Zine and Heard

Roxanne Aubrey and Rachel MacFarland are Ope! Publishing, a La Crosse start-up that focuses on unearthing local art, words and culture and presenting it in a gorgeous zine format. Ahead of their Zine Reading event at 7 p.m., this Friday at Pearl Street Books (click here for details), we spoke to Rachel and Roxanne about their small but mighty publishing house. 

Roxanne is originally from Ohio, but moved to New York City at the tail end of the punk scene. She worked as a cancer research lab tech, radio producer and production assistant, and cater waiter before deciding to go to grad school to get a degree in earth systems science. She then worked as an editor for a biology textbook, which led to print production and graphic design. Roxanne ended up in Wisconsin in 2013 and, surprisingly, claims to likes it here. 

Rachel has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Northern Iowa. She moved around the country for a while, writing, but always ended up back in La Crosse, her hometown. “Must be something in the water,” she joked.

Can you tell us about how Ope! Publishing got started? What was the idea behind Ope! and how has that idea worked out in practice?

Roxanne: I met Rachel last year, right around the time John Wick 3 came out. (Because time is measured in Keanu Reeves’s movie years.) She was lamenting the lack of outlets to get her writing out there in the world. She was talking about the sorts of things she wrote, and I got more and more interested. I also got a really good sense of her aesthetic as she described her stories. I told her to send me one of her things. Just a small piece. She said she had some drawings she had done while she was writing it and that settled it for me. Between talking to her, looking at the art, and then reading it, I immediately saw how it should look. It barely took me an hour to get the initial layout. When I sent it back to her in a mostly designed form, she plotzed. For me, it was a sort of eureka moment, because her reaction was so genuine. I knew we could do that for other artists in the area. 

Rachel: I had to google plotzed. It’s a bit overdramatic, but yes, I was absolutely impressed with what Roxanne did, particularly how fast she created the layout/design. I’ve waited months and months only to be rejected by small presses everywhere, so to see my piece in publishable form, within a day? Fine, yes. Plotzed. There’s a scene in John Wick 3 where Keanu grabs a book off a shelf, shoves it into a guy’s mouth and then open palm slams it deeper into the guy’s face, breaking his jaw. That’s about how Ope! got started. Roxanne is the John Wick character, if that needs to be said. 

Roxanne: It does not. But it’s fine that you clarified. Being from New York and having artist friends there, I can tell you how cutthroat and absolutely awful the art scene is. No matter how good you are, if you don’t know someone and/or have good representation, you’ll never get your art out there into the world. Most of the artists I knew who actually did get their art seen did it themselves. With pop-up art shows, with self-publishing, with social media: Whatever it took to get eyes on their work. After we did “Laundry in India” we both realized we could do this. She has so many wonderful ideas and my life working with nonprofits trained me to be super frugal and clever when it came to producing printed things. It just seemed like a natural fit, and it was.

Rachel: We work well together — that part came easily. We don’t agree on everything, by any means, but we respect each other’s aesthetic enough to yell and argue and know that the result is what’s best for the zine. Both of us really, really want to do right by the artist and the art. Because we both get that, we can say anything, and that communication is key. 

A glimpse inside the Ope! workshop.

Talk about why you chose zines as your medium. I like the line on your website, “think of trading baseball cards, maybe, but for artists.” 

Roxanne: I had gotten the zine bug a little bit before “Laundry in India” even came up, which is probably where I got the idea to do it when she was telling me about it. I had gone to visit my mom in NYC and was wandering around the Lower East Side and found an anarchist bookstore down on Allen Street called Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe & Activist Center. They had a huge chunk of their shop dedicated to zines; TONS of zines on any topic you can imagine of any style you could think of. Some were super DIY, hand drawn, xeroxed and stapled. Others were a little more pulled together. I wanted ALL of them. 

In NY, everybody’s everything is in your face all the time. There’s art everywhere. Performances everywhere. Words everywhere. And I realized just how much I missed being surrounded by culture. Sure, we have live music and some of the restaurants have local art on the walls, but we don’t have a culture of art. And why not? It’s silly that we don’t. That’s what we hope Ope! does. We hope it brings art out from behind closed doors and into people’s line of sight.  We also keep the production of it local. We work with a local printer here in town, and he’s awesome. And Rachel and I do all the binding of the books. She wasn’t much of a stitcher at first, but now she’s a real pro and only grouses a little bit about it. We call them our “stitch ‘n bitch” sessions.

Rachel: Roxanne introduced me to the medium; I have long been a fan of melding art and literature into one piece, and the zine is the perfect size to do that without the creation/production process becoming too complicated or overwhelming. The zine itself is art, because of the design and the binding and the creation process involved, and then it contains art besides. For me, it’s truly a small but mighty thing. 

Each of the zines you’ve published so far are worlds unto themselves in a way, and quite beautiful. How do you come up with ideas for the words, and the art?

Roxanne: Wine. But seriously, Rachel and I just sort of click. When we get to talking, it can start with why one shouldn’t put oregano in a marinara sauce and end up with discussing ways to subvert the patriarchy. Usually, somewhere in there, an idea will seed and then she’ll nurture it in her head for a while and then it will emerge as an idea we pursue. Some of it is happenstance. Like our second zine, “Prison Sentences” we had met the artist, Tiana Traffas, at a guerilla art show at Studio Gallery 1311 and when Rachel asked if she would illustrate a few pieces she had gotten from the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop, she agreed. So that one started with words first, then art.

The second one, “Destiny’s Shorts/Doom’s Pantaloons” started with Chase Gentry’s art first, then words were added by me and a friend of mine. That one was a super tricky one, production-wise. I don’t even want to get into the technical mumbo-jumbo that it took to get produced and looking good. It literally kept me up some nights.

