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December 27, 2006

No Excuses

Once again I have been remiss in posting here. The usual holiday excuses apply: traveling, family, frequent unhealthy meals.

I realize that 10 full days have passed since I last checked in. We've been to Atlanta and back, again in the car, and have been making books at a furious clip. We're plumb wore out. But will marshal on.

Being an artist is exhausting.

For the time being those curious about our lives may visit Idiots'Box, where Robbi has posted a mighty fine photo montage of recent events.

Posted by bogenamp at 10:07 PM

December 16, 2006

Who We Are and What We Do

Know this: Robbi and I balk at the idea of being "artists." We don't like the word, how it sounds, the associated adjectives, what it seems to mean in certain quarters.

And yet, we are to be included in a show in an "art" gallery. And by association we are forced to adopt the loathesome moniker. To compound the insult, we have been asked to draft an "artists' statement" to explain just what we're up to (from the artistic standpoint) in putting together these odd little books. Apparently, "because we want to" isn't enough in this context.

Robbi and I are on the road, in South Carolina, en route to visit my grandparents in Atlanta for a pre-holiday celebration. We sat in our motel room in Spartanburg this morning drafting the following. Please tell us if we're on the mark, full of hooey, etc. If, now that you know that we are moonlighting as "artists," you want to cancel your subscription, we completely understand.

Without further ado, our statement. (Hold your nose.)


Idiots'Books artists' statement

Writer Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr collaborate on books that attempt to expand upon (and invert) traditional notions of the illustrated word. The scope of their work can be pointed or sweeping, but the world beneath their gaze is compressed to the point of distortion. Theirs is a quiet critique in the guise of titillating oddness. Matthew's words combine in disorienting syntax; Robbi's drawings exaggerate and bully their subjects. Rather than serve as a literal representation of the words' intentions, the illustrations present a parallel visual narrative that works independently to explicate, enlarge, and often ironize the written one. The work balances cynicism and earnest critique, retaining a breath of optimism while acknowledging the absurdity of the world it beholds.

Both artists are prone to leaving holes in their work, stranding their vividly rendered subjects in the midst of a white space that both insulates and magnifies the underlying concepts. The written and visual threads, both incomplete in isolation, collide in unlikely sympathy; the meaning and humor of the work rise from this surprising juxtaposition. The reader is compelled to participate in closing the resulting gap, following threads left purposefully ambiguous.


Posted by bogenamp at 01:52 PM

One Hundred and Counting

A milestone has been passed. Just before noon the morning of Tuesday, December 12, I received an email from PayPal indicating that my good friend Christian Michael Vainieri had just ordered a gift subscription for his cousin Anthony Musmanno.

Mr. 100:

Chris does not always wield a tremendous knife, but this is the only photo of him I can find right now. I'm in South Carolina and away from the photo archive. Sorry Christian. You're still a handsome fellow even with the deranged look.

Although I am gratified by the arrival of each and every subscription, this one was particularly special because of it's being the hundredth. That's right, Idiots'Books has come of age, passing into triple digits. Christian will win a fabulous prize, to remain undisclosed until such time as we can think of something fabulous enough.

As previously mentioned, our upper-end estimates of subscriber pool numbered approximately 40. While delighted and flattered by the votes of confidence, we are terrified at the prospects of continuing growth. Our kneejerk reaction to Christian's subscription was to purchase a new printer, the Xerox Phaser 8550, that offers a host of improvements over our current Xerox Phaser 8500.

The 8550:

Let me enumerate the 8550's many benefits for you (it helps to salve the buyer's remorse):

1) the 8550 is a duplexing model, which means it can print both sides of the page by itself instead of requiring either Robbi or me to remove pages, turn them around, reset the printer to print a "second sheet" and so on. The non-duplexing approach results in frequent human mishap, paper and ink waste, time delays, angst, etc.

2) the 8550 prints at a resolution TWICE that of the 8500. Which means that those grainy images we had to tolerate in Death of Henry would be twice as sharp, twice as lovely. If you did not notice the unsatisfactory print quality of the Death of Henry images, we are gratified. If you did notice, thank you for not complaining.

3) our 8500 makes horrible noises and threatens to quit at any moment. Given the frequent need for printing these days, we cannot accommodate systems failure. We must have redundancy!

