Arts & Culture News

Their Week at Zine Camp: Oil and Cotton and the Art of Making an Interesting Youth

Michaela Meyer didn't trace those pictures of famous cartoon cats that you see at right. She drew them "free hand."

"Free hand:" That's a phrase that takes me back to her age. The summer before sixth grade, to be precise. Certain kids just hit an artistic growth spurt, the same way others shot eight inches taller. Talent bulged out all around me in the form of comic sketches and voluntarily written short stories and images drawn without the aid of someone else's lines. These were warning signs, foreshadowing that some in our class would go on to live wildly interesting lives -- as long as they don't surrender their talents by dismissing them simply as "hobbies."

The room where Michaela drew this, a large studio in the back of the Oak Cliff art space Oil and Cotton, has become a youth think tank. It's Friday and the week was spent writing and editing. Drawing and silk screening. Creating poetry and collages and learning abstraction methods of story creation. Now they're putting on the final touch by hand-binding their publications. Their zines.

Oil and Cotton's owners, Shannon Driscoll and Kayli House Cusick, have been looking forward to this camp since winter. Summer of 2012 is the shop's first attempt at introducing local youth to zine culture through educative programming.

Cultivating the itinerary required a half-year of planning; they got added support by reaching out to The Writer's Garret, the local literary booster. The organization sent them some help, a youth educator named Lisa Huffaker. She's sliding from child to child, encouraging them on everything from their use of shading gradients to their mastery of thematic repetition.

Local artists also pitched in, including Brandi Strickland who donated visually inspirational paper scraps. (Which the students have viewed as treasure and have appropriately ransacked.) In the back of the room, a volunteer is keeping the potentially messy task of silk screening each cover from becoming an actual messy one.

Needless to say, everyone here is into it.

It's a wonderfully personal point in growing up, this age bracket. Most are between 8 and 12, though a few older kids sit across the room. It's a time when kids think about upcoming milestones regularly and have an almost obsessive need to document their lives through notes, diaries and other collectable acts of expression. But before this week, the thought of scrapbooking personal experiences with zines hadn't occurred to these students. That's probably because nobody here had ever heard of them before.

For some, zines are staples of the D.I.Y. punk rock and riot grrrl scenes. A way of telling the world about bands or philosophies that aren't being written about by major publications. For others, they're a way to convey the most meaningful contents of a city, a movement, or moment in time by producing a tangible artifact. In any sense, they are homemade pamphlets, soft-bodied short books or tiny magazines that -- at the time of their origin -- express an original idea. Years later, reading them is like opening a time capsule.

It's a job that blogs have stripped away. Sure, it's easy to say that electronic expression is more modern. That zines have become antiquated methods of launching ideas into the world.

I disagree. Especially here, in this room.

Every zine produced at camp hinges on a point of inspiration called an emblem. The topics vary from "Wormholes" to "Dubstep."

Jeanne Freeland's is called "Headphones," and here's the opening paragraph to her short work of fiction by the same name:

I woke with a start, the shrill beeping of my alarm clock reverberating through my skull. A blinding pink obscured my vision. I quickly switched the alarm off and the red disappeared. Sighing, I dragged myself out of bed. I shuffled to my closet and pulled on a baggy sweatshirt and worn jeans, still practically asleep. My door creaked as I opened it and I saw rust colored ribbons curl in front of my eyes, like pencil shavings pirouetting down to earth. I trudged downstairs and grabbed an apple, my backpack, and my headphones.

We learn as the story continues that this protagonist has a condition known as synesthesia, where senses overlap and trigger one another. In Jeanne's story, her hero hears in color. Her headphones are her literary touchstone, allowing the fascinating human she's invented to explore her beautiful disorder, despite the distractions that exist outside her auditory barricades.

Jeanne hasn't written much fiction before. A shocking fact considering she's crafted two of the most humbling pages I've ever read. She, at 11, is a spectacularly inventive and organized voice. And her collage, a 3D cobbling of cut paper cameos and daffodils, could double perfectly as album art. She says she'd like to keep making zines: She's been searching for the right creative outlet.

While blogs have the potential to reach a larger audience and sprawl across greater geography than their physical counterparts, they require someone to search for them. Someone to click. And eventually they fade away into the disposable ether of the internet.

Zines are photocopied and distributed. Some are sold (typically to cover the cost of production) and others are scattered around the author's favorite haunts. Left to be discovered by those who weren't intentionally seeking them out. In some cases, like the shelf of stumbled-upon zines that resides in my living room, they are even treasured by strangers for decades.

Every child at zine camp takes home two copies of their publication: One original color edition and one in black-and-white. Both have personalized silk screened covers. Both are hand-bound. They donate a third copy -- print number 3/3, according to the back jackets -- to the camp. All work created during the two zine programs that Oil and Cotton offered this summer will be assembled into a compendium.

The collection of stories, art and free-flow ideas will be reprinted and sold at the shop, with proceeds going to a scholarship fund. Currently the independently owned art retail space absorbs the cost of roughly 20 percent of its students. Sales from the book will allow more kids to attend.

By encouraging children to explore their talents through self-disseminated art and literature, zine camp tapped into something meaningful and inspired. These young humans scrambled out the front door knowing not only that their Big Ideas are important, but that they can, and should, share them with the world. One photocopy at a time.

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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin