Inspired to Create: Tod Lippy's Top Ten

It’s hard not to feel inspired when flipping through the pages of Esopus magazine. With gorgeous photographs, unconventional layout, and clever packaging (the most recent issue was designed to look like a stack of file folders), the design of the semiannual publication rivals the artwork and archival material it features. And there have been some truly exceptional projects presented within its pages, from a CD featuring original tracks based on Craigslist “Missed Connections” to Christopher Isherwood’s work journals for A Single Man.

In the print edition of NEA Arts, Lippy explained how he chooses each issue’s pieces, and how they eventually coalesce to form a cohesive narrative. But we asked him to take another step in his role as creative curator and select the top ten most inspiring projects he has featured in Esopus. In the slideshow below, Lippy describes each piece and shares why it struck a particular chord.

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Journal with lines and words

Beth Campbell’s My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances, 6/29/03. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Beth Campbell
Esopus 1 (Fall 2003)

"This is from the first issue; it was the first thing in the issue. Beth Campbell is an amazing artist based here in Brooklyn who has since gone on to do wonderful projects, sculpture, installations, everything else. At the time when I came across her work, [she was doing] these series of drawings called “My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances.” She’d start with the decision that she made, and then she would literally play out all or as many possible scenarios as she could on what could happen based on that one decision.

For this, her decision was “I’m going to do a project for this new art magazine, Esopus.” She ends up being a superstar, or she ends up being destitute because the magazine fails and we never speak to each other again. It’s this great documenting of a very anxious creative mind which I really appreciate. It was such a great way to open the issue and the life of the magazine because [starting Esopus] really was a decision to do something with very little idea of what was going to come from it. There were no magazines to say this is what it’s going to look like. Or so this is what our audience is. It was brand new. And I just loved the whole approach to this. And it folds out, like ten panels. So it’s a really beautiful object as well." 

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Pop-up house sculpture made from paper

Ghost Form, 2004; a pop-up sculpture created by William Christenberry. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

William Christenberry
Ghost Form
Esopus 2 (Spring 2004)

"Bill Christenberry—I’ve been a huge fan of his work for a long, long time. I wasn’t as familiar with his sculpture, but I’ve always loved his photography. He lives down in Washington, and I was down there at one point and went to visit him. I said, “Would you do something for the magazine?” and he said he’d love to. I figured it would be a photography thing but he came back with this idea for a pop-up sculpture. I love a challenge, I’ve got to tell you. It was exciting but it was also a little scary because this was our second issue. I’d never done anything like this. He gave me an idea of what he wanted to do. It was based on the photograph that he’d done in the 70s.

It was the first thing that we did that I really thought, 'Oh God, I really hope this works.' We weren’t going to know until literally these were bound into the magazine."

 

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Magazine page of declassified documents

Activated page from Jenny Holzer’s Memoranda. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Jenny Holzer
Memoranda
Esopus 3 (Fall 2004)

"I’m always trying to encourage artists to do things a little bit out of their comfort zone and try something maybe they haven’t done before—something that hasn’t been done in a magazine before. Jenny was working with these declassified government documents around that time. It was just after the Abu Ghraib memo was released; these had been declassified by the National Security Archives. I said, 'If you could do anything you wanted, what would you want to do?' And she said, 'I’d like to use disappearing ink.' That was a new one for me. I started to do some research, and I found this company in Colorado that had all kinds of crazy inks, but one called photo chromatic ink. It was invisible until you put it up next to ultraviolet light, and then it would suddenly charge and become this thing on a page.

It was a very complicated job because the ink had to be heated to a certain temperature as soon it came off press or it wouldn’t affix properly. Again, we didn’t know until the last minute whether it was going to work or not. And when you have somebody like Jenny Holzer, whom I admire so much and respect so much, you don’t want to get it wrong." 

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CD inserted into magazine

 The Imaginary Friends CD insert. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

“Lisa” by The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers
From Esopus CD #4: Imaginary Friends (Spring 2005)

"We do a theme CD in every issue, and the themes have ranged from all over the place. 'Favorite' is always a dangerous word, but this is one of my most exciting CD projects in that the theme is really terrific. We approached a bunch of readers and asked them to let us know, if they were children who had imaginary friends, if they could describe their friends to us. We got 25 and we sent them to the musicians we’d approached to do something. Each musician picked one friend and wrote a song about it. ['Lisa'] is the most incredible, beautiful song. It’s such a moving testament to the power of imagination and childhood, and lost childhood, and time moving on. It’s even better that the imaginary friend described was the imaginary friend of Alan Sparhawk [vocalist and guitarist for the band Low]. It was a double whammy—a great musician’s description of something turned into a great song by somebody else." 

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Magazine spread of toy soldiers

Page from Marwencol on My Mind. Photograph © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Mark Hogancamp
Marwencol on My Mind
Esopus 5
(Fall 2005)

"This was a guy who lived across the street from good friends of mine in upstate New York. And my friend used to see this guy in World War II regalia with a one-sixth scale tank filled with military dolls [walking] up and down his country road. And one day [my friend] went up to him and said, 'I’ve got to ask, what’s the story?' And the guy says, 'I was attacked and I had a really bad brain injury. I was in therapy for a while, but my insurance ran out and I still have a lot of issues. I wanted to get better so I decided to build a little town in my backyard, a one-sixth scale town called ‘Marwencol,’ first of all for my hand-eye coordination to create little things, to use my hands more, but also to work through what I was dealing with this after this attack.' He said, 'I’ve been taking some photographs of it. I’ll show you the photographs.' These photographs were so incredible.

