Bealart Visiting Artist Talk
Brianna and Natalie, co-founders of Penrose Press were invited back to the high school where they met, a wonderful hub of creative learning and opportunity in London Ontario: H.B. Beal Secondary School. Below are the essentials from our presentation, conveniently collected for the students to reference, and to satisfy the curiosity of everyone else.
Natalie: We’re going to tell you about our education, our dreams and the micro-publishing house that we started together a year ago.
Brianna: Let’s get started. I went to high school in St. Thomas and did a foundation art year at Beal before going to University. I started at Ryerson in Fashion Design, switched to OCAD for Drawing and Painting, and switched again within OCAD to Printmaking. Printmaking is great. Mr Heene got me hooked on Lithography, though. I’m not sure whether it was the medium itself or the enthusiasm and mentorship that came with it, but I fell into printmaking and haven’t bothered to climb back out. Printmaking is a very social art form thanks to how few people do it, and how we’re all dependent on the same space and specialised resources. It is often collaborative and it is highly networked. Upon graduating, I immediately joined Open Studio, a membership-based printmaking studio and I make work from there, now.
Natalie: I went to highschool here and did a foundations art year at the same time as Brianna. Throughout high school, I did all four years of comm tech classes, English classes as well as Writer’s Craft, and finished it out with half of a Specials year in Ceramics and Photography. Did I know what I wanted to pursue in university at the end of all that? Nope. Not a clue. I narrowed it down by process of elimination, settling on an end goal of publishing - I already read 70 books a year, so why not read some more in the name of academia? I decided to do a BA at York University for English Lit - a four year program that turned into five years thanks to working full-time at the same time as a full-time course load. Throughout my time at York, though, despite loving the 3-hour long academic discussions about Virginia Woolf, I felt like my creative side was dying. I tried to compensate - I took music, a vast amount of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies classes, let my friend tattoo me for her Fine Arts thesis show, enrolled in an ASL class, did graphic design on the side - but it still felt as though I was neglecting the creative elements that made me thrive here at Beal. Now, I wanted to find a balance between pure academic language and art.
Natalie: Finishing school and looking at the daunting expanse that is The Workforce, it seemed as if we both had lots of work, but not meaningful work. It all felt like small stepping stones that weren’t really getting us to where we wanted to be, we both wanted a dream job.
Brianna: Penrose Press’ first project was begun last February at OCAD thanks to an in-study grant from the Ada Slaight Foundation. I had learned how to make books in my studies at OCAD and I was taking a creative writing elective in the first semester of my last year where I met Joyce, a writer whose words were so beautiful, I contemplated a non-mandatory group project. In the real world we just refer to it as collaboration. Joyce is creativity personified - she always has some new idea rolling around in her brain, ready to be put into action - much like Natalie and I. Lucky for us, she had a story in progress and I suggested that I would illustrate and bind a book for it, only we’d do an edition of 100. We did some planning and figured out how expensive it would be, even if we did all the labour ourselves. Then, miracle of miracles, there was an in-study grant available.
*Grant Rant* grants, are sums of money that you don’t have to give back. You can apply to them here on your way to university, you can apply to them from your university as you enter, and then they stop being available for a while. As an artist in Ontario for example, you can apply for grants from the OAC and the CAC, and a lot of practicing artists rely on grants to execute projects that may or may not be saleable. Think: performance art or non-permanent installation based art. The kicker is that you have to wait 2 years after graduating to apply for artist grants from the Ontario Arts Council and 3 years to apply for artist grants from the Canada Arts Council. We have to keep things going by ourselves for another year before we’re eligible to apply for public arts funding.
So! We drew up a detailed spreadsheet and wrote some paragraphs about what we wanted to make and why and how we would pull it off. And we asked the Ada Slaight committee for $1000. They looked carefully at our proposal and figured that we hadn’t allocated our funds properly and that it would cost more than $1000 to make our project happen... so they gave us $1500. I don’t think that happens very often. As part of the application we had to have a group of at least 3 OCAD students, so we brought on my friend Egor who does graphic design and digitally formatted the book. It ended up being a super good call and we work with Egor on every project now.
After we got the grant, things lagged for a while. I was finishing my BFA thesis which I made really difficult for myself and Joyce was still working on the novel. I was trying to help edit but it seemed like a never ending project. This is where Natalie comes in to save the day.
