Category Archives: Austin

Vagina‘s Voice, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Young Feminism

I’m a grumpy old feminist. (And if almost-35 doesn’t seem old to you, just focus on the “grumpy” part.) I started noticing patriarchal bullshit when I was 15, before I knew what to call it, and that’s 20 years of noticing and stewing and bitching and getting over it and then noticing some more.

If there’s one encouraging thing about the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of feminism, post-feminism, and conservative backlash that we seem to be stuck in these days, it’s that people are still finding names for the soft oppressions of patriarchal culture and disseminating them via this messy tool we call the internet.

But, to borrow from Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older while the feminists stay the same age. Every couple of years a new micro-generation of awesome, talented young women go through the phases that all awesome, talented young people are entitled to, and I have to continually remind myself that all lessons have to be re-taught and re-learned, and many have to be lived firsthand.

I started this blog with a vague sense of discomfort over certain habits and expectations younger women I know grew up with, habits I perceived as confusingly anti-feminist, or potentially so, although I struggled to figure out why. While I don’t have a clear answer about what makes a feminist (nor does anyone, nor should anyone), I still find it incredibly frustrating to watch strong, cool, smart women go through their I’m-Not-A-Feminist phase, or, down the line, their Feminism-Means-Whatever-We-Do-Is-Totally-Fine-And-Unproblematic phase. (Of course we can do whatever we want. But nobody is free of structural inequality and the cultural systems that help prop it up–not black women, not white men, not me, not you. I don’t believe it’s in our DNA, but it’s in our brains, and it’s just as hard to root it out as if it were in our DNA. All you can do is look at it long and hard, and keep looking.)

That’s one reason why Hillary-Anne Crosby made such an impression on me. I first interviewed the founding editor of Vagina : : The Zine when I was researching my article about Austin’s booming print culture a few months ago. I found so many great journals and independent presses to write about that I ultimately didn’t have room to delve into zines (embarrassment of riches!), but I was intrigued by Hillary-Anne’s personality and presence, enough to do a follow-up piece on her for the Austin Chronicle. [Disclosure! After the interview, Crosby asked my sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual, to perform at the upcoming release party this Saturday.]

I’m not sure who I was expecting to walk in the door of Cherrywood Coffeehouse to talk up a zine called Vagina–more visible tattoos, perhaps? Definitely not the bouncy, upbeat, up-talking 23-year-old with a pixie cut and a huge smile who walked through the door. Crosby, despite her zine’s in-your-face name, is the opposite of confrontational. Ultimately, my surprise is a little embarrassing in that it reveals a lot about my own preconceptions about the V-Word and about feminism itself–that in its most active and purest form, it’s loud, prickly, and above all, mad.

I’m a grumpy old feminist, but I really liked this perky young feminist a lot. It relieved me to hear her call herself a feminist, and it heartened me that she seems so young and confident, and it didn’t scare me that she seems to have lots to learn. So do I. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice behind the Vagina.

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THE OEDITRIX: So tell me a little bit about how Vagina : : The Zine got started.

HILLARY-ANNE CROSBY: I started it the second semester of my last year in undergrad. Basically I was really bored with things in general, the past four years, and then I was going to graduate in a few months, and I had worked my way through school so I didn’t have any journalism internships. That was my major and that was what I wanted to do. I was kind of terrified of how bad that was going to hurt me when I graduated. And so I kind of just made this my own little internship to try and grind my teeth on something, so that I’ll have learned stuff in the past couple of years, and I was a viable future employee. And that’s how I decided to start doing a zine. I’d never even seen a zine. I’d only heard of them, a couple months prior to that, and I hadn’t even seen one. It was just trying to figure it out as you go along.

OED: So how did you decide to make it a showcase for women’s work?

HAC: I was a photojournalism student, and a lot of had these websites and these blogs full of our work and no one  was seeing them. Like, yay, I have a website! And there are a million websites out there. I wanted a place where they could really share their work with a wider audience who was really looking at it rather than browsing it, flipping through Facebook and things like that. And so I just decided to make it all-girls. I had really no reason for it at the time, that was just my decision. And I called it “Vagina” in my head as, like, a nickname that I had given it before I could decide on a name. But I’d been thinking about it for so long that after our first meting came on January 2, I was like, all right, Vagina. We’re going with it. It’ll stand out. At this point I hadn’t really thought about any other names because I’d just nicknamed it for so long.

OED: Would you say it’s a feminist zine?

HAC: My definition of feminism is just respecting and supporting women. I think that’s what feminism comes down to. So I label us a feminist magazine because I think that everything that we’re doing is respecting and supporting women and their different views on things. We have girls that write really openly about their sex lives, or abortions, or their dream of being a stay-at-home mom. I mean it’s kind of across the board. Instead of being like, oh you need to lose ten pounds and also maybe dye your hair blond. Where it’s like, sure, if you wanted to do those things! But this is to support women in general and all their different opinions and what they want to do.

OED: It takes a lot of guts to call yourself a feminist these days. I think having a magazine that calls itself “Vagina” already paints a certain picture of what you guys might be. The name has this very confrontational kind of connotation to it. Your vision is a little bit different than that.

HAC: Yeah. When you bring that word up it’s like a punch, it’s really in your face. I almost never said the word “vagina” before I started this zine, because it was so in your face and it seemed really aggressive. I was brought up with that being an offensive word that you should never use. But the whole point of the word vagina is just, here’s this sex organ that you have. Or maybe you’re male and you wish you had one! I don’t know. But it’s not like this offensive thing. It’s not meant to be. But I feel like in our culture we’ve made it that, and so Vagina’s also kind of about being—feminism isn’t meant to be aggressive and in your face. No one wants to beat you over the head because you’re a man, or because you want to be a stay-at-home mom. We’re really acculturated in a really specific way. I like that about Vagina, that it scares people into the open. That’s why I like having our events at Cheer Up Charlie’s versus a really dedicated literary space. A lot of people come that are just there for the bar that night, and they would come across the zine, and they would be like, Is it porn? And I would be like, no it’s not! It’s just the word “vagina.” I think it’s great that it’s so in your face, that it gets your attention, but we’re trying to normalize it more and more, basically. I say “vagina” all the time now. My tote bag is not with me but it says “vagina” on it in two different places. I have a lot of interest in trying to normalize feminism and maybe stop believing all these stereotypes that we grew up with. I have a few friends that were like, Oh I don’t consider myself a feminist. And so I was like what, do you think a feminist is? And a few months later they would come back and be like, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, I’m a feminist now, I guess. They’d grown up saying “feminazi.” Just like you grow up thinking vagina is a bad word. I guess we’re all just trying to make that transition.

OED: So the zine started as an experience-building thing. Do you think you’ll keep it going?

HAC: Honestly in that first meeting, I was like, I think I’m going to give this a year, and if it dies, it dies. If it’s not successful, no big deal. But it didn’t die, and I was really happy about that. It’s grown since then, and I kind of don’t ever want to stop now. We love that we’re not a magazine, not a journal, we are very specifically a zine. That [points to a copy of the zine] is computer paper and some staples, you know. And I love that, I love it so much. Maybe in a few years, if we had a big enough following, I would love to make that transition that Bitch and Bust made, from being a zine to being a more, like, grown-up zine that you can call a magazine. I would love that in the next few years to happen. I can’t really imagine it happening right now, but it would be my dream. Those were my inspirations, Bitch and Bust. So I would love that to happen, to really sell on newsstands, maybe on glossy paper. Maybe stop stapling them on my kitchen table! But I love doing it, I love doing a zine.

OED: Are there other feminist magazines coming out of Austin right now that you know of?