4) this is a geeky, yet important point with significant economic impact. The 8850 can accommodate the "extended-life" maintenance kit whereas the 8500 only accommodates the "puny, regular" maintenance kit. We currently spend $100 per 10,000 sheets printed (the puny maintenance kit). With the new printer we will be able to spend $150 on 30,000 sheets (the extended kit).

Are you asleep? Hello...? Apologies.

Posted by bogenamp at 01:21 PM

December 11, 2006

The Week that Was

The days leading up to Friday, December 1 were a frenzied affair. We were working like crazy to complete Volume 3 in time for the book signing at Book Plate, hoping that it would offer the kind of immediate appeal that might lure an otherwise uninterested browser to pause a bit longer at the Idiots'Books table. As of the morning of Friday, November 24, when Robbi left the Thanksgiving celebration with my Dad's family in Denver to head back to Baltimore, the book was yet unillustrated. One week later, we were trimming and binding our freshly finished volume in an attempt to make 50 copies in time for the signing. It was a heroic effort on her part. I wonder if something of that frenetic pace contributes to the resulting weirdness of the illustrations.

For example:

The book's governing concept is that each of the 10 illustrations and each of the accompanying "stories" are sliced horizontally to divide each page into four sections. Each of these sections can then be independently flipped horizontally along a wire-o binding to create new combinations. As show below:

According to the mathematicians we consulted (the finding was corraborated by www.DrMath.com), exactly 10,000 combinations are possible, though my sister Andy, who is a badass math teacher, suggests that there is some possibility that not quite 10,000 combinations exist. She'll have to mull on it a bit. And will get back to us soon. But for now, here's one example.

As you can imagine, a great deal of care had to go into the drawing and writing to make sure that everything lined up correctly in each of the various combinations. To be sure, there are many combinations that yield truly bizarre results (see above), but this angst-provoking rupture of the unexpected lies at the heart of the wickedly ontological criqitue that is Ten Thousand Stories.

At least that's what Seiko said when she read it.

Though not in so many words.

In addition to Ten Thousand Stories, we wanted to have on hand a healthy inventory of the other five books we had completed to date. This is where the frenzy I mentioned in the opening comes in. In five short days (that turned out to be long days), we produced:

50 copies of Facial Features of French Explorers
50 copies of Death of Henry
50 copies of Ten Thousand Stories
50 copies of My Henderson Robot
15 copies of For the Love of God
13 copies of A Bully Named Chuck (we ran out of time for the last two)

In case you didn't know, making books takes a very long time, and in case you also didn't know, it sometimes requires a rubber mallet, which is really the only thing about making books that Robbi enjoys.

Do the books really NEED to be beaten with a rubber mallet? It's debatable. But Robbi loves it so. I undulge her because she's my wife. And because, let's face it, I'm no looker.

Anyway, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were a blur of bookmaking. We were up until 4:00am Wednesday and Thursday. Friday we were making books up until the last moment. At 6:05 we arrived at the Book Plate, freshly showered and overeager, only to find a horde of eager fans impatiently awaiting for our arrival.

Ok, two fans. But they posessed the combined eagerness of at least four. Tom, the proprietor of Book Plate is a masterful advocate, and he has made us his project. In the day or two leading up to our event, he had already shared the many combinations of Ten Thousand Stories with the two eager browsers, sending them into paroxysms of delight and eagerness.

After signing their respective copies of Ten Thousand Stories, we took our seats at the book signing table.

Where we sat signing books for a surprisingly long time. I'm not sure if Tom paid actors to come in and pretend to be interested customers, but a sizable body of people who were not our relatives or friends showed up and claimed to be interested in our books.

After a bit of signing and some pleasant chit-chat, it was time for a little speech on our part. Before we spoke, however, we were first introduced by the excellent Aileen Tsui, Washington College art history professor and all-around very admirable person. She had stopped by the barn the day before to talk with us a bit about what we were up to. We told her all we knew. It only took a few minutes. We gave her copies of our books, which she read, apparently, because she had some very interesting/smart/thoughtful things to say about them--including their indebtedness to Lewis Carroll, their contribution to the long line of subscription-based literary utterances, the pleasing uniqueness of our slightly asymmetrical picture/word combinations. All in all, we felt quite understood.

And then it was our turn to speak. I'm supposed to be the words guy, so I started. I'm usually pretty good at this sort of spontaneous speaking thing, and so I hadn't really put much thought into what I might actually say. Robbi and I had discussed proceeding with an off-the-cuff sort of back-and-forth banter approach which would remain informal, would mirror our collaboration, and would be kind of funny and endearing.

Which would have been so great.


...I was deathly boring and everyone got uncomfortable. I'm glad that no one took pictures during the speech, because the picture would have been me with my mouth open, a look of dazed desperation in my eyes, and Robbi sitting beside me with her head in her hands, trying to shrink through the floor boards. At one point she interrupted and told me to get to the point. Of course, I wanted to, but I couldn't remember what the point was supposed to be. Other than that we were making books. So I reminded everyone that we were making books.

And then I did a brilliant tap routine on the tabletop and everyone burst into spontaneous applause.

After that, Tom brought out a cake. A marvelous cake, a nod to Idiots'Books.

For those of you that have not seen Volumes 1 and 2, the cake is decorated to look like the covers of these two books. We wept open tears of gratitude. Robbi admired the cake fiercely.

And then plunged her entire face into the cake, making a terrible mess. I tried to take a picture, but the camera jammed.

After Robbi cleaned herself up, we signed a few more books.

And ate that cake until all that was left was our names.

At which point we halted the eating, that we might save that bit for posterity. Our freezer is now full of posterity.

As the evening wound down, there was general milling:

The gentleman on the right side of the frame is our benefactor, Tom. Excellent Aileen is dead center in black. Just to the right of her is Carla Massoni, who I have mentioned several times already in other entries. It is in Carla's Gallery that we will be showing our various Idiots'Books ephemera next month (more on that to come). To the right of Carla is Marcy Dunn Ramsey, Robbi's very first art teacher! Next to Marcy is a guy we don't know, but who will be heretofore known as "He of Extraordinary Taste and Judgment." (On account of his having purchased a book, see?) On the far left is Dick Lange, local potter, writer, patron of the arts. A collection of his very fine Mingei pottery was on display at Book Plate that night as well. Our friend and subscriber Ken Warwick is next to Dick, though apparently, he was more interested in talking with the woman to be heretofore known as "Too Obscured to be Identified" than in mugging for this photo. Next to Ken is Seiko, still so dazed by the brilliance of Ten Thousand Stories that she forgot how to use her camera.

She has since recovered.

Below is Ken Castelli, the excellent (and very talented) fellow who penned the poster that advertised the evening. His work will also be hanging in the Next Generation show at Carla's gallery next month.

And here is the table where the Idiots'Books merchandise was displayed (and will remain so through the end of the month).

We go by Tom's shop once a day to feel good about ourselves. Just yesterday, in fact, like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, we stood behind a bookshelf and watched a customer approach the table, thumb through Ten Thousand Stories, take palpable delight, and then purchase the volume! We were suddenly filled with great piles of hubris.

The bottom line is, the First Friday was fun and very successful. We sold about 30 books that night, apparently, and more continued to sell throughout the week, with Ten Thousand Stories the runaway favorite.

We stopped by Book Plate yesterday to review the receipts for week one and were shocked and delighted to discover that the sales had totalled $1,100! We! A couple of nobodies having fun making books.

See for yourselves! (Apparently Tom keeps track of every book sold with this highly technical state-of-the-art system.)

Other than the crushing failure of Death of Henry to capture the popular imagination...

...we are starting to believe in ourselves.

It is a dangerous thing.

Posted by bogenamp at 09:21 AM | Comments (1)

December 08, 2006

Any Thing, Any Time, Anywhere

Basically, I can be had. For the right price. For basically any price. My time these days is available for purchase, and the menu of offerings is limited only by a) your imagination, and b) my very low personal standards.

In the past 6 days I have:

a) spent a day insulating the kitchen addition being built by Uncle Ken and Miss Betty, for which I earned a delicioius plate of seafood pasta.

b) spent a day in Baltimore at the North Charles Street Design Organization writing a brochure for Williams College with my good friend and master writer/editor Matt Westbrook.

c) traveled to Massachusetts to consult on the ongoing development of Quest for College, a new nonprofit devoted to stimulating early awareness of the opportunties offered by a college education to students in underserved communities.

(In spite of what you might think, Quest for College is not about eating burritos, though its founder and president, Gina Coleman, does enjoy eating them.)

Next week it's back to North Charles Street for another consulting junket.

All of this is on top of the bookmaking, of course. And on top of my responsibilities to wash dishes, do laundry, and please Robbi with frequent compliments. I'm kind of like James Bond except instead of killing people, I do a lot of freelance jobs.