Natalie: I went to Brianna’s thesis show, admired all the lovely art, and got chatting about the big “what’s next” question. She explained what she and Joyce were up to, and I jumped at the opportunity to insert myself into the project. It would be a great piece for me to gain editing experience, so I started working with Joyce on “Caterpillar Portraits”. Joyce is so incredibly descriptive with her writing that I had an immense amount of very difficult cuts to make, and Brianna and I quickly realized that we enjoyed the book creation process, enjoyed working together, and definitely wanted this to be way more than a one-time-thing.
Brianna: We came up with a name, “Penrose Press,” made an instagram account, and registered our domain name. While we were all still working on production, Natalie, Joyce and I were all doing the much less measurable, infinitely important work of pitching the book to all of our friends and acquaintances until they were as excited about it as we were. I even took the first finished copy with me to a couple of gallery openings in early September. Gallery conversations go like this:
Natalie: How lovely, this landscape reminds me so much of sunsets from the penthouse in Paris.
Brianna: The colour palette is great, isn’t it? I love when artists explore the tiny spaces between colours instead of intense contrasting ones.
Natalie: I was just thinking that!
Brianna: Are you an artist, yourself?
Natalie: Oh well, you know, my kids got me this lovely watercolour set for my birthday, every colour you can imagine, and I’ve been working on some still lives.
Brianna: That sounds beautiful.
Natalie: Mhmm…. Are you an artist?
Brianna: Yep, I make books.
Brianna: Yeah, I’m a micropublisher. I illustrate the books and sew them together by hand, but I don’t write them, I work with an editor and a writer and a graphic designer.
Natalie: That sounds so interesting!
Brianna: It really is! Would you, I mean, I have one with me, if you’d like to see?
Natalie: I’d love to!
Brianna: Then you hand them the book, and they run off and show their friends, and you have to track them down later and trade them your book for a business card. They go to your website, sign up for your mailing list, you remind them the day before the launch, they show up and buy three copies.
Natalie: My version of that is less eloquent - it happens over the Copy Centre counter at Staples. I keep my eyes out for customers bringing in anything that looks remotely book-related, or a Chapters bag, and start the conversation. Even better is the customer who wants to chat - they ask where you went to school, and ask if you’re doing anything with it. Then you get to say, ‘why yes, actually, I co-founded a micropress, I edit the books that we then illustrate and hand-bind’, and watch their baffled expressions. It’s priceless. They inevitably ask about the process, about the books, and they leave with one of your business cards. If you have extra time at the end of the conversation, you can show them your Instagram and get them well-and-truly convinced that you are, in fact, a millenial with an arts degree who is doing something worthwhile with it.
Brianna: One of the best parts about working collaboratively (besides being able to call your business partner at 1 am while you’re having a “what am I doing with my life” panic attack) is that your audience is automatically doubled or tripled or quadrupled, depending on how overlapping your social circles are. The fact that Natalie and I as well as our authors all come from different social groups works incredibly well in our favour - together, we can all bring in way more people to our launches than we would be able to alone. The launch for Caterpillar Portraits rolled around on a Thursday evening at the end of September and the little tea shop that was hosting us was full to bursting. Between the Thursday evening and a daytime event two days later for our out-of-towners we sold out. 100 books, gone. We priced them at $30 each and as the original collaborators, Joyce and I each got half. (Egor was paid at the time of his work from the grant). From my half Natalie and I paid ourselves $250 each which left us $1000 left over from the grant for the next project.
Natalie: During the mostly-Brianna-focused production portion of Caterpillar Portraits, I was thinking about next steps. We knew we were enthusiastic about continuing to publish, and we knew we wanted to feature exclusively emerging, Canadian writers, but we needed to find said writers before we could make beautiful things with their work. I leveraged the fact that I graduated from an English program and contacted everyone I knew who was in a creative writing program, and managed to convince our lovely Rebecca to submit work. She gave us four short chapbooks, I combined and refined the selection into one slightly longer work that still fit within the chapbook format. At the same time, we were emailing with Terry, who had reached out to us. With Terry, we originally asked for one poem, and he provided a selection. One agonizing phone call later and we had narrowed it down to two poems, and we wanted both. Through beginning work with Rebecca, Terry’s work remained on our minds - the idea of a collaborative launch for these two shorter works was percolating, so we reached out to him again, asking for more work, and he obligingly provided it.
Brianna: Terry’s and Rebecca’s writings are incredible. They’re both poets. Terry’s poems in “a wish” are crazy short, we’re talking 10 words or fewer most of the time. And he talks about the limits of empathy, or at what point do you have to stop imagining what it feels like to be someone else, and just trust them to tell you. Rebecca’s work “Letters to Frida” is written in response to feeling underrepresented as a Mixed, Mexican creative person in Canadian schools. She talks about feeling Mexican even though the Mexico that she loves lives in her grandmother’s kitchen and she can barely speak Spanish.
We held another book launch in January (at a bar called Tequila Bookworm, aptly). We did not sell out and that is a good thing. The books are moving slowly and steadily from our website ecommerce.
Natalie: We also took on a paid job - not a passion project like the last three books, but still publishing, illustrating, and binding a limited edition of work. Except this time, we were also writing part of the work - and it was a musical, based around a tax law. GAAR: The Musical was born out of networking and shared studio space - Michael knew of Brianna’s work through Open Studio, where he is on the board of directors, and got his assistant to reach out to us. He had written ten songs, based off of melodies and borrowed verses from existing musicals, but rejigged to revolve around one particular section of the Income Tax Act - the General Anti-Avoidance Rule, or GAAR for short.
Brianna: And we know VEERY little about Law and Tax Law, nevermind GAAR.
Natalie: And, on top of that, we are not predominantly writers, either. Nevertheless, we decided to take on the challenge, and drew up a schedule and budget proposal, sent it off to Michael via his assistant, Laura, who advocated for him to approve the project and let us get started. Laura fits right in with our little Penrose Press team - she is passionate and just getting started with her career, she pursues theatre production and directing while being Michael’s assistant on the side. She has been a brilliant asset through the entire writing process, she’s driven and funny and a joy to work with. With Michael’s okay, and a signed contract - which is essential - we got started. Laura, Brianna and I had two, three, or sometimes even four hour skype calls after we all finished our work days, often writing about GAAR until 11 or 12 at night. We are now in the final throes - we are finalizing edits on the third draft with hopes of having a completely finished script by the end of April.
Brianna: And then illustrations and printing the cover, and binding everything together will happen during the summer.
Natalie: In between finishing the script and starting illustrations, we have another project that we will be working on, due to be published in June. Insomniac’s Assistant is a prose novel, so a novel comprised of poetry - think Ellen Hopkins’ Crank, for example. I was introduced to Sienna, the author, through one of our mutual friends, and Brianna and I only had to read the first three lines of her submission before we were hooked. Sienna is a dream to work with - her submission barely needed any editing at all, and her writing is so vividly descriptive that it is a joy to read.
Brianna: Sienna is also self-publishing her first novel this month, called A Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming. Natalie and I were pre-readers, which means that she sent us (and other people) advance copies to read and review and promote. By the way, you can preorder it here. It’s really an amazing book, longer than we could have handled as publishers, about 450 pages and we mostly work on smaller novels, up to 150 pages. One of the reasons I think we’re really excited to work with Sienna is that she’s like us, and Laura and Joyce. She’s a driven creative person who doesn’t wait for opportunities to come knocking, she does her research and just goes for it.
The Insomniac’s Assistant (the one that we are publishing) is a story that features a main character who sometimes seems like a regular person with regular problems like paying rent and wearing out shoes, but she also has a skill-set that seems downright supernatural and which she uses for her job of helping people go to sleep.
We’re publishing an edition of 200. For our first project, Caterpillar Portraits with Joyce, we published only one hundred and it was a lot. Basically, the part that takes a really long time in publishing is the writing and the design. They are handmade books and so the making takes time as well, but if I’ve carved an image, it takes only an hour more to print two hundred as it does to print one hundred. You have to buy more paper but we calculate everything together and we can make a better profit on two hundred copies than one hundred. It remains to be seen if we can sell two hundred, but follow us on social media and you’ll find out right along with us.
