By Felicia Rice with Zida Borcich
Heavy Lifting is a book, but an iconoclastic form of a book. It’s not the kind of book you can take to bed for a quick read. For one thing, it’s enormous, produced by an arcane process called letterpress printing; it’s folded into an accordion pattern that needs an owner’s manual to put it away, and it needs a yards-long, snaky table to display it. It is a book that demands to be described in a new language: as an ethics, perhaps, or an experience, a grief, or a goad to action.
Felicia Rice, printer, and Theresa Whitehill, poet, talk about the process of collaboration that brought this form of “protest beauty” into being. Yes, it’s heavy lifting, with heavy topics, yet Felicia printed the wind, she printed smoke, she utilized a fallen tree from her yard to print from, she drew ravens in acrobatic flight so full of their nimbleness, they threaten to jump off the pages with birdly exuberance. Theresa took up the themes and turned them to artful, furious entreaty. These artists/visionaries kept leaping off on new tangents to bring the book alive…to an experimental film, to spoken word, to dance, to a countywide book tour. These collocations seem to speak of the urgency of this moment in this crazy world, this wildly upended life, these sorrows, and these complexities, in a completely new way. ZB
In August 2020, a devastating megafire destroyed almost one thousand structures in Santa Cruz, where I had lived and worked for fifty years. The fire took my home, letterpress shop, and entire inventory of artists’ books, including three-quarters of the brand new edition of Necropolitics of Extraction, a major book project I’d just finished in June. My husband Jim and I were unimaginably lucky to be able to relocate immediately to my family home in Mendocino where my parents Miriam and Ray Rice had lived since the 1960s, and I too, intermittently, until I graduated from Mendocino High and went off to college. The tremendous loss was mitigated when eight hundred amazing individuals, institutions, and organizations donated to a GoFundMe campaign for the recovery of my lost printshop, Moving Parts Press. The campaign has netted over $85,000, enabling me to begin the arduous journey of rebuilding my studio, and my life, in the fall of 2020.
My first response was to push back against the traumatic event by getting very busy. In my mind, I started working on a new book project, a limited edition of artists’ books, that addressed my personal crisis—the loss of my home and shop to fire—but I was also, like most people, concerned with the collective crises experienced on a national and global scale during this time—Covid, climate change, racial injustice, the threat of totalitarianism, immigration…While searching for and gathering the press and other tools I would need to begin printing again, as well as fighting with various agencies to get my new shop, which would replace my father’s old studio, built in the backyard of my old/new home, I began to tinker with ideas for a major book project, developing a structure with two nested accordion panels, one taller than the other, based on my experience with my earlier accordion-fold books and some thinking on the book structures of the Twentieth Century Russian Modernist Iliazd. The early mockups were promising: I’d started drawing iterations of ravens in flight; I knew the black and white drawings and the images I found online that would provide dynamic illustrations for the two panels were strong. One challenge was to adapt my drawings to the parameters of my new laser cutter, which I eventually did. The winter light and confines of the shed made for earthy page spreads for the first panel of the book.
With the visuals for the project beginning to emerge, I needed a text that spoke to my concerns, building on the threats to the environment addressed in Necropolitics, along with Covid, political chaos, war, and more. Coincidentally, my friend Theresa Whitehill had sent me a poem, “The Loveliness of Mistakes,” that she had written for me after hearing me talk in the fall at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The final verse captured my energies perfectly: “So this partial journey, you might complete it; there’s no guarantee. You will map the energy of the gods to the little that you have been able to pin down. And you will be proud of your energy and your love, your energies and your loves, your lovely energy, your proud love, your willingness to mingle in the halls of the dead, bringing the dead treasures that cause their eyes to light up. Putting smiles back on faces that have lost flesh./ You will speak to birds.”
I knew I could use it as the driving force in the new book, weaving it into prints that featured my raven drawings. I invited Theresa to collaborate on the book and she jumped in, composing fourteen of her roiling, deeply emotional poems.
