Talking Paper Interview Series: Leon Johnson

Photo courtesy of L. Johnson

Photo courtesy of L. Johnson

Leon Johnson is an educator, artist and chef focused on ways that food, art, life training, culture and pleasure intersect. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Johnson recently moved to the Bronx from Detroit, where he founded and ran Market Studio Kitchen, and began organizing a roving series of curated crafts & baking events called Book & Bread, where participants learned to bind books and bake bread around a table. He brought the concept to NYC, working with past Nomadic Press interview subject Ksenya Samarskaya to hold Book & Bread in her studio at 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. He also helped facilitate the participation of renowned Detroit chef Kate Williams for the January 2016 edition of Samarskaya's ongoing monthly pop-up dinner event, Traffic & Tide. It featured two "Detroit River Night" dinners prepared by Williams, with drink curation by Brian Quinn [and a very positive review from cooking authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg]. The Traffic & Tide description of the March edition of Book & Bread at 475 Kent reads, "The evening commences with a three-course dinner that will feature Lavender Creme Brûlée, Maine Salmon & Fresh Chive Oil — we then progress to book-binding stations where we will each bind a 16th [Century] Monastery Journal using handmade papers and Irish linen tapes." I interviewed Johnson ahead of the event, and discussed the impact of groups gathering to bake and make paper, as well as other thoughts on food and culture. 

On the Origins of Book & Bread

Books have always been in proximity to the dinner table for me. I love that relationship. Book & Bread originated in Detroit in 2012, where I was teaching, and it was this powerful tactic of converging people around the table. I was living in one of our oldest continually operating farmers markets in the country. The Eastern Market in Detroit is an extraordinary meeting place, and it's been continuous for over a hundred years. So the idea of living, and teaching, and working in the context of a market every Saturday morning, with the farmers arriving, this seemed like a powerful way of coming together with the community.

I’m a bookbinder. It features very prominently in my creative practice. It features very prominently as an educator, regardless of whether I'm teaching in a university context, or community workshop, or the Book & Bread dinner. The power of emerging on the other side of three or four hours with a blank journal of your own making -- it's a loaded emotional learning curve. Meanwhile, we're meeting each other as we're eating. I love the idea that the morning after, you wake up with a blank book, and the potential of this book waiting to be continued or addressed. I love that echo of the night before. But as an educator, I've always used the book. I feel about the book like the way I feel about bread in many ways. On a DNA level, I think it's something we have intimacy with. The idea of baking your first loaf of bread, or the idea of binding your first book, that small journey is a deeply humanizing process. So the idea for Book & Bread simply is bringing the convivial spirit of bodies at play to the dinner table, which for me is another critical site. The convergence of the book and the meal is for me a kind of anchor experience. In the course of three hours, we get to eat together, and talk, and in many cases it's the first anybody's worked intimately with paper, let alone bound a book. It's a powerful place.

On the Binding Process

It goes all the way back to the monasteries and incunabula, before books were even bound, when people were illuminating manuscripts primarily in theological contexts -- hand-made, one-of-a-kind books that took decades to complete, and were powerful documents, because they were exclusive to the church and the state. This wasn’t in the domain of the people. These were unique, painstakingly produced religious texts in Hebrew, Latin, Greek. Not in the vernacular languages of people in the street. The form of the book then migrates after Gutenberg's press introduces the concept of the published book, and the multiple. So we're moving from unique copies, to thousands of copies. Radical moment. So knowledge could then be shipped, hidden, transported. The first books brought in from Gutenberg's press to Paris were met by the Guild of Scribes, who stoned them, because a lot of practices and industries were being put out of work. The monasteries also then became centers for bookbinding, and printers and publishers needed those techniques for printing hundreds (if not thousands) of copies, and distributing. That's the Western tradition. There's an Eastern tradition that's infinitely older. I was lucky enough to do my graduate work at the University of Iowa, which has an incredible Center for the Book and papermaking facilities run by Timothy Barrett in Oakdale. I was able to do advanced Western and Japanese papermaking, printing, binding, offset printing, and letter press printing. So my graduate experience was where I brought it all together, and I was still working with food at that point. So we'd meet happily, and nobody was there to stone me.

