Future Prairie Radio Season Four Episode Nine: How To Talk About It with John Akira Harrold
My name's John Akira Harrold. I am a fourth-generation Japanese American of mixed heritage. My dad is white, and my mom's Japanese-American. I'm 33 years old, and I've been living in Portland for 7 going on 8 years, I think. I'm originally from Colorado. I was born and raised there. In terms of how identity intersects with the work, I feel it's primarily through the lens of race. The current job that I do now tends to be around the concept of publishing and is frequently—although not exclusively in print. I'm interested in thinking about how publishing can work to coalesce either a group of people, or a conversation, or this moment around whatever thing you want to connect that energy around. It commemorates or culminates that or expresses it within the physicality of a printed item, a book.
That hasn't always been how I've approached creative work and printed work, but it's what's interesting to me now, about creative work. I'm also in a place where a lot of what I'm interested in changes, and I don't have a strong sense of who I am as a creative person. More than anything, I actually respond to whatever interests me at the moment, and then I try to pursue that.
Another thing that informs what I do creatively is also this interest in graphic design and art. ever since I learned about typography and image-making, I've never looked at the world the same, and studying those disciplines, has opened up things creatively for me even though their primary application is commercial. Thinking about visual languages and visual work through the lens of graphic design has helped me create new work and find ways to problem solve in the creative process.
Before that, I didn't go to school for anything creative. I did get the opportunity to go to school to study a discipline called ethnic studies. I majored in Asian-American studies, which was a hybrid degree. Which was an exciting experience, and I learned a lot about political things, and got to do a lot of self-exploration during that time as well, to understand more about my identity and my own family history, and what my role was in society and what responsibilities I would have because of certain privileges.
I carry a lot of that with me today, although my politics have changed. But then again, similar to my art practice, I don't even know how to put words to it. I guess it's just-- I don't comfortably fit into a category of wokeness. I would have when I was in college, and now my politics are grappling with finding a political home. It seems part of being a politically active, creative person is also engaging in developing your politics and its consequences. Again, I feel this is a constantly changing process that I have a hard time articulating and setting in stone.
When about bookmaking and typography, I definitely think of this non-profit in Portland called the independent publishing resource center. I got involved with them maybe 5 years ago and learned about letterpress printing. It's a traditional form of printing used to create various printed media types, from books to posters to newspapers. But it rests on this idea of setting type by hand, so, putting individual letters of words together in a string. Something about being able to pick the letters and construct the words without picking up a pencil: I was able to make marks on paper, and for me, that was new because I've never felt compelled to illustrate. It's coupled with you also using letters, and you can say something and articulate something and communicate.
It is also a rich medium for people interested in language, specifically poets, because setting many words by hand can take a long time. People who can have an economy of speech can find a home in letterpress. Letterpress led to this interest in print, and it also led to an interest in type and typography. From there, I figured out how to learn all the Adobe programs, and I still consider myself learning. Even though I use them daily, there's so much depth to them.
Then I also spent a couple of years apprenticing with this guy named Spina, who recently moved to Arizona about a year ago. He ran a small print shop in Portland that was a unique business where he worked mostly with artists and made custom books. He was embedded in Portland's music community, did many show posters, and did a lot of art prints. I learned more about what it would take to run a small shop, make books, find ways to have more time where I'm spending actually making stuff, and printing and learning how to do it and learn how to put everything together.
So I'd say type and bookmaking come together with the political stuff, is…well, to put something out into the world, you have to figure out what you want to be saying. Combining it all together is thinking in a way that, for me, still feels very academic and heady, but then trying to represent that a bit abstracted and then also graphically, and wrapping it all together in the format of a book. I feel sometimes I do that, sometimes I don't do that, but I think generally, that's kind of, I don't know, a process that I feel would resonate with my experience.
