I spent the last week teaching a First Year undergrad Drawing class at Mount Allison University, while their regular professor was away installing a show. I had two classes to work with the 28 new students, and decided to focus on mail art and zines. Zines have been a major part of my practice since my first year of undergrad when I made very sappy sentimental work about my long-distance boyfriend of the time. Thankfully that was just a starting point, and I have been awakened to the limitless potential of zines and book works, not only in terms of format, but also content, accessibility and as a community building tool.
I was not surprised when I asked any of them if they had ever made some mail art, or a zine, and they all said no. I reassured them that they probably have made small books before (they all nodded) and have sent a letter or drawing in the mail, or by email (they all nodded) and I assured them that those were all my requirements for something to fit the category of “mail art” or a “zine”.
To start, I gave them a little lecture of some of my favorite drawers who have made zines, participated in mail art, publish books or use photocopying in someway. I was hoping we could have some discussion about what they liked and didn’t like that I showed them, but they were all sleepy and tired. I really tried to coax a critique of what I had shown them, but no luck! I them gave them free rein of my zine and mail art collection, which is about 300 booklets, but specific to all things/drawing styles I like. I was amazed that as soon as they had a physical book in their hands, they felt comfortable talking about the work in front of them. Some students even recognized artists from the internet/their Instagram posts, and could relate in a more intimate way.
Because of this comfortableness they seemed to have with physical images over digital, as part of the assignment I gave them, I asked each student in the class to go to the library, and take out a book. It could be any book at all, but I mostly wanted to get them over the fear of going to the library. I remember how it was so intimidating to me when I first got to university, but once I forced myself to go in, I was amazed at how I could just find wonderful books everywhere.
We did drawing exercises which included a spiral as a physical and mental warm up, a visual diary page, and I challenged them to completely fill a 8.5 x 11 page with drawings in under 20 mins. That was the hardest task. We also learned how to fold simple 8 page zines, and made our first book by drawing a page and passing it to their neighbour, with only one song’s length to complete the task. Every activity was timed with music, to keep them focused and on task. The overall aim of these exercises was to warm them up, and loosen up their drawing style. Most drew very mall and tight naturally, so this was a challenge to try something new. Some did, some didn’t.
For these classes Lynda Barry and Ivan Brunetti were major influences. I think the playful, but regimented and methodical style of teaching Barry employs in her Syllabus, was the right approach for first time zine makers. I wanted the students to have fun with this, and see that you can make a book in an hour, that it does not have to be an onerous task. Brunetti’s book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, was another useful tool in terms of technique, and we did a few of his narrative and sequence exercises as warmups. These are two teaching tool books I go back to repeatedly, whether with kids, adults or students. I like to have them with me for teaching, as physical books, and often the students are curious to learn more. Even if the students are not explicitly interested in graphic novels, comics or cartoons, I think they are a great entry point to making books, as they can be completely wordless quite simply, and emphasize clarity over drawing style.
In keeping with the idea of bookmaking as a simple practice, I gave them an assignment at the end of class tuesday, that would be due at the end of the class thursday. Using the book they got from the library as a point of inspiration, they needed to make a drawing with at least one fold. This could end up being a book, a sculpture, an envelope full of small drawings – it was completely up to them. These could be embroidered, printed, photocopied, painted, collaged ….
I asked them to think about how and where this item would travel. Are they just going to hand it to your neighbour, or is it going to be sent by mail across the world? Or is it going to be emailed to someone, or posted online so they can download and print it? This means considering dimensions, weight, durability and costs. I asked them to make this item with the intention of it either being a multiple, or one of a kind, but think about how it will be replicated, and be prepared to discuss.
I was expected most of them to shy away form book making, but almost all of them made an 8 to 16 page book, that could easily be photocopied. Here are some of the examples: