Interview with Nicole Manganelli

As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Merging artistic practices with activism, Nicole Manganelli’s work illuminates the deep connection and responsibilities we have to each other—and to the world in which we live.

When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then? What elements / images / phrases strike you most now? 

Choi’s poem is beautiful and powerful, first. That is what drew me. Her lines are exquisite and painful as they traverse the material experiences of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonization…she covers a lot of ground in this poem; all of it with a kind of clear-eyed devastation. It is a list of apocalypses but also a list of crimes: there are actors in this poem who cause the apocalypses. Rightfully, her focus is on those experiencing the apocalypses. As a white, middle-class cis woman, I am conscious of the identities I share with the apocalypse-creators in this story and grapple with what that means.

I was drawn to this poem for the way Choi so beautifully illustrates both interpersonal and structural experiences of grief. Structural oppression creates a particular type of grief that is akin to but also different from interpersonal grief, I think, but we can understand each one much better through experiences with both.

I’m not sure if my understanding of the poem has changed since the COVID-19 crisis. I do think, though, that this crisis has made it more possible to talk about grief publicly. This crisis gives many, many people things to mourn, even though those things are epically different in their scope. This crisis is making even more blatant the structural violence leveled at communities of color, poor folks, houseless folks, folks with disabilities, every single day.  

The last lines of this poem feel even more poignant now—how apocalypse can become such a blaring part of life that it feels difficult to see or hear it anymore. The COVID-19 crisis feels like that. Almost overnight, many of us have adapted to a very different set of daily circumstances, some with the looming threat of serious illness in their faces every moment. It is already hard to imagine what life was like before this.

I think there are many forms of collective grief, and I am interested in creating work that reminds us that we’re not alone in our grieving, and that grief can actually be a catalyst for increased empathy, awareness, and action about structural oppression.

What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?

Before COVID-19, I was planning to create a series of risograph prints that explore different forms of collective grief. For now, however, I’m without access to the risograph because Pickwick Independent Press is temporarily closed. I’m thinking that instead I might create a set of prints that combine inkjet printing/photocopying & block printing. (Or maybe just block printing.)

I think there are many forms of collective grief, and I am interested in creating work that reminds us that we’re not alone in our grieving, and that grief can actually be a catalyst for increased empathy, awareness, and action about structural oppression. So much of what Franny Choi is writing about in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” is the everyday nature of structural oppression—how it continues to happen, continues to unfold, and at the same time, the world continues even though that feels impossible in the face of such apocalyptic losses as colonization and slavery. I want to make work that honors and acknowledges these apocalypses, and reminds us that a different world is possible, even alongside great loss, if we face these truths honestly and together. 

In thinking about collective grief, I remembered this: in 2016, I was part of a queer collective throwing Sub/Merge—a monthly queer dance party that raised money for organizations fighting for collective liberation. 2016 was the year of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where a gunman killed 49 people, most of whom were Latinx queer and trans folks. Back then, our collective wrote a public statement in response and said, among other things, “Grief is powerful. Mass grief is a force of nature. It can galvanize us for liberation, or it can make us want to blame and punish. It can crack us open or close us down. […] Please make this grief in which we find each other. Please make this grief in which we howl and fight the systems that manufactured this moment[.]” I feel like these words also fit for the COVID-19 crisis: we have an opportunity now to fight for the big dreams of our movements. We have an opportunity to publicly scrutinize systems that have appeared impenetrable. Organizing dreams that seemed impossible now feel within reach. How do we use this moment to realize our wildest abolition and liberation dreams? This question is another part of what I want to grapple with in my work for this project. 

[W]e have an opportunity now to fight for the big dreams of our movements. We have an opportunity to publicly scrutinize systems that have appeared impenetrable. Organizing dreams that seemed impossible now feel within reach. How do we use this moment to realize our wildest abolition and liberation dreams?

We often turn to your work to ground and inspire us, especially your series of anticapitalist love notes. What informs the language of your prints? What texts / visual art / movements inspire your work?

Thank you for saying this. <3 

How do I come up with the things I print? I think about the world a lot. I think about things people say, things I read, and try to figure out what parts I believe & what parts I don’t—and what the core piece of learning is in a concept or idea or political orientation. It’s part of why I handset type sometimes—it makes me slow down long enough to figure out what I actually believe about something. When I started this printmaking odyssey, I literally had to choose the most deliberate and time-consuming form of creating words on a page in order to slow the world around me down enough to figure out my own thoughts. Now that I’ve been doing it for a little while, I’m able to go through that same process with other forms of printmaking—even with digital work now. But it takes me a little while, still, most of the time. 

And then there are the magical moments when the ideas just come. It doesn’t happen all the time, but every once in a while I’ll be thinking through an idea and then it will just become clear to me what I actually need to print. Sometimes that happens on a dog walk, sometimes on the couch, and sometimes in the actual act of making something. That magic I can’t explain—but I do think that when I am trying to carve out space for myself to create, I make more room for the possibility of that magic to come through.

I also think that considering the text of my prints as a form of poetry helps. It gets me into a different brain space, where every word is important, and also that the simplest way to distill an idea is often the best one.

I want my work to resonate with people—to help imagine a world where collective liberation is possible and to fight fiercely against the structures in our current world that keep people isolated from each other and oppressed. My dream is to make work that inspires & comforts & also moves people to action. Making meaningful art feels like a contribution I can make as an introverted organizer.

