–Clarice Lispector actually had this dream! Benjamin Moser writes about it in Why This World, his biography of her. She dreamed she’d been banned from Russia, where she was born, because “only feminine women were allowed in Russia, and I wasn’t feminine.” The proof was that she had lit her own cigarette and pushed in her own chair rather than wait for a man to do it.
–This is one of four typewriters that I own and love.
–I have passed this barn a million times on U.S. 31, as I drive from South Bend to Cincinnati, where my family is, and Bloomington, where my daughter is.
–My boyfriend has a tattoo on his chest of a line from Moby Dick: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal!” I thought the bed sheets looked like the high seas.
–I love this weird porcelain glove mold that I bought at an antique store in Niles, Michigan, and I love so many words by Adrienne Rich, even the ones you can’t entirely see here.
–This painting didn’t feel complete until I figured out the title.
–My beloved Prague. A view from Malá Strana looking over the Charles Bridge and Vltava River.
–It was like that Gold Finch was posing for me.
–Visions from the Mishawaka Riverwalk.
Biography of Kelcey Parker Ervick below is courtesy of Ervick’s website. Keep scrolling down for an interview that contiains more artwork within it!
Kelcey Parker Ervick is the author of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, a hybrid work of biography, memoir, and art. Her previous books include Liliane’s Balcony (Rose Metal Press), a novella set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which won silver awards for the Independent Publishers, Foreword, and Eric Hoffer Book Awards. Her story collection, For Sale By Owner (Kore Press), won the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 Best Books of Indiana in Fiction.
She is co-editor, with Tom Hart, of the forthcoming Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage, which Rose Metal Press will publish in 2021.
She has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her stories, essays, comics, and collages have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous literary journals including Colorado Review, Passages North, Ilanot Review, Quarterly West, Booth, Notre Dame Review, The Common, Western Humanities Review, and Image. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and teaches creative writing, comics, and collage at Indiana University South Bend.
In 2018 and 2019, she is making a painting or comic every day and posting most of them on Instagram.
An Interview with Kelcey Parker Ervick By-Natalie Solmer
NS: I first became enamored with your visual art after encountering it on Instagram. Your paintings and drawings, which are often accompanied by words, are sumptuous and lively, and often depict the place where you live. I grew up in South Bend, and in your artwork, I recognized the Mishawaka Riverwalk area right away, as one of my best friends lived in that neighborhood for a long time. For all of 2018, you created at least one painting or drawing each day, vowing to create “50 pounds of art.” I suspect that this led you to paint and draw your immediate surroundings simply out of necessity at times. In a wonderful feature at The Rumpus, you talk about your daily practice as having changed how you see the world. In what ways has this practice changed your thoughts on place and on your surroundings?
KPE: I’ve lived in the South Bend/Mishawaka area for almost thirteen years now, and I’m still not entirely used to this place people call (without irony!) “Michiana.” I moved from Cincinnati, which is not all that far away, but which feels so different.
I make my paintings in my third-floor apartment with a huge window overlooking the St. Joseph River and Mishawaka Riverwalk, and I am obsessed with the view: the way the river sparkles in the sunlight, how the lamps on the path glow when the sun goes down, the birds that fly at eye-level, the construction going up across the river, and the church steeples that point up to the sky.
My building is just a few years old, and my partner and I did the Marie Kondo thing in 2017, downsizing from a 1929 three-bedroom home (with garage, basement, storage shed, plus rented storage!) and moved to a two-bedroom apartment with no storage. A few months later, I began my year of daily art-making.
So, yes, necessity certainly caused me to answer the question of what to paint with images from my immediate surroundings. But I’m also fascinated by underdog histories—my last two books are about relatively unknown historical women—and I found myself reading the South Bend Tribune’s Throwback Thursday articles for the strange histories of South Bend and Mishawaka. I made pieces inspired by weird photos and articles about the Studebakers, the Oliver Chilled Plow company that once had the largest electrical sign in the country, the demolition of the Ball Brand rubber plant that once covered acres of land across river from where I now live, and the local woman Jo Ann Verhagen who became a professional boxer.
The Riverwalk itself has tuned me into the natural world. I have a regular running route along the river, and I constantly stop in the middle of my run to take pictures to paint later—of the sly blue heron, the cocky geese, the skittish ducks, the playful goldfinches and mourning doves, and my favorite: the turtles that sun themselves on the rocks along the banks.
NS: You mention often being very tired, but staying up late into the night to finish a painting or drawing. Do you have any tips or advice for people who are thinking of trying a similar challenge?
KPE: I talk about staying up late to finish something as a gesture toward making some of the labor visible. Painting every day is a pretty major commitment, and there are many days when I don’t have the time or feel like doing it, but I force myself to do it, sometimes instead of sleep, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
Even I can scroll back through a year of Instagram posts and think it looks like magic. Like poof, all those pieces just appeared! Art and writing can look like that, like some magical thing that only some are blessed with the power to do, and it makes people think they can’t participate. But I know the effort that went into making it happen, and I want to mention it, in part as an invitation to say, You can do it too!
