The Daily Heller: Drawing to Manage Stress

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Mark Addison Smith describes himself as “a queer artist whose design specialization is typographic storytelling—allowing illustrative text to convey a visual narrative through printed matter, artist books and site installations.”

He has been illustrating snippets of overheard dialogue every single day since 2008, exhibiting the works as larger-scale conversations between strangers on topics never spoken. Smith’s work has appeared in such venues as A+D Gallery in Chicago, Brooklyn Artists Gym, Co-Prosperty Sphere in Chicago, Foundry Art Centre, Hegyvidek Gallery in Budapest, and Kawaura Art Space in Japan.

On the occasion of the publication of The Streets Are Very Quiet: You Look Like the Right Type Book 2, I asked Smith to wax eloquent on this and his artist’s books as a whole.

How long have you been making these visual essays?
Visual essays, or in my case sequences of hand-drawn text, have been part of my art practice for probably 15 years. In graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was fascinated with making artist’s books that incorporated a split-page structure into the binding so that readers could break apart prefixes and suffixes within a stack of drawn words to make nonsense words, or shuffle grammatical structure within larger sentences to create new meaning. The content was usually personal narrative-based, which allowed the reader to rearrange the stories and blur the lines between truth and perception.

After graduate school, I began my daily You Look Like The Right Type archive. This November will be the 14th year that I’ve been drawing overheard, verbatim fragments of spoken dialogue each day, and these drawings give me a lot of material to mix and match into larger wall conversations for gallery installations and artist’s books.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, I invited strangers to have remote conversations with me so that I could continue my daily practice of drawing overheard, spoken language. These drawings became mini chapters of how people across the world were understanding and surviving the pandemic and those chapters were arranged into a new artist’s book, called The Streets Are Very Quiet, which I’ve just printed with assistance from a Research Foundation of The City University of New York grant. The title is a quote from elementary school teacher Rhona Sawatsky, the first stranger that I invited to have a Zoom conversation with me during the pandemic, in which she described the view from her window in Winnipeg, Canada.

What is your creative and or commercial motivation?
A big source of creative inspiration is using expressive lettering to add emotional impact to language. My hope is that the viewer can hear the words as they read them. When I use someone else’s words as source material for my drawings, I feel a responsibility to present their language accurately and authentically as truth. In my You Look Like The Right Type drawings, for example, I don’t draw a quote if I feel that I haven’t captured the words verbatim. But every pen stroke carries a million emotional multitudes: the weight and speed of the hand, the length and curvature of the line, the tentativeness or confidence in how a letterform is drawn all come into play and convey emotionality within the words to add character to the dialogue.

Your narratives seem to be growing larger, unless that is my own perception, do you have a size goal you’re aiming for.
You’re right, each book has progressively gotten larger in terms of the number of drawings featured within the book, which bulks up page count, but it’s not something that I consciously decided. Narrative size is more dependent upon the guidelines for each book.

From the last three artist’s books I’ve produced, Years Yet Yesterday, from 2015, is the smallest and most rule-oriented. This book is a series of 24 drawings, with each drawing incorporating three same-letter words spoken by Larry Kramer within his 2004 speech, The Tragedy of Today’s Gays, to generate circular shapes—similar to Ishihara plates—where the viewer can detect a larger, central word hidden amidst a sea of smaller words. The drawings within this book form an abecedary, with each drawing representing a letter in the alphabet. There are 24 drawings in this book because Larry Kramer’s speech doesn’t contain any words beginning with an X or a Z, so 24 becomes a conceptual, time-based element to frame the ongoing AIDS pandemic.

We Have Re-Energized Our Twitter Account, from 2018, weaves together 108 drawings from the first decade of my You Look Like The Right Type archive to create a found narrative about the decline of Western civilization due to our obsession with social media. This book was designed to be read in a linear sequence, but it also accompanied a gallery installation of drawings which could be read non-linearly within a matrix arrangement, so editing this book was an interesting challenge and took many rounds of revisions to get the sequence just right. In my mind, the last drawing featured in the book circles back to the first to create an endless loop.

The Streets Are Very Quiet, which I completed this year, brings together 365 drawings from longer, invitation-based conversations that I held with strangers during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to meet my daily drawing goal for my You Look Like The Right Type archive. The source material was so abundant and rich that it didn’t feel appropriate to limit myself to one drawing a day, so I started creating chapter-based visual essays to retell everyone’s stories, sometimes generating as many as 20 drawings a day. The drawings provided an escape from the horrors on the news, but also a means to slow down and wrap my brain around what was happening during that time. Spending hours studying and drawing the words from strangers across the world, who suddenly felt like friends, made me feel safe. And, like We Have Re-Energized Our Twitter Account, I spent quite a bit of time finalizing the book’s sequence so that one visual essay logically feeds into the next.

I’ve been drawing dialogue each day for almost 14 years now, so I’d love to produce a book that combines hundreds of drawings from my You Look Like The Right Type archive into one book. That narrative would certainly be the largest!

What is the appeal, especially in this era of digital “content” to produce books?
I love the physical interaction with a book. They actively engage our senses; we can smell the ink, we can feel the texture and weight of the paper. They’re sculptures; we can feel the heaviness of the book in our hand. Within my process, my initial impulse is usually to generate a sequential narrative, and that sequence finds a natural home as a book object. Each page originally starts out as an original pen-on-paper drawing within a larger series, which then becomes digitized for book assembly, and then returns full-circle to a paper-based form when the book is printed and bound. There are digital stops along the journey, while the starting and ending points are paper-based. Years Yet Yesterday, for example, began and exists as a series of 22 x 15-inch India ink drawings, and then became scanned and resized into an artist’s book.

Usually, what is your press run? Does this meet the extent of your audience?
I usually print around 200 or 300 copies of an artist’s book, depending on grant funding. The Streets Are Very Quiet is my smallest run so far with 150 copies in the edition because the page count is quite high. It’s a brick of an object, sized at 6 x 9 x 2-inches with 448 pages.

Because my book editions are smaller, I sell to individual collectors and place the majority within museums and library special collections as collectible book objects. All of my artist’s books, including ones I made in graduate school, are housed within the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my favorite artists’ book collections and a space that holds an extra-special place in my heart as a graduate from the School. Within the New York City area, I have a deep appreciation for the Brooklyn Museum Artists’ Book Collection, Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, Center for Book Arts, Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Cooper Hewitt Special Collections, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library at the Whitney, Franklin Furnace, Guggenheim Library and Archives, Printed Matter, and Thomas J. Watson Library at The Met, all spaces which hold my books.

I would love to work with a commercial publisher to print a larger-run edition featuring several hundred of my You Look Like The Right Type drawings, which now include more than 5,000 works-on-paper within the archive. The fifteenth anniversary is coming up, so that would be an incredible way to celebrate.