I’m inspired by the justseeds artists’ collective, the Celebrate People’s History poster series, the Center for Cultural Power (formerly called Culture/Strike), and by activist printmakers & artists too numerous to count, including: Emory Douglas (minister of culture for the Black Panther Party), Melanie Cervantes & Jesus Barraza (creators of Dignidad Rebelde), Favianna Rodriguez (creator of “migration is beautiful” project), the Printers Without Margins program of Pickwick Independent Press, Mary Tremonte (part of justseeds), Vanessa Adams (a queer printmaker based in New Orleans), Tré Seals of Vocal Type Co…the list is long. 

What role does community engagement play in your practice?

This is a question that I’m currently grappling with. Historically I haven’t done a lot of collaborating; almost all of my work has been created solo. After creating it, though, I do share most things on social media, and I’ve ended up creating a bunch of long-distance connections with people through the (weird and often alienating and problematic but sometimes profoundly connecting) worlds of instagram & facebook. I’ve felt really grateful for being connected with people online during this isolation period—I have had a bunch of really lovely interactions with people across geography. I’ve also continued to do design work for the Southern Maine Workers’ Center during this time, which has felt really grounding, and a way to stay connected & accountable & engaged with a community of folks I love. 

How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?

I feel like I’m always processing personal and/or collective grief through art! It feels like that work is just a part of me now. After my mother died in 2016, it was eleven months before I went back into the printshop again. This is what I made, with the help of Pilar Nadal:

This is a photopolymer plate that I letterpress printed & then just wrote on with pencil. I think it took me almost a year to integrate my personal experience of grief enough to be able to create from it, and now that I have found that possible, I have made a lot of work since—despite other experiences of loss that have happened since then.

Who is one of the most influential people in your biological or chosen family lineage? How does their influence appear in your work? 

I think my mother is a really influential person in my work. Her death was the first time I was present for the whole process of someone close to me dying. We didn’t always agree about things in our relationship, but loved each other very much. Watching the grace and strength with which she navigated her own mortality gave me such a different understanding of what love means. I am forever changed by that. 

During the month that she was sick before she passed, I wrote a series of poems about her and about my own grieving process, as a way to try to metabolize and understand what was happening. I named the collection Irish Daisies, which is another name for dandelions—and my mom’s heritage was Irish. In 2017-2018, I designed a tarot deck with all of the images made out of letterforms. The first image I created from the deck is the first card in all tarot decks—the Fool. My fool is a dandelion made out of Ys and Ls, with some of the Ys blowing across the page like dandelion seeds. I became sort of obsessed with this image and used it in all of the promo for my deck, including the image for the back of all of the cards, screen-printed tarot carrying bags, altar cloths, stickers, etc., etc. It wasn’t until some time in 2018 or 2019 that I realized the connection and that the image was really symbolic of my mother. 

Here’s the title poem:

Irish Daisies

People talk about heartbreak
like it is a monolith. The tsunami,
the bolt of lightning, the one
moment where it all turned to dust.
There is a quiet truth to heartbreak
(I am learning)
that treads softly and is easily missed. 
Heartbreak is a weed—
common as the dandelion,
and just as unremarkable.
It crops up, sturdy and small, and populates 
places that seemed arid, uninhabitable.
Its seeds spread and settle.
It’s in the way she blossoms
as she’s dying: her generosity
expands to fill the empty space
of years and mistakes and things unsaid. 
It’s in her smiling tears as she tells me 
how sad she is to leave us, but
how lucky she is, because so many people 
have to do what she is doing alone.

Bitter greens surround 
those cheerful nods of color 
in the field.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is the second book in the prequel to His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass series.) I love his characters & there is an element of magic & synchronicity in his novels that I find really compelling.

I also just read Chani Nicholas’ You Were Born for This and learned that I may have some astrological leanings toward grief work and death & dying work. That feels unsurprising to me but important to know.

What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?

I’ve started to draw. It’s weird. I’ve never been someone who is good at drawing, but I did a project about Persephone (another project about grief!) a few months ago where I drew a pomegranate—and it LOOKED like a pomegranate. It was wild. So I’ve been experimenting with drawing a little bit. Mostly flowers, in pencil. I’ve been starting to explore digital drawing as well and am loving the ability to create & then manipulate lines & shapes. I feel incredibly lucky to have the time & space to do this kind of exploration.

Describe your practice space.

I’m a kitchen witch, so my practice space feels like it’s anywhere. (When I say kitchen witch, I mean someone who makes magic with whatever is accessible & on hand.) Sometimes it’s at my desk—with the Walt Whitman quote described below close by—and sometimes it’s the kitchen table. Sometimes it’s Pickwick Independent Press and sometimes it’s the couch. I try not to be too particular about what I need in order to create, because I find that puts up barriers to just sitting down and making something. 

What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

A video my dear friend sent of their sweetheart’s dog’s ears rippling in an ocean breeze. It was delightful.

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use” is something I aspire to.

Anything by June Jordan is an inspiration, but especially the piece “These Poems” and the last lines from “Poem about My Rights”: 

I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life

(A note—I feel very aware that Poem about My Rights wasn’t written for me as a white middle-class woman, but I draw such strength & inspiration from Jordan’s act of speaking directly and powerfully to herself & her communities.)

Also, this Walt Whitman quote sits on my desk, gifted by a friend six-ish years ago: “…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” ✽

Nicole Manganelli is a printmaker living in Portland, Maine. Her work focuses on themes of liberation, grief, intersectional feminism, typography, and collectivity. She is the creator of the #anticapitalistlovenotes print series and also the designer of the Printers’ Tarot: a 78-image tarot deck made entirely out of Garamond letterforms.


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