It’s interesting, perhaps miraculous, the way a project begins to draw its own components into itself, once it is conceived. It’s up to the artist to identify them, choose them, lift them to their intended purposes, and in this way two seemingly unrelated events led directly to the first two layers of the printed images for the book that would eventually be named Heavy Lifting.
The first was when a 150-year-old oak tree that protected my house and shop in Santa Cruz was cut down. (I am deeply ashamed that I didn’t prevent this from happening, although it was within my power to do so. An arborist told the landlord that it was dead and a danger, but it was obvious to any observer that only one branch was dead. Yet, one Saturday, a crew arrived and cut the tree to the ground. The rounds were up to thirty-eight inches across.) I resolved to honor the tree in my next book.
The other event occurred that summer when I was a resident at the Art Mill in the Czech Republic. I began experimenting with making rubbings of gravestones in Prague cemeteries. From rubbings made in the cemeteries of Mendocino, I devised a gritty, mismatched alphabet that I would use to describe the urgent themes that defined the book. I devised a way to print directly off the oak rounds, which would provide the sweeping textures of smoke and wind that underpinned the rest of the images and texts
HEAVY LIFTING, THE BOOK
The artists’ book, Heavy Lifting, was a means to grapple with the many crises of our time, both individual and collective, while asking, What comes next? The book is an offering, a tool for sorting through, as Theresa wrote, “this nervous slice of history,” an urgent call to pay attention, to act. As Theresa Whitehill writes in the poem that shares the title of the book, “We were no longer living in the time of prophecy,/ no longer in the theory of it all. It was unfolding/ all around us, one heart-stop after another,/ a chain reaction of seemingly helpless events.” And later, in “My Grandmother’s House,” “I knew I could no longer sleep, not just this particular morning, but ever again.”
Throughout 2021 Theresa and I were collaborating closely. I was sending images, she was sending poems, we were meeting in each other’s spaces, printing together, feasting together, each pushing the other to stay focused on the project of the crises surrounding us and recording them.
At the same time, I was making my way through the Byzantine bureaucracy of constructing a new building on the Mendocino Coast. I went about pulling together a workspace in the hundred-year-old wooden shed my father had used as his art studio for forty years. I was flattened by disaster but upheld by the belief of my community. I bought a Vandercook press from calligrapher/printer Judy Detrick, and began to assemble the other equipment I would need to move forward with printing the book. At times, my energy flagged as roadblock after roadblock stalled work on the real printshop I wanted to build to replace my dad’s old studio. Architect Kelly Grimes based the design of the new shop on plans my father had drawn up forty years before but never realized. [You can read a more detailed description of this process in the September 2021 issue of this magazine in the three essays called “Three Letterpress Printers Walk Into a Shed.”]
By the spring of 2022 I had moved out of the shed into a shipping container only fifteen feet away. With the long-delayed approvals at last in place, construction on the new home for Moving Parts Press began in earnest. In the container, I kept the laser cutter busy cutting hi-contrast photographic memes culled from the web for the second panel of the book. I printed the second panel of Heavy Lifting directly in the path of sawdust and dirt blown by heavy spring winds. Compared with the shed, the container was luxurious in size, but gritty. Finally, when the brand new building was complete, thanks to Jimmy Brown and Little River Builders, and outfitted with my tools, I printed the excerpts from Theresa’s poems, the most finicky part of a book project, in a clean and well-lit space. Craig Jensen of BookLab II bound the edition of sixty copies, the eighth Moving Parts book he has bound.
Over time Heavy Lifting grew into much more than an edition of sixty artists’ books. Theresa and I developed a commercially-printed companion book, which includes the full suite of poems Theresa wrote during our three-year collaboration. And new aspects of the project emerged: an experimental video, and a listening tour to take place throughout northern California, with fundraising and workshop components. As Theresa writes in the poem, “This Once,” “Yes, we are quite possibly living in the after times, what happens/ after the worst can happen. For this knowledge to be true,/ we must true it against ourselves, against our bones. If speed/ is what is coefficient with survival, warmth will wear it down…”
THE HEAVY LIFTING PROJECT
Artist and educator Paul Soulellis wrote, “Publishing has always been political, but has it ever felt as urgent as it does right now in the global distress and intersecting crises of the past year? There’s a desperate need for new language to express publishing’s renewed urgency and importance…let’s turn away from old, legacy publishing models towards something new: an ethics, craft, and politics of urgent making.” The impact of the artists’ book, Heavy Lifting, is multiplied by the Heavy Lifting Project, a series of public art projects and performances, and a form new to me—experimental film.
