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Saint Lucy Books Embraces Hybridity and Conversation

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Since 2017, artist and writer Mark Alice Durant has quietly established a unique publishing concern through Saint Lucy Books. Devoted to exquisitely designed, uncategorizable books merging visual art and adventurous writing, Saint Lucy’s titles often fall between the cracks between memoir and monograph.

Saint Lucy’s publishing arm evolved from a blog covering photography and contemporary art, founded by Durant in 2011, into a small press producing stylish, unique books exploring the liminal possibilities and hidden histories of photography. It takes its name from the patron saint of the blind and protector of sight, Saint Lucia, who is said to have lost her eyes for refusing marriage to a pagan nobleman, and who is often depicted as holding her eyes upon a golden platter.

To date, Saint Lucy has published seven books, including Oliver Wasow’s photography collection Friends Enemies and Strangers, Durant’s own hybrid memoir/monograph 27 Contexts, and Conversations with Saint Lucy, a collection of interviews with photographers Sarah Blesener, Elinor Carucci, Doug DuBois, Ron Jude, and Rania Matar.

With a focus on great design as well as engaging content, Saint Lucy’s books are highly collectible. One of Saint Lucy’s first titles—Laura Larson’s Hidden Mother, which traces the history of 19th-century “hidden mother” photographs that concealed the bodies of mothers during long-exposure photographs of their children—is nearly sold out.

The pandemic has not slowed Saint Lucy, during which it published three titles: Brea Souders’ photography monograph eleven years, Odette England’s autobiographical chronicle Dairy Character, and Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, a compendium of photographs and texts exploring the human body in various states of motion. Durant expects to publish three more titles in 2022.

BmoreArt interviewed Durant over Zoom about Saint Lucy’s progression, the relationships between art and writing, and what it means to be part of a conversation.

 

Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, 2021
Saint Lucy designer Guenet Abraham and publisher Mark Alice Durant
I've always been somebody who's had a foot in making pictures and a foot in writing. Obviously, there's a difference in language, but I don't see them as separate activities, necessarily.
Mark Alice Durant

Rahne Alexander: I was familiar with Saint Lucy the blog early on. What was the impetus to move into publishing books?

Mark Alice Durant: I started Saint Lucy as an online journal in 2011 to house things I had written for obscure journals that very few would ever see. I also gave myself permission to write things that I had proposed to editors and never got commissioned. And then in 2016 or 2017 I was shopping around a book of my own collected essays called 27 Contexts, sending it to the usual suspects. They were all very nice, but mostly they were saying, what is this? It’s not art history, it’s not criticism, it’s not theory. It’s not a monograph. It’s kind of biographical, kind of a memoir, no one really knew how to categorize it. I’ve always been somebody who’s had a foot in making pictures and a foot in writing. Obviously, there’s a difference in language, but I don’t see them as separate activities, necessarily.

Around the same time, Laura Larson was shopping her book, Hidden Mother. I contacted her and said, so who’s publishing your book? And she said, oh, no one’s publishing it, because they say it’s not art history, it’s not criticism, it’s not theory, it’s kind of a memoir, but not really. It’s not a monograph. It’s somewhere in between. The next day, I thought, maybe Saint Lucy should publish Hidden Mother.

I’ve been involved in publishing in journals and magazines and catalogs for years. I knew people who had started small presses, but I never really thought about doing it myself until that moment. I called Laura and said, if I started a press, would you trust Hidden Mother with me? And she said, absolutely. That’s really how it started.

I’m holding Dairy Character, and I just love how it feels in my hands. I love the design of your books; they’re all so different, but so pleasing as material objects. Do you design them, or are you designing them with the author?

That’s a really important question. There are seven books that are out now, and five of the seven that are out now were designed by Guenet Abraham, my colleague at UMBC.

When I decided to start Saint Lucy Books, I had a meeting with Guenet to ask if she could recommend former students who knew something about book design that I could hire. I showed her what I was thinking about and she said, oh, I want to do it. I didn’t even dream of asking her—she’s an incredible designer; she worked for major publishing houses in New York for many years. She knows her way around the publishing business. I said, I really can’t pay that much, and she said, I don’t care, I want to do it. So we’ve been working together since; we’ve become collaborators. The process of making a book is basically a three-way conversation between Guenet, myself, and the artist. We bring in ideas and thoughts and reactions to their ideas, and then it starts to form organically.