On His Preferred Paper

So one of the beauties of the Book & Bread experience is that one is either reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, to the qualities of beautiful paper.

I'm conscious of the integrity of good paper. So much of contemporary paper, certainly the papermaking in any quantity, tends to derive from wood pulp and come with vast amounts of destructive elements like acids and corrosive materials. So I pay attention to paper that's been made with some integrity, neutral pH or better. I love handmade paper. I was trained as a papermaker. By the time good paper reaches the book, and beautiful printing reaches the page, all those qualities are available to you in the experience. Do we still really talk about the feel of a book? I don’t think you hear those conversations often. So one of the beauties of the Book & Bread experience is that one is either reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, to the qualities of beautiful paper. It feels like it has a tactile history and qualities. I can smell how the paper's been made. So I still believe that, as a reader, one might still have a relationship as one turns the pages to the qualities of the paper in front of you. Now as a bookbinder, it's kind of critical for me to think about those things. There's also vast amounts of industrialized machine-made paper that's being made with some integrity and quality. If we look at the books produced just in America in the ‘50s, all the Beats, Kerouac, Burroughs, all of them -- all of those books are already gone. There's a massive de-acidification process going on to try and save a culture of writing from as recently as the ‘50s. You buy a New York Times, tomorrow it's yellow. There's an entire written literature that people are attempting now to save and upgrade. We don’t even have to have the conversation of what it means ecologically, in terms of renewable resources.

Photo courtesy of Audra Wolowiec

Photo courtesy of Audra Wolowiec

My sense is we're in a number of learning curves that has to take into account sustainability and economics. Not too many years ago, we were trapped in an argument about the economics behind sustainable organic farming, clean food production, and now we are seeing radical scale shifts and a decrease in economic factors. It's available tomorrow. We've also seen an exciting investment by individual citizens in small presses. Small presses, like Ugly Duckling Presse in Gowanus, are doing an extraordinary job in getting writers published, getting those books out, and finding readers. So self-sufficiency must be addressed too. I want to see more papermakers. I want to see that as an economically viable and sustainable model for production, and I think the alliances that one then makes with graphic designers, and printers, and bookbinders, and distributors meets entire new cashes of consumers and readers. So there's microeconomics involved here, and there's macroeconomics involved. Certainly at a major publishing level, you can produce clean books with minimum standards for durability that makes economic sense. We are seeing that happening with a number of publishers showing an interest in stewardship around forests and trees, and the qualities of those papers. I don’t believe it's rose-tinted glasses or sentimentality to imagine vast numbers of young papermakers emerging, forming alliances with writers, publishers, printers, and artists. Again, coming back to Book & Bread, just look at qualities of artisanal baking in the last 20 years -- a major reclamation of bread on a vast scale, in terms of good bread finding numbers of consumers. I'm also fundamentally interested in the idea of the book as a vast rhizomatic teaching mechanism. I would love to be in a position to teach papermaking to beginners, and bookbinding, and a reclamation and re-enchantment of the book that's not about sentimentality or emotion. It’s practical labor that can be applied and used, and has economic consequences.

On Students Using a Tactile Book

It relates to aspects of personhood -- who you are, who I am, who these citizens are that are filling our classroom on all levels (high schools in the Bronx, colleges, community centers where there might be opportunities to learn). I would argue, after 25 years as an educator, the steady de-amplification of qualities of personhood -- who are you, what is your story, what are the qualities in the world and the life you cherish, what are the hidden narratives, what are the privileged narratives, what is your right to narrate and tell your story -- that's a hop, skip and a jump to writing your story, printing your story, distributing your story, participating. Maybe the most powerful idiom of that is graffiti, which is nothing more than a inscriptional mechanism on urban pages. I'm not surprised it's also a site of contest. The first translations of the bible were burnt, and the printer burnt at a stake. The book has always been a site of contest, and I believe the written word, the spoken word has connections to this idea of people being afforded or fighting for their right to narrate, to talk their story. I think that's close enough to the book, and certainly intimate with paper, that we don’t have to make it a quaint idiom for artists or artisans to work in. I think it can be a wide-open field of play. As an educator looking for re-enchantment, I suppose my primary sense of a future of teaching would involve these kinds of qualities, and I would love to facilitate around the book, printing, binding, paper, writing, talking, and distributing on the list. I'm not talking about one copy that you can get moist about. I'm talking about getting the content out as well. Distribution has never been easier and more varied. To do a limited edition book, we could have a downloadable free PDF. We could have a number of ways that could start with the book, and spread into other delivery systems. That's where I sense a return to teaching might lay for me, and my preference would be at a community level.

