“And if I hadn’t filled the wall with visual narratives, I wouldn’t know what to write.” –Interview with Rachel Slotnick

Rachel Slotnick won the RHINO 2015 Founders’ Prize and her poem “Tales from my Fisherman Father” appears in our 2015 issue and will be nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Associate Editor Valerie Wallace interviewed Rachel in September 2015.

Originally from Los Altos, California, Rachel Slotnick is an author, muralist, and hybrid artist. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2010.  Her work is on permanent display at the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has recently completed murals for the 35th, 39th, 46th, and 47th wards. Her publications include Mad Hatter’s Review, Thrice Fiction, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. Look for her debut book of poetry entitled, “In Lieu of Flowers,” available through Tortoise Books. Rachel currently resides in Chicago where she works as Adjunct Faculty at Chicago City Colleges, the Illinois Art Institute, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Rachel Slotnick

 

Valerie Wallace: Is your father a fisherman? 
Rachel Slotnick: Yes, my father was a fisherman in Alaska in his youth, and he absolutely loved it.  I grew up with his tales about shark sightings and ocean swells.  There was always bait sloshing on the kitchen counter.  When my mother agreed to marry him, she did it on the condition that 1) he give up smoking and 2) he give up fishing– it was dangerous, but also it was far away.  So my father became a businessman and worked the 9-5 for the rest of his life.  He still took us fishing on vacations and even bought and restored an old boat off Craigslist (which my mother was convinced was a firetrap).  Even in his business casual attire, I always felt like I could smell the ocean on him, and there was something wild and oceanic about his mannerisms.

I think it was listening to his romanticized tales about his youth that was the kindling for my passion for story telling.  So the fish still swim through my stories, because in a sense they still swim through his veins, even though he no longer spends his days on the ocean.  He may have only spent a few years in that life, and 50 in the other, but when he closes his eyes, he’s back at sea.
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VW: What was the genesis for your poem in RHINO, “Tales from my Fisherman Father”?

RS: I was reading a lot of Lyn Hejinian and thinking about post hoc fallacies and whether sentences needed to follow each other.  I suppose I can’t avoid elements of narrative, even in my poetry, so although that poem was an attempt at sort of non-objective experience, it has a sense of narrative in its residue.  I’ve always been very interested in the way we remember– that our lives are not composed of story arcs, but rather fleeting moments of beauty and confusion.  I think it’s fascinating that as time passes we begin to forget, and we also begin to elaborate or exaggerate the high and low points in our residual memory.
A lot of my work also deals with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and watching her short term memory disintegrate while her long term memory seemed even more prevalent.  In that poem I was prying through my childhood memories, hyperbole as they may be, and hoping that in sequence, a reader might attempt to connect the dots.  Because even stuff that’s not inherently related, if it shares page space, can open up a conversation.
VW: Tell me about your new book!
RS: “In Lieu of Flowers” was a really exciting project for me because I have always considered myself an artist having an identity crisis.  I had these two very separate worlds of painting and writing, and I spent most of my time in graduate school trying to figure out where the paths crossed, or if they should.  That tension caused by the marriage of art and text, and questioning what sort of stories need to be painted instead of written, is book cover_what keeps me passionate about both forms. I’ve always known that I’m more comfortable with abstraction in my writing, and less comfortable with it in my painting.  I admire abstract expressionism, and color field painters, but I always have to have a character, a sense of narrative, in order to invest in my paintings enough to get lost in them.  Writing is different.  I find myself collecting shiny sentences, and caring less about how they relate to the rest.
So, when Tortoise Books had this idea of making an illustrated book, I was thrilled, but a little anxious.  I hadn’t ever truly seen how these stories and paintings might work together.  I suppose my fear was that the paintings would be merely “illustrations,” and to me, they are poems too.  I want them to play off each other, like different characters or perspectives.  Most of these paintings very clearly connected to a story for me, and a big part of publishing this book was letting go of control.  And when I stepped back, I was amazed by the way my poetry was already talking to my paintings, and maybe was talking to it all along.
VW: Tell me about the book’s title.  And, what do the flowers mean in your body of work?