Robbi's recent extracurricular portfolio is similarly diverse. In the past few weeks she has completed freelance commissions for Washington College and the Carla Massoni Gallery and is gearing up for a new project for Williams College. (Per our power-sharing agreement, she also scoops the cat litter.)

And we're both getting ready for the Next Generation show, which will open January 13 at the Carla Massoni Gallery. Robbi will be showing some clay monoprints, and Idiots'Books will be represented by high-end limited edition versions of our books, framed original illustrations from the books, and a spectacular (we hope) mural/wall painting thing in which a new illustrated book of ours will be presented in five dimensions (meaning the five walls of an alcove, meaning five adjacent two-dimensional surfaces).

All of which is to say that my dreams of sitting around in my boxers all day playing Nintendo and watching reruns of 24 have not panned out. We're doing something here. Lots of things. But, by god, if it means that we can keep making our books, we welcome all takers.

What odd, uncomfortable task would you like to hire me to do? Try me.

Posted by bogenamp at 08:30 AM | Comments (1)

Approaching the Century Mark

While licking envelopes in late October, Robbi and I had a conversation in which we each placed a guess on how many people might take us up on the offer to subscribe to Idiots'Books. We both thought about it, both made a private conjecture, and spoke the number aloud at the count of three. Robbi's guess: 25, tops. Mine: 37, with an outside chance of 44. At the time, the possibility that 44 people might send us their money in exchange for our books seemed roughly as likely as either of us learning how to levitate. Now, roughly six weeks later, the tally stands at 95 suckers, er, subscribers, and both of us are floating roughly three feet off the ground.

First off, thank you all for your vote of confidence. One of you, to remain unnamed, included a note with your check indicating that you were sending the money mostly to see if we would be able to make good on our one-book-a-month plan, as if smugly confident that we would stumble. In light of this challenge we are doubly inspired. Some others of you have sent clever notes deftly parodying the clever letters that go out with each volume. Bless you for this. It makes us so happy. A few of you may have been confused, thinking you were paying your electric bill. The great thing about small town banks is that they are willing to believe me when I say that the check for $67.92 made out to Baltimore Gas and Electric is really meant to go into the Idiots'Books account.

The countdown to 100 subscribers is on. We're scrambling to think of a proper reward for he whose subscription bid takes us to the third digit.

Last night Robbi, Bob, and Seiko engaged in a marathon binding session and prepared many copies of volume 3. It will be going out today, and so most of you should have it soon.

I did not participate as I am in Massachusetts enjoying the sight of several inches of freshly fallen snow.

As this entry is not about snow, but instead about our many fine subscribers, I leave you fine people with a parting admonition: go forth and multiply.

Posted by bogenamp at 07:45 AM

December 05, 2006

Ten Thousand Stories

The good news is, we're busy doing what we want to do. The bad news is, we're BUSY doing what we want to do. Since I last checked in, we flirted with smalltown celebrity status at the Book Plate last Friday night. Robbi has written a nice entry on the proceedings at IdiotsBox. I may chronicle my own take on the evening's events here, or may not. The sad truth is, my life has become like a belt saw out of control. I have become a full-time production maven, cutting, trimming, stacking, scoring, punching, binding. I will not complain, because I'm producing books that are actually SELLING, but my time for blogging has been otherwised consumed of late.

Our books have continued to sell since the First Friday event. Nine sold on Saturday, evidently, an even mix of all of the titles. We were in Book Plate yesterday to revel in the self-aggrandizing glory of the Idiots'Books display and witnessed, in the course of 7 minutes, TWO of our books being perused and sold. Oh, but it does a body good.

Back to my burden of late. She is called Ten Thousand Stories. For Volume 3, our December edition of Idiots'Books, we decided to get ambitious on the production front. Subscribers know this: we will not continue to escalate the complexity of these books indefinitely. Think of Volume 3 as a holiday crescendo. We will all have to make our resolutions in the New Year. Ours will be: thou shalt once more make simple, saddle-stitched books.

We made 50 copies of Volume 3 for the book signing and only have a handful left. The current charge is making 100 more copies for the subscribers so that we can mail them out at the end of this week or early next. Much of yesterday was spent punching the row of tiny holes for the wire-o binding.

Here is my tower of woe, my tower of delight. Behold.

And here we are with the first finished copy (this is a few days out of sequence, mind you). But for all you subscribers out there (you in your rapidly growing ranks) this is what we call foreshadowing.

Posted by bogenamp at 08:05 AM