Dairy Character is done by a different designer, Cara Buzzell. The artist is Odette England, who is also a really beautiful writer who contributed an essay to Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, which I published in 2021. I approached Odette early in 2021 to see if she wanted to work on a project together. She was thinking about doing an autobiographical project about her childhood growing up on a dairy farm in southern Australia. She was talking about memory and photography, the gendered landscape of the dairy farm, an experience that is somewhat unusual in terms of geography, class, and gender.

 

Spread from Hidden Mother by Laura Larson
My ambition, such as it is, is not that I want to be a famous artist ... I just want to be part of the conversation. So my circuitous career has been about finding new forums, new places, new ways to activate conversation.
Mark Alice Durant

I really like the physicality of this book in particular—the texture of the cover and the pages cut flush with the cover.

Odette wanted that papery, dry kind of feeling that would somehow match the landscape and environment where she grew up.

Yeah, I think it’s just a lovely object. And the content, the photographs and text, is a little surrealist, which I think is interesting because it is rooted in this otherwise very earthy world, but the images and text take me to another place.

The images are very impressionistic. One of the things I love about photography is its ubiquity, that it’s a relatively democratic medium. Odette employed family snapshots, archival images from her father’s dairy manual, photographs that she had taken of the farm when she returned to that landscape, and photographs of her own daughter. It’s this really interesting dialogue between the past and the present.

But the photographs are not indexical in a direct way, they allude to things—the weird juxtapositions between cows and landscapes and young girls, right? She’s really dealing with how the animals were gendered, and the way females are treated in that culture; how her own body was seen or not seen in that environment. So there is something sort of perverse, in the surrealist sense, of these strange juxtapositions that are somewhat disturbing.

It’s interesting that you invoke “dialogue” in Dairy Character, because it seems to me like every aspect of Saint Lucy Books is about conversation more so than, say, ekphrasis. Conversations in the design process, conversations between image and text and genre. You even have one collection of artist interviews that’s literally called Conversations with Saint Lucy.

It’s true. I think that is the heart of what I do. I would say that conversation, like the one we’re having now, is the best part of my life in the sense that I’m really interested in exchange with artists and writers. You’re animating each other somehow; you say something, and I say, oh, I never thought about that before, and we go back and forth. That’s really what I’m interested in. I’ve been saying that my entire life, even when I was at art school, that I just want to be part of the conversation. My ambition, such as it is, is not that I want to be a famous artist. I’ve never thought that; I just want to be part of the conversation. So my circuitous career has been about finding new forums, new places, new ways to activate conversation.

 

Spread from Brea Souders : eleven years

I’m struck by how Brea Souderseleven years opens with Kim Beil’s essay, “Conversation Pieces.”

Kim is an art historian at Stanford and her essay is structured around images that she and Brea found at the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection. The essay comes at Brea’s work obliquely, through other images. I really love the way that Brea has a conversation with photography in a way that few other photographic artists are doing. For each project, she reinvents photography for herself; a reimagining of what a photograph can be. To me, that’s part of the conversation that I’m talking about. It’s not always just about words and images, sometimes it’s about images speaking to other images.

You mentioned Odette England’s contribution to Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling. Can you say that title five times fast?

I just say RFFFC—Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling. Can you imagine when I was coming up with that title, how many different versions of those five words were possible?

This is full of essays and images, some very familiar artists and images—Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar—and some totally new to me. It’s one of those books I feel I could read randomly over a few months, perfect for my quarantine-fractured attention span.

It certainly is designed so that you could dip in anywhere, just open it up.

What’s the origin of this project?

I was asked to guest-curate a show a number of years ago, and one of the ideas I had was a collection of photographs and video from performance artists who dealt with the body in motion. I had a list of artists I wanted to work with, and the institution said yes, but then the director who had asked me to submit the proposal left the museum and the show I was planning didn’t happen. But the idea wouldn’t go away. All those artists I already had my head started inviting other artists in my brain, and suddenly they were having this conversation with each other—Chris Burden’s crawl piece was calling to Pope.L, and Pope.L was calling to Francesca Woodman. These crazy relationships were forming in my brain. One day I was laying on the couch thinking about all these crawling and falling and flying artists, and I thought, this had to be a book, and it unfolded naturally from there because I had this whole collection of artists in mind.