A project I did last year that was meaningful was this book that I made in my grandpa's memory commissioned by my grandma. My grandpa passed away a couple of years ago. At his memorial service, my grandma wanted to find a way to get the community's memories together and share them. as someone from a different generation, very comfortable with print media, she was let's try to get people to write letters. We'll put them together in a book, we'll include some photos, and then we can give it out, because they live in a small town, and my grandma still does. It's called Alamosa Colorado, It's a unique place in southern Colorado.
, that project was great because I got to read through 70 or 80 handwritten letters that were all of the people sharing stories about the time they had spent with my grandpa, and funny times, sad times, meaningful times, everything in between. So, we put them together in a layout and print it off, maybe 130 copies or so, and my grandma gave them out to everyone who came to the service, or anyone who's in her network in that in that community. That was a cool project because I felt I got to use all these skills I've been trying to acquire for the past 5, 6 years and put them into something that I thought I would want to look back on in years and be oh, this was a very worthwhile thing to do.
Another noteworthy project is one that I recently completed, and it was actually funded—partially funded by RAAC, so, thank you, Regional Arts and Culture Council. It's called ACNBF, and it took years to make. It took a long time to figure out how I wanted this book to speak, and I wanted to do it in collectivity with other people. I reached out to nine different people who all have a background of either full Asian or mixed or mixed Asian and something else. They have various sexual orientations, mostly men, but not all men but most men and primarily male.
I wanted to talk about masculinity, and I wanted to talk about the unique position of the intersection of Asian-ness and masculinity. It's an exciting position that is rich, in the sense that there's a lot there, but we don't have a framework for understanding it or how to talk about it. I interviewed people, and many were creatives and had casual conversations with them about their lives. I asked about their relationships, upbringing, relationship with their parents, how they deal with racism, how they want to grow personally, off the cuff, but meaning—I would consider them to be meaningful. Hopefully, others did too.
I transcribed all the audio. It was over a hundred pages of audio. Then, it categorized every sentence into a category, then printed out those sheets, then chop them up into sentences, and then rearranged them to form composite poems. , each line from the poem is from a different interviewee, and you don't know who. They're not attributed to anyone, so, in that sense, they're a little more anonymous. I then gave every interviewee a disposable camera and paid them a stipend to fill it up with photos, show me what their life is like, and give me a perspective through their eyes. So, everything got put together in this book called AZMBF, and it was set to be released right when COVID hit, and so the release got canceled, and so, that was also a particular project that I'm still excited to release into the world, and I have no idea. I've given it to a few people, and they're oh, this is sweet, but I haven't had the opportunity to get a ton of feedback on it or see how it's going to land with folks, so I'm excited and interested to see what's going to happen with that.
I also feel too I should shout out Dao S. Dow's work was part of a collective of Vietnamese American women writers called "She who has no masters." some of their work inspired the format for AZMBF. , I feel it's important to acknowledge that-- they didn't do the same exact thing, but the idea of how do you speak in collectivity, as a group coming from a position, but also like, I don't know, they do way more stuff, but the idea of that inspired this book.
The book is basically a combination of image and text. The images are the 35-millimeter photographs from the disposable cameras from the nine different people I interviewed for the project. The text is pretty big on the page, it's basically set in Arial, a stock font, but it looks pretty all right. It was printed on a reason graph printer, which gives the images a distinct texture, its a bit grainy maybe, and it also prints one color at a time, so each image is one color. The photos are either red, yellow, turquoise green, blue, or purple, and they change throughout the book. Then all the text is white, and all the negative space is black.
, when you print, you have to print on white. Well, you don't have to, but I printed on white paper and basically didn't print the text itself. I printed everything around the letters. , it's a lot of blacks, it's when you open up the book, I wanted it to feel you were going into this space of emo darkness because that's my jam, or at least it was. Or it's this space that I, for some reason, feel comfortable communicating from, but I wanted that not to be so overpowering that it was aesthetic in and of itself, but I wanted it to be an element of it. I would say there's this element of a little bit of darkness to the book, but in a way that I hope actually helps further the message and give it a distinct tone.
