Stephen Knezovich, whose work is featured in issue #47, is an editor, writer, and collage artist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work, often inspired by archaic words, strange idioms, and clichés, is hand-constructed from images found in vintage books and magazines. By day, he serves as Creative Nonfiction’s associate editor and director of CNF’s Mentoring Program.
To see more of his artwork, please visit his website.
Artists who collaborate with Creative Nonfiction generally read the essays first, then come up with their illustrations. How did this process work for you?
Well, considering I’m an editor at CNF, I had knowledge of what was going into the issue as the pieces were selected. As Lee points out in the issue’s editor’s note, the fact that all the essays were written by women was more happenstance than anything else; we chose the pieces because 1) they were really good, and 2) we could tie them together by their content, which, for the most part focused on science and the senses—hearing, vision, etc. And since illustrators are chosen after we select the essays, trying to match aesthetics and whatnot, these underlying themes were our starting point.
Our first thought was to see if we couldn’t scrounge up some fair-use science and medical illustrations or something. And we found some, but decided that even these images would need … something more to make them work. So, since I’ve been constructing collages independent of my work at CNF, we decided that maybe I should give illustrating the issue a go.
I started by tracking down some really old source materials—century-old medical textbooks and the like—along with some old books and magazines I use for my personal work. I began clipping images that had a literal connection to the essays—diagrams of brains and eyes and guns, for example. Once I had a pile of images for each essay, I did what I always do: deconstruct the images, rearrange them, and juxtapose them until something comes together that makes aesthetic, if not literal, sense.
What similarities do you see between the creation of literary and visual works of art?
My work is often inspired by language. In fact, it started as a vocabulary-building exercise.
In 2008, I signed up for a word of the day email service, thinking I’d learn some new words. I had just begun working at CNF, and I guess was experiencing some anxiety about my abilities. I started getting these daily emails that mostly contained bizarre and often archaic words, but they just weren’t sticking—and, in all honesty, unless I was going to enter a professional Scrabble competition, it’s probably for the best. But there they were, every day in my inbox. But what to do with them? I could have unsubscribed from the service, but that felt too easy, so I decided to make collages of the words—not necessarily trying to capture their definitions, but using them to tell a small story. I guess I thought this gave me some ownership of the words. Of course, none of them have entered my daily conversation, but I definitely found a new hobby.
Over time, I started to explore idioms and clichés, and then finally I just started telling my own stories.
Then there’s also the larger connection the medium has to my life in publishing. My primary source materials are forgotten bits of the industry’s past—vintage books and magazines and assorted ephemera—deemed no longer useful or relevant by their original owners, and rescued from thrift stores and attics and antique shops.
So maybe what I’m really trying to do is give these publications a second life.
You’re a writer, too—fiction and screenplays mostly, right? Is your writing process similar?
I’d have to say no. The collages often come together quickly, while writing, for me, is always an epic struggle. I think I’ve been working on the same handful of short stories for a decade now. I never send them out for publication, I just keep rewriting them over and over again. It’s ridiculous.
As for screenplays, those often materialize quickly, too. But I don’t write many of those on my own. It’s always a collaborative process with an end goal and a shooting date. Besides, screenplays require very little of the same kind of detail required in a short story—there’s very little need to get too descriptive. The locations and the actors take care of a lot of that. Action, dialogue, and story—that’s it.
What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?
Deconstruction, and addition by subtraction.
What drew you to collage work? Why vintage images?
As I said, I work in publishing, and I think I’m just trying to resurrect some of the industry’s lost artifacts.
Plus, I can’t paint.
What can collage do that whole-cloth creation can’t?
I don’t know, really. I guess I see it as being similar to writing. The building blocks already exist—language and grammar in the case of writing, images and perspective in collage—and anyone can do it, but the art is how you combine and present these existing elements.
In much of your art, you manipulate people’s faces. Why that particular theme?
This is more of a recent development, but I guess one of my goals is to completely divorce source images from their original context. Removing or manipulating someone’s face is the easiest way to do that.
Can you talk about your decision to use pink on this issue’s cover?
Honestly, that wasn’t my decision, but was born from conversations among CNF’s managing editor Hattie Fletcher, our art director Seth Clark, and myself.
Even though the “all women” theme was inadvertent, we decided to own it, and thought it might be fun to play off the clichéd women’s magazine cover treatment—think Cosmo—but to do it with a wink. And, for better or for worse, there’s hardly a more obvious female signifier than the color pink. So, we went for it. Personally, I think this is the best cover we’ve ever done … but I’m a bit biased.
How about the “form” of the woman on the cover? I think it strikes a nice balance between a kind of trucker-flap outline and a realistic body type. Was that intentional on your part?
Thanks, but I didn’t really make the trucker-flap connection until after the issue was published. I did, however, intentionally remove the woman from image. I wanted to address the recent VIDA count—that female writers are often missing or under represented in the pages of many magazines—so I literally removed a woman from her “natural” magazine habitat (wearing a swimsuit on the beach), and filled the space she left behind with scraps of paper.
In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.
Attempts at resurrecting our printed past.
Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?
Honestly, I have no idea. My background is in English; I didn’t study the visual arts. But, I guess the determining factors are the same—and for me, all I know is when something—a painting, a collage, an essay, a novel—feels right. It’s a gut reaction: do I like it? Does it make me feel something? Am I responding favorably to those feelings? Yes yes and yes? Then it’s art to me.