HAC: I haven’t seen any. I get a lot of jokes, people who are like, I’m going to think about doing like, “The Gentlemanly Penis.” And I’m like, you should! No one’s doing it. If I can start a zine, having never seen one? Zines are the easiest.

OED: You have a significant online presence too. So why is it even necessary to have a physical publication that’s an object?

HAC: I am really into print journalism in general. I wish I had been a newspaper person. I love that physical object, having something you can sit down and read, versus something you’re going to glance over. You can glance over a website any old time, while you’re on Facebook. I do it too. As opposed to having this physical handmade product that we put time and effort into. And people really buy it! You can read all of this on our website for free, we put the stuff that’s in here online a couple months after it comes out. You can read all of it for free. But I think people like that you can buy the thing that was made by these girls in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes my tears get on here! [pointing to zine]—I don’t think any of them show it. But this one–like, I myself don’t sew, but for a past issue I used a sewing machine, and there were all these problems where like my blood would end up on the design, and I’d be like, here you go friend! It’s really blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. When you make the layout, it comes from scratch every time, we can’t just pop anything into our layout. I think people really like that. I crafted this for you, you can sit down and read it whenever you want, you can throw it in your bag and mess it up versus just browsing it online.

OED: Are you into craft culture more generally?

HAC: Yes. If you had seen  our first two issues, it was literally, like, HEB bags, and inside were the pages, and then it was yarn or glue. Our first issue was a SXSW special issue, and I hand-stitched the letters onto the cover. I remember sitting in my design class stitching one night, and my professor, who was also really into zines, was like, everybody grab one! We’re all going to stitch while we do the lecture! It was cute, there were twelve of us stitching “vagina” into a bunch of brown paper bags. I love craft culture. And we’re getting more and more connected. I’m the only editor here in Austin, it used to be so much easier to have that assembly line, but now it just me and my kitchen table and a stapler.

OED: The making is just you?

HAC: Me and any friends that take pity on me that week.

OED: Anything else about Vagina : : The Zine you’d like people to know? 

HAC: I  really like to drive home how we’re kind of meant to be an alternative to a lot of women’s magazines and everything. Like I’m sorry, and I’m not even trying to be like super-vagina-feminist about this, but I hate Cosmopolitan. I’ll try and read it and I’ll come away really disheartened, and not really sure how I feel about myself. Vagina is meant to be for that woman who’s confident and isn’t wanting to change who she is to fit a certain mold. Who likes who she is. I like how this wide array of girls that write about how they want to be homemakers, and then there are girls who write about masturbation. I love the complete dichotomy and how we’re meant to be for a specific woman who’s confident and funny. That’s how I feel about Bust and Bitch, especially Bust. Bust is this awesome alternative: do you want to learn how to do your hair real pretty? Awesome! Do you want to read about punk music? Here it is! Versus trying to fit you into these specific molds: how to give your boyfriend orgasms—rather than how to give your girlfriend, or yourself orgasms. I’d rather focus on that than on losing 10 pounds and seventeen sex moves you’re not going to remember.

OED: That could be a spoof title: “Seventeen Sex Moves You’re Not Going to Remember.”

HAC: I made this whole double-page spread of all of these spoof headlines. I never have put in the issue how much I loathe Cosmo because I think that would be kind of mean. Personally, when you know me, then you’re like yeah, you would loathe Cosmo. But I feel like it would be too mean if I put it in print.

OED: For someone who runs a magazine with a confrontational name, you’re very polite. 

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Thanks for Slut-Shaming a Teen Rape Victim, CultureMap!

In 2012, I published 24 articles in CultureMap, many of which I’m very proud of. A few weeks ago the smart, kind editor who encouraged me to write for them in the first place, who gave me tips on pitching and interviewing and dealt with my clumsy mistakes for almost a year, left CultureMap for greener pastures. I was happy for him but sad for me—I lost the first person who put me in e-print. Meanwhile the company had slashed its already modest compensation, and the editors seemed to be more overworked and less careful than before. So I was already starting to pitch elsewhere. But after all, it was such an easy gig, and as I said, they had done a lot for me.

That’s why I initially told my husband I didn’t want to write anything about this thing. I still don’t. It makes me tired. But the queasy feeling won’t go away, so here I go.

On Halloween, CultureMap Dallas published an article by one of its managing editors. The article implied a young Dallas rape victim might be lying (or rather, suffering from “guilt” over “impulsive teenage decisions”), and expressed sympathy for her alleged rapist, a promising high school baseball star. CultureMap freelance contributor Dan Solomon, as he relates in the XOJane article I read yesterday, posted about his disappointment with CultureMap on his personal blog. He was then approached by his editors and asked to remove the piece, under threat of losing further opportunities to publish there. A freelance contributor being asked to remove his own reflections about the magazine from his personal blog. Solomon, obviously, did not.

Well, I’m a freelancer too. I have a personal blog too. And if freelancers for CultureMap are associated closely enough with the brand to warrant that kind of attention from the editors, then it’s a two-way street. Put another way: CultureMap has demanded passive support from its freelancers in the form of silence on their personal blogs. So I’m posting this in order to feel that I have not granted it.

What I would like to do that I have not seen done yet is take us step-by-step through the article. No apology or statement has been issued, although St. Amant defended her piece in a follow-up entitled “Bandwagon reporting doesn’t do victims of sex crimes any favors.” (Surprisingly given the headline, the article isn’t actually a compendium of quotes from victims of sex crime who agree with St. Amant!)

The point of this exercise is not just to show that the article was sloppily and lazily written–that doesn’t take a close reading to prove. It’s to show how once again, this type of sloppy, lazy writing covers up an opinion that would be too noxious to spell out in a well-reasoned argument.

Maybe it’s the Freudian in me, but I don’t believe in “sloppy writing” any more than I believe in all those supposed “gaffes” from Republican rape apologists earlier this year. I do believe in slipshod thinking that covers up the misogynistic attitudes that buoy up rape culture. These people don’t want to believe they believe the things they believe. When you listen to their language, you start hearing the mental blurs, the murky pits where thinking goes to die, the cesspools of plausible deniability where slut-shaming and victim-blaming grow like an algae bloom.

At first, the article appears to be pointing out a relevant fact: the second-degree felony charge implies the victim (whose age was not released) is under 17. Despite the actual headline, the opening paragraph leads a reader to expect an argument that the rape should not be charged as a crime against a child, but rather a crime against an adult. The lede:

There are few things more complicated than the line between adolescence and adulthood. While the Texas legal system makes a clear-cut distinction from age 16 (a child) to age 17 (an adult), the transformation occurs only on paper.

Leaving aside that wretched first line (oops, I didn’t leave it aside, oh well), it’s an interesting enough angle for me to ease warily into the article. I’m ready to hear an argument about the severity of these charges, perhaps with references to statutory rape law and child molestation cases.

This, however, does not occur. Six sentences lay out the bare facts of the case (two of those sentences are about how this guy’s dad is a CEO of something or other and how the kid is a great baseball player, but whatever). Then we get this:

Many criminal cases hinge on he-said, she-said evidence, but when the parties in question are high school students, the information is under even greater scrutiny than usual.

Uh, okay. If you say it’s under greater scrutiny, it’s under greater scrutiny. Oh hey, have you ever noticed that only in acquaintance rape and sexual harassment suits is what we normally refer to as “evidence” renamed “the he-said, she-said”? Just a side note! Okay, still listening. What next?

Kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up. But throw a sex act in the mix, and childish ways are all but left behind.

What the what now? This paragraph says nothing. Its sole function is to be a transitional paragraph between dubious sense and utter nonsense. What are these “childish ways” St. Amant is writing about? I literally have no idea what is happening here or where this argument will go next, which is part of the point. While my mind is still echoing with the words what-the-what-now, here comes the next paragraph, which returns to the point just long enough to make me think, Argument alert! Here it comes!:

However, it still seems bizarre to call a girl his peer while they are kissing but a child if their clothes come off.

