Alex Porco in Conversation with Kerri Pullo
Kerri Pullo’s asemic writing exists at the boundaries of calligraphy, visual poetry, and graffiti. Her rhythmic markings, colors, and textures attempt to reproduce the mind’s energia— its transitions, leaps, interruptions, digressions, and even dissipation. Examples of her work are interspersed throughout the interview that follows below. With good humor and refreshing honesty, Pullo discusses her materials, techniques, the mail art community, mental illness, as well as the generative relationship of music (including album covers) to her asemic writing practice.
A brief explanatory note about the interview process is required. First, I supplied Pullo with a series of questions in a Microsoft Word file. She, in turn, responded with answers in an audio format (.wma files). Next, I had Pullo’s recordings transcribed by a student research assistant. Finally, with Pullo’s consent, I edited the transcribed answers— for which Pullo provided final approval.
Alex Porco (AP): Kerri, I’d like to start by asking you about the materials and materiality of your asemic writing practice. I’m interested in your paper types and sizes, ink and paint, the (relative) fine-ness or thickness of your brush or marker tip.
Kerri Pullo (KP): Paper types. Lots of different paper types. Mostly, I use photo paper. I started using photo paper mainly because it comes… a big pack of it comes free in the ink… the ink refills for the printer. And so, I started stacking up all of these photo papers that I didn’t use. Anyways, so I take the photo paper and, you know, it’s usually glossy and I don’t like glossy, so I sand down [the] photo paper. Usually a four-by-six or a five-by-seven, and I sand it down, and after that then… that’s my materials.
But, oh, other materials that I do use are, like, the junk mail that comes in, you know those glossy cards— they’re advertising “Come to my church!” or whatever. So, I will cut those to the size that I want, typically four-by-six or five-by-seven, and then I sand those up. I sand most of the color and words off… otherwise it will be someone else’s graphic work underneath, because, you know, it’s very hard to fully paint over those things. So, for the most part, that’s what I use. But also, sometimes, I use pages from books. Like, I take a book that, you know, is old or whatever, and I rip a page out of it… these I need to layer. Well, it’s thin paper, of course… my ink will bleed through. So, I use a clear medium— it’s like sealer… and then paint it with a more, like, see through, what’s it called… translucent color. See, for these ones, I do want to see the words underneath—but a little— you know, so you can’t actually read it, just see that they are words.
India inks. It’s really typically used like… calligraphers use this. It’s kind of expensive for me. This one is, like, three dollars for one bottle, which is a problem because I don’t use, like, a calligraphy pen or brush. What I use is the actual ink dropper. That is, I don’t use a… I don’t dip a paintbrush in it. I don’t dip a calligraphy pen in it, I just use the dropper… as my brush. So, basically I have to…instead of, like, people use different size brushes or whatever, so I have to vary the pressure. In some places, I want more; in some places, I want less. I mean, sometimes I’ll go back over it with something like a flippin’ chopstick, if I want to do that. Anyway, I use a lot of the ink. Did that answer the question?
Now as far as paint, I always paint my papers first. I paint a background. Always. Sometimes I’ll use just regular acrylic paint. But a lot of times I also will use something that’s called Inktense. You know those blocks, they look like pastels, but it’s Inktense. So, you rub it on and it’s like a chalk, and then when you wet it, it kind of turns into this intense ink-like paint.
So, anyways, with my backgrounds, besides, like, paint, I love… one thing I love to do also is… well, first of all, this happens by mistake. Because I will paint a background, and I will hate it. So, then I’ll sand it out because I hate it, and of course it never comes totally clean, then I paint it out again, and sometimes I’ll try to make it… color— like, try to change the color on the paper as opposed to mixing colors on a palate. I’m not a big fan of mixing colors on a palate. I like to mix my colors on the paper. Which is how I get this kind of effect. It’s not fully… what’s the word? Opaque.
AP: I want to pull back from the materiality and discuss, for a moment, the sonic context of production: that is, you’ve said that you listen to hip-hop while making your pieces. Why hip-hop? Is there something about its rhythms that informs the movements of your markings? Do you see a connection to a generalized graffiti aesthetic?
KP: I do listen to a lot of music, and I do mostly listen to hip-hop music when I’m doing my asemic work. And, I think… a good, whatever, just the bottom line reason for that is, to me, it’s … it’s just, it contains a lot of motivation, a lot of inspiration… [The artists] lyrics— like, a lot of boasting about how great they are, you know— express self-confidence. It inspires me to, just, increase my self-esteem… stop telling myself I suck or whatever. It helps me initiate or start something.
