In Conversation With Hope Gutwrench

The first thing I see every morning when I open my eyes is a postcard made by Hope. It is a single word, one of the most important words I know, the card reads: “TRy”. The fact that the last letter is lower case reminds me that not everything we try to do works out perfectly, or even at all. But we do it anyway. And it matters.

This card is one of many that Hope has made since 2008 when she began her Keep Writing Project. The project is a simple one—send hand made postcards to friends, and now subscribers, but the result is something bigger than the sum of its parts. Their arrival in the mail always connects me to a larger sense of people in the world making things, and trying, and living the best we can in a time that feels overwhelmingly against that most simple of acts. Hope added an element to her project in 2011, this time she asked her subscribers to respond in kind and sent cards for us to use for our own interpretation of her themes. You can look at the beautiful results here: http//www.keepwritingpostcards.tumblr.com

Over the years Hope has been a maker of zines and patches that have given shape to elements of my life and of her many friends as well. She is a print maker, a paper maker, a book binder, and works with letter press, too. If it has to do with communication, Hope Gutwrench is doing it. You can look at one of her installations here: http//www.gutwrenchpress.blogspot.com

What is so beautiful to me in the work Hope does is the ultimate fragility and genuineness. This comes through in the zig-zagged stitches that, in some places, barely hold the entire object together, be it one of her lovely hot air balloons or her landscapes, there is always the reminder that the whole of everything is temporary and what should surprise us the most is that the pieces of our lives hold together at all, even for a moment. But, they do.

I wouldn’t say this unless I really meant it, Hope’s datebooks make great gifts for someone you love or for yourself. Meaningful, useful, and beautiful. Find them here:http://www.etsy.com/shop/gutwrench

It is my pleasure to share this conversation with you:

ME: When did you start making things? How old were you and what were you doing?

HOPE:  Let’s see…I came to printmaking and fine art stuff kind of late. I started with writing. Penpals in second grade. Poetry in high school. I wrote my first zine just out of high school, though even then I was a little behind the times. It was 1996, maybe just past the crest of riot grrl zines

ME: What was your high school poetry like? Were you keeping notebooks of angst or were you writing for classes?

HOPE: Angsty. Though I had a teacher who used to let my write new poems on his chalk board after school. I had a lot of support and a lot of anger then though I was angry for all the wrong reasons. Very suburban teenager stuff.

ME: Were you raised on a lot of TV, like most of us were?

HOPE: Probably no more than most. Though my mom wouldn’t let us get cable until high school. I read a lot. I knew there were other things out there in the world but I wasn’t exactly sure what they were.

ME: I’m thinking of your library post card, that was your sanctuary. What was the first zine you got your hands on, and/or the first music you heard that made you want to explore beyond what was readily available in suburban life?

HOPE: My friend wrote a zine called Drop Dead but I think it was what I found in the library that really made me want to get out into the world. I read a lot of beat poetry, Kerouac’s novels, short stories by Raymond Carver, looked at black and white photographs of the first half of the 1900’s–Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. I had a romanticized idea of New York, that it would be like NY in the 50’s, but also of San Fransico. I knew I wanted to travel, to see cities, to be places where there were lots of different kinds of people and ideas. I read a lot of Plath and Ann Sexton too and though I loved their work, I didn’t want to be stuck at home, even if I could do my own work.

ME: Right. I’m a big Sexton fan, too. But her life was a burden to her. I’m so taken by your postcard project for many reasons, one of them being what an inspiration they are in the middle of the day, when the mail comes and I get up from my own work and remember, yes, yes, Hope is out there, my friends and people who would be my friends if I knew them, are out there making things and thinking and living. It’s exciting. What was your impetus for beginning this project in 2008?

HOPE: I started the Keep Writing Project because I had moved to Baton Rouge to start college, as an undergrad, at 31, after living in New Orleans for 6 years. I knew that attending a big state school as an undergrad in this suburban city was going to be a culture shock. And I knew that I wanted to keep in touch with friends in New Orleans and penpals, but that I would be busy with school. I also wasn’t sure what my classes would be like and I had some letterpress experience so part of it was a challenge to myself to make something every month, to experiment and expand on what I was learning at school. It also gives me a good excuse to talk to strangers whose art I like, or people who I know from New Orleans who maybe I wasn’t close to, but I knew I liked what they were doing (like you!). Post cards are a low-pressure form of letterwriting. Yet, still tangible. I wanted to make things as familiar and comforting as I could while still trying this bizarre and difficult thing of going to school. It also meant that I had a project that was mine, and I could bring it to academia or not, when I was ready. But at first it was just about keeping in touch with friends.

ME: That is scary, going to school in, well anywhere, but yes Baton Rouge, already under the tag “non-traditional” student. It sounds like the postcards were a way of not only keeping in touch but a way of not getting swallowed up, too. When you started were you taking subscriptions or did that come later? Were you getting interesting things in the mail as a result of the cards from the start?

HOPE: When I came up with the idea for the project, I wasn’t sure if it would work. So I sent a postcard to about 60 people, friends and penpals, and explained my idea and told them that the first two months were one dollar, a trial run. It would cover postage.I also said I would accept trades, stamps, or chocolate. Total zinester style. I also had a table at the New Orleans Bookfair. This was only about two or three months after I started school. So I asked a lot of friends, and some strangers, too. That was the start of my mailing list. I slowly upped the subscription rate though I have always been very lenient with it. In the beginning I got at least two letters with a dollar in coins taped inside–one from an old zine friend, one from my New Orleans neighbor who only had dimes. I have a friend in Berlin who sends a box of cookies and liquorice and chocolate every year as a trade.