RS: I am fascinated by our relationship to flowers.  My awareness of them started out as a didactic tool– literally, I used them in the

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classroom to set up still-lifes for students.  I was making these fabric paintings, using the fabric collage to challenge my color palette, and also I liked that fabric played into feminine identity.  But these 3-d flowers gave me sculpture.  They were all about surface and helped me enter that world of abstraction that I struggle with in my painting.  Then I got to thinking about them as flowers.  Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death.  I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals– that we designate some flowers for funerals, and others for weddings.  And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap.

Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I guess I relate to that as someone who is a little confused.  Most of my work is about memorial, and while the sections about my grandfather are true elegy, the parts about my father are more about the loss of memory and time.  And I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.
VW: I’m interested in hearing how mural making is part of your writing process. Is it?
RS: That was actually kind of an accident.  Painting murals was never my idea.  It actually started with a client years ago who asked me to paint the side of a horse barn.  But I instantly fell in love with mural painting.  Sometimes both writing and painting can feel very lonely, like sending work out into a void.  Hanging a painting in a gallery, while it’s a wonderful experience, still only invites a limited audience to view your work.  Mural painting is much more visible, and more immediate.  People may love or hate it, but they see it.  And I felt more like I was having a conversation rather than looking at my own face in the mirror.
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I have a dear friend who was killed by a drunk driver a few years ago, while he was riding his motorcycle to work.  I painted a mural for him under Lake Shore Drive.  I did it for his family, but also I really did it for myself.  My art is mostly memorial because unless I paint it or write it, I don’t really understand loss.  I painted a large motorcycle with plants and flowers sprouting out of it.  I designated certain areas of the wall for text, and his family held a memorial service for him there, lit candles, and everyone signed messages on the mural.  I also was teaching my first classes at City Colleges, and I was astounded by the heartbreak due to illness, gunfire, or accident that followed the students into the classroom.  I felt I needed a place for

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those sentences to go, rather than always writing “run-on sentence” in red pen.  So, I invited students out to sign the wall, and opened the space up as a communal memorial.  I still invite students out today to sign.  When I stepped back, I was amazed at the power of a wall as a tool for combatting grief.

The Logan Square mural was a little different.  I was figuring out my book in that painting.  I have quotes from it on the wall, along with fabric, and 3-d flowers.  It was definitely part of my writing process but not in a very strategic way.  I had to ask questions on the wall.  Usually, artists come into a project of that size with a pretty specific sketch and design, but that wall just kept growing and changing.  It is still changing a year later.  I keep adding figures and removing them.  I think it’s a sort of revision process.
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There’s that old saying about knowing a story is done once you’ve taken all the commas out, and then put them all back in.  I think that’s how I paint– without a story arc.  If I can see where I’m going, I lose interest.  But if I hadn’t had the text to start with, I wouldn’t have known what to paint.  And if I hadn’t filled the wall with visual narratives, I wouldn’t know what to write.  That painting filled my sentences with color, tempo, and confidence.

VW: Chicago has always seemed to me to be good place for artists. Do you experience it that way? How long have you been making art here?