Depending on what the beat is— I don’t always listen to hip-hop music— depending on whatever music I’m listening to, basically what ends up happening is [the music] kind of dictates a lot of stops— pauses and halts— and starts, and speeds. So, a quick stroke as opposed to… a slow or longer one as opposed to a smaller, more deliberate mark.
AP: Why asemic writing? I know, for example, your relationship to asemic writing is connected to a cognitive processing deficit (i.e., executive function disorder). That’s one aspect of your relationship to the genre. But I’m guessing there’s also something about style, too— the visual thrill of script freed from alphanumeric and typographical conventions, looping and twisting and spinning on, against, and with various colors and textures.
KP: Okay, here’s the deal. So, I was a school psychologist for about fifteen years. I started my career when I was… my first position was when I was twenty. I started college early, and I went through summer school all the time so I was done with graduate school and interning by twenty-four— wait, that’s not early, is it? Oh, well, I did take a year off to do a study abroad in South America. The thing is, I loved the profession. I was absolutely in love with what I did… not to brag but, yeah, I was a… pretty good at it. But it really, it just, it destroyed me mentally and emotionally. I can’t blame the profession, but the fact of the matter is, it was something that I was not meant for. I was not made for doing things, like full on, all day, people and language, people and talking, people and words and words.
So, but… my point is that I have this very, very significant language problem. Expressive language problem— auditory processing— all that stuff. I have ADHD, and I have Bipolar 1 disorder. And actually my initial diagnosis at about twenty-four was social phobia. Anyway, these all really just overlap with, you know, the same kind of symptoms. But, in any case, I made it about twelve years working until it just… I just got ridiculously overwhelmed. I couldn’t, basically, fake it anymore. You know, I tried to fake being comfortable and confident all the time… I was the absolute opposite of that! Anyways, so I spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. A lot of time. Particularly right after graduate school. Maybe ten— twelve— times, and then from maybe 2002, I don’t know, maybe a couple of times. And then the last time was in 2009. And in 2009, that was the last year that I worked and I just kind of, you know, I was working in a
high school and I just flippin’ panicked, my brain froze up, and I just lost it. So, 2009 my career ended and I had to stop working.
But one thing about spending so much time in the mental hospitals… I did, you know, they always have those little occupational therapy groups. They’re not truly art therapy groups, but, you know, you do these little arts and crafts or whatever. I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. To me it’s very not helpful when in the hospital. But anyways, what I did take from it, when I was at home not working and not knowing what to do with myself all day… it was just terrible. So, I started to remember that I really enjoyed the little occupational therapy groups. I looked into art therapy and I just started studying stuff online and, you know, just kind of doing it like, you know, little websites would have different activities.
And… anyways, so I don’t have any training in art. I have none. Which also makes it sometimes frustrating for me to talk about the art that I do because I don’t have any background. I don’t have the… I don’t have the vocabulary. I just do what I do— I can’t, discuss art, like technical… like art academy style.
So asemics is very… it fits me very well because I can just… it’s just instinctual, it’s very impulsive. And that’s what I am: impulsive. And the other thing is because it’s not language-based. It’s expression of your thought. It’s expression of your thought without words. And I think it’s a very, well, clearly, it’s very well researched… a topic, you know. Is there thought without language?— Vygotsky and stuff. And the reason asemics is so good for a person with the deficits that I have is because it’s just— it’s human nature for us to express ourselves and connect with people. Otherwise, well, we die. Asemics allows me to nonverbally vomit my thoughts— no words— because those are scary… [with] asemics, I get to avoid my panic of talking… like, feelings and stuff to people. Oh my, seriously, just saying that made my heart pound. So, asemics, it lets me express emotion secretly to other people. So, basically I found this loophole, you know, to avoid dying.
AP: How did you first get involved in the mail art community, then—and what’s that experience been like for you?
KP: I just stumbled upon it. I don’t even know how. I have flippin’ no idea. I do know that what I stumbled upon is IUOMA (International Union of Mail Artists). And again, that kind of came out of the art therapy stuff… I had come across people doing ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) or whatever, and I thought, “Oh my, now that’s kind of interesting.”
I was reading about it and I, like, totally fell in love with it because it’s truly just pure art. It’s just pure non… what’s the word, what’s the word?… like, fake. Not fake. Authentic. And so it made me comfortable. It just made me comfortable. But I do have to say that joining IUOMA— it, like, flippin’ saved my life. It was just so great and all the people there are just so amazing and so supportive. And, in particular, DeVillo Sloan, I met— virtually met— he is the creator of IUOMA’s group Asemic Writing for Mail-Artists. I have just immense respect for him… and he’s appreciated my asemic work from the very beginning and just gave me a lot of support… confidence that it was something that I was good at, and that I did something different.