Going to tablets, and a decrease in attention to personhood (meaning the body, the voice, the narrative, the right to narrate), it's moving away from those qualities of body, voice, memory, history, presence. I just visited Parsons. One of my former students is now a professor there, and room after room after room, they are ugly rooms for the most part, ugly light, an absence of any sense of what 20 bodies in a small space would need to thrive, to learn, to meet one another, to engage with one another. After 20 years of teaching in the university system, one of the first things I instituted regardless of the class (it could have been a grad seminar, it could have been a foundations basic design 101), I started every single class with binding a book. First two days of everything I ever taught, and there were 20 or 30 kids, I taught people how to bind a book. Meeting my student Brendan Griffiths two days ago at Parsons, one of the first things he spoke about was, "You know, the first day we met, I bound a book." So we can think about it in precious ways, but the learning narrative goes forth. It can actually last a lifetime. So everything I might celebrate about a book, I could celebrate about bread the same qualities.

On Making Bread

Who's growing the grains? What's in the grains? What's the quality of the earth the grains are grown in? What it's like baking bread with grains from a person you know who grew them? Now, I'm talking about the learning curve. People might argue, “Well, producing 20 loaves of artisanal bread from grain grown along the Bronx River is a precious conceit.” The learning curve however goes forward for those people who participate. There are all kinds of ways to trigger an engagement, and then distribute it broadly. I think an absolute qualitative relationship for me in the pedagogical moment to teach between bread and paper -- where might we expand it to? What about Bread, Book, Bowl, and Spoon? What about that as a workshop in the Bronx? We forge a spoon, we throw a bowl, we dig the clay locally, we bind a book, we bake a loaf of bread. What sort of skill profile is passed on with 20 kids and a week spent doing that? What conversations? What stories do we share in the process of doing it? Sign me up.

On Moving to the Bronx

Photo courtesy of Audra Wolowiec

Photo courtesy of Audra Wolowiec

I've had very little engagement with artists. I've had a fair amount of engagement with the vendors and people of 138th Street. So the first thing I did when I moved there was address the warnings I’d received from people saying, “You’re moving to a food desert.” By that, I think they meant there wasn’t a famers' market of any scale, and there wasn’t a Whole Foods, and there weren’t coffee shops. There's actually a vivid, thriving food culture in the Bronx. At my small local bodega on 138th Street, I found a bag of heirloom beans that I'd only read about before. On the shelf, three bucks, bag of heirloom beans from Mexico. My first three months, the primary drift as I walked the neighborhood was understanding that a block from me was a live kill facility -- goats, chickens, pigs. Maybe my way of building an intimacy with place is working through food cultures and routes, and I found it a kind of thriving culture in the Bronx.

On Food Culture in Detroit

Part of my last few months in Detroit was arranging a cooking series with chefs who were transitioning, either from jobs to their own restaurants or between restaurants. So I curated a series with Chef Craig Lieckfelt, well known for a pop-up called Guns + Butter; Chef Brion Wong, who's now opening the kitchen at a restaurant called The Peterboro; Chef Jonathan Kung, who has a pop-up called Kung Food; and Chef Kate Williams, who was transitioning from one restaurant, and is now opening her own Lady of the House restaurant in Detroit. Brendon Edwards also did a series of dinners, and was on the verge of opening a restaurant called Standby, which is getting rave reviews. My son Marlowe is the bartender there. So it was this incredible series with five, six chefs all on the verge of moving to something substantial, who I curated pop-ups with. You can imagine the remarkable conversations, all really fantastic cooks, very different cuisines, all in the space of three months. Kate was the first one to come and visit New York, and do a guest dinner [at 475 Kent].

