Skip to content

The Writing Life: An Interview with Andy Sturdevant

2013 November 19
Comments Off on The Writing Life: An Interview with Andy Sturdevant

The Writing Lifeandy sturdevant

Editor’s Note: We heart Andy Sturdevant, and not just because of his kick-ass facial hair. Artist, writer, and appreciator of all things creative, Sturdevant is a familiar face around the Twin Cities. Chock full of stories, conversations, and information, Sturdevant’s recently released book of essays Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow (Coffee House Press) is a guidebook of sorts to be treasured. If you missed our review last week of Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, check it out here. In the meantime, take in this interview with Sturdevant about art, writing, and his favorite piece of public art currently.

Hazel & Wren: Can you talk about your column, “The Stroll,” and how that maybe has or hasn’t influenced this book of essays? 

Andy Sturdevant: A lot of pieces in the book are reworked Stroll columns from the first year or so, mixed in with a lot of other pieces. So the book is informed by the column, but writing the column has been informed by own interests in physical spaces, buildings, artist’s projects, history, and other related subjects. The book itself is about looking at a place from many different vantage points, and the columns are just a weekly expression of that same idea. Hopefully the columns, in the setting of a collection, play off of each other well.

H&W: What are the advantages and/or challenges to writing about physical spaces?

AS: I don’t really see much in the way of disadvantages. I love it. Especially physical spaces that are easily accessible from where you live; traveling across the world is one thing, but traveling across town is something anyone can do. Writing about places and spaces is a collaborative process. A place doesn’t simply appear by spontaneous creation. A place is the sum of its history and location and the personal experiences of the people that live or work or travel there. Even a Frank Lloyd Wright house, for example, which is primarily the very strong vision of one particular person picks up many different meanings over time: who’s lived there? How did they take care of it? What relationship did the building have to other buildings in the neighborhood? You bring your own experiences to a place when you write about it that no other person can have in quite the same way. It makes it exciting to compare your own work. Some readers have told me about some of the essays that what I wrote resonated with their own experiences, but others have certainly told me, “Hmm, I see what you’re trying to say, but I disagree, that’s not really my experience there.” Which always makes for an interesting conversation.

H&W: Same question, but about art? 

AS: Writing about art, on the other hand, I find quite difficult. It’s hard to do it well, or at least in terms of writing about artwork without just writing a physical description of the work, which is the worst kind of art writing: “This show has many paintings that are primarily yellow, and many of them are on canvas and hung on a wall.” Or the other approach, where you’re spinning off your own responses to artworks that may have nothing to do with the very specific ideas the artist may have had in mind, you can get lost. I love good art writing and criticism — someone like Dave Hickey comes to mind — but man, it’s tough. Whenever I’ve written about art, I’ve tended to write about more from a historic and cultural perspective, and less from a critical perspective.

 H&W: Potluck Supper has very strong local physical ties. How did you end up being published by Coffee House Press?

AS: The way the book came together was pretty unusual. I didn’t necessarily have a book in mind, in any concrete way; I just had all of these pieces I’d written over years, for websites and magazines and museum catalogs and other outlets. It had certainly not occurred to me to pitch it as a collection to a publisher, in any formal way. Chris Fischbach, the editor at Coffee House, approached me and wondered if they might work together as a book. I said sure. And we took it from there. I don’t know if it’s the kind of book a non-local publisher would have been interested in putting out, of if it would have been quite the same type of book. What I loved about the process is that the book was allowed to be very hyper-local and have very specifically local references — to Mancini’s or Governor Pawlenty or the art supply store at MCAD. But it’s also kind of eccentric and not necessarily follow the formula of being a straight-forward local guidebook, because there’s a lot of odd little digressions and asides in there, too. It’s lucky that we have a world-class literary publisher in town that just also happens to be locally run, and has an interest in the local literary community.

H&W: What was the editing process like with the publisher to get this book to where it is today?

