Esopus: Where Art and Medicine Meet

“Arte Terapėutico” by Teresa Matas

On the face of it, the intersection of art and medicine—and what that would even look like—might not be obvious; it’s possible you haven’t thought about the two together at all. But that’s not true of Tod Lippy, founder, editor, and executive director of Esopus, the Brooklyn-based, non-profit magazine that publishes unmediated (i.e. ad-free) excursions on art and creativity in every medium. And you can see for yourself as the first annual edition of the aberrational arts magazine goes live on the Kitchen tonight

For the 22nd issue (and first annual, rather than semi-annual edition), Lippy binds a broad ranging set of essays, images, music, drawings, letters, renderings, cartoons, stills, archival material, and even a bikini-wearing anatomical foldout that ruminate on how we use art to understand our bodies, physical existence generally, and—ultimately—our mortality while we are still alive. In some cases, the artists’ work is an escape from the pain of being a breathing and feeling person at the same time; in others, it is a tool for looking at our condition, and accepting it, especially in the face of unspeakable loss.

The issue opens, fittingly, with doctor-poet William Carlos Williams and his typewritten letter to a medical student explaining why he chose to practice medicine. For him, the answer is straightforward: an early retirement and time to spend the rest of his life making art. But his deliberate separation of art and medicine is a false indicator of things to come. Writer Heather McPherson, in an elegant, exhaustive essay, “To Save a Life,” explores the paradox of what it means to do just that: “The idea of ‘saving a life’ is a way of not looking, of avoiding the truth–The Truth–that everyone we love will die,” she points out. In order to bridge that gap, the rest of the issue gives us the means for helping us try to look directly at it, through the inventive and humane hand of art. Because, as Dr. Paul Austin writes in his introduction to the “100 Frames” (an arresting collection of black and white stills from Frederick Wiseman’s eye-opening 1970 documentary Hospital), the most noble thing we can do is learn to incorporate death into life: “[P]erhaps there is a small measure of grace to be found just in being willingly present to the suffering of others.”

The book is thick and, admittedly, says Lippy, things get a little dark. Artist Teresa Matas, whose son died in a car crash, tries to recreate his last, fatal moment by lying down at an intersection and photographing approaching headlights. (“I wanted to feel like I was at my son’s side, protecting him and accompanying him on his final transition,” she explains.) Back in her studio, she enlarges and draws on the images, and shows them for the first time in this issue of Esopus, confronting his death, making it her own, and letting go for the first time.

It’s all a lot to take in, so Lippy wisely closes on some lighter notes. There’s the stunning, multi-part anatomical fold out by Brooklyn-based artist William Villalongo, a CD of original music about—and called—”Organs,” including submissions from Will Sheff of Okkervil River and The Fiery Furnaces. And then, some actual comedy, with selections of forthcoming graphic novels by physician Ian Williams and registered nurse MK Czerwiec. Together, it’s a sweeping mosaic of how two intuitively divergent subjects not only relate to each other but, together, become more powerful, and equally essential salves for the condition of being alive.

We sat down with Lippy, a consummate and affable host who serves green tea in Esopus mugs at the magazine’s Brooklyn Heights garden-level offices, in the run up to the issue’s release event tonight at the Kitchen at 7pm. Lippy says the evening will bring Espopus 22: Medicine into the 3rd dimension. There will be readings, music and audiovisual material from contributors, and a special recitation of William Carlos Williams letter by the legendary screenwriter Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner), will kick everything off. Last week at Esopus’ offices, in between joking asides and discussing past issues, Lippy shared more about the genesis of Esopus, its first annual issue, and how, as a not-for-profit organization, he gets some of the best living artists to share their work with him and, luckily, with all of us.


BROOKLYN MAGAZINE: Before getting too deep into the subjects of art and death, which make up Esopus‘ 22nd edition, tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came to start the magazine.
Tod Lippy: I started Esopus in 2003. Before that I had done a couple of rounds of graduate school, first in art history at Williams College. It was great and fantastic but I decided I didn’t want to be an art historian. I was in a rebellion pseudo-Marxist phase so art history was too elitist. I moved to LA and worked in film, but wanted to get back into academia and got my masters at NYU in cinema studies. I thought I was gonna do a doctorate, but the study of film was too stultifying. It took all the joy out of cinema for me. I basically learned how to shred the significance out of every film I loved by deconstructing its ideological underpinnings. It was good for me but threw me for a curveball because I thought I was going to be an academic.

And so you turned to magazines…
There was an opening at Print Magazine, a graphic design magazine on visual culture and communications, for an editorial assistant. They said, “You’re over-qualified with two masters, but you’re welcome to the job and we’ll see how it goes.” It’s kind of significant because it was one of three really major graphic design magazines and had a deeper perspective than the other two. (Shrugs.) It was run by a small publishing house in Rockville, Maryland, and they were not concerned about what we did in New York. It was just great and it won national magazine awards and had an amazing team. Within six months I was assistant editor and ended up being senior editor there.

While I was there I started a little art zine called publicsfear. It was kind of a little angry adolescent version of Esopus with critical writing and was multi-disciplinary. My friend Pamela and I tried to hilariously make it profitable with like four ads from galleries in the back. But it  got the attention of (Print Magazine editor-in-chief) Martin Fox, and he said, why don’t we start another magazine in film and interview screenwriters and talk to directors.

