Memories are the theme of two projects at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center this spring.

“Memoir,” an exhibit of paintings, prints, and writings by Maryland writer and artist Mary Proenza, takes a look at her family’s struggles.

KBAC’s typographic book, “Truth Comes Slow,” with illustrations cut from Proenza linoleum, features a short story by Los Angeles writer Jervey Tervalon about his family’s involvement in a moment of gun violence when he was a child.


Proenza’s work at KBAC is based on snapshot boxes and other memorabilia she inherited when she was 20 after her parents died.

“For years, every time I opened one, the smell – the mold mixed with the residual scent of the drawers that once held the pictures and letters – was reminiscent of the embalmed bodies of my parents, and I put it back in the corner. furthest from a closet,” she wrote in accompanying text, part of an ongoing memoir.
“Mother of the 70s”, by Mary Proenza.

She finally reviewed the content a few decades later. The flood of memories from photos was a starting point for his compositions – a blend of memories contributing to stylistically enhanced detail – in old photos in painting and prints.

At first glance, the work looks like artistic renderings of ordinary snapshots of a normal family. The first in the exhibition is that of her older sister’s birthday party. The siblings crowd around the cake, looking excited and doing silly poses for dad’s camera.

Proenza widened the scene, made a floral print glass and a large mug prominent in the foreground. The glasses are heavy.

It looks like a very normal scene, but Proenza notes that the glasses — floral print for her mom, mug for her dad — are filled with scotch. The title is “Portrait of an alcoholic family”.

Mary Proenza’s “Memoirs” exhibit will be on display at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center through May 27.To us, to say that the family looks normal seems a bit critical, implying that it is not normal to have alcoholic parents, and it is surprising to see moments of normal family joy in this context. But Proenza says “normal” is the word to use.

“It’s such a tricky disease because it’s so common, so in that respect it’s normal. Also, alcohol consumption is very normalized, even though it has very devastating consequences,” says- she.

“Also when you’re on the inside, especially when you’re a child, but even when you’re an adult – as we all know, whatever family you’re in and whatever challenges that presents , it’s your family, it’s your life, so there’s that level of normality, even when it’s kind of destructive… A family can be in a very serious situation of alcoholism, but that doesn’t doesn’t prevent moments of joy in complex ways, I think.”

She didn’t just want to reproduce the photos in paintings and prints. Using the rules and language of the fine arts, Proenza reproduced the memories of her childhood.

“The scotch glass is in the foreground, it’s bigger than normal cute kids in the back space,” she points out. “Maybe the first take (for a viewer) is like, ‘oh, it’s a birthday party, very ordinary, very happy…’ and then you’re like, ‘oh, those big booze replaces parents and take center stage.'”

“My Father in His Early Thirties”, by Mary Proenza.Other artistically rendered reproductions of snapshots in a screen print show his father in his thirties, looking dashing in a dress, cigarette between his fingers, as if he had the world right now and more before him. One of his mother, in an oil painting, radiant, in a very 70s outfit, leaning on a chair for support. Another of her mother, still beaming, trying out a new ramp in her wheelchair.

Another struggle “Memoir” examines is her mother’s ongoing disability following a bout of childhood polio. A series of falls later put her in a wheelchair.

Proenza writes of his mother’s woodcut: “I carved material to highlight my mother’s image, to give her shape. Polio and alcoholism shattered her but have left in relief the story that formed me work is that I physically reconstruct the people and spaces of my family and that is the only way for me to dig, to look around me, in the quest to understand.”

The work feels very familiar, especially to those of us who grew up in the 70s-80s when digital photos weren’t constantly taken every day every moment. Before iPhones, the film and cost of processing made photos a rarer endeavor to capture a memory, usually happy memories.

“It stirs up that sense of memory even though you don’t particularly have a verbal construct with it, but there’s definitely that flash of recognition, I think, for a lot of people from disparate family backgrounds,” she says. “And of course alcoholism is such a common disease in our society, so I think there’s another large group of people who can identify at that level, or at the disability level, or more broadly, just families. As we all know, every family has its difficulties.”

Proenza hopes the work is universal. “It’s about families more broadly,” she says, not just her own. “I hope this inspires people to think about their own families and how families work in general.”

Don’t be creative, just be observant

“Truth Comes Slowly” by Tervalon is a story and a memory that has followed him for a long time.