Detroit has had a food culture for hundreds of years, had a food culture unbroken for the last 100, and the longest operating market. It's a very vivid food culture. This is being referred to as a renaissance in Detroit at the moment. Detroit has done really fine in particular qualities of local cuisine, and people cooking for each other, and families cooking. That's been great. This moment might suggest a set of relationships that I find really interesting. All the chefs I just mentioned have relationships with farmers. So what does that mean to the economic impact on Detroit? Every single one of them visits farms, sources from small farmers, supports the farmers' market. That of course, as we all know when we eat at these places, is part of the narrative sold to diners. Knowing the name of the pig you're eating. So knowing a lot of the farmers, and being a supporter of a lot of the farmers. Many of these farmers also have long-term relationships with Michigan, are stewards of the land, and have a serious stake in the cleanliness of food. So for me again, there are teaching opportunities here. I opened a learning kitchen in Detroit called Market Studio Kitchen, and worked with 45 Detroit citizens facing a range of challenges (not only economic, but mental health challenges, physical health challenges), and introduced them to their market, making sure they had a stake in the market, and doing fundamental cooking techniques mostly aimed at self-sufficiency. These are people who eventually want to live alone, so it’s sort of life skill stuff. But that again, for me as a teaching moment, I could bridge the gap where they met the farmers that grew the tomatoes, that they then made a salsa with. They then went home that night and made a salsa at for their families. The speed of that transmission, teaching should happen at that speed, with those kinds of implications. They meet a farmer in the morning, and that night they're making a tomato sauce. That's the educational trajectory I prefer to be involved with.

People were working very intimately around ideas of convivial sustainability, taking care of each other, which seems to me a core ethic for the people of Detroit over the last 60 years.

Detroit's declaration of bankruptcy was primarily a political action, counterproductive to the welfare of citizens and the city. The people who I was lucky enough to be in dialogue with (citizens, farmers, creative culture makers, cooks) were all talking to one another. So it wasn’t about “How's a restaurant going to make it?” People were working very intimately around ideas of convivial sustainability, taking care of each other, which seems to me a core ethic for the people of Detroit over the last 60 years. The idea that entitled saviors have recently moved to Detroit, and are now waving flags of their intentions for redemption -- crock of shit. The stewardship of children, and families, and the city itself has continued on the ground against insurmountable odds. The calamity of the bankruptcy case added levels of suffering to what we're now seeing exemplified by the catastrophe in Flint, with thousands of poisoned people. We're looking at a beleaguered and exhausted culture, people who have lived unbroken long before the supposed cultural redemption, or the 15,000 people moving into midtown. 

On New York’s Small Farmer-to-Market Dynamic

Photo courtesy of S. Georges

Photo courtesy of S. Georges

It’s work on a heroic scale. These are people who are working collectively, groups of people. Not only in the structure of the family, but collectives of comrades and loving supporters. So there's also teaching going on in there. There’s a small farm that's producing multiple large learning curves. So we can think about three people running a small farm producing beets and lettuces. But they're also involved in a kind of land stewardship. You cannot operate alone. You're operating with other participants. I also must amplify those learning curves that continue up until and include the point of purchase. When we buy a beet from the person who grew it, and then turn around and go and cook for 20 people, and we narrate with each other across the dinner table or while binding a book (small in some ways, yes), The learning trajectories rhizomatically move out and meet a lot of other communities, a lot of other people. That validates sometimes feeling exhausted about the sense of efficacy of teaching anymore, certainly within institutional contexts. But I'm always encouraged by that outward flow of pleasurable knowledge in making, and then sharing, and then the new sets of applications that I'm not even going to be there for. One of the beauties of the Book and Bread is the day after you've bound your first book, you can teach your first book. The kit is 15 bucks. You could use brown butcher paper. You could use old newsprint. You could turn around 24 hours later and teach somebody else not only how to do the bread I made, but how to bind the book I bound. That, I believe, has got implications all the way back to the Earth, to the farmer. So I think it helps for us to be very conscious of outward slow moving scale that can make a difference.