Image of a letter press. Cream colored paper is being put into the silver letter press.

Fit to Print

What did these Mills alums do when they couldn’t find voices like theirs coming out of traditional printing presses? They started their own.

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To forge their own paths in an exclusive industry, numerous Mills alums have started their own presses and publications. Here are three of them.

By Arya Samuelson, MFA ’19

Mills has always been a refuge for artists bucking the conventional path. The stellar undergraduate arts courses, acclaimed experimental MFA degrees, and unique Book Art master’s program welcomed thousands of students over the years into a lineage of radical art making. Amber McCrary, Virginia Mudd, and Mira Mason-Reader are all alumnae who have continued this legacy beyond Mills—not only as artists, but as creators of publishing presses that counter the trends of a notoriously elitist, racist, and male-dominated industry. In contrast, these alumnae are publishing marginalized voices and perspectives, taking stands on issues that matter, and challenging capitalist models of success to celebrate the joy and pleasure of creative expression.

Amber McCrary. Photo by Deidra Peaches.

“I thought the artists were the cool kids,” says Amber McCrary, MFA ’20, on growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, as a Diné (Navajo) woman. After graduating from college, McCrary’s passion for punk rock and rebelliousness toward corporate culture inspired her to start creating zines. Featuring poetry and collaged art, her zines were gorgeously handmade, evocative explorations of themes that mattered to her, such as the muse of the desert and sensuality of the Arizona landscape, buried Native histories, the uprising of Indigenous feminisms, and her own musings as a “daydreaming, awkward Native girl.” Sharing these zines initiated McCrary into a larger community of young Native writers and gave her the courage to seek out the Mills MFA program to further hone her craft as a poet.

At Mills, McCrary says she was excited to join a welcoming cohort of writers where everyone had their own voices. Whereas many MFA programs can be notoriously competitive, McCrary says she felt supported and inspired by her Mills professors, particularly Truong Tran and Stephanie Young, and she loved the collaborative nature of the program. “I want my Mills cohort to win all the awards. I want them to thrive as much as possible,” McCrary proudly declares. In her final semester, her appreciation of zines inspired her to enroll in a bookmaking class on protest and resistance with Professor Emerita of Book Art Kathleen Walkup, where she learned about the beauty of book arts. Witnessing the entire process of bookmaking—from writing and editing to design—planted the seeds that would ultimately lead McCrary on her publishing journey.

After graduating from Mills and teaching workshops at the Emerging Diné Writers Institute in New Mexico, she began to wonder what it would be like to start a press just for Native writers. “I had never met other Navajo writers,” she says, “and I was shocked by how many great Native writers and mentors of all ages there were.” In January 2021, with the encouragement of her writing mentors, she launched Abalone Mountain Press, “a place for Indigenous writers to dismantle the canon.”

Hummingbird Heart, a zine by Kinsale Drake and Alice Mao from Abalone Mountain Press.

Abalone Mountain Press is an indigiqueer, trans, nonbinary, Black Indigenous, and Indigenous feminist-friendly press. The meaning behind the name comes from the Diné for the so-called San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Abalone Shell Mountain is considered one of the four sacred mountains for Diné people. As editor-in-chief, McCrary says that she refuses to choose work that elevates the white gaze, perpetuates cringey Native stereotypes, or focuses only on the negatives of Native life. “I’m excited to think about Indigenous love, Indigenous joy, and the Native urban experience,” she says. “Most of all, I want to publish as many different kinds of things as possible by Native voices.” Abalone’s first publication was Portals of Indigenous Futurism: A Zine Anthology of Indigenous Futurism. The press has since published Navajo coloring books, collaborative zines, an anthology on Indigenous love and sex, and a full-length poetry collection about tricksters by a two-Spirit Lakota author.

Though Abalone Mountain Press is still in its early days, McCrary has gotten a glowing reception in the local community and broader publishing world. She was chosen as one of the Great 48 in PHOENIX magazine in 2021 and awarded the Rising Star Award by Arizona Humanities in 2022. Meanwhile, her first chapbook, Electric Deserts!, was published by Tolsum Press in 2020, and she is anticipating a fellowship with the Native Arts and Culture Foundation in 2023 to conduct research for a prose project while working to finish her first book of poetry. Not to fear: McCrary is still making zines. “The book industry is all about polish, but zines aren’t perfect,” she muses, “and that’s why I love them.”

Mira Mason-Reader

As a young artist, Mira Mason-Reader ’15 wondered whether college was the right path for her. But the day she visited Mills, she quickly fell in love with the nature of the arts program: “Mills was all about forming you as a cohesive, opinionated person, while giving you space to be weird and bizarre. I was like, ‘Yes, that’s what I want,’” she says.

As an undergraduate, Mason-Reader gravitated towards creative writing and dance, and she says she loved most of all how professors and students encouraged each other to take risks. “We learned that just because writing has been done this way doesn’t mean it has to be. Everything I learned at Mills came from that mindset,” she says. While at Mills, Mason-Reader volunteered with The Walrus and honed her craft for editorial work and aesthetics by publishing a chapbook as her final thesis project. She was especially influenced by a poetry class with Steven Ratcliffe, who shared how he had started a printed chapbook press with his classmates decades before. “It planted a seed, and I began to think, ‘Hey, maybe I could do that,’” she adds. The idea returned the summer after Mason-Reader graduated. She realized how much she missed being among fellow creatives and asked herself: “How can I keep this going?”