As I fashioned the first paper models of the book structure, I began to imagine walking through nine-foot-tall panels of the book, the two walls forming a path between towering birds rising on one side and poems breathing as text on the other, while our collective crises shouted to the world on the outside of the structure. I could also see nine-foot-tall digital projections on my studio walls, making a space for an immersive performance of the book. My longtime collaborator, performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his troupe La Pocha Nostra travel the globe in an “act of radical citizen diplomacy.” As a result of our transformative work together on the book Doc/Undoc, I took a performance piece on the road for a time. I wondered, could Heavy Lifting pop up in communities across the fire-ravaged counties of California? Very quickly the realities of moving personnel and equipment made this approach prohibitive. Was there another way?
For some time, instructional videos on artists’ books have been employed to demonstrate the ways that handling the physical book conveys and supports its content. Heavy Lifting has a complex folding structure and such a video would be very helpful. But this begs the question, could a simple instructional video on Heavy Lifting become something more? Could spoken word poems guide the narrative, weaving together a compelling visual and oral experience? Through the internet, such a film could be broadcast to an unlimited audience. An experimental film challenges the conventions of cinematography and explores non-narrative alternatives. It can also be termed an experiential art film, with the understanding of art as experience. I have never made a film before and this aspect of the Heavy Lifting Project is an experiment. Experiments include risk, and risk carries discomfort—but fun!
My father, Ray Rice, made independent experimental art films in the 1960s and 70s, drawing thousands of cels for stop motion animation. We worked together on several book projects before he died in 2001. How wonderful to come together in homage to his work and, in Theresa Whitehill’s words, “put smiles back on faces that have lost flesh.” The film, On Heavy Lifting, also created opportunities to work with my son Will Rice, Ray’s grandson, and with my husband Jim Schoonover. The film brings together three generations, each carrying their own creative spark and drawing inspiration from one another.
I took on the role of producer and invited new collaborators to join us. On July 23, 2022, my son led a recording session of five poems from the Heavy Lifting Project in the new but as yet unfinished home of Moving Parts Press. The chorus of readers included myself reading “Here,” Theresa Whitehill reading “The Fires,” Jim Schoonover and Paulo Ferreira reading “Heavy Lifting.” Lake County Poet Laureate Georgina Marie Guardado reading “My Grandmother’s House,” and Mendocino County Youth Poet Laureate Sidney Regelbrugge reading “House of Water.” Will, a musician as well as sound man, then produced an instrumental setting for each poem, which formed the score of the film. Dancer Kara Starkweather of the Mendocino Dance Project brought expressive movement to the performance space created by digital projections in the shop. We all shared in directing the filming, shot by Frej Barty, a Mendocino High School media student who worked at Moving Parts Press in the fall of 2022. Eleana Newton and I edited the film from myriad photos and video footage of the staged performances in the new studio. Longtime collaborator Gustavo Vazquez acted as a consultant.
Today, the book that is so much more than a book has been launched, some of the performance and community sharing events have been booked, with more to come, a prospectus has gone out to universities, libraries, and collections of artists’ books. Heavy Lifting has lifted off.
What is the measure of success? To me, the answer is obvious: survival, continuing to work over time, and seeing the work contribute to building a society that recognizes the diversity of our shared humanity and sustains our world for future generations. All publishing is political, as is an act of artmaking. No dream, no ambition, and no learning can ever be wasted. Onward!
