The 2021 Champaign-Urbana Small Press Fest will showcase the talents of CU’s independent publishing, media, and art community. The full itinerary can be found at here, and will feature events in teen poetry, community grief, zines and independent publishing, bookmaking, and manga, at a variety of area venues for print enthusiasts of all ages and expertises. Smile Politely caught up with a few of the organizers: Sarah Christensen, DoMonique Arnold, Will Arnold, and María Emerson.
Smile Politely: How did you each get involved with Small Press Fest?
Will Arnold: I am a staff member at the School of Art and Design. I’ve been making zines for probably ten or twelve years, and in the last seven years or so as my primary art practice. I started it as a side thing when I was a photographer doing shows, as something people could take with them after. I got involved [thanks to] Sarah, and through our zine research cluster here on campus a couple of years ago.
Sarah Christensen: Will is actually part of the reason I got into zines. I had taken a class in Art & Design a couple of years ago, and started a degree in graphic design. I learned that we used to have a zine fest in town that ran for about three years that had been organized by some high school students. In my full-time role—Visual Resources and Outreach Specialist at the library—I do a lot of outreach and public engagement, and I thought we should revive the event but open it up to more small press publishing and not be zines-only. There’s a lot of themes, and comics, and other forms of DIY expression included.
DoMonique Arnold: I’m currently a high school librarian. I began getting involved with Small Press Fest through Sarah, but also though my pre-existing interest in zines and other connections in the community. I was really excited to make zines and DIY publishing a bigger part of the work I’m doing, particularly in teaching. When I’m working with the students at Uni High I want to have creative elements as regular part of the information literacy assignments that we do. One of the options they have is to make a zine, and I show them some examples, ways that they can participate, and make their own. We have a zine cart here, and one of our sophomore teachers does a zine unit. Enthusiasm has really grown on this end, and it’s so great to be able to participate in Small Press Fest and help make it a more elliptic space for the community.
María Emerson: I’m a student success librarian here. I also got started with Small Press Festf through Sarah—she invited me, and I had done some work with zines at my last institution. I started a social justice zine collection and tried to encourage faculty to involve them more in their classrooms, especially with assignments and having conversations with students about whose voices are considered credible and authoritative.
D. Arnold: That’s a really important part of zine making—to critique who’s the expert.
SP: What’s the strangest or most peculiar issue of a zine that you’ve come across.
Christensen: They’re all so fun. I’ll talk about one that I feel I talk about a lot; it’s an item in Will’s personal collection. It was called something like, “Bad Names for a Parrot,” and it was very small and stapled. I just thought it was a hilarious concept for this tiny little booklet, and I loved the whimsical, ephemeral nature of it.
D. Arnold: Yeah, I feel like I have a lot of different favorites. One that I think affected me was seeing a zine from a popular creator in Chicago that it was just reviews from teens. They’re also just really cool; one might be in a little envelope, where it’s candle wax sealed and stamped and you have to open it. Others have 3-D scenes. There’s one in Will’s collection that actually looks like a garbage can. The physical creation gives it an extra-special touch.
W. Arnold: I think I’ve got it here.
D. Arnold: I really love that one! Where you open the top and the zine is inside the garbage can.
D. Arnold: That one really made me think about creating more zines like that. Creating my own things really fell off during the pandemic, but that’s happened with a lot of peoples’ creative work.
Emerson: One that really spoke to me was one when I stared working with them called “Mixed: A Mixed-Race Compilation,” and it was stories about people who are mixed-race and their experiences. I’m mixed-race, and when I got it my friend (who identifies as biracial) had never seen life experiences like that in mainstream publications or research articles—it was really nice to see that we weren’t alone in our experiences.
W. Arnold: The thing that drew me in was the community, especially at these types of events. I remember the first of any kind of zine or small press event that I went to as an artist was in St. Louis in 2014. It was just such a cool vibe. Everyone was very generous, very into seeing what everyone else was doing. I think I only sold a handful of zines, but then I traded a bunch with a bunch of other artists there, and I just met so many cool people that it became a turning point what I wanted to do with my art practice. To be making these things instead of putting stuff in sterile gallery spaces. It just felt so welcoming and energetic.
Emerson: I like the physicality as well. I also find that it tends to make things more equal. They can be very analog; you don’t need expensive software, or a Mac computer. You can literally just start with a piece of paper.