Rachel: First, thank you for the compliment. They are absolutely worlds unto themselves — that’s a perfect way to put it. Like small, wild planets.

Second, I can’t believe Roxanne found a way to work that oregano thing into this interview. But she’s right about the way our conversations hatch ideas. We both have a lot of ideas. When we converse, it’s like the friction of two sticks sparking; once we have a flame, a working idea, it becomes a matter of what we do to stoke that flame, make it into real fire, something that sustains.

We’re also still beholden to working within our limitations. We’re small and largely unknown. I was overjoyed to get the submissions from the Minnesota Prison Writer’s Workshop — Ken Amen was the first person to send work to us, ever, and he’s originally from Kenya, a place I know next to nothing about. His work speaks so vividly of a home he has only been able to carry inside himself for a long, long time. I immediately wanted to publish his work, put his poems out in a beautiful way. We had only recently met Tianna, and I bought a pen-and-ink drawing from her, so I see it every day; if I hadn’t bought that small drawing, I may not have made that connection, but there it was: Tianna’s ability to render the natural world fit perfectly with what Ken wrote. He wrote us back, Ken did, once he received his copies of the finished zine; he asked for Tianna’s address to thank her personally. I can only hope we give everyone we work with something good, by making these connections. This whole thing has been about connections. 

We’re living in a hellscape right now with the pandemic, the idiot-in-chief in the White House, and other assorted doom and gloom. How can art, especially art that doesn’t involve a marketing team and a focus-grouped social media campaign, help?

Roxanne: Think about the cacophony that surrounds us right now. Talking heads on mainstream media, bleating about this and that, never really saying anything we really need to know and muddying the information we do need to know. We have a Congress that is divided and antagonistic yet collectively, catering to the corporate and banking elite while ignoring the rest of us. Racism is STILL a thing, BLM, LGBTQ, a bloody pandemic?? I mean, my god. What could possibly soothe the soul in THAT mishagoss? Oh, wait, I know, ART! And not just ART for art’s sake, but local art, made by local artists, to share with our community. It not only soothes the soul but feeds it as well. The more connected we are, the stronger we are as a community, and art is one of the things that helps makes that bridge. It sounds like a lot of new-age claptrap, but it’s really true. 

Rachel: Don’t let Roxanne fool you, she loves all that noise. I can tune it out, probably too well, but I can’t tune Roxanne out, so I get a lot of it through the Roxanne filter, which is barely a filter. More a faucet. It’s amazing to me, her ability to sniff out all the wild details on these top-heap rats. 

I’ve always been good at escaping into art, since I was a kid — constantly nose-in-book. To the point where now it isn’t so much an escape as it is an entrance. The most real things in the world are inside of art. Once you know how to find them, you find them all the time. And then you know there’s no music with these rich assholes. They’re just loud as hell.  

What projects are you working on now that you can tell us about, and where can people find your zines?

Roxanne: Our newest zine, For Eyes, was just completed this week. It’s not really our usual thing though; we got the idea to do it from Dave Bass, who runs the Studio Gallery 1311 on Market Street. We met him when he put on a guerilla art show, right before the lockdown. First off, I was extremely shocked and delighted that there was a guerilla art show in La Crosse. I gleefully skipped into the gallery and was thrilled to see so much original local art in one place. So we got to talking with Dave and discovered he’s quite the zine connoisseur. He showed us all these amazing zines he had collected from all over the world. He put us in touch with Dirk Nelson, a print artist in Winona, who printed 100 original covers for us, and Rachel contacted the other artists in the issue: La Crosse’s Landon Sheeley, Jacob Swogger from Minneapolis, and writer Ryan Amfahr Longhorn from Iowa. It took a couple of days to bind and trim 100 copies. But it’s done and it’s gorgeous.

All our zines can be purchased through our Etsy shop but if it’s possible, we’d prefer it if people bought them at one of the local bookstores we have our zines in: Pearl Street Books here in La Crosse, Chapter 2 books in Winona, Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, Ocooch Books and Libations in Richland Center, Arcadia Bookstore in Spring Green, and the Village Booksmith in Baraboo. Oh, and Dan’s Shoe Repair sells our zines as well, because I know the owner and he has no choice in the matter. We hope to get some up to Eau Claire and down in Decorah. We just have to find time for a road trip.

Rachel: We have a few other ideas brewing, people working on things, but nothing at production phase yet. Always, always looking for more writers and artists. If you’re reading this, consider submitting. Even if you’re not a writer or artist, but you have an idea you think fits the zine format, we’d love to talk about that too. There’s so much potential with this medium, and we love the challenge of turning ideas into real, tactile, tangible things. 

Anything else you want to add or that you think we should know about?

Roxanne: We have structured Ope! to be inclusive and we want to share with the artists whatever profits we make. After we cover the cost of printing, we want to split the profits from sales 50/50 with the artists (Except for the Prison Sentences one. That one, all profits go to the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop.) For ourselves, right now, we’re working on setting up a Patreon or something like that, or maybe we can get some sponsors or foundation money to help with the costs and pay us a little bit so we can focus on making these things come to life. We haven’t quite sussed that aspect of it out yet. But it would be great to focus on doing zines and getting art out and accessible rather than just doing it on the side. That’s the dream anyway.

Rachel: Keep supporting local, investing in community. More culture, more art, more good things. Thanks for what you guys are doing—it’s been a boon to us, knowing there are other people digging into their scene, making change, and writing about it, well. So, so refreshing.    

Interview by Eric Timmons. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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