Guest Bloggers Leah Virsik and Sarah Heady: Small Press Collaborators

Tatted Insertion (2014)

It started two summers ago, in the sweltering attic of a Nebraskan farmhouse. Poet Sarah Heady was rooting through boxes of yellowed and brittle Comfort magazines from the 1910s and 1920s, transfixed by articles on cooking, crafting, and perfecting the female self.

In some ways, it appeared that nothing much had changed over the past hundred years: 21st century ladies’ magazines still prescribe how one can be alluring yet maternal, youthful yet responsible. But you’d be hard pressed to find one that speaks in the coded language of lace-making instructions:

[...]4 ds., join to last p. in first ring, 3 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 3 ds., p., 4 ds., draw, third ring like second[...]

--or one that espouses the pseudoscience of breast enlargement through calisthenics:

Stand erect, heels together, feet apart. Raise arms until on a level with the shoulders, elbows stiff, hands on a line with the chin. Now, without bending elbows, throw arms vigorously back, keeping still on a line with the shoulder, apparently trying to make the hands meet the back of the shoulders. Repeat ten or fifteen times. This adds to the size of the bust.


Tatted Insertion (2014), interior

As Sarah later found out, Comfort was published in Augusta, Maine between 1888 and 1942 and aimed at rural housewives across America; its tagline was “The Key to Happiness and Success in Over a Million Farm Homes.” At that moment on the dusty attic floor, however, she just snapped some photos of the magazines’ most intriguing bits, knowing she would later mine them for poetic material.

That fall, in Truong Tran’s MFA poetry workshop at San Francisco State University, Sarah attempted to use the found language from Comfort for a prompt that dictated the following constraints:

1) tell a lie
2) contradict yourself
3) include numbers
4) at least 11 words per line
5) everything has to be inorganic (nothing "natural")

The resulting poem, “Tatted Insertion,” begins with an original contradiction and proceeds to braid together those two sets of female-oriented instructions: how to increase the bust and how to make lace with a particular technique called tatting, in which thread is repeatedly knotted using a shuttle or a needle:

This is not how to make lace: stand erect, heels together,

tie the ends of two colors with ecru, make clover leaf

by 4 doubles (4 ds.), picot (p.), 3 ds., p., 2 ds., slump over,

feet apart, raise arms until on a level with the shoulders,

p., 2 ds., p., 3 ds., p., 4 ds., draw, begin second ring, close up,

elbows stiff, hands on a line with the chin. Now, without bending

elbows, 4 ds., join to last p. in first ring, 3 ds., p., 2 ds., p., 2 ds.,

throw arms vigorously back, keeping still on a line with the shoulder [...]


Final forms specified by the tatting instructions.

Each year, San Francisco State’s College of Liberal and Creative Arts invites one MFA poet and one MFA printmaker to collaborate on the production of a letterpress-printed broadside or small book of original writing and images. Now entering its fourth year, the interdisciplinary project is facilitated by the Department of Creative Writing and the Department of Art with the goal of providing a model for successful and vibrant intermedia collaboration. Graduate students gain valuable experience in designing and producing an original letterpress publication, presenting the work to other graduate and undergraduate students, and exhibiting the work at the Artery gallery in SF State’s Fine Arts building.

It was in this way, in the spring of 2014, that Sarah met artist Leah Virsik and the real magic happened. Mario Laplante, professor in printmaking, served as the project’s faculty advisor, providing creative and logistical guidance. A major aspect of the project is teaching emerging artists how to approach the collaborative process itself. In order to shore up the matchmaking that had already taken place, Mario suggested that Leah and Sarah spend some time creatively bonding and getting to know each other’s working style.

Based on their shared interest in time-based constraints and found materials, Leah and Sarah decided to create a series of timed collage experiments. Each had five minutes to “respond” to the other’s work before relinquishing it for further alteration. This was a practice in letting go of one’s individual creative output and trusting that the sum of a collaboration is greater than its parts. The collaging process, which unfolded over the course of the semester, did in fact facilitate a rich creative relationship rooted in trust.