Okay! Let’s ignore the general tone this is taking and stick with this statement, which is consistent with the premise presented in the lede. St. Amant goes on to present another “fact” paragraph, the only one in fact where the girl’s story is laid out with any detail at all:

The girl who pressed charges against Romo says she told him “No, I don’t want to do this,” as well as “Stop!” She says Romo told her “It would be okay,” and to “let it happen.” A sexual assault exam revealed trauma consistent with force, the affidavit states. [emphasis added]

And now–immediately following the statement about the results of the sexual assault exam!–the kicker, the final paragraph, where St. Amant pulls the misogynistic rabbit out of the sloppily-written hat:

No matter the facts, there is no good outcome in this case. If Romo forced himself on a girl in the backseat of his Chevy Tahoe as alleged, then he’s a sexual predator. If it’s a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo.

Actually, Claire St. Amant, there IS a “good outcome”! We call it “justice.” If this girl was raped, as substantiated by her exam, a “good outcome” would be that her rapist would be convicted and sentenced, and that would be a “good outcome” even if her rapist proved to be Romo! That is, if by “good outcome” what you mean is “good outcome” for the victim; I suppose, as is the case with all accused and convicted criminals, it wouldn’t technically be a “good outcome” for Romo. At any rate, as per the second sentence in the paragraph, Romo being “a sexual predator” would not actually be an “outcome” of the criminal proceedings of the trial, but rather an outcome of his having raped a girl under the age of 17.

However, the last sentence really brings home St. Amant’s readiness to call the victim a liar, not by saying she might have falsely accused Romo, but by implying that she might not have been raped at all. Despite the results of the sexual assault exam cited in the previous paragraph, the alternative St. Amant finds to Romo being a sexual predator is not that she was raped by someone else. It’s that this was a “case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt.” (I assume she means the girl’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to have sex with Romo, not Romo’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to rape her.) The question has been shifted from “Who raped her?” to “Was it rape?”

Acquaintance rape: the only kind of crime where being accused is actually a worse fate than having been a victim. What’s important, as always, is that a “promising” young man’s career got jeopardized by a woman who probably invented her rape charge because, why again? Why, Claire? Because rape charges make you super popular? Because she WANTS to be strapped to a table and probed by the county examiners? Because she WANTS to be gently chided in the local press for her impulsive teenage decisions, in an article that seems to delight in the phrase “Chevy Tahoe,” as if it stood for every teenage slut that has ever climbed into the back of a senior’s car and then sniveled later that he didn’t stop when she said “no”?

Maybe I should invent a rape charge! It would bring me so much welcome notoriety. I crave trolls on this blog. Now all I have to do is seduce some poor schmo into having sex with me, manufacture some bruises and lacerations, smear my mascara, and hobble to the nearest police station so I can sit for several hours on a cold bench under flourescent lights, talk to skeptical police officers, and then spread my legs for the county examiner. DONE!

(Next I plan to get pregnant so I can have an abortion, thereby sticking it to yet another group of beleaguered conservatives. Or alternatively I could become a single mom, thereby flaunting my sluttiness in public for 18 years and contributing to the decay of society as we know it.)

In her follow-up piece, Claire St. Amant attempts to “clarify” her original argument, with about as much success as GOP candidates clarified their “gaffes” earlier this year.

[W]hen men don’t listen, it’s rape. Period. However, we don’t know that’s what happened in that Chevy Tahoe on Saturday [DAMN “Chevy Tahoe” is fun to say! -Oed]. And when the two parties are high school students, the situation is much murkier than, say, a 32-year-old teacher preying on his pupil.

ACTUALLY NO, IT IS NOT MURKIER, CLAIRE! IT’S STILL RAPE. And yeah, if the victim is 16 (and she could be 14 or all we know), by law, she is a child. Sorry if that offends you. A girl who gets raped in the back of a Chevy by someone a year older than her has not been raped any more “murkily” than a girl who gets raped by her math teacher.

And anyway, that’s not the point that your article put across. It is about whether she was raped at all. And unless you want to start writing a “maybe this didn’t happen” article about every crime that happens in your county, I am going to assume you have some underlying motives to account for, even if you’re not entirely clear on them yourself.

Earlier this year CultureMap Austin published my husband’s angry response to the Daniel Tosh rape joke incident. The screed had been circulating on Facebook, and my former editor picked it up and ran it. And because of that my husband got internet famous for a day, as the male comedian in Austin who took a nasty, funny, smart stand against rape culture.

For 48 hours we lived and breathed rape culture. It was a difficult time. In the aftermath, after the fifteen minutes of internet attention had died down, my husband suggested we put our money where our (loud) mouths were and volunteer at SafePlace. Last month we finally started the process, which is fairly long and arduous. After sitting in that room, knowing that we were there partly because an editor at CultureMap took a risk on running a very controversial piece, knowing that part of what propelled us to that moment was the notoriety and conversation that his piece had generated in our lives—after all that—the very same corporate entity has unapologetically endorsed a public slut-shaming of a teen rape victim who reported her rape—Brave! Rare!—showed her bruises, submitted to the rape exam, and was deemed by a third party to bear “trauma consistent with force,” which I daresay even Todd Akin might concede is “legitimate”. . . .

Well, my coherency is gone. A rape joke uttered in a comedy club hundreds of miles away warrants a risky op-ed. An irresponsible, victim-blaming article about a girl in our own back yard gets nothing. No apology.

In her follow-up, Claire St. Amant asserts her solidarity with rape victims. (Apparently if a woman walked down the street naked and gets raped, it’s okay by St. Amant to call it rape! Truly radical.) But even if that’s the case, if you doubt that her article justifies less enlightened people in their view that teenage girls who have sex consensually can’t really have been raped, but are just experiencing morning-after regrets—I dare you to read the comment section on the Dallas Observer blog, where Anna Merlan called out the CultureMap article the day after it was written, giving far more detail into the crime report than St. Amant bothered to give. Read those comments and tell me if they get better, because I had to stop after the first handful of them.

Well, really after the guy who was like, “yeah man, this one girl I used to sleep with said ‘no’ one time, and then she seemed like she changed her mind and we had sex anyway, and also a bunch of other times where she didn’t even say no, and then later she just told her friends about that one time and then everybody thought I was a rapist. Ergo, this didn’t happen.”

THAT is the kind of thinking you are encouraging with your generous speculations on the subject of “but maybe she’s lying!”, Claire St. Amant. That is what you, and CultureMap too, are being called to task for.

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Scientology! Co-ops! Motherhood! The True Confessions of Author Sarah Bird

*shorter version of this interview available at CultureMap Austin*

When I asked around for names of people’s favorite contemporary female novelists a few months ago, a number of people mentioned local Austin writer Sarah Bird, including writers I respect, like Libba Bray and our own Monique Daviau. So when I had the chance to interview Bird for CultureMap (shorter piece here), I immediately took the opportunity to buy and read her most recent book, The Gap Year. I knew it was about a mother/daughter relationship that grows strained during the daughter’s senior year in high school.

But I was unprepared for how intensely the book sucked me in. It was really funny but also heartbreaking, even frightening at times. The book alternates chapters between the two characters’ points of view during the fateful year when daughter Aubrey suddenly falls in love with a football player and starts behaving like a total stranger to hip, single alterna-mom, Cam. Interwoven within the story is Cam’s sorrow over Cam’s ex, Aubrey’s father, whom she lost years ago to a Scientology-like cult. I read the thing in 24 hours, pulled on not only by the mystery of Aubrey’s transformation, but also by the writing. Deceptively breezy, it is often beautiful and always intelligent, even on the few occasions when the plot resolves a bit too neatly. It really proves what Libba Bray said in my interview with her a couple months ago, that a book can be razor-sharp without being pretentious or, as she put it, “hiding its heart.”