RS: I love Chicago as an artist.  I moved here for graduate school and only ever intended to stay for two years.  The winters frightened me, and even the humidity in the summer was overwhelming!  But I found that the winters were actually really good for writing.  I spent most of my graduate
program in underground studios under Wabash, having to hold my paintbrush steady as the train rattled by overhead.  Part of me found that very foreign (I’m from a very small town) and very romantic.  It felt like a really big city then.  I loved that I could walk and walk and walk and never see a familiar face.  That kind of anonymity was intoxicating for my art.  But I definitely struggled at first upon graduating.  It seemed really hard t10609611_10102511315974668_5218647767628327515_no break into the galleries or to find a publisher.  But, really it just took some time.  I kept applying to things, and one after another, three or four years later, those things started happening.
My favorite thing about Chicago is what a small community it is.  I can’t go to a gallery opening or a reading without bumping into someone I know.  So what was once anonymity feels more like familiar terrain now, and what’s more surprising, is that that environment is even more conducive to art.  Every night there’s a reading or a play or a lecture, and I feel truly stimulated by this city. What’s even more is that all my closest and dearest friends are artists too.  So, I get to share my passion with a whole community of Chicago creatives.
VW: What do you do to keep your environment conducive to writing/making art?
RS: I probably don’t do enough.  I always think that I should make a schedule and force myself to work.  But that’s very hard for me since I’m such an impulsive artist.  I tend to go through spurts of making a lot, then I get bogged down and busy with teaching.  I’m trying to improve that balance.  Because if I can keep my studio active, I think that excitement follows me into the classroom.  I do try to spend a lot of time in my studio– even just reading.  Since I teach at SAIC, I try to walk through the museum every day, and push myself to go into rooms I don’t frequent.
I think the biggest thing I can do to keep myself making work is to remain an active part of that Chicago creative c10612695_10102511316488638_3385341298000909234_nommunity- by attending readings and openings. It’s so important in my dry spells to see other people’s work, and hear what they have to say.  One of my favorite Chicago authors, Kathleen Rooney said that in the literary community you are a star in a greater constellation of artists, and it’s only all together that you can light up the night sky.  All together we can illuminate the darkness.
VW: Who are your non-literary influences/forces?
RS: I find a lot of inspiration in street art and graffiti.  I think my real love is for revision, so I like artists who alter their work, or leave the process visible.  There’s an Italian muralist who I just love, named Blu.  He animates his murals, and his animations are very clear narratives– they just happen to be dinosaurs and monsters walking on sides of buildings.  He paints whole city blocks, and I was fortunate enough to see an abandoned Metro station he had painted every inch of– the railings and undersides of balconies, in Lisbon.
I also really love Vhils.  He is a Portugese street artist, who uses anything from a jackhammer to explosives to work with the natural decay of buildings, making kind of low relief sculptures that are all about their own rubble.  I also love that he celebrates the real people who live in each community making them into billboards to combat Hollywood.  My last one would be William Kentridge.  I have dabbled in animation, and it’s magical, but so unbelievably difficult.  I just love the way Kentridge allows the residue of what came before to blur into his charcoal animations.  I also find so much inspiration in the way he builds text up into a figure, and then devolves back in to text.  It’s seamless.  I strive to be able to tell that kind of story.

VW: 
 What are you working on now? And what’s next? 
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RS: I just finished a new mural on Irving Park in the North Center neighborhood, on the side of a children’s preschool. It was really fun and different to make something for children, because while my writing can feel very dark, I think my painting lends itself very well to children’s books or even fairy tales. I think I’m spending my adult life painting things I would have wanted to see as a kid.
I’m also finishing a novel. I’m still very impacted by my grandparents and it was only after they both passed away that I felt I could ask hard questions about their lives. My grandfather was a physicist who worked under Robert Oppenheimer developing the atomic bomb during WW II. My grandmother followed him to a life of secrecy and seclusion in Los Alamos, never knowing what was being built. They both experienced a lot of guilt later in their lives and my grandmother wrote a book about it, and they even moved to Japan.  So I’m trying to write the sequel.
My grandfather was one of those people who sometimes communicated better in physics than English, so I’m really enjoying writing his mathematical language, with math equations masquerading as love and fear.  First, it’s a fascinating and important story that illuminates so much

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about our problems with each other as humans. Also, it helps me when I miss my grandparents. Writing them gives them a second life, and I feel like I’m getting to know them as a grown up, with an adult consciousness about the trials and tribulations that they kept hidden from me when I was a child.

VW: What do you want from art? from writing?

RS: What a question! I don’t know if I want anything. I mean everyone wants readership; we all want audience.  And I think once you get a first taste of that, it can be very addicting.  But what I’ve always admired are the artists who worked their whole lives without recognition.  There are the obvious ones, like Van Gogh, and then there are the outsider artists who I just love like Henry Darger who spent his life as a recluse in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, and filled his apartment with his tomes, the longest book ever written complete with illustrations, which was only discovered when he died and the landlord had to clean out his apartment.
I guess I’m attracted to the artists who made their work because they were compelled to.  Something in that seems more honest.  I don’t know what I want from my art, and I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to ask myself that before.  What is the end game?  I guess there’s a notion of eternal life through art, that these paintings and sentences will outlive us all.  And maybe that’s why I’m writing memorials, because if I write love letters to the people I’ve lost, in a sense, I can keep them alive.

 

 

To learn more about Rachel Slotnick and her work, visit www.rachelslotnick.com

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