And as it turned out, Sarah and Leah’s creative interests and practices were more aligned than they could have predicted. Sarah’s process of taking found texts and stitching them together into something new closely paralleled Leah’s own visual practice of cutting up found clothing, rendering it nonfunctional, and transforming it into something altogether different. As a fiber artist, Leah was already interested in tatting and would later make the connection between the step-by-step patterns inherent in both tatting and bookbinding.

Like tatting itself, coptic accordion binding is a repetitive procedure with thread.
These serendipitous crossovers enabled an exploratory design process for the artist’s book Tatted Insertion. Leah realized that a tight relationship between image and word would generate the most satisfying reading experience. With help from local and far-flung tatting experts, she followed the poem’s step-by-step instructions and created lace pieces which she then ran through the press in a process called pressure printing. The book deciphers the code of the tatting pattern by translating the 3D process into a 2D representation: the instructional text is mirrored by the physical process unfolding (or, more accurately, coming together) before the reader’s eyes.
Final tatted forms as plates for pressure printing, with resulting print.

At two by six inches, the finished book fits into the palm of one’s hand, creating an intimate reading experience. Sarah and Leah chose a horizontal coptic accordion binding and isolated each line of the poem on its own page to suggest the ordered nature of an instruction set. In between, illustrated pages without text encourage the reader to pause and slow down.


Pages without text add breathing room to the poem and showcase the tatting process.

Following her collaboration with Sarah, Leah was encouraged to think more about her own creative process, the heart of which entails taking scissors to secondhand clothing. As a constraint, she forces herself to use the entire garment, thereby accepting every part of the whole. In the intimate process of cutting, a type of exposure occurs: clothing that once concealed now reveals its own structure, component parts, flaws, and hidden truths. Her work has expanded to become more participatory--for example, an installation that prompts the viewer to walk through pathways lined with denim strips. She has also uncovered a deep enjoyment of writing and an interest in language itself.  Continuing to work with these metaphors of interiority and exteriority, she feels installation is analogous to the experience of immersing oneself in a book.

One outcome of Sarah’s work on Tatted Insertion is that it helped shape her next major project, a full-length book of poems entitled (what else?) Comfort. Like Tatted Insertion, Comfort draws on found language from the eponymous magazine, but goes further to braid various poetic forms into a single long poem that investigates the meaning of settlement and self for women on the prairie. The book has a feeling of spaciousness that reflects the wide open landscape of the Great Plains, an approach cultivated by working with negative space in Tatted Insertion.

Both artists are deeply grateful for the opportunity to collaborate because the bookmaking process gave them so much more than a finished piece. They continue to share the frustrations and joys of their respective media and find that poetry and visual art have more in common than one might suppose; collaborating with an artist outside of one’s discipline can illuminate the creative process that binds all artists together and deepen one’s understanding of one’s own work.

Even under the “time-based constraint” of life’s busyness, Leah and Sarah still manage to carve out tiny pockets of time to bounce ideas off one another and share inspiration. A sustained collaborative relationship is a deeply satisfying and fortifying ingredient in an artist’s practice, no matter the medium. And sometimes, as with an aesthetic constraint, the richest results arrive in the smallest containers.

Faculty advisor Mario Laplante with Leah Virsik, Sarah Heady, and the finished books.

Tatted Insertion is the second publication to come out of the cross-departmental collaboration at San Francisco State. It was recently added to the Grabhorn Collection in the Book Arts & Special Collections Center at the San Francisco Public Library where you can ask to see the actual item. In 2013, poet Carolyn Ho and artist Nif Hodgson collaborated on Crane which is also in the Grabhorn Collection. 2015’s offering is a book called Found Objects by poet Patricia Creedy and artist Bronwyn Dexter.

You can learn more about Leah Virsik and Sarah Heady at their respective websites. More images of Tatted Insertion are here, and their collage series entitled The Enduring Questions is here.


The staff of the Book Arts & Special Collections Center welcomes donations to its collection and congratulates Leah, Sarah, and Mario on their collaboration.