Mary Voorhees Meehan


  • At first I struck my name from the list. I was to be her very first meeting of the day. But I had signed up and then removed myself from the list, both times out of confusion regarding the premise of the meeting. I had no idea what we were to meet about as I had only a vague notion of what my “book” would be. In the end, it was only by chance that I met with Gisela, who came to shuffle around the loft of the graphic design atrium with a hefty bag of books for a series of scheduled appointments on February 11, 2009.

    I arrived just as she was finishing up with Jensen. I stopped by Ryan’s desk on my way to my own. He asked if I was meeting with Gisela. I said no. I had crossed my name off because I had no idea what I would talk to her about. Did he? Yes. Well, should I? Yeah, he said, because she was pretty much just showing things to give us some ideas of what we could do. Crap. I had messed up, I thought. I was walking by Jensen’s desk to my desk and noticed Gisela was getting up. I paused. I had crossed my name off the list, but could I still meet with her? I explained that I did not understand the purpose of the meetings when I had taken such drastic action. I did not know that she was going to be giving us ideas. I thought that we were expected to tell her our idea and that she would then respond. We were trying to figure out when she could squeeze me in. We walked toward my desk. She had an appointment with Daniella, who sort of shares a space with me, but Daniella wasn’t there. We would meet now.

    What was my thesis about, she wanted to know. I was hesitant to tell her, partly because I hate trying to explain it concisely and partly because I feared it would determine what she might pull out of her huge bag to show me (at the expense of something else) and what if I misspoke or gave her the wrong idea and never saw the thing that could inspire? We were talking without me thinking for a while and I cannot remember what was said because I was preoccupied by the fears running through my head. I told her that my thesis was about scripts—a word which I am still not entirely sure of, and which I need to define all over again each time I explain what my thesis is. This was not a time for a long, drawn out explanation so I just tried to be concise, which is never effective. It was about existing scripts and objects with imbedded scripts. I told her that I would define it more articulately through writing. She told me I was really behind if I hadn’t written it yet. I told her that my thesis advisor knew what I was talking about. (I was rushing so that we could get to the part when she showed me things and I got inspired.) And so, I concluded, stammering, it made sense to do something traditional. Something that would read as “book.” I knew it would be a series of signatures. I was not sure if it would be a hard or soft cover. But maybe hard, since that is the most generic seeming.

    She interrupted me to tell me that that was ironic because I was holding a paperback book that had an image of handlettering on the front. She had not understood what my thesis was about. She thought it was about script, about handlettering. But never mind, I went on talking. I just wanted to hear things about books. She told me that I had to have an understanding of my book, what I wanted it to look like (as an object) before I could even begin designing the inside... so I could determine my margins. She was very hung up on this: on the sort of binding determining the margins. If I wanted to bind it oriental style, which she knew that I did not, I would need a very thick margin. She also thought that paper selection would play a big part in the whole thing and she really wasn’t “up to snuff” on papers “appropriate for [your] type of printing.” And for thicker paper I might want two folds or three folds instead of four, which would mean eight pages or twelve pages per signature, instead of sixteen pages per signature. And I really should...

    She interrupted herself to inquire about Daniella. Did I know where she was? Did I think she had forgotten about the meeting? She was not a part of the thesis group that was away? It was quite inconsiderate that an entire thesis group had decided to go away for the day when she had scheduled to come meet with us. I nodded. Who were the advisors this year she wanted to know? And was Michael not doing it anymore? She seemed saddened by this. I began to think about how interesting she was as a repository for the history of the program. I would bring this up later in the meeting. Would she like me to call Daniella? I would be happy to call her. I called her. No answer. Gisela thought it was odd that she wasn’t there. I said that maybe she had been there and just stepped out and had forgotten the exact time of her meeting. Gisela peered around the curtain. (Daniella and I had decided to put in a curtain between our two desks so that we would have a better idea of when we were working together and when we weren’t.) It did not look as though she had been there. Well, I told Gisela, Daniella keeps a much tidier desk than I do. There perhaps would not be such evidence. No, she would not leave the pillow in her chair like that, Gisela thought. I was amused that Gisela was intent to find clues via the objects strewn (or very deliberately placed) throughout Daniella’s space. I wondered what she thought about as she surveyed ill-fated books. What stories she found there. If she cursed clumsy hands under her breath or if she enjoyed the dirty little human trails, inevitable frailties of craftsmanship, and obscene defilements she discovered.