So this guy got better on his own basically by these series of artistic gestures that he made. He never thought of them as art. But he created these incredible photographs and we loved them, and I said we’re going to do something in the next issue. We did it and everybody loved it. And one of our subscribers, this guy named Jeff Malmberg, he called me. He was from California. He said, 'Listen, I’d really like to meet this guy. I’d like to make a movie about him, a short film.' What was going to be a short ended up being a feature documentary four years in the making. It came out two years ago and it was a big critical hit. It ended up airing on PBS and won a lot of awards.

The story gets better because this film came out, it got a ton of attention. Jeff and his wife and producing partner Chris Shellen and I basically put together a foundation so Mark can sell his work and not endanger his disability payments. And now, Robert Zemeckis, the filmmaker, he’s making the feature film about him."

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Instructions for how to make a stellated dodecahedron

Conway’s instructions for how to make a small stellated dodecahedron. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

John Conway
Esopus 6 (Spring 2006) 

"John Conway, the mathematician at Princeton, agreed to do something for us. He is famous for writing these incredibly complex and important theorems related to mathematics. When he is starting to write something [he uses] a three-dimensional model as kind of a starting point. He basically built from scratch a stellated dodecahedron, and I photographed him actually building it. He cut out all of the pieces, and then he put it together. In the issue, we gave readers the actual color pages with the forms already die-cut and they could build it themselves.

I love to think that all creativity is not paintings, drawings, poems, or plays. Maybe it’s mathematical thinking or maybe it’s cooking or maybe it’s lighting design or maybe it’s choreography. All of these things that [make up] this huge, huge gamut of creative expression. I really want to hit every point on it, and this was definitely a little further afield." 

 

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Drafts of a poem

Spread from a piece featuring 21 drafts of Suji Kwok Kim’s poem “Generation” from Esopus 6: Process. Photo by Tod Lippy 

Suji Kwok Kim
Esopus 6 (Spring 2006)

"This is from [our] process issue. I asked people to surrender their documents of the creative process. [Poet Suji Kwok Kim] was so brave, and so amazing. She gave us every draft of this very well-known poem of hers ["Generation”], starting with her very first one all the way through to the final draft. She really worked, and reworked and reworked and reworked this. It’s a wonderful window into how difficult it is to write a good poem. It’s not, 'Oh, it’ll just sit and flow out of me in perfect form.' It was really torturous. I mean this is 20-some drafts over the period of six months. I was so thrilled that she was willing to reveal all of this to readers because it’s a real testament to how hard you have to work to make something beautiful and important." 

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Drafts of an exhibition layout

Drawings from the proposed 1940 MoMA exhibit, Exhibition X. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Modern Artifacts Three: Tentative and Confidential
Esopus 9 (Fall 2007)

"We started doing this series with MoMA in issue seven, 'Modern Artifacts.' This is the third one in the series. Michelle Elligott, who’s the archivist at MoMA, always comes up with these amazing ideas for stuff to feature. They’re meant to involve things that had never been seen, or only rarely seen, certainly not by the public but maybe by scholars who visit the archives. This was an exhibition that the museum was going to do in 1940. The whole idea was to wrest America out of its isolationist stance and to get them basically emotionally prepared to enter into war with Germany and Japan. They were going to build a new pavilion, literally a new building where the garden was, and it was going to be all of these installations dealing with democracy. [This] drawing is sort of a recreation of a Nazi hall, but it was going to be this incredibly dynamic, fascinating, huge almost an amusement park related to the threat of fascism and how America had to respond to it. And it never happened.

[There was] all of this back and forth between trustees and the curators, the government how they could make this happen, how it was going to actually work, how they were going to raise money for it. It never happened, and no one ever knew about it. It was called “Exhibition X” by museum people at the time because no one really wanted to reveal that it was going to happen or not happen." 

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Black and white movie stills

Stills from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Charles Burnett
Killer of Sheep
Esopus 12 (Spring 2012)

"In almost every issue, we do something called '100 Frames.' It’s a feature where we feature 100 either contiguous frames but usually just 100 assorted frames from a particular film—usually films that are not that well-known or not that well-distributed. [Killer of Sheep] is an amazing movie from 1977. It’s by Charles Burnett, who’s a real national treasure. He’s since gone on to make a bunch of terrific movies. I just love the movie and I love the imagery; it’s so beautiful. It’s a wonderful evocative film about growing up in L.A. [as an] African American and dealing with ghetto life and having a dehumanizing job and sort of trying to stay in touch with your humanity in the midst of this very inhumane context." 

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Notes and scribbles

Page of Matthew Weiner’s notes related to Mad Men. Photo © Esopus Foundation Ltd

Matthew Weiner
Esopus 20 (Fall 2013)

"About three weeks before we went to press [on our latest issue], I got an e-mail form [Mad Men creator] Matthew Weiner, who I had sent issues to right after the first season of Mad Men. I never heard from him. I thought, 'Oh well, I guess that was a wash.' He finally runs across them I think on a bookshelf in his house. He really liked the magazine, and he wanted to do something. These are early, early gestures, early shots in the dark basically, which ended up being turned into this amazing television series. So I got all of his stuff together and it felt like a wonderful collection of ephemera documents, everything related to this whole notion of artistic expression and creativity."