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How to always be seeking: Using zines to find community

Throughout the year many events and workshops take place to allow zine makers to meet up and share ideas and interview with local makers. We dive into the culture of zines in GR.
Zine Maker, Rachel McKay

Zine Maker, Rachel McKay /Photo courtesy of Avenue for the Arts

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Connect directly with Rachel McKay via her Avenue for the Arts Artist Profile.

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How to Always be Seeking Workshop, on Avenue for the Arts

How to Always be Seeking Workshop, on Avenue for the Arts /Photo courtesy of Avenue for the Arts

Locally made Zines

Locally made Zines /Photo courtesy of Danielle Alexander, Bombadil Books

Grand Rapids has developed a culture of artists who are dedicated to the making and distribution of zines. The rough and unpolished branch of self-publishing, zines are little books or pamphlets made on a small scale, with the intention of being distributed directly to readers. These publications allow makers to create and share ideas that may be too controversial, unrefined, niche, or experimental for most publishing platforms. Rachel McKay is a zinester and printmaker in the Grand Rapids area and an active member with the Avenue for the Arts.

"Zines are so open ended. Everybody has a zine inside them. It is very much a collaborative and communicative space. People are glad that you're there, and the zine community is so open. Besides making zines, I love the stories that other people make as part of zine culture. These are stories that bigger publishers are too afraid to pick up, so you are going to read very honest, important things. There is a wide range of personal stories, to really polished comics, to everything in between," McKay said. Her work is an array of autobiographical comics, illustrated zines, and personal stories.

"I live with an anxiety disorder and that isn't easy to talk about, because there is so much stigma around it. There is a lot of stigma around mental illness in general, and I am often met with disbelief. But zines are this space where I can meditate on that, and talk about that. I have this zine I wrote called Weathering the Storm, that was incredibly therapeutic to write, and another one called Winter Boots, which is a journal comic about a really rough time I was going through. It is really validating to have someone pick one up and go, ‘Me too.’”

Building solidarity with strangers, around mental illness, and intimate personal content is a way that Rachel describes the community zine’s produce. When asked what it is about zines that specifically interest her as a way to communicate, she had this to offer:

“I've gotten to have these really great conversations with people that I don't like to normally talk about. But it's all there on paper for anybody to read. There have been these incredible moments of solidarity with strangers about how difficult it can be to even get out of bed some days, when you live with mental illness."

Zines provide a way to work through difficult thoughts and share the conversation with a receptive community. Some topics have a certain amount of stigma attached to them. It is not only is it important to have a place people can feel safe to discuss difficult subjects, but also find a community of those who can relate.

"It's all about paying attention, like any creative process, it's very meditative. Zines are usually made with an audience in mind, so it forces you to be more honest, more vulnerable with the hope that you're making something that another person will get something out of. Some of the darker zines I make with the thought that they might help someone else. Zines are like a space to work through your own stuff to make it easier for someone else,” McKay said. “I think that's the thing about zine culture, because it is so collaborative and open it's safe to do that and open up."

Throughout the year many events and workshops take place to allow zine makers to meet up and share ideas. In November, the Avenue for the Arts hosted a workshop on what it means to live a creative life. This workshop used journaling through a zine prompt book to prime participants with ideas on how they work through the raw process of maintaining creative habits.

This season’s Learning Lab education coordinator, JoLee Kirkikis, organized and taught the event, called “How to Always Be Seeking,” A workshop exploring the very core of DIY zine content. Workshopping in this class allowed for attendees to work through how the creative process affects them.

“Being creative outside of the art that you are making can allow your creative muscles to exercise without becoming exhausted. I think it is also important for people who don’t necessarily consider themselves artists or makers to be creative so that they can explore different ways of feeling and problem solving that make them see their lives a little differently,” she says.

The workshop took attendees through the rough and gritty of what it means to always be seeking a creative lifestyle. A kind of vulnerability arises from confronting the fears of inadequacy that hold some people back from creating at all.

“It is important to let go of the notions that everything has to be perfectly complete and according to the idea you initially set out to do,” JoLee observes. “Art is an organic thing and should be approached and accepted without limits by the creator. I think being possessive of your vision is a way of suppressing parts of yourself or your art that still deserve a change to considered, even if it is not part of the final outcome.”

Looking at their process without emphasis on the motivation allowed for honest and unpretentious subject matters to be explored. This was an opportunity for many of the group to talk about struggles involved with creating and maintaining their own personal wellbeing.

“This was a really unique experience in which strangers who were all makers came together to share their fears, hesitations, and personal ideas about creating and themselves individually as makers and creators. It was really inspiring to see that everyone was willing to share their thoughts and feelings about topics like self-care, fear, and cultivation when those can be hard topics to talk about even in your own social circles,” JoLee says.

During “How to Always be seeking” the workshop group jotted down notes from their discussions into their zine workbooks. Time was given to reflect over what the journal prompts, allowing each member to meditate on answers. By the time everyone was ready to share their thoughts, participants had the chance to deliberate on their personal creative habits.

Zines have existed for a long time as an accessible way to share ideas. Due to their low production costs they are extremely cheap to spread around. For less than the cost of a sandwich, a reader can take a small piece of art home to keep and cherish.

The freedom afforded to this medium is that a zinemaker can explore new ideas without the fear that what they have to say may be rejected. The community is understanding and the medium allows for an easy way to spread an idea that is tangible and can be held in hand.

“Everyone thinks they have great ideas, which is true because they do, but sometimes it is cool to see the ways your own thoughts and thought patterns can be stimulated by a prompt or task. It is challenging to get out of the thought patterns and habits we become comfortable with, but it is an important exercise to practice from time to time,” Kirkikis said.

Sharing ideas and making zine can be cathartic and therapeutic. A zine maker often prints zines from whatever computer or copy machine is available. The format of a zine allows for materials to be collected cheaply, or even found free.

A person who may feel intimidated by the idea of creating something new that is meant to be shared can be put at ease by such an approachable medium. One of the attendees from the Avenue for the Arts workshop commented, “Zines are so accessible. They are cheap to produce and purchase. Nearly anyone can experience a zines content. I’m considering other ways to introduce different media into a zine.”

Zines are a voice for the untried ideas that come from creating without a sense of stigma against the outcome. When a creator can make something without fear for having their voice shut down, new ideas and voices can aggregate from the broader sects of society.

New workshops and classes are happening all the time on the Avenue. Taking part in these classes is a great way to become part of a supportive community, while taking part in creative exploration and growth. To find out what new classes are coming up, visit the Avenue for the Arts website. To hear about affiliated events in the Heartside neighborhood, follow the Avenue on Facebook and Twitter.

The Avenue for the Arts is a neighborhood title for the South Division commercial corridor. We are residential, commercial and nonprofit groups working together in a creative community. We are residents in Heartside, and active participants in shaping change in our neighborhood. In 2005, we choose the Avenue for the Arts as a title to represent our commercial corridor and the projects and events that we create. Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Aude Shattuck, Avenue for the Arts member and Illustrator living in the Grand Rapids, MI area.

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