With all that said about hard work, I will now say, it IS magic. The process using ink or paint or words on a page to create something that didn’t exist before? Magic.
As to advice, I wrote a blog post at the three-month mark that elaborates on some of my suggestions: It helps to have some accountability and community via social media (in my case Instagram); online art classes can help with the community and offer new ideas; it’s okay to let yourself fail because there’s always tomorrow; and having reference photos ready will help you have something to paint later. It’s also important to have a 10-minute plan for those days when 10 minutes is all you have. Like when I’m traveling and don’t have time to paint, I let myself do a 10-minute watercolor with my travel kit in a small Moleskine journal. I have done many of those in bed right before sleep!
NS: In addition to your work as an artist and professor, you are also a writer and author of three books (one of which includes your art). Do you feel now that you want to continue a daily art practice, or are you focusing on other projects? I was particularly fascinated by the project that began during your daily art practice–your exploration of the story of your great grandmother from Belfast, Ireland. I also read that you are taking a trip to Belfast this year. Can you tell us anything about that project? I do hope to hear that will continue it! I don’t know how you feel about Maira Kalman’s work, but your images and accompanying text often reminds me of her books (which I love).
KPE: I love that you mention Maira Kalman because she is truly the one who got me into all this! I didn’t know you could combine paintings with storytelling until I read her Principles of Uncertainty. I see this Belfast project as somewhere in between Maira Kalman’s stories about her family (like in Sara Berman’s Closet) and Nora Krug’s Belonging, a graphic memoir of Krug’s search for her family’s possible ties to the Nazis. This is also the first time I’ve worked extensively in gouache, which is what Kalman uses.
All of my relatives arrived in the U.S. through Ellis Island during the early twentieth century, and they all have versions of the same immigration stories we hear today: they were people with limited resources and no money, trapped in larger historical forces (war, industrialization, religion, patriarchy), traveling a long way to try to make a meaningful and material change—sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.
My great-grandmother succeeded in getting to the U.S. and starting a new life (with her sister’s newly ex-husband, ahem!) but died at age 30, probably due to health issues caused by a lifetime as a laborer in linen mills. She died when my grandmother was only 5, so we know almost nothing about her, but I got interested when a Google search led me to a copy of the 1911 Irish Census where she is listed as fifteen years old and a “spinner of flax” (thus the title, SPINNING). I researched Belfast’s linen industry, which was the biggest in the world at the time and had terrible wages and working conditions for both women and children.
The census also gave me her address. Her street doesn’t come up on Google Maps, so I bought a 1910 map of Belfast on eBay and found where it was, which was adjacent to Shankill Road and basically ground zero in Belfast for Ireland’s Troubles. The Troubles officially date much later from 1968-1998, but tensions were high in the early twentieth century, leading to the partition of Ireland in 1920. I became fascinated in this individual, my relative, caught in the midst of these larger social forces, and what she tried to do to escape and at what cost. And how it was one of a billion factors that led to my existence.
NS: I also saw on your website that you are co-editing a Field Guide to Graphic Literature for Rose Metal Press with Tom Hart. This sounds really exciting, and after looking at the other Field Guides in the Rose Metal Press series, I want to go buy them all right now! Can you explain a little bit to our readers what Graphic Literature actually is?
KPE: Yes, I’m so excited about this! Graphic literature is becoming the industry term that encompasses graphic novels and graphic memoirs and graphic biographies, which are usually long-form comics or sequential art. And graphic literature is the term we’re using for any literature that combines image and text, and our subtitle breaks down the categories into: graphic narratives (fiction or nonfiction storytelling), poetry comics (lyrical image-text juxtapositions), and literary collage (cut-and-paste images and text from other sources) like the work of Claudia Rankine or in Anne Carson’s Nox.
NS: I’m thinking that your most recent book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, is an excellent example of graphic literature. I spent a lot of time savoring this book, and urge everyone out there to read it! Not only does your book tell the story of Němcová, a Czech, female writer who was ‘before her time’ and died in poverty, but it does so through erasure poetry, collage, photographs and other art. The latter part of the book becomes a sort of epistolary novel, where you write ‘postcards’ to Němcová which detail your connection with your Slovak relatives and your dissolution of your marriage. I enjoyed this book thoroughly and have a couple questions: how did you find your relatives? Do you still practice Czech? And have you learned anything else of interest about Němcová since the publication of the book?
