Conversations with the Ocean

Hello again:) Today’s post is a review of Conversations with the Ocean (2020), a collaborative artist book by Brianna Tosswill (images) & Evelyn Elgie (poems).

One of Tosswill’s illustrations from Conversations with the Ocean (2020)

The Relationship

Back in the day, I was a Printmaking major at OCAD University. It was a pretty great run, all things considered: I learned a lot, and much of it has even stayed with me! And, a year or three after graduating, I was invited back as a Guest Advisor for the newest PRNT Thesis class. It was an honour. Now, when I say “thesis”, you might imagine graduate school (MFA), but this was undergrad (BFA). These students - as I had been just a few years previously - were just a bunch of “kids” in their early twenties trying to figure themselves out. I gave an artist talk, and offered one-to-one studio visits to those students who expressed interest in hearing my perspectives.

Anyways, one of those “kids” was Brianna Tosswill. She was keen, smart, detail-oriented, and very ambitious. I’ve gotten to know Brianna a little more over the last few years, and while it’s clear that she is still deeply dedicated to her personal artistic practice, what I’m most excited about is how she’s redefining author-illustrator-publisher relationships. As the founder of Penrose Press, Brianna is at the forefront of an essential transition: toward collective, collaborative, and conversational artist publications.

As a writer and visual artist myself, I’ve long been interested in the interplay of text and image. And, I’ve been a fan of artist books for as long as I can remember knowing about them. So when Brianna posted a request for Advanced Readers? I was pretty quick to volunteer! Full disclosure: I received an advanced digital copy in exchange for my review.

Alright. Without further ado, let’s talk about Conversations with the Ocean (2020), a collaborative artist book by Brianna Tosswill (images) & Evelyn Elgie (poems).

Custom packaging - très chic.

The Experience

When I opened Conversations with the Ocean, I was met immediately with a content warning. I have never opened a book of poetry to find a content warning before, and Elgie’s spanned two pages, even including a list of crisis hotline numbers. I hesitated: am I supposed to be here, in this audience?

I fully respect the use of content warnings: I believe that it is important to allow individuals to decide for themselves whether they have the mental and emotional acumen to engage with the topics of depression, dissociation, and suicidal ideation. And I want to read Conversations with the Ocean. But now I am afraid. I take a deep breath and turn the page, steeling myself.

And the content that follows? Well, it is simply poetry. I find no word, concept, or emotion behind that content warning that might well have been found without warning. But now I felt nothing but the distance I’ve created for myself.  I reach out to Elgie: for whom do you write?

In this project, I wrote for myself. When I wrote Conversations, I was deep in the worst bout of depression I have ever had. (tw suicide) In the worst moments, I had a fantasy where I walked down to the ocean and then just kept walking into the waves until I couldn’t swim anymore. Conversations with the Ocean grew […] from a desire to reframe that sinking hopelessness into something that floated. I wanted to take that part of my life and […] give it a hopeful ending, because in the end, I was able to move forward out of my depression and into a place that was ultimately more positive. This book is for me as I was then, and for the person I want to become; and, without being too trite or cliché about it, it’s for others who might see themselves in that hopeless person.

As Elgie had shared in her content warning, this narrative poem addresses a specific set of experiences and emotions. For readers who have not experienced depression, dissociation, or suicidal ideation, the story may not resonate deeply. And for readers like me, with lived experiences of mental health? It’s the content you want to focus on, not the warning.

The Book
Many (most?) artist books are the work of a single creator. I reached out to Tosswill immediately after my first read-through: what’s special about this project, from your perspective?

Tosswill’s response was intriguing. Her focus was not on the delicate linocut illustrations, nor the evocative narrative poem. Instead she wanted to speak to the art-making process itself, and to focus on the art objects ultimately produced.

I think the only way to move past defining an art practice by what it isn’t, is to make lots of things in the way that you feel you need to, then look back and say, here, this is what I mean. […] One of my creative mottos is that if I can explain an idea to someone and they fully understand it in the same way that I do, then there’s no point in making physical art about it. If I can’t explain, […] then I need to make the art.

A disclaimer: I have not yet seen, held, (heard, tasted, or smelled) this book in its non-digital form(s). What I do know is that Tosswill and Elgie sought out a third collaborator early in their process: Water. And, it was Water who was ultimately asked to reveal the final layer of meaning in Conversations with the Ocean. Using a  technique she’d learned from artists Agata Derda & Alex R. M. Thompson, Tosswill printed both text and images invisibly using water-soluble rice paste, then covered these with a layer of (waterproof) ink. Finally, the book pages were washed in the oceans (and Great Lakes) that inspired them, and there the water-soluble paste dissolved, revealing all that had been hidden beneath.

The Great Lakes edition, during washing.

The Content

Conversations with the Ocean is a quick read, and its three-part structure works effectively to carry the reader through its emotional journey. Using poetic imagery to breathe life into the landscape she explores, Elgie transports the reader to the (Pacific) ocean shores, where bare feet meet cold sand, wet black rocks, and kelp that pops underfoot. 

Tosswill’s delicate linocuts are equally evocative: water swirls, holds, and reaches its strands in every direction. The sky speaks too: first starlit, then dark, and then unseen but bright, a source of illumination streaming down into the water. Although one illustration accompanies each titled section of the narrative poem, it is not “Spill”, “Plunge”, and “Surge” that I see depicted there. Instead, with open palms the narrator’s character reaches …for those connections she needs to survive.

It is here, though, in the connection between Narrator and Ocean, which I find myself longing for more.

Ocean is recipient: what have you brought for me?
Ocean is arbiter: this salt is not for you
Ocean is rescuer: the weight is gone
Ocean is betrayer: and she is gone

But Ocean does not seem to choose this relationship, or to have agency within it. Ocean does not initiate; reach back. And, as a reader, I leave Conversations with questions. Who is Ocean? Is she mother, sister, therapist, or friend? Is there really nothing too heavy for Ocean? And will Narrator return to Ocean? How will their relationship change? Perhaps we’ll discover these answers in Elgie’s next exploration.

And as I look to the future? I encourage both Tosswill & Elgie to further explore the possibilities of text as image, particularly in moments where negative space might lend breath, weight, movement, and ultimately life, to stories and their characters. 

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