Then I guess the last thing I'll say aesthetically about the book is that it was all done a hundred percent in my studio. It was a run of 150, and so, each copy was handled quite a bit, and I put more care into this project, into this physical production than I've probably had any other thing in my life. My hope is that some of the detailed work shines and comes through visually when people are…visually and effectively compelling when you're actually engaging with the result. The book is bound using this method called Japanese stabbed binding, and it is an old way of binding books, where you take a stack of loose pages, and on the edge that you're going to bind, you drill holes through the top and out the bottom, and then you stitch them together with this thread that's called waxed linen thread. It's a specific type of thread that basically is meant to be archival so that it doesn't have any acids in it, so that if you have the book 20 years from now, hopefully, it won't leach any chemicals into the paper and ruin the quality of the book, and it will hopefully still last.
Then, each cover was debossed, which is a way of saying a graphic or a shape was scored or engraved into the cover paper, the cover paper's thick, and I use this machine called the digital dye cutter. It's very tactile, it's very textural, as well as functional.
The future is a lot of anxiety right now, and that is affecting my work in the sense of—like, I'm not sure what's important to be doing right now. There's a lot of stuff happening in the world right now, everything feels very urgent, and I think work should be engaging with that urgency and responding to current social and political life. I know this is going to change things for me creatively. I would like to continue to teach. The IPRC, who I mentioned earlier, allowed me to create a class last year and lead in this program that was a 9-month program. Last year was the second year that we did it, and I enjoy teaching, so I would love to someday have a more stable teaching gig, preferably at a university or somewhere that's working with adults or young adults, that's an age group that I'm interested in working with. Doing that may be a part-time gig, teaching one course a term, or something that.
I'm interested in trying to make a living more in the design space as well, whether that's totally commercial work or whether it's at that intersection of art and design, it's definitely something I'm interested in for myself, both creatively and professionally and what I would say, I spend a lot of time working towards now. Ideally, in the future, I would have some set up to where the creative world and the professional world continue to merge and merge even more so. that that could be possible in Portland and as a Portland person living here in the future, what I want is leadership in place that responds to the community's needs. I want the community to feel they're heard in our local government and that local government is by the people, for the people, accountable and effective.
Take advantage of the fact that Portland is a smaller place. We can try things out here, make changes, and do things that can meet the specific needs of what people in Portland need. I want civic leadership that is doing a great job and effective.
Art can help shape hearts and minds, and I'm not sure how it can help us get there. Still, I guess in the past, I've seen a lot of art change how people think about otherness and perception and representation, by putting creators from marginalized backgrounds at the helm and letting them dictate what content is gonna look like. That can be effective, and that's necessary.
I want to create work that makes me feel that it was a worthwhile endeavor, but coming into a project with that mindset is sometimes challenging. I'm a big fan of developing a practice, it could be daily, it could be three times a week, where you engage in something, set a timer, and do it no matter what, and you might come up with stuff you're not stoked on. But what I find is usually when you start getting into things at about 15 to 18 minutes. You typically are at a place that seems inspiring, and maybe something creative could happen that otherwise would not have happened had you not force yourself to sit down or force yourself to engage in whatever it is you want to be doing.
I liked the concept of an archive, and I liked people making their own archives out of ordinary, mundane things in their lives. That smartphones for those who have them, have opened up a lot of opportunities for individuals to be able to document their daily experience, whether that's taking a picture of something every day and having a record of that, or whether that's… you get so much data from your phone. So, I feel there are creative ways that you can mind through that information and take the time to represent it in some way visually. That's a fun thing to do that gives you insight into something you may not otherwise think of — then for people who are visually oriented, to be able to take that and put that into something that's a visually appealing package, I love that stuff, I love it when people make archives of their own experience, in whatever way they want to and see how they do it and what they choose to pay attention to. It is a fascinating practice, both as someone who's doing it and as someone who's experiencing it.
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