KPE: About twenty years ago, my great aunt traveled to Slovakia to see the village where her parents had come from and to meet family members. In 2005, she put me in touch with our one English-speaking relative, Marta, a chemistry professor in Bratislava who hosted me at her studio apartment twice and on a separate trip, invited me to Okoličné, where I got to stay in a house that my great-grandfather helped to build! As I say in the book, I was taken from one family home to another, at each one greeted with a shot of slivovitz! I was in the midst of my one-month Czech language program, so I interacted very haltingly with a few phrases that were close to Slovak. But my Czech was and is terrible, and I haven’t been back since 2016 when the book was published, so it’s only gotten worse.
For people interested in genealogy for twentieth-century immigrants, the Ellis Island web site has a free database where you can search by name for relatives. I found the handwritten ship manifests of my Norwegian grandfather, Irish great-grandparents, and Slovak great-grandparents, who arrived at different times on different ships. You can also look up U.S. census reports and of course Ancestry.com.
And yes, this book is an example of graphic literature, with its combination of image and text and found texts, thus the subtitle “a biographical collage.” To go back to Maira Kalman, as I was traveling in picturesque Prague, I desperately wanted to engage visually with my experience of researching and writing. Inspired by Kalman, I began making small paintings of my travels and collages made of primary materials like vintage books by Němcová. I even bought a vintage Czech typewriter and typed one of her love letters for a collage. I didn’t really expect for these images to be in the book, but I was thrilled when my editors at Rose Metal Press agreed to include them and used one of them for the cover.
NS: In researching for this interview, I also happened upon your interview series on “How To Become A Writer”, which you ran bi-weekly-ish from 2011-2015. I have to ask you: how did you become a writer? How did you become an artist?
KPE: The inspiration for that interview series actually goes back to your earlier question about the late-nights and advice. Once I had seriously embarked on a journey to become a writer, I realized how many misconceptions I’d had about what that meant and how it happened. I thought it either happened or it didn’t, or that one day you aspired to be a writer and another day, if you were lucky, you got a big book deal and became one. I didn’t realize the slow journey that it is for most of us, how much of it includes years of workshops, readings, research, mentors, submissions, rejections, and, eventually, hopefully, acceptances.
And I got a late start! Growing up, I identified as an athlete, not a writer or artist. My fourth-grade teacher gave me a certificate that dubbed me “Most Athletic.” My senior class voted me “Best Athlete.” I was MVP of my high school basketball team and college soccer team. But I was already conflicted: I was the only Division I athlete at my university who was also an English major. I became a high school English teacher (and basketball/soccer coach!), and read pedagogy books about the importance of writing WITH students in the classroom, so I tried it. I assigned them a prompt, then I wrote and wrote and wrote.
At that time, I also read The Artist’s Way, and for the first time realized there was a way of living and being that was more in line with who I was than that of scoring points and winning. (Sorry, Dad.) I took community education classes in photography, painting, figure drawing, creative writing, and calligraphy. I really wanted to be a calligrapher.
I ultimately quit my job at the high school and went to graduate school full time at the University of Cincinnati. There I met generous mentors, visiting authors, and most importantly, great friends who remain my central support network of writers.
That’s also where I learned to call myself a fiction writer. At the time, we had either fiction or poetry as the concentrations, so we were often asked if we were poets or fiction writers. I’m a fiction writer, I said, over and over. I eventually came to believe it.
I’m still trying out this title of “artist” and still feeling a little unworthy. But then I recall this moment when my daughter was three years old and painting something at her mini-easel, and I said, “Do you want to be a painter when you grow up?” And she looked at her paintbrush, her easel, her painting, then looked at me like I was an idiot, and said, “I AM a painter, Mama.”
NS: I adore your ink portrait of Eileen Myles reading at Notre Dame, and I also love your portrait of Clarice Lispector, who you described as your idol (love her). Which other writers and artists are you inspired by?
KPE: Thank you! It was a dream to be in the second row at her reading at Notre Dame.
So many artists and writers excite and inspire me. I find myself particularly drawn to those who merge image-making and story-telling (Anne Carson, Karen Green, Harmony Holiday), painters who are also writers (like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo) and writers who are painters (Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Carroll), writers and painters who hung out together (Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group; the Surrealists), artists who paint words (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly), and graphic novelists and comic artists who tell powerful stories with image and text (Tom Hart, Lynda Barry, Kristen Radtke, Thi Bui, Marnie Galloway, Trinidad Escobar, Dominque Goblet), and poets who make comics with lush imagery and visual metaphors (Bianca Stone, Mita Mahato, Alexander Rothman).
These days I’m especially into bookish illustrators: Ella Frances Sanders with her beautifully written and illustrated books about things like phrases that get lost in translation. Yelena Bryksenkova with her elegant, whimsical illustrations that lure me into the world of each small frame. Jenny Kroik with her illustrations of people in bookstores and art museums, and delightful series of paintings where she replaces cell phones with animals (penguin, mini-pig, lobster) in her subjects’ hands.