AS: Chris had a unique editing process. I gave him a folder with just about everything I’d written in the past few years. We worked our way through it, and he wrote a series of ideas and overarching themes from the entire body of work onto 3″ x 5″ notecards. And we formed the structure in that way, by having essays with a common thread — outsider art, for example — live in the same sections next to each other. Which is why you have a section of the book about store signage and train graffiti all together. Otherwise, it was enjoyable to revisit all these pieces, and give them another pass or two or three. I hope they’re a little tighter and sharper.

H&W: You’ve done some interesting events to promote this book. What inspired you to promote your book in this way? Are there others coming up that we can look forward to?

AS: Again, the idea for the projects was Coffee House’s idea. They’d received some funding through the Carolyn Foundation to do some Minneapolis public events around ideas in the book, so together with the public design studio Works Progress we selected about a dozen artists working around the city we admired, and asked them to put them something together based on one of the essays in the book. There’s a few more coming up, but one I’m excited about it a short film made by artist Kate Casanova and musician Chris Koza. It’s based on a piece that describes walking to a bar after a blizzard. Chris and Kate figured out the exact date of the blizzard in the essay, and made a video using uploaded footage from YouTube and other places from that same date. We’re going to project it guerilla-stlye publicly somewhere the next time there’s a blizzard. So that could happen anytime.

H&W: In your work, you see a lot of amazing arts organizations and people. Name three artists/writers/publishers/organizations/publications doing particularly exciting work in Twin Cities area (or larger Minnesota state).

AS: Ah, there’s a lot. Little Brown Mushroom’s Dispatch series is amazing. In fact, an earlier collaboration between Brad Zellar and LBM, House of Coates, is being released as a paperback by Coffee House next year. I love Nona Marie and the Anonymous Choir, who also have a great sense of working with archives — they arrange and record beautiful covers of older songs by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and others. I also just got a copy of Heid E. Erdrich’s Original Local, which is a really excellent mix of recipes, food history, oral histories, and photographs.

H&W: Which artists and/or writers have influenced you the most?

AS: When I was younger, all the artists and writers I most admired were local media personalities: DJs, rock critics, columnists, musicians, and newspaper cartoonists, most of whom I could have taken a bus downtown and met in person. I also really admire artist-writers that manage to do both somehow. In particular, Leanne Shapton, Judith Schalansky and Tamara Shopsin are all hyphenated artist-writers that have put out beautiful books in the past few years that have been equally at home as both art projects and writing projects. Those are what I look to when I think about what I ought to do next. And of course I still love reading and discovering local journalists, critics, and writers, both living and dead. Mostly dead: I do love microfilm. That love of archives and catalogs is probably why I enjoyed Donald Barthelme so much (and still do). I’m sure I read more Donald Barthelme growing up than any other fifteen-year-old in Kentucky history.

H&W: Favorite piece of public art (or artist) in Minnesota?

AS: The seven-string guitar player cut-out at the Metrodome. It’s a statue outside the public plaza by the light rail, meant to express the adaptability of the Dome as not only a sports arena, but also a music venue. But the sculptor must have thought it would be funny to stick him with a seven-strong guitar, because that’s what he seems to be playing — which means he’s playing speed metal or jazz fusion or some other arcane musical genre, because those are the only genres that make use of seven-string guitars. I pick him mostly because he is going to be gone, gone, gone in the very near future. They’re going to blow up the old Star-Tribune building to make way for the new stadium, so there’s no way that sculpture is going to survive.

What We’re Reading: Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

2013 November 14
Comments Off on What We’re Reading: Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow

What We're ReadingPotluck-Supper-375x489Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow: Essays by Andy Sturdevant (Coffee House Press 2013)

Writer, artist, curator, Minnesota arts industry professional, and transplant to the Midwest, Andy Sturdevant captures my city, state, and geographical region with clear-eyes and a compelling, conversational pen. (Stay tuned to the blog for an interview with Sturdevant next week on The Writing Life!) Sturdevant’s interests, scope, and knowledge cross so many disciplines that I dare you to find someone who can’t connect to something in this book. The back cover heralds the book as a “Keepsake, guidebook, and wunderkammer of enthusiasms,” which captures my feelings for it beautifully.