    I had been very sensitive to what I thought would be her revulsion to dirt, clutter, limited desk space—ready snares for innocent, fragile books. I had suggested that we meet downstairs or by the cutting mat. I told her my desk was a wreck. I had nodded toward her bag. I had offered to carry her bag. I had assured her it would be better if we sat down anywhere but my desk. But she insisted. She gripped her packages and leaned toward my desk. We would meet at my desk she had said. Her insistence to know what each of our thesis topics was and her determination to meet at our desks despite piles of very old, crudely iced sugar cookies, bits of plexi glass, rogue halves of wax cheese casings, deli napkins, and coffee cups, led me to believe that she did not hallow books (though it was her attention to them that had left her in a permanently crouched position) at the expense of people. As we sat down I started to push things out of the way, to clear a spot for her special books, but she said to stop. It wasn’t necessary. She would rather pull things from the bag and stack them on the floor on top of a plastic bag that she had with her. She had a system. She sat in a folding chair. I feared I had positioned it too close to the curtain dividing my desk from Daniella’s. It was hitting her shoulder and her arm brushed it when she moved. I asked if I could move it, if she would like to move her chair. She said no. She was unruffled. Unflappable. It was as if she enjoyed surveying the junk, as if she could see, in the congestion, the beginnings and endings of books. I imagined her staring at the surfaces of people’s desks as she listened to them explaining their thesis topics. She was interested in stories. Forensic by nature, like me.

    We decided to continue our meeting. I should lay the signatures out as they would be printed on the computer. Yes, of course, I was thinking. I was thinking about how difficult it was to make these decisions when every decision was contingent upon another decision and how to make any decision when there is always this contingency. I began to think more about how this was my struggle with every project. This was the reason for my ever-growing list of things I wanted to make. This was both a macro and a micro problem, a problem that could not be solved, because to solve it, innumerable decisions dependent on innumerable other decisions, that were in turn dependent on the first set of decisions, would have to be made. I was thinking about how decisions in paper stock might yield a certain ideal signature length, and how I might want to design with that signature length in mind, such that certain projects would be allotted an entire signature or certain related projects might occupy the same signature or certain projects might occupy the signature in a way that reflected on the nature of the project.

    The question was how to make this carry. How to make my numerous projects cohere in the form of a book, using the structure of the book; its sequential prompting; and the various associations of its size, shape, and feel. I was thinking about how to frame the entirety of my practice in one fell swoop, which is not something that I do even in a single project. It has always been about multiplicity. About repetition or reenactment prompted by the inaccessibility or dubious existence of the original. About the collection operating as a survey, manual, or definition in the way that a single iteration cannot. About the single, the monument, the icon, the standard, operating as a platform for reiteration, but never the end all be all. So, how to continue my bull-headed meditations on the human conundrum and reflect the circling and circling back of my practice within the form of a book that by its very objecthood is singular.

    She was very interested in choices. Choices and their inevitable consequences. I would choose a paper for this reason. And then my signatures would be this length. And then a certain rhythm would ensue. I think she is a materialist. The story of the book necessarily unfolds from these very early decisions. She was fascinated by the sorts of books that emerged, as if willed by some power within the materials themselves. She described doing an adhesive binding workshop in the graphic design atrium. Everyone was making books that were the same size, and bound in the same fashion. But they were all different! She loved this. She attempted to inspire: Think of all the different materials that I could use that would make my book my book.

    While I definitely think that a story unfolds from the materials, that a narrative emerges out of the palpable qualities of the book, I still hope for another one. Perhaps a more structural one, in which the work is given meaning from the way it unfolds, the way it relates to, is held by, is ordered by, the pages. Time should mean something. My authorship should mean something. Perhaps it all comes down to ego. Gisela revels at other people’s hands, the many clues she finds as she examines bindings and glances over the surfaces of pages. In the end, her invisibility is prized. She wants to give the book its due, restore its glory, leave no trace. And I want to leave a glaring trace, that the meanings I have found and conclusions I have drawn become a language suggestive of something more.