RICE AND WHITEHILL: A COLLOQUY ON THE MAKING OF HEAVY LIFTING
REM: Talk about your beginnings as artists and poets and printers. How did your paths lead down this manly letterpress road in the early eighties? How were you able to make your careers as letterpress printers happen with a five-hundred-year-old technology that was already so out of style that it was just about ripe for being back “in”? You were uninhibited.
Theresa Whitehill: My first type setting job was in Watsonville, and it was phototypesetting. I had a three-hour bus ride from Santa Cruz to Watsonville and back to my job. I remember I was reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the bus and it was perfect for the three-hour-long round trip. But I really ended up in letterpress because I went to a photography class at Mills College and it was so crowded with this rock star teacher, and the textbook was $500, and I was like, no. I wandered across the campus to the Mills Library Building, and I walked into the letterpress printing studio, and there was the teacher Kathy Walkup holding her baby Owen on her hip. There were only four other students; I was smitten.
Felicia Rice: I got started in the 1970s. I was living in Berkeley around the corner from David Lance Goines’s letterpress shop, Saint Hieronymus Press, and my mom accidentally sent me a San Francisco Chronicle Sunday supplement with full color photos about the letterpress printers, the fine printers, of the Bay Area, and I thought, Hmmm, how does this work? And it’s around the corner? And how do I get to do this? And how can I break in as a young woman of only nineteen? So I took a class at the local junior college. The instructor showed us all about letterpress, but also said, You should learn computers, you know, young woman, this is the future. But I was just so attracted to the work by hand; everything came together for me in this craft. I discovered that there was a whole cadre of young people in my generation who were anxious to perpetuate this craft before it died completely out of the commercial world.
My roots on the Mendocino coast go back to the 70s also. Al Moise of Redwood Coast Printers in Fort Bragg hired me to work one summer. While I was there we printed a book of my sister’s poems. I believe I handset them [in lead type] and printed the book on the Heidelberg Windmill. Used letterpress equipment was very inexpensive in the seventies, too, but young people today find it difficult to equip a shop. The equipment has leaked away, been shipped overseas to Asia and South America, sold for scrap, and it’s become more rare and much more expensive. In reconstructing my shop just now, it was challenging to find some basic things that used to just be available.
Theresa Whitehill: During that same time, I was working in a job shop in San Francisco, Pat More Press. I was running a Kluge, embossing twelve-part carbon forms all day, then commuting over to Mills College where I was working with a bunch of the students in the graduate department in contemporary music. That turned out to be my poetry connection as well. Two of the graduate students were Kathy Kathleen Burch and Melody Sumner Carnahan. Kathleen Burch went on to found the San Francisco Center for the Book. In the contemporary music scene, Melody and I were doing “flash poetry.” We would run into a bar and recite poems and run out, then drive to the next bar and run in there. I was also involved in the poetry scene in San Francisco while I was living there in the early 1980s. There was interesting stuff going on. I was interested in both writing and in the craft of printing. At that point I took the money I had earned from Pat More Press and went to Greece for a year. When I came back, I had lost my rent-controlled apartment, so I moved to the Mendocino coast where I encountered Zida’s first letterpress shop on Franklin Street in Fort Bragg. She was hiring and I got the job and worked with her for eight years as a commercial letterpress printer. This was where Felicia and I first came to know of each other, as well. Felicia’s parents were founders of the Mendocino Art Center. I came along later and ran a letterpress studio at the Mendocino Art Center.
REM: Heavy Lifting is a book, but it’s not a book that you can take to bed for a quick read. It’s enormous, it’s folded in a pattern that needs an owner’s manual to put it away, it needs a yards-long, snaky table to display it. It seems incredible to me that you could think up such a thing, and that it would somehow dovetail with Theresa’s ethereal, mind-bending poems. And then you kept expanding it to include the experimental film, dance, spoken word, a tour…Talk about your intentions in coming to this form of “protest beauty.”
Felicia Rice: Heavy Lifting comes out of this really difficult time that I’ve been in, and that Theresa’s been in, and we’ve all been in together. I connected with Theresa over a poem she had written for me, but then we were hit with a cascade of crises: the fire that destroyed my home and studio, and the series of crises we’ve experienced collectively throughout the country and the world. Covid. George Floyd’s death. Deep, deep problems within our society. I call these out in the book, but of course underpin it with my personal losses: with the Santa Cruz fires that took my home and life’s work and my print shop, my relocation to Mendocino. And so yes, protest, and yes, beauty.
Theresa Whitehill: We were working on parallel tracks. I would just shut myself up in my cottage and spread her layouts out on the floor, walking and writing and, you know, I journaled through the whole process. And then it came to a point where I began selecting fragments from there, and working them into longer pieces. I think the writing took place over two years, from August of 2020 to August of 2022
Felicia Rice: Don’t you think that we had an incredibly deep conversation going on between us during this time? One form to the other, the written word to the printed page. The making of the book has been a form of therapeutic art making, allowing me to sit with difficult things and capture them on the page, so that others can witness them with me. We hope to use the book as a springboard for talking about how we are resolving some of our feelings during these times, about different ways to come through a crisis. And where are we going? Where does this work take us? What comes next?
Theresa Whitehill: I feel like this project brought together a bunch of things for me that had been latent for many, many years, decades maybe, things that I had felt that I didn’t have the framework to express. It was after working with the poems for a while that I started writing about my grandmother’s house. The first stanza is a little scene of myself as a child making houses of cards and then the card house collapses. In the writing right then I had a memory. I realized that I had woken up in the middle of the night of the 2016 election and I had a kind of a psychic event. It wasn’t a dream. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I was inside Trump’s body. I was lying there in bed, I was paralyzed, and I was inside his body. I totally had forgotten about that experience, but that became the next stanza of the poem, and that kind of broke open the whole poem for me and I knew what to do. I had never been given permission to reveal that kind of very personal experience that was also far more than personal, it was mythic. A lot of the poems came to me in that fashion, and I had to be by myself, and I had to be somewhere where I didn’t have to answer to anybody, and I could be as crazy as I needed to be, and I could walk around the house chanting, or reading stuff out loud. I remember the first time I brought the poetry over to share with you. I was so nervous I was thinking, Oh, she’s going to be so appalled.
Felicia Rice (left): I wasn’t appalled. It was so exciting to dance with Theresa. It continues to be. We find each other and make new dance steps and listen to one another, and it’s been one of the most rich collaborations I’ve ever been a part of, sort of a dream collaboration in which it’s so, so close. I arrived on the coast with these questions: What makes this place unique? What do we have here that people don’t have in other places that they need to know about? Then we had the Three Letterpress Printers book arts show at Partners Gallery, and the BAM (Book Arts Mendocino) event came roaring out of that, and that all helped to reintroduce me to my new community. I believe folks need to hear from us here in Mendocino County, they need to hear our voices. I’d like to be part of that, for this work to continue happening, and to continue happening with this book. We will be showing our film in a series of events that will take place around the county this coming year and down into Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and in other fire-ravaged communities around California. We need to talk. We just need to share and talk to one another. As an artist and a publisher, I need to be part of a community of creative people that embraces difference, speaks out, and expresses the soul of the community to the greater world.
Theresa Whitehill: As to poetry: there’s great, great poetry here and it’s a tremendous community. Some of my mentors in writing are here: Mary Kortë, Bill Bradd, Gordon Black, and Sharon Doubiago. So, I think it’s no coincidence that when Felicia called me, I responded in a way that I’ve been longing to for decades.
Felicia Rice: I’ve mentioned the experimental film, On Heavy Lifting. It’s a vehicle for extending the reach of the book, for sending the word out to a broad audience online. The film takes Heavy Lifting to another level. It has evolved from a simple instructional video that would be expected for an artists’ book, which the reader can hardly figure out how to open and close, to a performative experience of the book with a dancer, Kara Starkweather, among projected images from the book, giving a sense of moving through enormous pages and navigating enormous issues. And there is an arc within the suite of poems that resolves into a beautiful poem, “House of Water,” that points to an imagined world in which we can go on living. Having experienced so much loss and trauma, when Theresa wrote this poem, I wasn’t sure I was ready for the future. I thought, I am just not ready, I cannot see the future. I was just so deep in pushing through rebuilding my studio from scratch, because, literally, everything I owned was burned to a crisp. And now I have a new studio, a beautiful workspace and printing office, fully funded by over eight hundred individuals, organizations, and institutions. I can’t be more grateful for this new lease on life, really. And collectors have even gifted back to me my own work, I have reconstructed a little library now of my work. This book is created in and around the entire process of rebuilding, and the film extends the reach of the book.