There are many essays about art, not surprisingly. In many of these, I found myself yearning to see more (although he does include context with a few photos of the original place and/or art as well as his own drawn recreations of the art in question). I could see many of these working extremely well as a full-blown exhibit or walking tour of sorts, with Sturdevant’s book in tow as your personal guide. Sturdevant has already lead some local walking tours during the promotion of this book, and has lead walking tours of areas of the Twin Cities previously. This crossover from book to real-life is one of the exciting and unique traits of this book.

The guidebook theme crops up again and again. One of the longer essays is a guide (and an art lesson) to all thirty-nine gubernatorial portraits and their artists in the state capitol. I found myself wishing I were walking down the hallway looking at these (and just might, at some point, do this myself). It also thrums with the giddy potential Sturdevant sees in abandoned storefronts in “A Field Guide to the Vacant Storefronts of East Lake Street;” as well as the hilarity and awkwardness of Midwestern culture. One of my favorite essays about our culture is exposed with the essay “First with mannequins, then with live models,” about Midwesterners and their clumsiness when greeting another by kissing on the cheek. Here’s an excerpt:

The kiss should land on the cheek for just a moment. Most of the time, it doesn’t touch at all. Make sure your lips aren’t too wet. I mean, don’t wipe your mouth with your sleeve before you go in or anything—you won’t have time anyway—but do what you can. There should be very little moisture upon contact.

Sturdevant even recently held a workshop in conjunction with the book on teaching Midwesterns how to properly kiss cheeks! And that brings me back to the events in conjunction with the release of this book: they have taken on a fascinating identity of their own. Often involving invested time from the audience, whether it be a walking tour, or even that workshop on kissing, they activate a community to interact and experience Sturdevant’s vision of our local places and cultural habits. Here’s to hoping for more book events like this!

Another way the book crosses over the traditional book sphere is it’s tone. The whole book feels as though I’ve downloaded a bunch of conversations, stories, and lessons directly from Sturdevant and let me tell you, I’m a  bit in awe. This guy knows his stuff. He is able to keep my mind walking alongside him throughout the book with his conversational, yet crisply intelligent tone that never veers over into preachy speak. He has a knack for capturing side tangents or brief moments in full color, such as at the beginning of the essay (and one of my favorites in the book) “At Matt’s Bar, in a Blizzard”:

There were few cars on the road, so I could walk down the center of the back streets I was traveling to avoid the unshoveled snow on the sidewalk and feel completely alone. The longer I walked though, the most sensitive I became to the noises around me. I realized I wasn’t alone at all: each block had at least a half-dozen people on it, noisily shoveling their sidewalks and driveways. the sounds they were making were agreeably rhythmic and suited to the sort of methodical trudging one must make over three feet of unpacked snow. First, there’s a metallic skid as the shovel hits the sidewalk, then there’s a muffled plop as the shoveled snow hits the fresh snow behind it. Repeat that, then multiply it a few times per block, and add in incidental conversation in English and Spanish if the shoveler has a partner helping out.

The fact that such a book exists, with a such a specific focus and deep physical ties is due to the bravery and dedication of Coffee House Press to publishing quality work. My love for Coffee House Press is no secret, and this book solidifies that. They’ve made some very brave and innovative editorial choices lately, and I encourage you to follow their book lists if you don’t already.

And, with it being Give to the Max Day here in Minnesota, consider supporting Coffee House Press and all of the amazing  literary publishers, organizations, and magazines of our dear state (not to mention nonprofits in general). Luckily for us, there are so many choices to make when deciding which of the many amazing nonprofits to support.

What other books can you think of that act as literary guidebooks? Any other authors come to mind who do unique, community-centric book events? What other publishers have a motto of quality over quantity?