ME: Very sweet. When you started making postcards that asked us, your subscribers, to respond in kind, was there something that surprised you in the responses? I have looked at these responses on your tumblr page and just smiled the whole time. There are so many truly lovely pieces of art and such a willingness to express small but touching emotions.

HOPE: I was surprised by who responded. I expected my long-time penpals and art friends to respond, and they didn’t always. But I didn’t expect my cousin to respond to every postcard. I wrote to her because I have sent her a birthday card every year since she was little. (Now she is 26 and about to get married). My sister wrote a few great ones, too. Those are the ones that surprised me. And the ones that understood what I was looking for. I can talk for miles but in typesetting I have to edit and condense and edit and condense. So I sometimes am afraid I have edited so much that what is left doesn’t make sense. I usually have someone proofread but they often already know what my idea is. I am never sure how clear I am until someone writes back.

ME: That’s interesting. Almost as if some of the people you were communicating with were waiting to be asked, or given permission to make something on their own. I encounter people who evaluate the whole idea of making something based on it being ‘good’ in terms of what machines make or what greeting card artists make rather than embracing the value of expression itself. Which is something your style breaks down, I think. There is a clear technical ability in what you are doing these days and a clear aesthetic preference in what you are designing, but also a sharing of humanness. I’ll get back to this in a second… you did decide to take your project into your academic world, what has been your experience with that?

HOPE: Part of using the project as part of my schoolwork was practical–I spent a lot of time printing and addressing postcards so it only made sense that it counted towards a class. Though most of the time, I just made more work for myself. When I needed a final project, it was clear that the postcards were what was most important to me. I had a hard time combining them with fine art prints and satisfying requirements and mostly having it all make sense together. I think, in the end, my installation did work. But it was a little bit lucky and a lot of work. Mostly though, I kept the postcards out of critiques unless I had specific questions. There were people I would talk with about the project, to get ideas and see where it could go, but mostly I felt confident in my decisions in each card, had a basic design worked out. There were times when critique was very helpful in school, but there were also lots of times where no one wanted to be there, or everyone felt forced to say something so people would just comment on something. I know that is what school is about and I still tried to listen openly because often there was something surprising and helpful said. But this is about my work overall. I had two print professors and one is very encouraging and one is a little more difficult. I think they didn’t quite get what I was doing because they are so entrenched in the fine art/academic world. Even a lot of the grad students I knew expected that I would just want to go to grad school now, but I am not sure that is what I want or need. There are ways I could make this project bigger, more public, get more attention for it and maybe now that I am out of school I will. But I also love it and love hand-addressing each card even though it takes hours and I often don’t write more than hello.

ME: In looking at the photos of your installation I was taken by several feelings, one of fragility in the hot air balloons stitched together, held together by holes essentially, it is a feeling of how impossible life is, yet how beautiful. Here’s the thing . . . you are not a smart-ass, your work is a genuine invitation, the pieces resist the knee-jerk irony of our era and from this, a real tenderness arises, a reverence, and it has power. I had to remind myself that I was looking at something done for an academic environment, I know it could not have been easy to present your work in that world. I’m curious about what the hot air balloons mean to you and where that imagery came into your life?

HOPE: Just like the post cards, I kept the balloons mostly out of critiques until the final installation. I asked for individual, specific advice, but I knew they were part of a specific context. I started making prints of hot air balloons a few years ago in school and sculptures in a papermaking class. I don’t really draw a lot so I tend to work the same images over and over until I feel satisfied with them. This is the third set of hot air balloons I made. When I started making them I was feeling a bit down, in school and in Baton Rouge. It was like being a teen-ager again. I knew there were other things in the world but being in school can narrow your focus (depending on where you were when you started school). I chose printmaking because I like the ability to make multiples, to share art, to democratize it. But there is a focus on fine-art printing, with some interest in experimentation but not a lot about process and reasoning. There is a limit to the academic idea of interaction that seemed too confining to me. Hot air balloons were a symbol of escape, choices, a way out. I needed to rethink how I was approaching school. And the balloons are such a simple, joyful shape. I wanted to maintain and share the sense of optimism I have with out seeming naive or simple.

ME: One of many advantages of going to school when we are finally mature is the ability to do exactly what you did, knowing what is up for discussion and what is best left unsaid.

I saw in one of your blogs a reference to dreaming and art, do you dream some of the landscapes you get onto paper?

HOPE: I am glad you said that about going to school I sometimes felt and still feel like a pompous jerk when I say there are things I did not want to discuss in class because I knew what I was doing.

ME: I am so glad you did that! It’s tremendously important to find our voice and let it tell us what to do.

HOPE: As for the landscapes, they are from photos I took. I got a new camera last year and have been documenting landscapes I like and then altering them a little in photoshop and abstracting them in prints. For now, that is the best process I have for creating images that express what I want. I have always been better with words. My dreams are very mundane.

ME: That’s often for the best. Thank You for talking to me, Hope!

HOPE: Yes! Thanks Michelle, its been fun.

Find Hope on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/gutwrenchpress

(To see the whole blog click on the header)

About michelleembree

www.michelleembree.com michelleembree1@gmail.com
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