REM: I used this line to end a poem one time: “Work, taken to extremes, describes love.” To me, Heavy Lifting, is a work taken to extremes that also describes healing, the incremental healing of your trauma from the fire and losing your incredible treasure of a life’s work, your tools. It digs down into the deepest heartbreak we all are having for the world right now and presents it as a genuflection to the hardness, possibly presenting a path to redemption or a little light we can anticipate, do something about.
Theresa Whitehill: I have to say that I’m a really hard worker and I’m totally flattened by witnessing someone like Felicia, who works even harder than I do. Sometimes I feel like I’m just hanging on for dear life, but it’s been an incredible honor to witness her process in developing the art, developing the concepts, developing the structure. How she folds all these things into each other, and they spark off and become other things, and her sense of Oh, the book isn’t complete! Oh, we need a film… and then taking on something that she’s never done before and in a new way. It’s taught me so much, just watching Felicia’s process, how she designs on the press. It’s just been an eye opener for me, very different from my design process.
Felicia Rice: I have another term: “urgent publishing,” the urgency of our times and, as a publisher, getting the word out, going for it, making a difference. I have no illusions that art is going to solve all problems, but it can contribute to the solutions to many of our problems. It’s critical—art, writing, film, dialogue—and I don’t see how any contribution can take on wings and live in the wider world without “extreme work.” I don’t see how something can start from nothing and become something, can take part in the greater conversation, without a big push, without heavy lifting. And this all has to take place in as little time as possible because there’s so much more work that needs to be done.
This is my work. This is the journey I was put on this earth to take, and along the way the aim is to bring others on board. These kinds of relationships, like Theresa’s and my collaboration, can’t be covered over a cup of tea or dinner, or a movie together. This is a different kind of relationship, and I encourage everyone to seek it out. It’s truly rewarding. And uplifting.
Theresa Whitehill: The book is finished being printed, and is finished being bound, and the film is in the process of being edited, and now there’s our listening tour. We’ve created a living entity; that is probably my highest goal as a creator, the sense of having created something that will have a life of its own. I’m really kind of humbled by it. But I also feel liberated by it. I feel like something has passed through me, and I will never be the same.
Felicia Rice: It’s hard to remember that the book is a radical object while developing the color palette and the packaging and the rest; it could easily become an elaborate greeting card with Hallmark sentiments, comfortable and, yes, something that needs to be said, but that’s not threatening. That’s one of the struggles with the form, is to make it unsettling. That is my aim, to tip the barnyard and shift how we perceive the world around us through your eyes, through my eyes, through our eyes together, through the work of others who will become involved in this project.
We are taking funds that we gather at the various Heavy Lifting events and sharing a percentage with a humanitarian or nonprofit organization in the communities where we appear. I’ve done this consistently with other projects. Being effective, cracking the mirror, making a difference is just something that is essential, but uncomfortable. And year after year as we grow older, as I grow older and feel I have less and less time, it seems more and more and more critical. The book as object, the word, the carrier of the word. This is an age-old perception and a deep, deep, deep, cultural touchstone.
Theresa Whitehill: It was letterpress printing that became our voice. And Felicia, you’ve taught me a lot about that through your decisions as a publisher over the years. No one else has really done what you’ve done. You’ve forged your own path, and that’s what intrigues me so much. That’s what inspired that poem that I originally sent you because I felt like, yeah, I could learn a lot from this, just witnessing, just observing.
Felicia Rice: I’m going to start crying right now.