Jermaine T. Bell Interviews Author Elissa Blount Moorhead about her new Sexy Alphabet Book for Kids and Adults

When I reached out to Kima Jones of Jack Jones Literary Arts to ask about Elissa Blount Moorhead and her new book, I  couldn’t even write the title.

I kept p***yfooting around it, writing things like “I’d love to schedule an interview with Elissa Blount Moorhead to discuss P” or “please forward me a copy of the book”… But, why though? I’d like to think that I think outside of the box, so to speak, but I have policed myself enough to know  that the “P” word is not in my professional lexicon.

This is why Elissa Blount Moorhead’s P is for Pussy is challengingWhy can’t we say cock and pussy outside of bedrooms, bars, and bordellos? How will we feel if  our kids say it? I don’t have children, but if my niece or nephew said pussy, I’d probably laugh and then automatically switch into adult mode and do the “adult thing” and shame them. I’m American, I can’t just turn off my Puritanism.  I want my raunch blurred out in a Rihanna song so I can yell that part even louder.

But again, I ask why? Elissa Blount Moorhead explains why we should all just take a chill pill.

p is for pussy book cover

P is for Pussy falls in the same vein as a lot of whimsical adult books that use illustrations and vibrant color for adults. Why do you think that this is a trend? Why did you choose to work in this space?

I think there is a need for levity in the world, in general. There is a lot of aggression and sadness in the news and around us. Parents, especially, may need a mental re-direct.

To be honest, I wrote this book for children about eight years ago. I found myself falling asleep reading to my child. Bored. I thought the hidden meanings would be invisible to the pre-literate set. If you tell a three-year-old that a cock is a rooster, they believe you. It took awhile to link with the right illustrator, and we took a long time to get it right.

When I came up with the concept, it was not the trend at all. In fact, the alphabet and children’s books available to me for my daughter were wholly appropriate. There was nothing really this snarky or raunchy. It was shocking to me to even think about this being made. This is also why I self-published. I was concerned about whether or not a traditional publisher would get the project, so I didn’t really bother to shop it.

Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach came out during those eight years and confirmed for me that there were other irreverent parents that would like this project. I also really wanted to work with a great visual artist and illustrator. My background in visual arts has given me exposure to really rich, vibrant work. I wanted this book to be a bit of a portable gallery. I hate that children’s book illustrations are often so simplified. Living and working in the arts in New York City confirmed to me that kids are visually sophisticated.

 

You want parents to enjoy this book as well right? What is the goal of P is for Pussy from a parent’s perspective, and how do you think it will make its mark?

Who can tell what mark it will make or even if it will make one? P is for Pussy is for parents that don’t take the parenting job too seriously and are willing to have fun with language. There are concepts in the book that relate to sex, drugs and other mature references. I hope it is something that a parent can read to their child, highlight the innocent meanings, and chuckle at the hidden ones. In the end, it is an adult’s book as well as a primer. I let my seven-year-old read it, and he doesn’t get any of the naughty meanings yet. I hope the book will encourage parents to relax about words, trust the innocence of kids, and explore language and meaning while having fun.

I see that you’re a mom. What do you have to say to “tiger moms” and “tiger dads” who might take offense to the book’s content and its title?

Let’s hope for offense. Offense means conversations are happening.

How did your illustrator, Meltem Sahin, create the art? Watercolor? 

Each piece is a monoprint. She created the color washes separately with block printing ink. Those color pieces are scanned and the illustrations on another layer. There are also subtle artifacts taken from public engravings and collaged drawings on paper. All the layers are digitally combined. Her process and skills are captivating.

How long did you work on this book from start to finish?

The short answer to the “how long” question is a little over a year. I wrote it about eight years ago and re-wrote many versions of each letter. Last summer I contacted MICA’s Whitney Sherman, Chair of the Illustration Department. We started a semester long process with students in her MFA program. The students there are incredible. Most, if not all of them, have worked for some time in illustration and have incredibly diverse visual voices.

I presented each letter, reference work, ideas, etymological backgrounds and concepts. We went through pin-ups, crits, presentations and outside feedback. It was hard to narrow them, but ultimately Meltem emerged as the best fit. She is an incredible award- winning artist. What struck me most was her understanding of the nuances and humor and she matched it with her brand of visual humor. She has been so wonderful to work with. We are always on the same page, aesthetically and philosophically.

af370a31066661.564022c28c2fb

You were previously a professor at Cooper Hewitt and Pratt and even a director of programming at Weeksville Heritage Center. What is your connection to Baltimore?

After about 25 years in New York and a stint in London, I moved to Baltimore a year ago. I was appointed to the Public Arts Commission and also became a Curatorial Advisor for The Contemporary. I also run a film studio, TNEG, with my partners AJ Jafa and Malik Sayeed. I still work on projects that take me out of the city and country, but I am based here now with my family.

Do you still go see shows in your hometown of DC? Or in Baltimore? How would you compare the DC art scene to Baltimore and New York?