I try not to over-identify with my interview subjects, but there were several points where  I felt an unexpected shock of recognition. It was a pleasant surprise that she had lived in the ICC co-ops while attending grad school at UT, but what really threw me for a loop was the traumatic break-up with a boyfriend who becomes invested in a religion you just can’t reconcile with reality. Bird lost a boyfriend long ago to Scientology; mine was a Mormon. Despite the different religions, I got chills reading that section of the book, and listening to her talk about it made me realize how rarely I have encountered another person who had experienced that particular type of tragedy.

So anyway, here she is, ladies and gents. I hope to read more of her.

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The Oeditrix: The first thing I noticed was the structure of the novel, the two alternating voices. Had you ever written anything like that before, and how did you decide to use that structure for the story?

Sarah Bird: Had I ever done anything like it? No, I hadn’t. No I had not, and oddly enough the novel I’m working on now, the same exact thing is happening. Unbeknownst to me. I mean, in Gap Year I thought I was telling the mother’s story because that’s the story I know, and emotionally that’s what I was living through because our son was getting ready to leave, going away to college. I was all distraught about that. Surprisingly. Much more than I had ever expected to be, it was far more emotional than I thought it would be. So I thought I was writing that story, because that’s where my emotional anchor was. So I was writing her story, and you know, like, the good angel and bad angel on your shoulder? So it was her, and then the other angel on the other side was sort of like, sneery, and going, Yeah, that’s what she thinks. That’s her story. And I kind of gradually realized that I was hearing my voice from that age. So I had to let Aubrey tell her story. Which was fun, I enjoyed it a lot.

OED: So Aubrey literally just popped in there.

SB: She was a surprise. She just started talking to me, and she had a lot of commentary. And it was also, I wanted to get to that feeling that parents, particularly mothers of boys, have. Unless you have a very unusual boy, you know, they go into the nonverbal years, and, you know. They stop holding your hand, they stop curling up on your lap, and they stop telling you about their lives. And so you have this stranger living in your house that you know on some level, but you also realize that—certainly my parents didn’t know what my interior life was. And I for sure wanted to get to that feeling of parallel lives that starts happening of necessity when children separate.

OED: I was really struck by how authentic both of those voices felt. 

SB: Amy, how old are you?

OED: How old am I? Oh! Sorry there’s like a cat altercation going on here. Yeah. I’m 34, and I have not had a child as yet.

SB: But you’re much closer—you’re kind of right between. That means a lot to me that it rang true for you.

OED: It really did! When I started the novel I also thought this was going to be the story of this mother. And the voice is so strong and so sassy, and then all of a sudden the daughter spoke up and I was like wow, this is an equally strong voice. So it’s interesting to hear that it was based on your own memories. My next question was going to be—You have a son. You do not have a daughter.

SB: No, I don’t. And I’ve been so happy that, at signings and whatnot when I’ve gone around, so many readers come up and they take my hand and say, I know you have a daughter, because I went through the same thing. I’m glad it came across. I sort of had a secret weapon in that when our son was in high school I volunteered at the attendance office, so I was one of those ladies writing up passes and excuses. I was sitting behind the desk, and essentially I was invisible. And invisible with a notepad in front of me! I was this little imbed in the high school world, and that’s how I was able to get the current details and language and stuff.

OED: Did you copy down things that you heard?

SB: Yeah, I was taking notes the whole time. I mean it’s just amazing what these young people would say right in front of me. Apparently I’m deaf, so that’s good.

OED: How did you decide to make it a daughter, instead of a son?

SB: Once I realized that I was going to have a character that age I knew very clearly it could not be a male. I also knew that if I made the character female, that would put enough distance between my son and that book, so that he wouldn’t feel like I invading his privacy, or reporting on him. Which was was exactly what happened.

OED: You mean he did think you were reporting on him?

SB: No, he didn’t. I asked him, how do you feel about my writing a book about someone this age? And he goes, It’s a girl! It’s a completely different species. You know, like, you’re writing about lemurs, and I’m not a lemur. So . . . we’re fine.

OED: Has he read it?

SB: I don’t think so. I think the only book of mine that he’s read is Alamo House, because he lived for a while in an off-campus co-op. That’s kind of a cult book, because that’s set in an off-campus co-op, and so that passes around the co-ops, and I think he’s read that one. But I don’t know.

OED: Is it set in the UT co-ops?

SB: Yeah, Seneca House. Why, did you live in the co-ops?

OED: I did, I lived at Helios.

SB: Oh, Helios! Oh my god.

OED: For years and years every person I dated lived in one of those co-ops. I couldn’t escape them.

SB: It was so strange, because it was such a good experience for me. I had moved here from Albuquerque and was going to graduate school, and I didn’t know anybody, and I moved into this co-op and immediately had a group of friends, and a place to be. At the time I was there, Seneca House was graduate women. Graduate, vegetarian, feminist women. A serious, studious group. So I talked about it a lot, and so my son said, oh, I’m going to go live in a co-op. And the co-op he lived was “clothing-optional.”

OED: House of Commons?

SB: 21st Street. Let me just say, here’s a little secret: nobody you want to see with their clothes off is going to be stripping down. It’s going to be everybody that you don’t want. Anyway. So he followed in my footsteps and did that.

OED: And was he shocked by how different it was?

SB: No.

OED: That was a fun time for me too. It was not a particularly studious time. But it was a fun time, in those co-ops.

SB: No the co-ops have changed pretty dramatically from when I was there. I mean they always were sort of wild, but not, I mean, whoa.

OED: So you were here for your MA in journalism. And had you been writing your whole life before that?

SB: I had written for magazines. And—hold onto your hat—I wrote for True Confessions magazine.

OED: Oh wow!

SB: Yeah. And made more more money in the early seventies than I would make now on a magazine article. They were great. I mean, they’re out of business now. But that was literally pulp fiction. It was literally pulp fiction, but that was where I started. But by the time I went to journalism school I had been publishing in magazines and writing articles and things like that.

OED: Tell me what it was like working at True Confessions. I’m dying to know.

SB: It was amazing. I mean, it’s just great training. Inadvertently, because—I started writing to make money. I had been an au pair in France, when I was 19 or 20. And when I was over there I was trying to learn French, but you know. My French was better than the three-month old babies I was taking care of, so I wasn’t learning very much. So I got these photo-romances, that’s what they called them. They’re like, they have them in Mexico too, they’re photos, like cartoons but with photos. And they were like, Oh Guillaume, je [san je fais le blague?] So I was reading those things to learn colloquial French, how people actually spoke instead of what I had learned by reading Molière, which wasn’t very colloquial. But you know, it kind of occurred to me. They were so bad, it was the first time I was reading something that was discernibly bad writing. A little light went on, and I said, I could probably do that! So when I got back home I searched out a similar market, and there were the True Confession magazines. Equally bad.

OED: That’s pretty amazing. So you were writing stories—

SB: I was writing “I kidnapped my own child!”, “I seduced my parish priest!” . . . really they were pretty tame. Everything back in those days was pretty tame. They were just a great way to learn how to plot a story. And it was really great to learn how to write to a certain audience. I had the blue-collar and working class, and it was just such great timing to figure out how you capture that world, so. I wish they still existed.

OED: Yeah me too, I would write for them.

SB: Yeah I know, I feel so badly that all the places where I started and made a living when I was starting as a writer, they’re vanished. But at this point True Confession magazines were dying out, even then.

OED: When did you start writing novels?