W. Arnold: The folding up the paper, the physical putting-together of things really appeals. Sometimes it’s really great to remember that you can just make a book. It doesn’t have to come from Barnes & Noble or anything. You can fold some paper and call it a book, and it can go live in the world that way.
SP: When you’re putting together a zine collection, what kinds of things have you found make their way into those collections?
Emerson: When I was working with the social justice collection that was a pretty specific and targeted subject. I got a lot of LGBT+ zines, a lot that dealt with mental health, and a lot that health with sexual assault. They weren’t circulating, but we did count how often they were handled/used, which was a fair amount. Some that I knew were in the collection addressed issues that fewer students struggled with—life after a felony, for example.
W. Arnold: I always think about how I can open peoples’ minds to what a book can do or be about, whether that’s through the form or through the content like María was talking about. Things that you wouldn’t necessarily see published, or that would be hard to find. And I try to have a broad range that can get people thinking about how they could see themselves engaging with this content, whether it’s creating one themselves or just expanding their ideas of what a book or a zine or a piece of art could be or do.
D. Arnold: Our collection is definitely in its developing stages. Students who participate in the sophomore zine unit can donate their zine (and their name!) to the library, so it’s very well set up to be zines made for teens by other teens. The collection represents the work and interests of the students, and inspires them to create more new and different things. So we try to have the widest variety of examples possible.
Christensen: I love the zines that I can interact with in a physical form—things that incorporate different materials or different kinds of experience [than just turning pages]. I got one at the 2019 Small Press Fest that had the sealed wax that DoMonique was talking about earlier. It was a thrill to interact with because you had no idea what you’d get when you opened it. It felt very personal, and I so love reading things like memoirs and peoples’ lived experiences.
SP: Small Press Fest’s student and youth engagement is obviously very high. Is that true of Small Press Fest at large—is it a very high school and undergraduate-focused event?—or does the student perspective happen to be a focus between the five of us?
Christensen: Being in CU means that students do come front and center almost by default, and our respective jobs contribute to that as well. Anthony Rasen is one of our participants this year, and he calls himself an “old geezer” a lot. An article I previously wrote about him called him “Chicago’s anarchist grandpa,” and he works with prison populations. He’s very into literacy for incarcerated people and making sure that they have materials where they can see themselves represented. At the first event have came down and spoke as well. Books to Prisoners [via the Independent Media Center] came to talk as well. A lot of our work happens to be youth-focused because of where we are and what we do, but that zines are really for everyone.
SP: Small Press Fest is also a young event, so it has room to continue to grow and to put roots into the community.
D. Arnold: We also have some pretty cool community-centered workshops coming up this year—and we have in the past as well—like the grief workshop. We’re trying to respond to the needs of the entire community. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, among other things, we’re trying to grieve a lot of loss, and creative work can really help with that.
W. Arnold: The organizers of the event, as far as I remember, are all based around the university, so it does tilt that way. The hope is that we’re doing enough to reach out to other areas of the community and bring other people in.
Christensen: When we started we tried not to make it a University Event™ because large institutional structures have very different goals, ethos, and culture from zines and DIY publishing. So there’s a whole side of it—including our Wix site—that isn’t associated with the university that is a little harder to see in this conversation. We are partially sponsored by the library, but also by the Urbana Arts Council.
SP: As Small Press Fest has gone on, what kinds of risks do you remember taking as the festival has gone on?
Christensen: I think when we first started the whole thing felt like a bit of a risk to me. There are so many creators in this community that I hoped it would be well-received, but it’s hard to know for sure until you do it. Finding the right speakers is also a bit like shooting in the dark, as was making the event a virtual event in November, 2020. I wanted to keep up the event for obvious reasons, but by that point in the year everyone was really tired of Zoom too.
D. Arnold: I remember when we were having our first few meetings it was really exciting, because I had been so sad to see the original Midwest Zine Fest go. There’s so much talent and such a vibrant artistic community here that it makes a lot of sense for an event like this to be happening. In terms of risk, I think we’ve been very good at balancing what we’ve done and taking all of our communities into account. We make sure that we’re picking locations that aren’t just centered on campus but out in the community; at the same time, a new venue can be a kind of risk as well. But the whole undertaking has been great to be a part of. But it’s new. We still have a lot of “firsts” in our near future.