I didn’t want to write, nor did I feel like I was capable of writing, an overview essay connecting all of those artists. I thought, well, if there’s a wide spectrum of visual artists, there should be a polyphony of writers’ voices. I started thinking about what kinds of writers would I want and made a list of people that I admired. Some of them are curators, and some are historians and critics, some are poets, some are fiction writers. We have a couple of Baltimore writers in there, Lia Purpura and Jen Grow. Practically everyone I approached said yes.  

 

Spread from Brea Souders : eleven years
Spread from Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling
It's not always just about words and images, sometimes it’s about images speaking to other images.
Mark Alice Durant

You even got Diane Seuss?

At the last minute! Diane Seuss is a poet who’s huge right now. Her latest book, Frank: Sonnets, is winning all these awards. She’s everywhere. Late in 2020 when Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling was literally going to press, I came across one of her poems and was like, oh, my gosh, she’s amazing. I sent her an email saying, I love your poems. I want you to be in this book. Would you consider writing something for it? I need it next week. She said yes, and now she’s hugely famous; I doubt she would have had the time to do it now.  

That’s fantastic. Timing really is everything. What was the process for pulling this anthology together—were you sending images to writers or were they selecting images they wanted to focus on?

I put together a rough PDF of the imagery that was going to be in the book, and I sent it to all the writers and said you can choose an image or artist and write about it specifically, or just use the idea of bodies in any of these states of running, falling, flying, floating or crawling as a place to begin to write. Right away, certain people said “I want to write about this artist or that artist,” and it sort of unfolded organically.

I didn’t want a one-to-one relationship between the texts and the images, although there are certain texts that deal directly with specific imagery. There are more artists than there are writers—I think there are 25 writers and 55 visual artists, so there are a lot of images that don’t have text specifically addressed to them. The art historians, like Jennifer Blessing from the Guggenheim, tended to want to write about specific imagery, but then people like Lynne Tillman, Diane Seuss, or Lia Purpura were using the idea of bodies in states of helplessness, abandon, or subjugation, to generate texts.

 

Dairy Character by Odette England, 2021
Brea Souders : eleven years, 2021

So you published three books in 2021, and you have three on deck for 2022?

The first one will probably be out in February, the second book with Laura Larson. It’s called City of Incurable Women. Like Hidden Mother, it deals with an archive and uses the archive to generate a kind of relationship. City of Incurable Women is a phrase that’s used to describe a Parisian asylum in the 18th and 19th centuries that housed mad women, women who were indigent or had mental health issues, and were treated and housed under horrendous conditions. The entire place is used as a laboratory for the theories of various men, including [Jean-Martin] Charcot. Charcot did this whole series of photographs in the late 19th century illustrating hysteria, and his theories of hysteria use these women at the asylum.

Laura’s book tells the story of that place, but uses this strategy of multiple voices, both imagining being inside of the bodies of some of these women, but also trying to create a dialogue between the present moment and the past, trying to communicate or commune with these women. She made all her own photographs in response to Charcot’s images. So we’re reproducing historical photographs that Charcot made, and Larson’s images of women that she knows, gesturing/mirroring the historical images as a way to create a sort of temporal connection. It goes back and forth between these historical images and contemporary images. The text is both historical and anecdotal, and kind of a manifesto about power and empathy. Laura’s book is going to press any minute now.

Another book I am doing in 2022 is with San Francisco-based artist Klea McKenna, a photographic artist who also writes. Her work is very process-oriented; she makes camera-less photographs, photograms of rain, spider webs, and tree rings, and also abrades the images by rubbing the photographic paper across surfaces and textures. Her works trace and interact with nature in a way that I find profound and deep—it’s very visceral work.

The third book is my biography of the filmmaker Maya Deren. It is the first full biography of Deren written for a general audience. I’ve been working on it for a long time. I finished the manuscript about a year ago and shopped it around for most of 2021, and although there was interest, it is not scholarly enough for the university presses and the commercial presses don’t think there is a big enough audience for it. Which I don’t agree with, obviously. After a year of thinking about it and discussing it with other people, I decided it’s actually appropriate for Saint Lucy to do it, so I’ll be publishing Maya Deren: Choreographed for Camera sometime later in 2022.

 

Spread from Dairy Character
Spread from Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling

Images courtesy of Mark Alice Durant/Saint Lucy Books

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