SB: I had this goal that I’d publish my first novel by the time I was 30, and I did. It was a mystery. I had a state job by then, no wait, it must have been before then because I got—I’m losing track. So it was before I was 30 that I published a mystery novel, Do Evil Cheerfully, from the Blaise Pascal quote, “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And it was about this Scientology boyfriend that is why I ended up in Austin. I followed him to Austin. And he became a Scientologist. So I wrote that novel, and I had him dead on page one. He was dead, he was floating in the bathtub with my hairdryer in it.

OED: That Scientology experience, it must have informed the part of The Gap Year about her ex-husband.

SB: Oh my god, yes! Exactly right! You’re exactly right! That’s all very, very, very true. I just never figured out the answer to how someone so intelligent, that I was so crazy about, could go for this malarkey. As Joe Biden would say.

OED: There was something very real about that the description of the marriage dissolving, it was very hard to read at times, there was something really authentic there. Until the [ex-husband] character showed up, it seemed like a fun thing, a made-up job, you know, what if someone worked for the Scientologists as a bodyguard, but then . . . 

SB: Yeah, it’s such a jokey thing. Just to say “Scientology,” or “Moonie.” But you know, they suck people in, and then lives are over. He tried to get me to join up, he had me take a beginning course that, oh my God it was like a horrific combination of assertiveness training and a kindergartner’s birthday party. It was just an odd, odd experience. Which, all hail to the Austin libraries, they saved me from it. I was not lured into white slavery and signed away 99 lives to Sea Org. After I took this course, I was sort of dazed and heartbroken. So I did what I always do: I researched it. I went to the library, walked in there to research Scientology, and everything I came across, the articles had been razor-bladed out. I went to the librarian and said what’s the deal, there’s nothing here. And she said, oh we keep some of that stuff behind a desk, because these guys come in and cut the articles out, or steal the books. So we have to keep them locked up. So anyway, that’s how I found out what I found out about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. So yay, go Austin Public Libraries.

OED: But it did bring you to Austin, that experience. And you’ve been here ever since?

SB: Yeah, since 1973. I mean, ostensibly I came for graduate school, but it was because of this guy.

OED: Do you feel like you’re from Austin at this point?

SB: You know, that’s any interesting question, which kind of goes to a deep psychological thing. But I grew up in an Air Force family. And if you grow up in the military, where you move a lot a lot a lot, and your primary allegiance is kind of to the mission, to the Air Force, to America, I don’t know, there’s just this essential non-rootendess about you. So I think that just got baked into my identity at such an early age that. . . but if I’m from anywhere, it’s from Austin.

OED: It’s a good place to be from.

SB: I’m madly in love with Austin.

OED: It’s my favorite place on earth.

SB: Where are you from?

OED: I’m from Houston originally. I came to Austin for school, but then for years I went to grad school in Chicago.

SB: Oh my God! Where did you go?

OED: University of Chicago.

SB: Smart girl.

OED: Well I was smarter still by coming back after I was done, really the smartest decision I ever made. I married my husband here, and I have a lot of friends and family. I just love being back. I was in Chicago, a big, culturally wonderful city, but it doesn’t hold a candle to how great it is to live here. Anyway. Another question that kind of goes to that, about The Gap Year: Cam strikes me as kind of an Austin hippie, or a hip Austin mom. Most stories of teen rebellion are kind of the opposite, there’s a conservative or strait-laced parent, and the child rebels. That’s not the story you told, so tell me a little bit about that. 

SB: About where Cam comes from?

OED: About the dynamic. I mean, the daughter wants to be more normal, essentially.

SB: That kind of came from–I have five brothers and sisters. And this is a great blessing to a novelist, to be one of six children, in that you see these people from the first moments of their lives. And it gives you a deep understanding that so much of who we are is hardwired. Obviously Cam sees that in her work. And I saw that with my son. When he was born, I looked into his face, and he made himself known to me on some really fundamental level that never changed. I knew. And so I think, this is just, you know, this great roll of the dice, about parents and the temperament of their child, a mother and the temperament of her child. What that child needs, whether the mother can supply it, and how those pieces fit together, and form and deform each other. So I’m interested in that, and I would say Aubrey was somebody who came into the world with a temperament that craved order. And obviously Cam had come from too much order, and she was giving what she thought was the greatest gift she could to her child, and it made Aubrey feel insecure and unanchored. And so that’s what she sought out. She sought out that stability.

OED: It’s a scary thought to somebody who has not had children, it is kind of your worst fear. You know, what if my child rejects me not just because I’m their parent, but because of different personalities. Like, they just don’t like you.

SB: I mean obviously as a parent you have a huge advantage in that you form their world. That was the other thing that I wanted to get at, is how much parents form their world, creating these little football players, or whoever, that are expressions of their parents. And your parents are always going around going, oh I just want him or her to be happy. Yeah, as long as it involves a degree from Yale, that’s an okay happiness. But community college, that is not an okay kind of happiness.

OED: Do you think those expectations of parents from their children are a common source of the gap between parent and child? 

SB: Children come into the world, and they’re dependent on these big humans to feed them and protect them. So by and large, you want to please your parents. I think it’s unusual not to want to please your parents, and not to feel tremendous grief when you don’t. And sometimes, you know, the little person you get is not the person that’s going to fulfill your expectations. We’ve all heard stories about that kind of sadness—Laurence Olivier, who always wanted to be an actor, and his father wanted him to have a respectable profession. Just sometimes. More often than not it works, and there’s just this happy blend.

OED: One thing that was most terrifying to me was that it all revolved around cellphones. The scariest scenes to me were the ones where the mother was calling and calling and calling, and yet when I was growing up we didn’t even have cellphones. But just the thought of not being able to reach your child—it was written in a very terrifying way. Is that a feeling you’ve experienced?

SB: Of course. I mean that’s the curse of cellphones, you just immediately go into red alert when the person on the other end doesn’t respond immediately. I think back to when I took off and backpacked around Europe. Just by a fluke, the letter I sent to my mother telling her that I had arrived safely and everything was fine went into our mailbox, which in my house fed into a closet, and it went into the pocket of a coat. The only letter that ever got diverted like that. So she didn’t know for months that I was even alive. That just literally couldn’t happen now. That’s horrible for parents, but on the other hand, that complete break is what I think turns the key for a lot of children, and then they begin to appreciate their parents, after they’ve had that. I’m curious about whether that happens as much when you remain in constant contact.

But it’s definitely, it’s a terrifying experience when you cannot get your child to call you back. Much more common with boy children. All my friends who had girls, the girl’s like, Hi mom, I’m walking across the quad, oh I better hurry  up I’m gonna be late for class, hey listen, can you send me my that hair thing that I left there? It’s in the top drawer, yeah okay, Pat’s looking for me, see you, talk to you. And then they hang up, and a few minutes later the phone rings again. That’s a month’s worth of communication with a boy.

OED: Can you tell me about the quote in the front of the book: “The anchor or the arrow?”

SB: Oh yeah, yeah. That. That came very clearly to me in a dream that I had when I was eight months pregnant. I woke up with that in my head, and I saw that it was always this little conflict between whether you’re launching your child into the world, getting them prepared for the slings and arrows and the harsh reality, or are you the nesting place? The home where they always have to take you in? I just remembered that very clearly when our son reached that age, when I said, Do I need to toughen him up? Is this a cruel thing, that he’s never known anything but approval and love, and toxic love is a selfish thing? So that’s what Cam was facing.

OED: I wanted to ask about suburbia versus living in the city, another theme I noticed in the book. There was such a strong thing in the book about her yearning to be somewhere else, and I wondered where that came from.

