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The Evolution of the Artist
An [Extended] Letter from the Editor, Connor Wolfe
I grew up in the design departments of newspapers and small magazines. My mother was a graphic designer. It was the 80s; the hair was big, the eye shadow was blue, the shoulder pads were towering, and women entered corporate America.
It was women who made up the design department for the regional paper my mother worked at, but a rotation of apathetic white men were always “the boss.” The days I could go to work with her were golden—I was never bored. I can still remember sitting at her drafting table—my feet swinging freely below the stool while sketching my favorite subjects—mostly cartoon characters like Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, Snoopy, and Woodstock. When she was at the table, I watched her layout the individual pages of the daily paper by hand—using font books, border tape, clip art, and Indian ink. She kept a carousel of chisel-nib, double-ended markers of all colors and shades on her desk.
I remember going back to the newsroom here and there throughout my elementary years. The humming energy of the women’s voices as they buzzed across the busy news floor, quieted, and the staccato of keystrokes replaced them. The open floors of drafting tables disappeared as the cubicle gridwork was pieced together. The carousel of markers was replaced by a corded mouse, which was attached to the first mass-produced Macintosh (Apple) Desktop.
The artists in the department dwindled as the computers replaced them one by one until only the head of the department stood alone, and my mother—along with the other graphic artists—moved into new careers with these now “obsolete” skills.
Right around the time the pink slips were handed out, my mother’s own life unraveled, and we entered a period where we moved around a lot—staying wherever we could with friends and family—as she undertook the terrifying task of leaving my abusive stepfather. During this unhoused time, I didn’t have my friends from the neighborhood or even her, really, as she left me at the family farm in rural upstate New York and then went to find new work (and to reconcile the difference between who her husband was and who she needed him to be).
In retrospect, the third grade was by far the most disjointed in my education. That year, I went to seven different schools—one school I just attended for a single day. But, somehow, in the turnstile of changing schools and towns and homes, there were still constants—one was my ring-bound multimedia sketch pad that I carried with me the way Linus carries his blue blanket, and the other was books—always books.
At every new school, there was an order of navigation. First, find the art room, then the cafeteria, and then the library. At each library, I could find the same books I had in the last school—the same familiar covers amongst the mob rotating strangers and new teachers.
In each new place, I would always checkout the same three books—renewing them every few weeks just so I could carry them around as comfort objects—something static in the chaos. The three books were a Peanuts story (the title of which I cannot recall), My Side of the Mountain, and a photography-rich travel book on the rugged landscape of Alaska. I was always transfixed by the images of the cavernous tunnels of blue ice and the silhouettes of gray wolves singing vapor into the chill air.
Eventually, my stepfather lost his life to an overdose when a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin was going around, and the need to move around stopped. However, the libraries remained a regular as I got older, and the challenges of life changed shape. My affection for books and words became a passion for writing and, eventually, for publishing.
Under my pen name, L.M. Browning, I’ve accomplished several career milestones. I founded two independent publishing houses; I gave a TEDx Talk at Yale; I earned a scholarship/grant to Harvard; I wrote fourteen books; I received five Pushcart Prize nominations; two Foreword Review Book Awards; the Nautilus Gold Medal for Poetry (2014); the Nautilus Silver Medal for Poetry (2022). As a publisher, I served two terms on the Board of the Independent Book Publisher’s Association and have overseen the publication of over 300 titles.
In the autumn of 2022, when I changed my name and came out as nonbinary/trans, I disappeared into the high-desert of New Mexico to find enough space to hold all my feelings.
When I returned to the Northeast, colleagues and friends were pulling me aside at events—everyone asking, “When is the next book? I can’t wait to hear how Connor Wolfe came to be…” This is a natural question, given that I have historically written intimately about my life experiences. Becoming Connor Wolfe would indeed be the story of my career. So why did I have no words to give to it?
It was over this past summer that I finally concluded that there would be no next book. I wasn’t interested in writing. So now what? I’m a writer—I’ve built a 15-year career on this particular artistic expression. What the hell do I do now, just start over?
For a long time, I mistook not wanting to write for having nothing to say, but that wasn’t true. I still wanted to capture story and character and place, but the language of that expression needed to evolve along with me.
I was walking through downtown Northampton—a haven for queer folk located in Western Massachusetts and the place I call home base. It was the first winter since I had come out as nonbinary/trans and changed my name, which also made it the first winter after both my mother and my father disowned me in the wake of that becoming. The cold was bone-deep that day. I was wrapped in my thick canvas chore coat and thermals. I ducked into my favorite shop (The Cedar Chest) to escape the frigid wind and look for a new journal for the new year. I was browsing through the well-curated stationary section when I passed by a small display of double-tipped markers and froze. The heaviness of words dissolved, and the timeworn wonderment of the spectrum of colors returned.
I didn’t buy a new journal that afternoon. These days, I’ve traded Moleskins for sketchpads, my red pen for a plate knife, and books for photography (another artistic language of my youth).
The shift from words back to my original mother tongue of visual art was never done in a desire to end one career and begin another; just as my choice to take a new name was never meant to erase the person I was. I chose to return to visual art because I needed to evolve as an artist the way I was evolving as an individual—to follow the natural progression.
The desire to express myself through visual media seemed to be linked to the progression of my gender identity. As the gender dysphoria lifted, I was able to surface from my dissociative survival, come back into my body, integrate my emotions/memories, find the neglected child, see them, refuse to abandon them, and begin the process of reparenting myself. Somewhere in this larger process, old passions and youthful self-expressions returned with the fragments of suppressed self—among them, art.
Throughout my life, I’ve used different mediums to tell different parts of my journey. I communicated through my sketches and paintings to convey the unspoken and unspeakable. The publishing industry has always frowned on allowing the voice of the author to change—if you’re going to change genres or tones—create a pen name, a new platform, a new persona for this new pursuit, and don’t muddy the marketing waters. But when our business models and comfort zones have us cling to easy-to-market brands/personas, we rob ourselves of witnessing the evolution of the artist and by extension ourselves.
I set many intentions as I chose the name Connor Wolfe—one of which was the declaration to embrace the original wild self within me. The entire social system imprinted upon us from birth is a colonization of that original wild self. I reject this abusive dynamic and its systematic violence, choosing instead to live outside of that structure.
Needless to say, I am an unconventional person (and only becoming more so). I homestead in the warm months as I build up my off-grid farm in Western, Mass.—I hangout with slam poets, musicians, painters, activists, Buddhist monks, and refugees; spend my days with fellow queers, drag queens, and trans folk; I go to museums and hide in the back at open mics to hear the new voices…
Then, in the winter months, when I get shut out of the mountain, I roam—a modern-day cowboy vagabonding and boondocking my way through the backcountry of the still-wild places seeking awe to counterbalance the trauma burden I carry and to truly live my life close to the bone.
I spend time with the landscape. I postup with outliers and trade stories with subterraneans—those with no fixed home but deep roots—speaking in languages none of us have seen, or heard, or read—and these are the voices I hope to curate within these pages.
As I write this first letter from the editor under my chosen name, I invite the evolution of the artist, the magazine, the mediums, and indeed the individual as we endeavor to include all forms of storytelling, all viewpoints, and all experiences.
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