That is really a lot of things.
Jack of all trades, as they say. I did that for three years. Then I did a book called Projections on New York filmmakers, talking about filmmaking. But basically at the end of that nothing was happening with the films, and my partner David was like, you gotta do another magazine. You love publishing. You gotta do something that will give you feedback and make you feel like you’re being productive.

Ergo, Esopus. And you had all the experience to know how you wanted to do it at that point.
I didn’t want to have advertising. I felt it really got in the way of being an editor who could do what you really wanted to do. It’s a trust thing between editor and readers, and writers and readers. I wanted it to be multidisciplinary, not an art magazine, or design magazine, or a film magazine, that ends up on ghettoized shelves on the magazine stand. I wanted a broad audience, and for it to be affordable, jargon free, and accessible. I read Art Forum religiously, but I have a masters in art history. I wanted to pull people in who have lots of different interests. So that was the conception.

That sounds so idealistic! But you made it happen.
It was. I had to do a 501c3. That’s the only way it works. If you pull a number out of an equation [of how much you need from supporters], it turns out to be convenient for funders. You say, here is what we would make if we were charging to make a profit, that’s the gap, can you help fill it with donation or grant? It’s worked. It’s not vague, it’s not a nebulous number. We’ve also had support from New York City and State and the National Endowment for the Arts. Our donor base is amazing and gives every year. All we do is send a letter. It’s so incredibly heartening.

How does this issue, your first annual, differ from the others?
It’s basically twice as big. It’s twice as many artists projects, almost twice as much content, and the magazine has always been very booky–no ads and it’s always felt like a book even though we get magazine distribution. There were a lot of reasons to go to an annual format rather than semi annual. We skipped an issue and we asked Robert Gober to do an edition to send in the fall and he did, and it was a big success. I think it will work better as a book once a year. We are embodying our bookiness in an honest way for once.

What made you want to address medicine and art together?
We do a themed issues maybe once every five or six issues, and I thought it was time to do another. I’m functionally hypochondriacal. I’ve always been interested in health and medicine, and the relationship between patience and doctors–yourself, your mind, and your body. Which influences which? One thing I really wanted to do was get creative people who were also medical professionals, people who practice medicine who can talk about how it’s a creative in some way.

I opened this issue really excitedly because I really wanted to know, too: How do art and medicine, art and mortality interact? Do we make art to escape death or confront it?
I don’t think there’s one answer. There are so many ways to think about that, and answer that, and approach that. I didn’t know when I started to think about doing this issues that, wow, there are such a variety of perspectives to thinking about this.

I really wanted there to be an answer.
But there isn’t. In art and in life. You want that control, you wanna understand. Why do I have a headache? I don’t know. But William Carlos Williams approaches it in a very pragmatic way. It’s literally someone talking about reconciling the two things in life. I think it’s about witnessing mortality, and failings of the body, and figuring out how to make something from that, even if it’s just to make yourself feel better, or give comfort or create something that will help other people understand it better, or at least be moved by it.

That point might not be brought into sharper focus than with Teresa Matas’ piece on losing her son in a car crash.
It’s incomprehensible what she’s going through. But she addressed it through art, and it’s clearly addressing it head on. She’s done all this interesting work. She photographed herself in her son’s room wearing all of his T-shirts, that’s really, really interesting and wild, and then she said “I’ve also done this series but never exhibited it.” It’s poetic and beautiful and again hitting it completely directly. Can I use art to salve my wounds? Obviously she’s not magically free of grieving for her son but it helped in some way.

You get some of the coolest, most talented living artists to contribute to Esopus. How do you make that happen?
I decided I would never, ever deal with a handler in approaching anybody for contributions. There have been a few lapses, like, maybe three over the course of 22 issues. People have email addresses and it’s particularly easy now to give them an issue and refer them to the website. Generally speaking it’s wide eyed to think that you’re going to approach a manager or an agent and have them say, ‘I’ll have them give you a call.’ It’s direct. The artist will go unnamed but, a big indie name said, ‘I’d love to do it,’ and copied nine people in the email. I just reponded and said, ‘I’d love for you to do this, but that is not how it works. It’s a handshake deal, it’s not for licensing, I don’t need to speak to anybody but you. I get it if it’s not gonna work with you, and he said ‘No, I’ll do it,’ and jettisoned everyone else. We have the joy of having it once in the magazine and that’s it.

We’ve been talking directly and indirectly about this already, but, is there a short answer to why you wanted to do an issue on art and medicine?
I wanted to explore a subject that I’m certain everyone else is equally interested in but, not like like exploring golf. We’re interested in it because it’s so essential and central to existence–our health, our bodies, our mortality. And I love doing the magazine because I create this community, it’s a community and you get a lot of feedback and a lot of love, at times, when things go well. And it feels like you’re creating things with other people, and I couldn’t think of a better subject to do that around other than living and dying. The response has been really good, and it’s just out, and I say I wanted to do it for other people, but it’s just as much for myself and a desire to explore this very difficult and fascinating subject in a way that would be cathartic.

I felt like it was.
That’s great, that makes my day. Otherwise it’s all denial, right? Everybody else may die but I know deep down inside that I’m not gonna. This edition helps you get your own answers.


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