SB: I exiled myself to the suburbs. I’m not really in the suburbs, I live in the Northwest hills. But I had always lived in Hyde Park and Crestview, and pretty central Austin, so it really felt like I was out on the edge of the prairie when I first moved here. And that I had somehow sacrificed my essential identity to be a parent. We needed a bigger house and we could afford one here. So I gave that to Cam, which I think is not an uncommon identity crisis that parents have, that you have given that essential part of yourself up. Sycamore Heights was kind of Hyde Park. . . And kind of knowing that probably I wouldn’t have really blended in there either. So. This dynamic plays out in a lot of places, like in Albuquerque, places I’ve visited and friends I know, they kind of have the same turmoil. Like moving out of New York into the boroughs, that stuff. The changes you have to make when you become a parent.

OED: Can you talk about your sense of humor? There were lots of parts in the book where I laughed out loud. 

SB: I love it when people say that, but I’m also just wincing, because the book I’m working on now is intensely serious. It doesn’t have a single laugh in it. It’s like my other complete laugh-free book, The Flamenco Academy. It’s just whatever shape the book takes. I’m very lucky that I have an editor that’s never forced me to do a quote-unquote “Sarah Bird” book, she lets me go wherever I want to go. But I would say I grew up in a very, very funny family. My family is super articulate, highly verbal. It was one of those big Catholic families that are somewhat competitive, and we were always playing to the laugh. To get my mother to laugh, that was the big gold star for us. It’s still tons of fun when I get together with them. They’re still the funniest people I know.

OED: You say competitive in the sense that there’s a lot of you?

SB: There’s a lot of you, but also that kind of humor is competitive. You’re trying to top someone else’s laugh, or get the laugh, or make the kill shot. I kind of grew up in comedy camp.

OED: Tell me a little bit more about the book you’re working on now, the serious one.

SB: It’s very serious. It’s very serious and it’s very complicated. I’m just now speed-reading it. Something’s not working, and I have to sort of speed-read it to take my main character’s emotional pulse. I actually have two main characters, like Gap Year, double point-of-view thing. It’s the story of an Okinawan girl during the Battle of Okinawa who was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and forced to serve as a nurse in their cave hospitals. So it’s her point of view juxtaposed with a contemporary military brat stationed on Okinawa. In both cases what I wanted to talk about is the price of empire, and how those costs are always born by the young. [Pause.] So that’s a laugh riot.

OED: What put it in your head to write it right now? 

SB: I’ve just been very concerned about the rise of militarism in America. Things like, how infrequently in the campaign they talk about this immense colossal defense budget we have. From doing the Yakota Officer’s Club I learned so much about the Battle of Okinawa, and I always wanted to go back to that, because more people died there than in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined, yet very few people know about it. Including me, who was there. So that was always lingering. And then I wanted to talk about military families today. So that’s what I’m stirring into the pot.

OED: And do you have any other ideas on the horizon? Do you know what you’re next book after that would be? 

SB: No I don’t. Not really. I do have some idea, but I don’t want to encode them in my brain in any dangerous way.

OED: Are you the kind of writer who has a lot of ideas?

SB: No. No, I’m really not. That’s kind of why I switched from journalism to novels, because I realized I only get about one really good idea a year. I can’t go chasing magazine assignments. No, I don’t, and I don’t keep notebooks of my ideas, and I don’t write things down much. I get attached to things if I write them down. So it has to occur to me over a long period of time, and then I start pursuing it.

OED: So what is your actual writing process like? 

SB: Kind of sporadic. I have months where I do nothing but research, and months where I do nothing but write all day, and then months where nothing happens, so. I’m certainly not a model of discipline.

OED: I mean who is, right?

SB: Well, I know a lot of people who are.

OED: Do you think you’re strongly associated with Austin for your readers?

SB: Well, I came from New Mexico, and I was so freaked out by Texas when I first got here, it was so strange and bizarre. So I wrote Alamo House, my first novel. I meant it as a satire. And then I discovered that Texans, and certainly Austinites, have the best sense of humor in the world. So my blistering satire was warmly received. [Laughs.] I think it’s sort of been a two-way love affair.

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Guilt, Realism, Dessert: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Kaci Beeler‘s FOOD PORN exhibition goes up today as part of the Fusebox Festival; in fact, she will have already started painting the 12-hour mural at Salvage Vanguard by now. I interviewed Kaci for CultureMap Austin, but had to cut out so many juicy bits—Kaci’s porn habits! Kaci’s next project! Kaci’s education as an artist! Kaci on Disneyland!—that I decided to run a longer version of the interview here.

Of course, there’s no room in the article or the interview to talk about my friendship with Kaci, the weird circumstances under which we met (five people crushed into a Honda Civic on a 13-hour road trip to Marfa), the role she has played in my getting to know Austin the second time around, and above all, my continual amazement that I could have so much to learn from a woman nine years my junior. In fact, before I interviewed her, my next blog post was going to be about how impressed I am with the younger women that I know. It’s nice timing to have done this piece just when I was thinking a lot about Lena Dunham, another young multi-talented woman with an exciting career ahead of her.

——

ME: So can you talk about your subject matter?

KACI: It’s been Austin through dishes that I particularly love from local establishments. . . . It’s been dessert recently. I just felt like I wanted to cover more desserts or something.

ME: What drove you toward desserts?

KACI: I think it’s just the textures and the colors and the softness of desserts, or something about that . . . just the lusciousness. Piles of sugar in different forms. And I just think that the savory stuff is beautiful, but I found the desserts even more compelling to try and capture. Just from a personal enjoyment standpoint. I was drawn to those images more than the savory dishes, though I like both. I was going to do a cheeseburger series, but then I put that on hold.

“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Next year.

KACI: Yeah! [Laughs.] Maybe.

ME: You mention texture and colors, so those are visual aspects that you as a painter are interested in, in terms of technique. But you also said, the lusciousness, the piles of sugar, the delightfulness of the dessert. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about what is it thematically that speaks to you about the desserts?

KACI: I want to create beautiful objects, and I think that that is the quickest pathway to that goal.

ME: Because desserts are the most beautiful objects?

KACI: For me. And they’re kind of cute, and I have this sort of cute aesthetic that I’m interested in. But there’s something more to it, I guess. There’s that idea of things being kind of sinful and feeling guilty about it. I definitely have my own set of guilt about eating, and I try not to eat a lot of sugar lately. But I always felt really drawn to that, to drawing desserts, almost so much so that I can’t articulate it well . . . When I was a kid I drew little pictures of ice cream cones and pie slices and banana splits and cake and stuff like that, all the time, on the edges of my papers in school. And every time I saw something . . .  like little fake food, I always liked miniature food. I had a dollhouse, and I would make, out of clay, little food dishes and such. And I don’t—it’s just weird, I don’t know. I think every artist has some kind of image or something they’re obsessed with, and then they sort of use that as an inspiration. And I think this is what I’m obsessed with right now, in a way.

ME: It’s funny you bring up the word “guilty” because the exhibit is called “Food Porn.”

KACI: Right.

ME: And you talked just now about the association of desserts with guilty eating, like something that’s wonderful and desirable but also that we feel guilty about, and that everyone has their eating issues. But it’s funny to link it directly to porn.

KACI: Do you want to know why it’s called that? I actually call it that because other people have said that my paintings were food porn to them. And it was said enough times and suggested, that I was kind of like, I can see that. I sort of love that implication. In a way it’s fun. It’s a little naughty.

ME: What does it mean to you?

KACI: Just indulging in the image of food and the idea of it, but without actually having it in front of you.

ME: Ah, okay!

KACI: You know. Like pornography. [Laughs.] You don’t have it, but you can imagine it, I guess it opens up your imagination to your fantasy of pie eating, or whatever.

ME: Not to be crass, but you don’t actually get to, like, taste anything when you’re looking at food porn . . . but I think for most people, regular porn . . . there is a kind of . . . participatory aspect.

