The City of Trembling Leaves

It may seem that I spend an eccentric amount of time reading books on American history or novels by Edith Wharton. Yes, that is true, but I recently read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. It is a collection of stories, most located in the harsh Nevada landscape. Hence the name Battleborn, Nevada’s nickname, and the frequent connections to silver, Nevada: The Silver State. Often I stopped at the end of a paragraph astonished by the remarkable language. The style is unforgivingly sharp, crisp and spare paired with mournful, poetic and florid. As an example in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” she writes:

The coroner’s report noted that her tumors were visible, and in the glaring light of the microscope seemed “like hundreds of hairlike silver ribbons.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Nevada desert might describe Watkins’ stories as desolate and empty people inhabiting a landscape of the same nature. But, the stories are not this. These are people who seemed crushed by the weight of this landscape, trapped and controlled by external fate. They participate in a pre-determined narrative unable to exert free will, and when they do, they simply maintain the plot.

When I was 19, a group of us drove up to Virginia City in the middle of December. We made a short super 8 film, drank too much beer in the gothic western cemetery, and considered ourselves quite sophisticated and cynical. Of course, at 19, most everyone feels this way. We were a group who spent summers together at Lake Tahoe, or driving to clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. But we had grown apart when we went to different colleges. In Watkins’ story “Virginia City,” she writes:

There are plenty of good reasons to find yourself in Virginia City, but there’s only one reason. We came to time travel.

When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why did I not see this? That is what that day was.” I was dumbfounded as if I had just learned that the earth was round.

When reading this book, I continued to think of Diane Arbus. Arbus is unrelated to anything in the stories. But she had a magnificent way of photographing the edges of society with a compassionate eye. Watkins could easily have slipped into the tone of an outsider exhibiting the freaks to us. But she manages to maintain the same compassion and connection with her characters.

For me, like my cards, Sad Places for moo.com. this isn’t about poverty or humiliation. It it about giving up, or exerting the smallest effort to exist. It is about the last attempt at happiness, the plastic flowers in the frozen ground.

The Time Machine

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Walker 1780

MOO recently did a survey on handwritten communication. It turns out that 56% never sent anything handwritten. Forty-one percent valued handwritten letters over digital, and fifty-one percent never threw out the handwritten notes. So we thought it was about time to print a batch of postcards with MOO. I like the MOO people; they understand paper and design. They make the beautiful, heavy, wonderful cards like the one in American Psycho.

Call me a materialist, but I like things. I like to keep things. I don't have a little box of websites, but I have one with letters, cards, and bits of paper.

Why do we care about these sheets of paper? They define us. They tell us who we are and where we came from. Not surprisingly, I have copies of many letters written by family members, the originals long ago donated. These letters tell me these things: work hard, be prudent, serve your country, and you'll never be as good as we were in the 18th century. They aren't beautiful. They don't have fabulous handwriting. But they have survived and have the power to help me determine who I am.

Dr. Thomas Walker to Elizabeth Thornton, 1780

When my distant grandfather, Dr. Thomas Walker, sent a letter and marriage agreement to his first wife's cousin, Elizabeth Thornton, I doubt he thought I would read it 240 years later. There is a note from Thomas Jefferson, appointing his guardian and father's best friend, Dr. Walker as a Captain during the Revolutionary War. Another letter serves as a legal document signed by Elizabeth Thornton's cousin, Meriwether Lewis and annotated by William Clark a year after Lewis was murdered or committed suicide. These items transcend their physical presence and describe the complexities of relationships that I could never find in a history book.

Mary Walker Cabell 1863

Mary Walker Cabell 1863

I find two letters rife with unstated content. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, while her southern culture was collapsing, Mary Walker Cabell created a family tree to share with another cousin. There is something more here than a genealogical study. This is an attempt to capture Cabell's history and values and preserve them for others. She was raised in a world of privilege and her status in society was clear. Now, as this life disappeared, she used pen and paper to anchor herself to another time.

Hugh Walker Fry, application for pardon, 1865

The correspondence that carries the most emotional weight, however, is a note from Hugh Walker Fry in 1865. After the war, Confederate leaders and wealthy planters needed to apply for a pardon to restore their American citizenship. The letter itself is mostly boilerplate wording, but the exterior of the letter, addressed to "His Excellency Andy Johnson" is the most salient part. Andrew Johnson was the President of the United States. Did Fry intend "His excellency" as a slur or was he simply unaware of proper protocol when addressing the President? Again, his fortune was lost and way of life radically changed. What is left of this dramatic and intense experience is a piece of paper with three words.

These written letters may have seemed irrelevant, or simply part of everyday life, when created. But due to their intense personal connection and the evidence of the writer's own hand, they serve as a time machine.

Thomas Jefferson to Francis Walker Gilmer

Meriwether Lewis signature 1809

Meriwether Lewis letter annotated 1810

Declaration of Independence signatures, 1776

Benjamin Powell letter

Survey by George Washington, 1749

American Psycho

When I decided to go to CalArts, my mother said, “Well, once you’re eighteen, you’re on your own.” I’m not sure if my parents lack of interest or support was due to my choice of school, art school over Harvard, or because they were too busy arguing to notice. They seemed confused about my college until I graduated, telling friends I was at CalTech. The upside of this was absolutely no interference with any of my own decisions. The downside was the financial responsibility to pay for college on my own.

I hate that some of my students now have similar financial struggles. This is the time they should be free to focus on becoming the best possible designer and finding their own distinct voice. I do what I can personally with the scholarship fund but this can’t solve someone’s entire college expenses. When Moo.com asked me to design a set of business cards, I was interested. They are the best quality, printed on beautiful Mohawk Superfine paper. When they told me I could dedicate the Art Center Scholarship Fund as my charity, I was thrilled.

Now, this is one of those classic “do whatever you want” assignments. These sound great, but lead to sitting at my desk staring at a blank pad of paper. So, I thought about cards I want. First, I’d love a set of nautical themed cards, and a set of vibrant patterns and color, then, disturbingly, a set of really depressing places. The nautical and pattern cards are perfectly logical. Who doesn't want nautical business cards, or bright and cheerful color and pattern.

I admit the depressing cards are odd. But I love the idea of shaking someone's hand, smiling and handing out a business card with an image of a place of despair. These are the spaces where people gave up. They stopped trying. They are about lethargy and exhaustion, places where all else failed. What could be more fun?

To paraphrase Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, "I don't ask for much." Now I'm asking that everyone spread the word, order some cards, look better when trading business cards, but most importantly, help a young designer as they struggle financially.