I mean, [mail art] is a situation where you’re literally just sending something to people all over the world, and they have just the… the kindness and, just, I don’t know how…. how do you explain it? To send someone else a piece of your own artwork— an original piece of your own artwork— in the mail (clearly you’re paying for the stamp) and you want nothing in return… I mean, clearly you want some more mail art. But you’re just doing it because it makes you happy, and it makes that other person happy. And it has absolutely nothing to do with being financially compensated.
AP: You grew up in the Midwest, between Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana. What was that like, and what were your earliest encounters with writing and art?
KP: About growing up outside Chicago. Well, my parents were divorced when, I think, I was in third grade; and my father was killed in a car accident when I was in fifth grade, so I was about ten— and that was a pretty significant (obviously) event.
In any case, this, you know, this situation with my dad, it shut me up… I mean, like, with feelings and words. That expressive ability, if I had any to begin with, was gone for good. And what I did find reprieve in, I guess, was music. Music and doodle drawings, and that’s all I did. I listened to music. I read Rolling Stone. I probably— until maybe two years ago— had every issue of Rolling Stone circa 1984 to maybe 19—… no, probably ’84 to ’89 or ’90. I mean, I had every issue. I kept them all. I read those things cover to cover. I listened to music constantly.
But the area that I grew up in, it’s just, like, it’s very industrial. And I always tell people when people [ask], “What’s it like growing up there?”— it’s like there’s just a gray cloud. There’s a gray cloud over Gary always. In the middle of a truly sunny summer day, you go to the beach, and there’s a freaking gray cloud hovering under the sun. And that’s no joke because the beach that we went to on Lake Michigan, like, you could see the factories and the huge billows of smoke. There was no getting away from seeing that… We went to this beach— it’s called West Beach— and on your right side, which was towards Gary, just billows and billows of smoke from industries. But then when you looked to your left, you saw the beautiful Chicago skyline. So, it was very interesting little thing there.
But I have loved handwriting forever. Going back to music. I mean, I loved handwriting— cursive writing— lyrics to songs. I mean, I would literally, you know, like, back in the day when you had a tape recorder, I’d listen to a line and I’d press pause and I’d write it out. Listen to a lyric. Write it out. You know, I’d do the whole pause, play, pause, play, pause, play. I freaking loved it. I loved doing that.
But, you know, in the… art in the very traditional sense is just something that I just, I was never exposed to. My family didn’t go to art museums. We didn’t, you know, when we went downtown, we didn’t go to visit different, like, you know, cool sculptures in Chicago, or… I mean, Buckingham Fountain.
What I will say is that color has been huge. My mom, she’s in love with color. Like kind of almost to a— like, [in] a gaudy kind of way. Well, whatever, that’s my personal opinion. But every room in our house was a different color. Bright color. Or, like, my first memory of our kitchen, it was orange. The walls were orange, the countertops were orange. The sink, literally, the sink was orange. And what color was the refrigerator? It must’ve been that olive greenish thing. So color. And I do use a lot of color.
But I would definitely say in talking about earliest encounters of writing and art, music came first. Music. Music brought me to— to writing… writing more. Simply handwriting— because I loved to write out lyrics. And, in terms of the art, that’s the art that I was exposed to… album covers. I was of the age when I was buying music, you know, you could chose between a cassette tape and an LP, and I always bought LPs. And people were like, “Why do you do that? If you buy… you can play a cassette in your car.” And I’m, like, because the [cover] art— because it’s bigger. I wanted the bigger artwork. I wanted… I didn’t even have a car. So, it didn’t really matter, but I wanted big. I wanted the bigger— whatever, the album cover. The inserts and stuff like that. That actually would probably be my first real encounter with art.
Graffiti and street art, I love. I would— I mean, I could walk the streets of a city forever looking at graffiti and street art. The first time I fell in love with street art was… I was in… I did a study abroad program in South America. I lived in Venezuela and Ecuador and Columbia for, in total, about six months. And that was probably, I don’t know, 1992. And I did really fall in love with street art at that time, but graffiti… I don’t know, that’s just a whole other— that’s a whole other interview.
Kerri Pullo is an asemic writing artist who is originally from the Chicagoland area and resides in Tucson, AZ USA. Her artwork is influenced by Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art as well as international graffiti and street art. Pullo’s asemic writing has been published in the recent An Anthology of Asemic Handwriting (2012), edited by Michael Jacobson and Tim Gaze.
Alex Porco is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He specializes in twentieth-century poetry and poetics. He received his Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.