KACI: [Laughing] I don’t actually indulge in pornography. So maybe I’m even more removed from that or something.

ME: I love the realistic capture of the textures next to each other. You talked about the softness of the desserts, but they’re often on a plate, or they’re next to a chair, or a shiny surface, with a strawberry, there’s so much to work with there.

KACI: I feel like, going from one to the next one, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over, because every one has different challenges. Sometimes the colors are super diverse within one piece, like this one [“Cupcakes from the Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] but then sometimes the colors are very similar, liek in this one [“Mini Cream Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Foods Headquarters”], where it’s a very simple pallette. And I like playing with that, with the subtlety with the textures and things.

ME: There’s actually a lot more texture than you would think!

KACI: That’s what I find really fascinating about doing representational realism. Your brain takes in a lot of information very quickly and sort of generalizes it as you go through life, and you think, that’s white, that’s brown, that’s whatever. But then when you start looking at it, it’s very subtle. And to really capture the form of it takes a lot of study of color . . . I enjoy seeing if I can make the form come out of nothing.

“Coconut Cake from Dolce Vita,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: So for you is realism mostly about technique? Is that the excitement for you, the challenge in technique, or is there something else about it that you really love?

KACI: That’s a good question. I think technique is the key to that, or at least I really enjoy the technical side of it. Which has its own . . . subset in the art world, of people thinking it’s not good enough, to focus on technique without anything behind it. But I’m just drawn to copying things, or mimicking things, or trying to see my way through an aesthetic. I feel like I like to do that with the theatrical work I do, is take things I like and re-appropriate them in a new way. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to realism in art. I mean, maybe it’s just what I was exposed to whenever I went to art museums as a kid or something. The Dutch works, great opulent serving trays filled with . . . it’s just so . . .

I think that realism in art can make you see something in a way that you actually can’t in real life, even though it’s mimicking real life. I think that the paintings that I make look better, often, than the actual thing itself looks. Whether I’m slightly manipulating it, or it’s just filtered through a camera and then filtered through my eye and then filtered through these soft oil paints . . . Some people argue, why paint that if you could just take a photo of it. But I think the end result is very different from a photo. And if you hold the reference photos up to the paintings, there’s very many little differences, it doesn’t look the same. Even though people think the paintings look like photos, if they saw the photo, they would realize that it’s not the same.

ME: Speaking as a person who enjoys representational realism, in art and literature, I think I can say that one of the things that’s most pleasurable about it as an audience, as a viewer, is seeing the way that all the visual information that we process very quickly in order to resolve objects into known objects, having that information separated out for you in a painting. Being able to see your technique in putting together these images to make them look as close to the real thing as possible is very pleasurable for us. It’s like we’re getting to see through your technique in a way. And your technique is all about, well it looks to me as if a great deal of it is about breaking things out and seeing things—instead of seeing them as a whole automatically, sort of seeing them in pieces and components. Is that right?

KACI: Yeah! And deciding what to highlight and what to downplay in any given image. And what is my eye drawn to that I then want to emphasize.

ME: The farther you stand back the more photographic it looks. But even looking at it, really the real pleasure for me is to see that line between something that looks photographic and then to see it suddenly blur into colors, or suddenly not look photographic. Does that makes sense?

KACI: People have said that before. I can totally see it, because it’s not perfect, and you can see the brushstrokes pretty easily. Or I’ve decided, eh, I’m not going to make that logo look a certain way, or something. And if you look closely enough you realize, oh, it’s not quite right. But yet it’s right enough at times to where you get a real sense of the place or the look of it.

“Mini Creme Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Food Headquarters,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Yeah. One reason this one is so successful [“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer”] is that the sense of place is so vivid. I mean anybody who’s been to South Congress can really see this, it looks so familiar. Even the type of sunlight that’s filtering down, the way it’s flashing off of the food truck. But also it seems like another part of what you do here is about focus? It has to replicate the feeling of lack of focus in the background, for example . . . It calls your attention as a viewer to the quality of the visual information that we take for granted, so I think that’s cool. It’s also yummy looking.

Why are there no people?

KACI: It’s not about people. [Laughs.] . . . I feel like images of people are very compelling. When I do graphic design for shows, I always want there to be people in the posters. I think people are drawn to looking at people. So if there was a person in here, you’d be distracted by it . . . Although there have been some interesting things happen because of people. For instance there’s this one painting [“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode From Threadgill’s”] where Roy [Kaci’s husband] was wearing a red shirt, and he was sitting across from me, and it reflects it in this fork, and in the table, here.

ME: That’s really cool!

KACI: I really like that about this one.

ME: Do you ever have bites taken out of the food?

KACI: I thought about doing that, and then I decided not to. I wanted it to be whole. As if the viewer or someone who’s looking at it felt like it was waiting for them, and not tainted by some other person in some other story.

ME: I like that, it goes along with what you were saying about the desire that you have as a viewer for the object itself. It has this—for me, desserts are so aesthetically pleasing because they’re perfect. They’re like a perfect little world that you’re gonna destroy.

KACI: It’s like this beautiful little thing that’s been given to you! And especially when it’s packaged in a very personal, one-single-little-serving kind of way. And I like that! I mean that’s why so far I’ve just been painting slices of cakes and not a whole cake. . . . Sometimes I put the fork or the spoon, this utensil you’re very comfortable with, right there next to it, so you kind of get an idea of scale. And it feels like it’s waiting.

ME: That’s true. These two that I just saw, the utensil is on the same side, it’s on your side. It’s like, this is your dessert, and there’s your fork, and you’re going to pick it up and take a bite.

How long has realism been your tool of choice in painting?

KACI: I mean I’ve done other styles, for sure. But how long. . . I guess, when did I get serious about making work? I’ve always been very serious. Since about seventh grade or something, I was just trying. For a long time as an artist you are incapable of making the things that you want to exist. Because they say that your taste grows faster than your ability does, when you’re doing any kind of art work. So you have an appreciation for things before you can actually make them. So it takes many years of going, I’m gonna draw this thing! And then not really knowing how to do it, and starting it, and being disappointed with the outcome, and then over time slowly building up the skill.

But I guess realism is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done illustrations, I’ve done comics and graphic novels, but the thing that gave me the most pleasure in the finished product was realism. And I think maybe that’s—I had a lot of guilt in the past about that, being, like, not good enough for the art world, for an artist. Because it’s like, “That’s commonplace,” you know, “That’s typical” . . . But then I just decided at one point, fuck it, I’m just gonna make what I want to make, because I only have this one life and I’m not gonna sit around waiting to figure out something that’s not what I want to do, just because I think it’s not going to be well-received. And then once I started doing just what I wanted, just purely what I wanted, then people were really overwhelmingly positive about it.

ME: You’ve now said the word “guilty” twice in reference to these paintings.

KACI: I know, I’m totally guilty about it!

“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode from Threadgills,” 10″x10,” oil on canvas

ME: First it was guilt over the desserts, and now you’ve said that in your artistic past you had feelings of guilt about loving realism. So do you think those two are related?

KACI: It’s totally related! It’s actually something I almost don’t even want to admit, because I feel like it’s like some form of cowardice or something. . . But when I went to this Vermont Studio Center residency, a lot of artists would talk about certain types of art that people were making as “wall art” or “photo-paintings,” as a derogatory way of speaking. And I did sort of feel the old guilt that I had had before seep back in, and now I think I still feel that way. . . . But I’m trying to become okay with continuing to follow what personally interests me, and not getting mixed up in this other hype about what a person should be pursuing based on what’s been pursued before.

ME: What do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you? As far back as you want to go, for your artisitc life.

KACI: Do you mean as far as technique, or an epiphany?

ME: Whatever, to you, seems . . .

