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Notes to Self

Nora Krug’s Notes to Self

The German word heimat has no direct English equivalent. The closest analogue is “homeland,” but even that fails to capture the particular way in which the German people integrate a sense of place with national identity, and the degree to which that identity is passed from one generation to the next.

As a child of the 1980s, artist Nora Krug belongs to a generation that, while separated by decades from World War II and the Nazi regime, nonetheless inherited the sins of the Holocaust, a generation whose “paralyzing guilt,” as Krug describes it, was ingrained through cultural and academic ritual—through school field trips to concentration camps, rhetorical analyses of Hitler’s speeches, and an unspoken agreement to erase words such as ethnicrace, and hero from its speech.

Photographed by James Ball

Jon Gray’s Notes to Self

Somewhere along the way, still early in his career as a book designer, Jon Gray began to grapple with the fact that he just couldn’t get fonts to do what he needed them to do. He couldn’t get the letters to behave. So he set aside prepackaged typefaces and began lettering titles by hand, and in doing so discovered a style that has made him one of contemporary literature’s most esteemed illustrators.

Photographs by Tim Gruber

Marlon James’s Notes to Self

One big expectation of the murder mystery is that the payoff includes some answers, that eventually we learn the truth. The best payoffs are layered, too, so that the revelations include not just who did the deed but how and why—what the motive was, offering a bit of insight into our own natures.

Photography by Mary Anne Andrei

Ted Genoways’s Notes to Self

Land grabs and blood feuds, ambushes and priests on the run: Few periods are as unhinged as the thirty-five years Genoways covers in his current work, a chronicle of the tequila industry that homes in on the period between the beginnings of the Mexican Revolution and World War II. Genoways says that the process of assembling Romo’s story was typical of the research for the book overall. Traditional sources have been spotty at best: Journalistic oppression, by both the government and powerful families, runs deep in Mexico, riddling newspapers with frustrating silences; and decades of political instability meant that official documents were either not kept or destroyed.

A page of Jacob’s travel diary during a trip to India, 1996. Photo by Sarah Blesener.

Mira Jacob’s Notes to Self

It began, as so many cultural inquiries do, with some confusion about Michael Jackson. The summer of 2014, Mira Jacob’s son (we’ll call him Z) was obsessed with the singer, which is to be expected of a six-year-old who knows what’s what. But any path into Jackson’s story, especially for a child of color (Jacob is Indian American; her husband is Jewish) invariably ends up in the territory of disconnect, the before and after of his complexion, making the pop star’s story, like the larger American one, a bit difficult to explain. What began with an obsessive imitation of the backstep from “Beat It” led to heavy rotation on the family turntable, with albums strewn across the room. “And then it was obvious,” Jacob recalls, “because Michael’s face is so big on those albums. You can see his skin get lighter. So of course Z begins to ask: Who is this person? How did this thing happen? Will it happen to us?”

Photo by Sarah Rice

Richard Blanco’s Notes to Self

When Two Ponds Press, a fine-art press that produces limited-edition monographs, approached poet Richard Blanco and photographer Jacob Hessler in early 2014 for a theme on which to collaborate, it didn’t take them long to agree on a purpose. Blanco had spent the previous year working on several commissioned occasional poems and had been exploring the role of poetry in public discourse, “the idea of the civic-minded poet—the poet as the village voice, a poetry of social conscience.” Hessler, who uses large-scale landscapes to explore similar ideas of artistic responsibility, shared Blanco’s values and concerns. In light of recent schisms in American political life—eruptions over marriage quality, racial strife, and police violence, for instance—they landed on the idea of boundaries and borders. As Blanco puts it, they sought to examine, through image and verse, “narratives that are manipulated to separate—to divide and conquer. We wanted to investigate and expose those narratives that run counter to the idea of our shared humanity.”

Photography by Maisie Crow

Susan Orlean’s Notes to Self

A library, of course, makes for a stubborn protagonist in a work of narrative journalism. “The reality is, it’s just different writing about something that has all of the complexity of bureaucracy. I don’t do a lot of stories where I have to go through channels to get the material I want, and I’m not somebody who knows how to game a system to get access to stuff.” Doggedness helped, both in chasing leads and, later, arranging them—fittingly, with one of the indispensible tools of the librarian’s trade.

Marc Burckhardt’s Notes to Self

Recently, painter Marc Burckhardt has been in a deep “visual conversation” with literature—specifically, with Petrarch’s Triumphs, a sequence of poems from the Italian Renaissance in which Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity each overcomes the other. Burckhardt first came across Triumphs nearly a year ago, while working on a series based on Dante’s Inferno. As he often does with literary works, he looked into their visual history, and in doing so found “a deep well of imagery—stuff I recognized through a kind of peripheral appreciation.” Since then, working between studios in Austin, Texas, and Bremen, Germany, he’s has been studying, sketching, crumpling sketches, starting over, and taking notes for a series of allegorical paintings that reflect his personal connection to Petrarch’s themes, to be included in an October show at Gallery Shoal Creek, in Austin, Texas.

Drawings of the twelve labors of Hercules, part of Tinti’s thematic map for her new novel.

Hannah Tinti’s Notes to Self

Tinti recognized herself in Barry’s portrait of the lapsed artist. “I took her lecture to heart,” she says, and decided to commit herself to doodling, sketching, drawing.

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