Natalie: Additionally, for Insomniac’s Assistant, we’re working on publishing ebook and audiobook versions of the text. There are pros and cons to every iteration. Ebooks are not very pretty, you can’t even choose a font, really because the reader sets all of that up for themselves, so the design part isn’t as fun for Brianna. However, the writing is strong enough to stand alone, and a much much larger audience can appreciate an ebook than can access a handmade limited edition copy. Audiobooks take a lot of production in areas that neither Brianna nor I have expertise in. However, we know some other creative humans with those skills and we’re always excited to collaborate in new ways.
Brianna: An audiobook is also a particularly lovely way to experience the Insomniac’s Assistant because Sienna will read it herself, and it functions well as a bedtime story.
Natalie: We had a preview at one of our formatting meetings - Sienna read the entirety of Insomniac’s Assistant aloud as we took a break from inDesign and ate lunch, and it functions so well as an aural art piece that it would be a shame if we didn’t explore the audiobook option for this publication. By about halfway through the book, Brianna was laying on the floor with her eyes closed, and the rest of us had linked arms or hands or legs and were just enjoying the vivid world that Sienna’s words and voice had created around us. It’s an experience I would recommend to everyone.
Brianna: So, how many of you think you would be interested in experiencing Insomniac’s Assistant in some way?
(assuming that a bunch of them raised their hands)
...And that is how our business functions, we spread enthusiasm. My grandpa asked me this weekend what our target audience for these books is. And my answer was that we didn’t have a target audience so much as a pyramid scheme of enthusiasm. Natalie and I and Sienna all tell everyone we talk to about our upcoming launch, and those people catch the bug, and they tell a bunch of their friends and in a really short time, we have a small but excited congregation of people and since we make limited edition items, that is exactly what we need. We may live in a digital age and use digital tools to create our projects and speak to one another, but we’re making a classic product and we’re using grassroots marketing and word of mouth to promote it. Yes, we have a website - you can’t not have a website in this day and age. And we are active on social media: Natalie runs our twitter and I run our Instagram and Facebook. But the real connections happen in person.
Natalie: And in the future, we’ll look at more structured marketing strategies, but right now, as we get bigger and more well known, the amount of people that are excited about us and the books that we create will also increase and carry us forward that way.
Brianna: Our dream for Penrose Press is to make it a full-time gig. If we could both devote all of our time to making these books, we could gain real momentum. As we solidify our own employment we also make spaces for other creative people to work on projects uninhibited by client specifications and start up costs. We will be able to make connections for our own projects and for other people’s. The problem with collaborative creative fields is that sometimes connections are all you need to move forward but making those connections independently is almost impossible. If we could be that connecting body, that would be really amazing.
Natalie: On top of all that, being able to bring incredible Canadian writers into the publishing world and giving them a safe space where they are able to work with us, learn how to collaborate, learn what professional copy and content editing looks like, and ultimately publish their first work and get their foot in the door of an intimidating industry is an amazing outcome of Penrose Press, and one that I’m very excited about fostering as we get larger. The more works we publish, the more authors we can help!
Brianna: And that’s all from us. We’ll just leave you with this one thing: a question that may be asked of you frequently over the next few years, should you choose to continue pursuing art is “What are you going to do with a degree in fine art?” For your convenience we’ve drafted an answer that you should feel free to take and adapt and use for yourself at family gatherings.
“I don’t know yet. However, I will be uniquely prepared for a workforce that changes constantly, even under the feet of accountants, teachers, doctors and government workers. My degree in creativity will teach me how to adapt, how to think critically, how to ignore a grading system in favour of personally evaluating what and how I learn from any given situation. I will be employed, maybe not in a conventional job, and I will seize every opportunity.”
Natalie: Here are some takeaway points to conclude.
Brianna: It’s okay to not know what you’re going to do when you finish your education. There are many ways to be employed in a creative field that are rewarding, you just may have to forge that path yourself instead of trying to find the perfect job that already exists. Some of the best opportunities arise unexpectedly, from one-off projects like Caterpillar Portraits, that develop into a micro-publishing press and a rewarding partnership, for example. Networking is essential! And not as scary as it sounds. If you wait until you already know how to do something before taking it on independently, you may be waiting forever, don’t be afraid to learn as you go. The other creatives around you are your best resources, don’t be afraid to reach out if you need help.
Natalie: Please feel free to continue asking questions in the comments!
Micropublishing Blog by Brianna and Natalie of Penrose Press