KACI: I jumped around different majors in college before I ended up in art. I think it was another thing where I was avoiding it out of a sort of guilt factor. But then I missed it too much, and so I ended up returning to it. I’m always trying to balance the theatrical things, the things I want to do performance-wise and the things I want to do visually, because they don’t often overlap, and you’re often forced to choose. So for a while I was an acting major, and then I was in set design, and then I finally moved into art, which I am super grateful for. And then when I was buckling down and working, I very much was trying to do it all as best I could even if I didn’t enjoy the medium or the form, and I think a lot came out of that. I feel like I came out of that with actual skills. And it felt good. People always say, oh an art degree, good luck making use of that. And I’d been told that before . . . and after . . . and during . . .

ME: People are the worst.

KACI: Yeah, they’re really the worst. [Laughs.] Well-meaning naysayers, is what I call it. But then I was like, no I actually have skills that I can use. So that was one great period of growth. It seems obvious, but it was very true. And then another one was that I had this great painting professor at St. Edward’s named Hollis Hammonds, she’s an awesome lady. And she was the one who told me, “Your whole goal as an artist can just be to make beautiful objects.” And that was when I really finally felt permission to make what I wanted. She said that, and that took a little while to sink in, but she was very supportive of what I wanted to do. I think that a lot of the professors at St. Edwards were very supportive of helping you to enhance what you want instead of building you into this tortured artist soul that you find this dark piece of yourself and then put that on the canvas.

ME: So what you don’t want to do is this dark tortured corner—but what do you think you do want?

KACI: I’m really happy in my life right now, I’m really having a great time in Austin. I want to make pieces that really engage the viewer and give them something they can enjoy. Because I think so much in life is really unenjoyable, in some aspects. There’s a lot of terrible things out there, and I don’t want to put any more tortured things in the world. I don’t even want them to be too challenging for people. I think there’s enough of that. I make the work that I would want to walk into a gallery and see. So before I started it, that was the kind of thing that would draw me. Something that was really well done realistically, and very—not overly happy, I mean not like the colors are super saturated. But I guess they are really happy.

ME: They may make people happy. Or they may make people hungry. . . . What about the feeling I get, when I see your painting, of wishing that I had the object instead of the copy? And feeling almost a little bit teased?

KACI: Oh yeah! I think that’s another unintended side effect of the work that a lot of the people have said. They also felt teased. But then I was like, Go get it!

ME: It’s in Austin!

KACI: It’s in Austin! And if you’re looking at it, you’re probably in Austin. And if you’re not, you should come here anyway!

ME: In Austin you are probably best known as a performer. As an improv performer, and an operator of the Hideout. But you also have this whole identity as a visual artist, and not everyone that knows you casually may know that about you. Is there a big disjunct between those two personalities? How do they get along with each other?

KACI: They are different and I think it’s important. One is done mostly totally alone, and one is done surrounded by lots of people. But they have things in common, I keep finding over time. . . I’m an extravert, so I really like being around people, so I was more easily drawn into the theater things. . . .Whereas with visual work, it’s very much me making time for it, me pushing myself to buckle down. To go into work, to create a deadline, to create a goal. . . . I do graphic design and stuff and commissions, and that helps sometimes, but that’s—I get overwhelmed with all of them. Time with people and different projects, and, like, dealing with those different personalities. I do like to then take some time out and focus on just me and what I want. Being alone and working on this thing, and just working really hard, so much that I hate it, I hate what I’m making. And then I have to go away from that and get back to being around people. I think I need both of those things really bad. I think without one of them the other part would suffer for it. . . . It makes a little hard to identify myself when people ask me what do you do? Who are you? Because it’s like well . . .this, that, and this and this sometimes, and also this.

ME: Do you have a next project?

KACI: I was particularly drawn to Dutch portraiture, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is a series of self-portraits done in the Dutch style—very glossy and clean—but taking in more of my theatrical interests. Basically costuming myself like famous female archetypes or characters from well-known plays and films, and getting good photographs of these things, but then painting them in the Dutch style. Very much trying to convey emotion, but with the emotions and aspects of these characters through myself filtered through the style of painting.

ME: Wow.

KACI: It’s really ambitious.

ME: It’s awesome.

KACI: I’m really drawn to it somehow, and it seems even more self-indulgent than anything . . . But I honestly want to make these paintings convey these different characters as best as possible, so some of them very light, frivolous and fluffy, and some of them very dark, depressing, weighed-down. Like Lady Macbeth. Versus Ophelia.

ME: I was just going to ask who your top five were. What characters made you want to do this, did any just pop to mind instantly?

KACI: I was thinking about the little girl in the Bad Seed.

ME: [Freaking out.] YES!!!!

KACI: And also something like Ophelia, the idea of an ingenue. But then also Lady Macbeth, or some total fucking bitch, some crazy bitch. . . .Because I do this acting work, and you very much get cast as you look. I mean, I would never be cast as Lady MacBeth, ever. But could I convey that?

ME: You get the chance to.

KACI: This is what I want to do. I don’t know I’m very excited by this project, and also I find it a little daunting.

ME: That sounds really awesome. And it won’t be all cupcakes this time.

KACI: No. I can’t imagine an instance of cupcakes.

ME: Not even one cupcake?

KACI: Yeah, somehow all these people are also holding food.

ME: I meant metaphorically, like personalities. Like you’ve got the Bad Seed, Lady MacBeth . . . .

KACI: Who knows what I’ll do when I’ve done more of the research? Have you ever been on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyworld or Disneyland? There’s these really great portraits. You go on this elevator and then it slides down to take you down to where this ride starts. But while the elevator is going down, a narrator starts talking about the house. And every painting looks really cutesy and nice, but as it goes down, the painting changes, and it becomes these evil portraits. A little girl looks really sweet, but then she’s holding a bottle of poison. Or somebody’s standing there really nicely, but then they’re on a wire or tightrope over a pit of alligators, and it looks like they’re gonna fall off and be eaten. I think that was in my head a little bit, the idea of some sort of narrative within a portrait.

WHAT I WISH I HAD SAID: I can’t wait to see what narrative emerges from your series of self-portraits, and I hope it involves alligators.

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Austin’s Transgendered Icon Is Dead

Leslie, he of the hot pink panties and the tricked out shopping cart, is dead at age 60. I’ll have more to say about this later, but for now I just want to marvel over the fact that one of Austin’s most revered icons was a homeless transgendered man.

From the Austin-American Statesman:

Usually dressed in ankle-snapping ladies’ heels and a thong, Cochran was a fixture in Austin, particularly downtown, the Sixth St. entertainment district and South Austin. He became known around the world as a key example of the city’s populace embracing and celebrating its freaks. Albert Leslie Cochran eventually ascended to the highest rank of celebrity, joining the few known by one name only.

We’ll miss you, Leslie. Summertime on South Congress won’t be the same without you.

Check out this awesome photo gallery from the Statesman.

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Bust a Move

Dance Dance Party Party, 2011

If you live in Austin and you’re female, you might want to check out my CultureMap article on Dance Dance Party Party, an all-women’s dance group that meets on Sunday nights. (That’s right, EVERY SUNDAY NIGHT, ladies. We are straight-up serious about getting down.) 

The original DDPP group in New York came up with this delightful motto: “No booze, no boys, no judgment. (Legwarmers optional.)” But as I say in the article, it makes us sound a bit like a convent, or at least a fitness retreat. The original slogan is fantastic, especially the “no judgment” part, but the “No . . . no . . . no” format increasingly sounds to me like a series of prohibitions – almost a judgment in itself. When what we really want is to make a space where certain prohibitions that sometimes keep women from enjoying themselves are lifted, and we’re free to go nuts.

So, our new slogan is “Bust a Move, Break a Sweat, Be Yourself.” Legwarmers are still optional, of course.

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