I don’t get to DC, believe it or not. But, yes, I see shows in New York and Baltimore (and beyond). I am at an opening, event, or studio visit in either place each week. I just had a project with Arthur Jafa and Rashida Bumbray in Atlanta last week at Flux Projects. I don’t know the DC scene very well. New York and Baltimore are still very vibrant as well as Europe and plenty of places in the US like Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Detroit and Houston.

I wouldn’t compare New York and Baltimore. It is apples and oranges. Baltimore is incredible on its own merit. It is generally a more affordable place, so I see more viable artist workspaces, studios, non-permissional public work and new galleries. It is exciting. I love the work here and the unpretentiousness of the city and its creative communities. It feels very generous and productive here.

I recently saw the work from the Baker Award winners at the BMA and was blown away; it was refreshing and didn’t feel like it a group of (overly) vetted usually suspects. I moderated a discussion with Latoya Ruby Frazier and Dr. Lisa Cooper (from Hopkins). I could be romanticizing Baltimore right now, but I think it is a conversation that could have only happened outside of the fishbowl that is New York City. I also saw Mona Hatoum’s work for the first time this year. It was one of the most deeply satisfying art experiences I have had. Each city has it’s unique advantages.

Elissa Moorhead; Meagan Shea photo credit

How do you balance your professional time as an artist and as an art administrator? Do you have a studio or do you work out of your home primarily?

I don’t really separate them that way in my mind. All I do is in service to creativity. Sometimes it is my own work, and sometimes it is fostering the work of people that I respect and want to collaborate with, champion, facilitate, or produce. Sometimes it is hardest to get my own work done. Not sure why that is.

I work on the things that compel me. I don’t worry too much about categories. I try to bring my strengths and energy to each endeavor. I generally work from home or “in the field.” Film is done in specific locations. Baltimore affords me pretty good space so I can do administrative work, meetings, and be at home. I am also on the road depending on the work.

You studied Law at Syracuse and Interior Design at Parsons. How and why Illustration?

A professor at Parsons that told me, “As an artist you are only ever trying to solve one problem.” That really struck me because all my life I feel like I have tried to tackle very disparate and varied “problems.” I think law school, for me, was about advocacy, structured thinking and intellectual rigor.

My parents and sister are creatives. They’ve worked in music, visual art and writing among other areas. I always thought (even when I was in high school at what is now Duke Ellington School of the Arts Literary Arts Department) that I could be a good translator. I was always good at getting resources, opportunities and exposure for the ideas and work that I loved. For awhile I did just that, but it is hard for me not to create new things. I realized I would always have to do both.

I serve on a lot of juries and artist grant panels. For me, it is like creative jury duty. I take it pretty seriously, partly because I am often on the other side of the review table, but also because it helps me help my peers. I need my peers to be successful, funded, heard. I advocate hard. Parsons was about my continuing obsession with beauty and space. I loved the exhibition design part of creating shows as much as (maybe more than) finding and interpreting work. I have to make things. I don’t know what my “one problem” is. If I had to guess I would say it is to tell specific stories through aesthetics. I care a lot about style whether it is film, fashion, spaces, paintings, music, or production. It is important to me that the vanguard of style, art, and culture are unencumbered. I think I have a role in bringing unfiltered work to the world in specific kinds of pairings and through a specific lens.

19c97731066661.563fe940de6db

How did you begin working with Blacksky Media as your publisher? What about Jack Jones?

Blacksky is a company started by my husband after he and his partners closed Thoughtforms in the 90’s (a Tribeca gallery and performance space). We have produced everything from music to multimedia projects through that company. I knew this book would need to be published independently, so I only showed it to one publisher for feedback. I was obsessive about getting it right. It is a tricky project that could easily go off the wrong edge. I needed a lot of time and freedom to get it done correctly. Doing the book ourselves at Blacksky afforded me that time and mental space.

This is my first project with Jack Jones Literary Arts. I learned of Jack Jones from my artist-friend whose sensibilities I trust immensely. Kima’s work with writers is impeccable. I knew without a big publisher I would need that kind of care and focus on this book. There is no machine or dollars behind me, but a lot of passion.

I work with Kima Jones who is beyond thorough, creative, thoughtful and serious about details and excellence. I didn’t think I would find someone to help birth the book that was more of a workaholic than me! Kima is the one. She is also an artist herself and knows the field from both angles. I don’t want to sound cliché, but we both love what we do so technically it’s not work.

Will there be more great parent/kid books coming from you?

I hope so. I have ideas stacked up. Self-publishing, at least the way I have done it, was very hard and costly. I hope I can have the support of a press next go round.

What are you reading right now?

I always have at least four books in rotation (not including what I read with my kids). I am like the annoying person with the remote control that surfs. There are always half-read books around. I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. I am listening to The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, a humorous picture book, Tout Va Bien!, by Mana Neyestani and The Little Edges by Fred Moten.

Where can Baltimoreans get their hands on a copy of P is for Pussy?

The book is available at www.pisforpussy.com and Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. We’re hoping to have it available at local galleries and bookstores soon.

32083e31066661.563fec792aa68

Author Jermaine T. Bell is a Baltimore based designer and writer.

Photo credit: Meagan Shea