and warmth.
Many days, when burdened by deadlines, upkeep, assessment, and thirteen thousand other responsibilities, I wander into escapist daydreams about living in such simplicity. Could I really live largely unplugged from the world, where the main task for the day is simply to make beautiful things?
As last summer emerged and social media returned to a steady stream of weaponized memes and vile political posts, I retreated from it. Like my father-in-law, I found solace and meaning in working with my hands. From the large storage closet and work bench in our garage to the steel landscape edging around our home, from the cedar fence which doubled our summer gardening area to the mid-century inspired playhouse for my boys, my hands (and mind) stayed creative and busy. My mantra became: “Make beautiful things. Make things beautiful.”
My primary creative practices are printmaking and photography. Both mediums are rooted in deliberate, repeatable, and simple physical actions. The process-oriented and repeatedly indirect nature of both practices turns many of my students away. For me, when printing, time dissolves into uninterrupted hours of healing for my weary soul. My hands, buoyed by years of practice and bodily memory, allow my mind to wa/onder or focus as my soul needs.
In her wonderful Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (New
York/Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 1998), Kathleen Norris encourages us to see our mundane daily work and tasks as ways of both grounding us in the world and as means of perceiving God’s presence there. She says, “The Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things . . . that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life” (Norris 21-22), thus infusing each moment with possibility.
The idea of the “Pursue ______________” prints began simply enough. It was a way for me to step back from the negativity of social media and instead focus on certain things: beauty, wonder, justice, and the common good. I began with making these first four posters by setting 72pt Helvetica Bold lead type into perhaps the most simple, centered, and un-kerned alignment, thereby hopefully achieving a certain simplicity and directness of form and content. I mixed a deep metallic blue ink that shimmers in the light and contrasts wonderfully with the generics of the text layout and the warmth of the brown chipboard.
When finished with my initial prints, I returned to Facebook with a crowd-sourcing question: “What are you pursuing?” Answers flooded in, and I got to work printing their suggestions. I photographed the pieces immediately after printing and, as able, hand-delivered the still-wet prints to my Minot State University colleagues who remained on our summer- and Covid-quieted campus. The project became a curious hybrid of digital sources and analog output. With over 120 comments from friends across the county on the original post, I received eighty-three suggestions of words and phrases to print.
As I printed, my mind wandered back nearly twenty years to a lecture by Dr. Barry Harvey during my studies at Sioux Falls Seminary. He made careful distinctions between the ideas of virtues and values. Virtues, he argued, were fixed, whereas values, an economically oriented term, connotes change based on the whims of market movements and pressures.
I took St. Benedict’s urging to wed prayer and work (ora et labora). As I printed, I thought further about the many-layered values and virtues toward which people direct their life. I found myself thinking about each person and the voice they lent to this project. Each word was an offering and quiet insight into the hearts and minds of my social media circle. Each print was filled with the repeated processes of inking, laying paper and tympan down, the mechanical “ka-thunk” as the roller passes over the type and its ascending “rrrrrrrrr” as the roller returned to its home position. Each print was, in a sense, an act of prayer for strength and encouragement for my participants as they pursued a goal in bettering themselves and ultimately the world around them. My hope was that their words were more virtue than value and that their hearts and minds were set on the long course for change. I found myself longing for many of the words I printed as well: quiet, peace, hope, joy, creativity, wholeness, healing, and more.
In these simple repetitive actions of inking, pulling, and stacking prints that constitute letterpress printing, was a form of contemplation, prayer, and recognition of a sacred presence in the “ka-thunk” and “rrrrrrrrr” of the press.
And yet, for the all the joy of retreating, for most of us those extended periods of quiet and creative isolation are not often realistic. It is from this ideal that Kathleen Norris draws us to the quotidian reality:
I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self . . . . If they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer (Norris 170).
Find sacred space when and where you can.
Work with your hands.
Make beautiful things.
Make things beautiful.
Ryan Stander is an Associate Professor of Art at Minot State University where he teaches photography, directs the BFA program, and co-directs Flat Tail Press. Originally from the farmlands of northwest Iowa, Stander is a transplant to central North Dakota. His education alternated between art and theology [MFA from the University of North Dakota, MA in Theology from Sioux Falls Seminary (SD), and a BA in Art from Northwestern College (IA)]. His research interests reside in conversations of art and theology with memory, identity, and landscape.