Guest Folio Introduction

Elizabeth Graver

I first met artist Mary Lum in 1994 at MacDowell, an artists’ residency program in rural New Hampshire, where we shared the gift of a month spent immersed in our own work inside a community of writers, artists, and composers. I don’t think I’m projecting back too much to say that I could tell that there was something extraordinary about Mary from the start. Call it a quality of attention, maybe, the way she was always looking—out at the world with all its grids and scraps, colors, layers, echoes, bifurcations, and inward, at ideas and habits of thought, and then outward again, during long conversations that bloomed between us over dinner or on walks before we returned to our studios to work—or was it play? For Mary, they seemed, more than for most artists (we could grumble and groan) to be the same thing. She told me she collected books. Red ones. All red. It was unclear why, and she didn’t explain. I remember she walked a lot, and that she spent several months each year wandering around Paris, where I’d also lived and wandered. As a presence, Mary was at once unfailingly friendly and unusually self-possessed. Sometime during that month, she shared with me that she never got lonely. I was struck, then as now, by the singular pleasure she took in inhabiting her own perceptual field as it interacted with the world.

We became good friends and have remained so ever since, bonding over both words—I write novels, Mary is a voracious reader—and images, which, for Mary, are sometimes also words, as in the gorgeous tapestry she designed for St. John’s College Library at Oxford University, “St John’s Primer,” comprised of woven fragments of texts from many different languages and eras, or the wall of text hanging at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts that reads “Assembly, LOREM IPSUM,” a bold play on the text used by typesetters as filler for actual text.  

Mary’s work, whether painting, collage, comic, sculpture, or tapestry, is an invitation to cross over into a space full of both temporal and visual layers, a kind of dreamscape, dizzying, provocative. Beautiful or broken, sometimes both at once. As she walks the city (usually but not always Paris), she sees, then helps us see. As art critic John Yau wrote in a February 2022 review in Hyperallergic, “Lum’s walks become ‘a space of enunciation’ in which she has gathered (or appropriated) a wide range of things that she cuts and arranges. The sharply angled arrangements convey both the vertigo that walking around a city can induce in individuals who are open to what they see, and the memories this might spark. Her paintings and collage are architectonic, with planes abutting alongside open, layered forms, evoking shop windows and walls, reflections and glimpses. Lum also incorporates phrases and words, which she cuts horizontally, shifting the lower and upper parts. Or she presents the words upside down, repeatedly, like a visual stutter, seen partially so they are unreadable. This asemic impulse allows a mental space to open up in the viewer, while the visual stutter invites us to enunciate the staccato repetitions of sounds we hear and see when we walk through the city.”

For this folio, I invited a small group of writers and artists to join Mary Lum in a “space of enunciation” by using one of her collages (reproduced on the cover) as a springboard for their own poetry, prose, or comics. I gave no instructions beyond length (approximately 1000 words, or under two pages). The results are, I think, quite dazzling as individual pieces, but even more wonderful is how they sit in conversation with Mary’s collage and with each other, the folio itself a kind of collage with different pieces speaking not only to Mary’s art but also (if unintentionally) to each other, like disparate birds alighting for a moment in a tree. 

Genevieve DeLeon, who is both a visual artist and a poet, wrote a poem that ladders up and down the page as it asks questions about the gifts and limits of imposing structure and letting go. Karin Davison, Christine A. Neu, and Ramona Reeves wrote resonant flash fiction stories filled with atlases and canvases, windows and borders, long distance calls, unmet desire, the loneliness and tug of home. The three graphic artists met image with image: Franklin Einspruch with his “autumn road” amidst the thicket—gesture, pause or invitation; Jonathan Todd’s “History of American Comics,” vaulting us through time; Will Dowd’s compressed biography of another visual artist, Agnes Martin, who loved grids, as Mary does, but fled the city for the mesa of New Mexico, living alone for decades in an adobe shack. Yang Huang turned Mary’s image into a kind of memory palace, using it to travel to past places, even as she noted that “the spaces between the images is what occupies most of my days.”   

“When walking or driving in the city,” Mary Lum said in a 2009 interview in Bomb, “it is sometimes possible to detect the poetic subconscious of the place, the thing we cannot see but can only occasionally access through feeling. The sharp attention required for this experience comes from extensive looking (for nothing in particular), walking without distraction but implicitly always distracted.” 

Here, in these pages, you will find both sharp attention and extensive looking.  

Enter, and enjoy. 

Elizabeth Graver’s new novel, Kantika (“song” in Ladino), was inspired by her maternal grandmother, who was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul and whose journey took her to Spain, Cuba, and New York. Kantika came out in April 2023; German and Turkish editions are forthcoming. Elizabeth’s fourth novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award in Fiction. Her other novels are AwakeThe Honey Thief, and Unravelling. Her story collection, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She teaches at Boston College and is proud to feature the work of several former students in this issue’s folio.

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