“It’s weird, I wrote this story probably when I was 19 or 20, and I’m 63 now,” he says from a beach in California, taking a break before teaching students in writing at UC Santa Barbara.

Jervey Tervalon attended a reception for his and Proenza’s work in April.He wrote it for a narrative prose class, “and I’m not sure it’s ever been read.”

“From when it happened to when I was writing about it, it wasn’t that long…It’s a story that keeps coming back to me because it’s so weird. “

Tervalon was born in New Orleans, to a light-skinned African-American family (a background he used to write his best-selling 2000 fiction novel, “Death Above Ground”). When he was 10, his family moved to California. They eventually moved to Los Angeles, but briefly stayed with relatives in San Francisco.

In the story, it’s the late 60s. We look through his 10-year-old eyes as he meets new parents in a new town. He falls asleep to “Rainy Night In Georgia” on the radio, and the point of view of the story switches to that of his mother. There’s a scene of a cousin being abused by her boyfriend, lots of anger, an uncle with a gun, and then a dead man.

His mother has to confront the cops who arrive as “a colored woman who looked white, standing next to a dying black man,” he read in the story of a KBAC reception in April. She manages to convince the police that it was self-defense. “There was a white woman to explain all this to them,” realizes his mother in the story.

Then it’s back to young Jervey’s POV, a very tense breakfast, his discovery of reddish-brown stains outside the door on the sidewalk.

Some of the details he got from his family, some he observed, and some he had to recreate based on his experiences.

His writing is within the limits of realism. Tervalon recently told his writing students, “Don’t worry so much about being creative, just be observant. If you’re observant, there’s always something to write about. Being creative is almost toxic.”

Even in fiction, a writer needs parameters, “not to go off in a crazy direction,” he says. “Creativity is often a function of attention.”

Reunion of old friends in Kalamazoo

Proenza and Tervalon attended their KBAC reception in April.

It says something that artists and writers from both coasts would come all the way to Kalamazoo. But an organization dedicated to making books and prints, from making the paper to laying the type, printing and binding it all into a solid artifact, is rare.

Image of Jeff, Jervey and Mary: Proenza, Tervalon and Abshear at the KBAC reception.“I’ve never heard of anyone doing what they do,” Tervalon said of KBAC executive director Jeff Abshear. “It’s quite singular, quite amazing. Sometimes when you’re a writer, it gives you a very lonely existence. You write something that you think is great, and nobody pays attention to it… And sometimes it doesn’t. “There’s not a lot of care put into the product. You have to fight so hard to get your point across. But with Jeff, you don’t mind that. He listens to you.”

“Truth Comes Slowly” and “Memoir” were also a reunion of old friends. Proenza, Tervalon, and Abshear, Proenza says, “have gone through a very special program called the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and it’s a very tight-knit group of people who have had a deep focus on creative work for decades now. decades”. Tervalon and Abshear attended together; Proenza attended about 10 years later, but knew the others as part of a network of CCS writers and artists.

Proenza drew on her experiences living in San Francisco to illustrate “Truth.” Working on the book as a collaborative project has been “absolutely wonderful,” says Proenza. “Jervey’s writing is so colorful it was such a pleasure to create the drawings because the story was so visually suggestive…I think the work is really enriched by a number of hands and minds who are working together.”

NEA Grants

The Proenza and Tervalon projects, along with two books of poetry (by Monica Gomery with images by Vicki VanAmeyden and by Lauren K. Alleyne with images by Vicki Cook) and six plates, were made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The executive director of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Jeff Abshear, points to the typical cabinet planned for the typography of “Truth Comes Slowly”.This month, Abshear learned that KBAC had won a new NEA grant. This will go to 2023 projects by Jamaican-American writer Kia Penso from Washington DC; Ojai, Cal. artist Caroline Allen; Grand Rapids poet W. Todd Kaneko and Williamsport, Penn., artist John McKaig.

All books and printed matter are available at KBAC Shop. “It’s a huge difference to go to a bookstore and buy a regular book. All the thought and care and design, just the physical activity that goes into composing the text, printing the pages , the carving of images, the stitching of books, all of this creates a special quality,” says Abshear.

Does it mean more that the artist and the writer care about the work?

“Exactly,” said Abshear. “All the people who do this work — it’s work that deserves this treatment”


“Memoir” by Mary Proenza will be at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center until May 27.

“Truth Comes Slowly” is available at the KBAC Shop.

For more information.