Mason-Reader began to scheme out the creation of a new online journal called Apricity Press, taking its title from an antiquated word meaning “the warmth of the sun in winter.” She says she felt excited to blend everything she learned from college, and that Mills gave her the permission to take this kind of risk: “What was the worst thing that could happen? What could be wrong with trying?”

The most recent issue of Apricity Press.

Now in its seventh year, Apricity Press is a home to art, literature, and dance from all over the world. The inclusion of dance is particularly unique among literary journals. When asked why it felt important, Mason-Reader says: “Dance is so fleeting. If it’s not recorded, it’s just gone. I wanted it to be able to keep on living through the page.” Apricity is cost-free and international, and it seeks to be accessible to anyone in the world at any time. Though Apricity uses an open submission process, Mason-Reader has been delighted to feature writers from her cohort—and she shared that all six editors for the press have ties to Mills. No matter the genre, Mason-Reader says that she looks for art that “feels sure of itself, whether it’s literal or abstract. Everything we publish has its own presence.” Apricity is part of the EBSCO Humanities Collection, nominates writers for the Pushcart Prize, and hopes to move towards becoming a paying market in the coming years.

Currently, Mason-Reader lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she pursues her editorial work for Apricity as a labor of love alongside her full-time job at an environmental nonprofit. “So much of art is viewed as a commodity, but Mills approached art as a way of being,” Mason-Reader reflects. “That’s what I want for Apricity, for it be a place of experiencing art together. I hope that Apricity can continue to create that space that Mills did for me—art for art’s sake.”

“I’ve often wondered if I should follow a more conventional path, but I just couldn’t do it. Figure out what you love, and find a way to do it in service to the world.”

–Virginia Mudd

By the time Virginia Mudd ’87 enrolled at Mills, she had already lived a full life. She had worked for a congressional office, run a restaurant in the earliest days of farm-to-table, biked 3,000 miles across the country, and published a memoir about the ride. It was this last experience that inspired her to choose the Book Art program at Mills. “Learning about publishing as a writer made me realize that I could set the type, bind the book, refine the contents, and design the whole process. It was quite a revelation,” she says.

Mudd began as a student at age 47, where she was part of a five-person cohort. She became captivated by the craft and handwork that went into the process, especially the intimate engagement with the material. She left with the determination to start her own press: “I knew exactly what I was looking for at Mills, and it delivered,” Mudd says.

A print of the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann from Desert Rose Press.

While a student, she was instructed by Walkup to read a Xeroxed copy of a book titled Printing Poetry by Clifford Burke. After graduating and apprenticing with Wesley Tanner, one of the premier letterpress printers, Mudd remembered that book from class and set out to find a hard copy. After much searching, Mudd managed to contact the author, who lived in Washington state and happened to be selling several of his typecases. They made plans to meet up for the sale, and after a whirlwind couple of days in San Francisco, they fell in love. “I had planned to go off into the desert and be like Georgia O’Keefe, a solitary artist with a rifle in my lap, but then Clifford interrupted all of my plans,” she jokes lovingly.

Mudd launched Desert Rose Press in 1989. Her first project was Earth Day cards, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the holiday. Burke joined her in 1990 when they published limited editions of artist books, greeting cards, and broadsides using traditional letterpress and contemporary printing techniques. “Our press sought to be in service to the greater good and the movement to keep the earth sacred, safe, and healthy,” she says. Among their publications were cards and images featuring poetry from Rainier Maria Rilke, the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra, the Indigenous Chief Seattle, and Saint Francis, all of which were handpainted, letterpressed, and ultimately digitized. All of Mudd and Burke’s editorial decisions were motivated by the communication arts, which Mudd defines as “the impulse to communicate what you love.”

Though the press was eventually sold to Mudd’s niece, all of the original materials—including Mudd’s two memoirs—are available online. At 73 years of age, Mudd continues to practice the communication arts from her home in New Mexico, publishing an active newsletter about the earth and activism. “Find out what brings you joy,” she implores. “Whatever it might be for you, how are you communicating it to people so they can share and be inspired?”

The modern-day publishing industry is known for its gatekeeping around race, gender, class, and normative narratives. Between 1950 and 2018, 95% of books published with top publishers were written by white authors, and in 2020, only 10% of The New York Times best-seller list was written by people of color. According to VIDA, which analyzes the number of women published by the most prestigious literary and journalistic publications, only three major outlets published a majority of women. Beyond the numbers, publications are regularly selected to appeal to the tastes of an imagined white, middle-class audience.

In such a landscape, pushing publishing forward looks like many things: uplifting marginalized voices, choosing stories that challenge normative narratives, blending disciplines, treating (and paying!) artists with dignity and equity, and creating gathering spaces for art to be experienced and celebrated collectively. Sometimes, pushing on publishing can also mean returning to its roots: to the tactile pleasure and thrill of creating with your own hands.

No matter the approach, it takes courage to create something new. To alums seeking to tread new ground, McCrary suggests starting with a small and scalable project: “Zines helped me work my way up.” Reflecting on the whole of her varied and abundant life, Mudd emphasizes the importance of following her heart: “I’ve often wondered if I should follow a more conventional path, but I just couldn’t do it. Figure out what you love, and find a way to do it in service to the world.” Mason-Reader’s guidance for other creatives is to remember that there’s no need to follow what we expect women or artists to be: “That doesn’t mean anything. The world is how we make it.”