Portraits, Punk, and Pajamas

A Rainy Saturday Morning with Miriam Klein Stahl

Miriam Klein Stahl is the artist behind the New York Times best-selling “Rad Women” series: Rad American Women A-Z (City Lights) and Rad Women Worldwide (Ten Speed Press), both collaborations with the writer Kate Schatz. Raised in Southern California, Klein Stahl has been teaching for 23 years and currently is the lead teacher of the Arts and Humanities Academy at Berkeley High School. She lives with her wife Lena Wolff and daughter Hazel in Berkeley, California.

On November 19, 2016, Miriam and I spent a rainy Saturday morning discussing my crazy phone case, her art, reviews of her book, and the influence of punk music on her life and work. The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Part of the fabric of the city: a self-portrait of the artist (© 2013 Miriam Klein Stahl)

9:00 AM Richmond, California

My yellow galoshes rip as I rush out of my apartment into the unexpected downpour. I turn around, head back inside, and duct tape the spot—but I’m now behind schedule, so have run a half mile to BART, cursing my flat boots with every step I take. Directions baffle me, but I am without an umbrella and only have my phone to guide me.

10:00 AM Berkeley, California

Happily, Miriam herself is outside of her home, looking for me as I turn the corner onto her street. When I arrive at her porch — the first cover from the rain in the last 20 minutes—we laugh at how ridiculous the weather is. I yank off my pesky yellow boots to reveal fuzzy pajama socks.

Everything in this little Berkeley cottage fits the small space perfectly: from the couches to the kitchen table, nothing overcrowds the place. Most of the furnishings have a polished retro feel to them. She offers me some tea and I try to make polite small talk as I pry apart my waterlogged four-piece Otterbox Defender phone case.

Hazel, Miriam’s daughter, marvels at all of the wet pieces sprawled across my lap: “Wow, your phone has a lot of parts.”

Miriam asks Hazel if she would like to get dressed or stay in her pajamas, and Hazel immediately says, “Pajamas!” I tell her I don’t blame her — I love to lounge in my PJ’s on Saturday mornings.

Our background soundtrack is the washing machine in the kitchen spinning through a wash cycle and the rain tapping the windows, refusing to let us forget its presence.

10:08 AM Berkeley, CA

Finally, I meet Miriam’s gaze, set the blasted phone between us, and start recording.

So, what brought you to the Bay Area?

MKS: I think I needed to leave my home town and I was — was and still am a punk. So I knew of the punk scene up here and I had some pen pals and some connections and so I went to college at S.F State. I really wanted to live in a vibrant city with a lot going on. I wanted to be able to go see music all the time and see art all the time and at that time it was an accessible place to live. Rent was two or three hundred dollars a month. A lot of like-minded people came to San Francisco around that time.

I have seen punk music crop up in some of your interviews, and in your work. What about punk music speaks to you?

MKS: I think that it was a place where I found politics and art merging, and I found community there and a sense of self and place. And it was chaotic but also totally organized.

What are some of the bands/artists that have inspired your work?

Ian MacKaye, who founded Dischord Records. His approach—making art very accessible and very cheap or free—has been something that has stuck with me. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a job as a teacher for 23 years so I have a steady paycheck and it’s enabled me to make artwork that I don’t necessarily need to be paid for, and in the last few years I’ve been able to make books that there have been many copies of. My last book has over forty images in it and it’s 14 dollars and so I feel like that’s kind of a new way where I try to make accessible artwork.

Can you tell me about your process?

MKS: I start with just a black piece of paper and I make a drawing with a pencil on it on the paper and then I use an X-acto knife and cut out the parts that I want to be white and I have to figure out how to keep all of the parts that remain black still connected and just one piece of paper.

How long does a piece generally take you to complete?

MKS: I don’t totally love answering that because it kind of bums people out in a way. Drawing takes me awhile but the actual cutting takes about ten minutes. Only because I do it every day so I’ve gotten really fast at it, but the drafting can take a really long time to get right.

I know this answer probably changes depending on what you’re working on, but a lot of your work are portraits of people. Why is that?

MKS: Well. Not all of my work. But the books for sure — it’s just what we’ve chosen to portray in those books and I would like to move towards illustrating more about movements and groups of people rather than individuals. But at the moment, with the narratives that Kate’s writing and the portraits that I’m doing, paper cuts just seemed to be a good medium to make very bold imagery that is recognizable from far away but still interesting to look at up close.

How did you and Kate Schatz decide who would wind up in the Rad Women A-Z book? Was it an easy choice who would be assigned which letter?

MKS: It wasn’t easy but some letters were harder than others, like A’s and M’s — there’s a lot [to choose from]. Kate and I just had conversations and I feel like we both made some compromises. The only one that was hard for me was for ‘S’: I really wanted this printmaker Sister Frieda, who made these beautiful anti-war posters during the Vietnam War era, and she wanted Sonia Sotomayor, and Kate won out on that one.

Who from the books would you most like to have a conversation with?

MKS: Dead or alive?

Either. Which makes it even harder, I’m sure.

MKS: I think, for ‘living’, it’d maybe be Chimamanda Adichie who is a contemporary writer that I really like. And then maybe the Grimke Sisters for ‘not alive’.

Why?

MKS: The Grimke Sisters because they had a lot of privilege in our society and they rejected that privilege to become abolitionists and they really believed in their gut that slavery was totally immoral and wrong, so I just think they’d be totally interesting to talk to. And Chimamanda Adichie because I admire her as a writer and I’ve seen some interviews with her and I just think she has a really interesting perspective on the world and I’d just love to talk to her about contemporary issues and art.

Do you read the customer reviews for your book, like on Amazon?

MKS: Sometimes. There are a couple of negative ones where people felt that they weren’t ready to talk about trans issues with their kids and we have the story of Kate Bornstein—‘K is for Kate’—in the A-Z book and there was a couple of pissed-off reviews about that. I just feel like their kids should learn that there’s transgender people in the world and so it didn’t bother me much. But that’s also where we’ve gotten some hate mail as well from women who don’t believe that there can be a Trans woman. They’re like: ‘you put a man in your book and your book is great besides that you put a man in there.’ So what can you do? The A-Z book was put on Yahoo! News or something when it first came out and there were some crazy comments on that and I thought they were really funny. I kind of want to collect all the horrible things that people say about the book—it’s kind of hilarious. Things like: “I’m gonna buy this book and use it as toilet paper.” And Angela Davis is a very polarizing figure. People asked, “How can you put a terrorist in your book?’ And then there was this one comment: ‘if you do the A-Z book about men, you couldn’t… It’d be taller than the empire state building.’

How has your work changed or developed over time?

MKS: I think that I get better because I practice every day. Today on Buzzfeed I have nine new portraits in an article you can look at when you get home. Kate and I put it together. It’s just nine American women who made a big change in politics, as a response to the election.

On your website you have some collaborative pieces you and some other artists made for the Occupy movement. Will you be doing something like that again in response to the election?

MKS: I made this poster with my students. You can take it—we made a bunch of them.

When did you make this?

MKS: Last week. Like, the day after [the election]. And we’re having a meeting at our house tomorrow with artists and writers and teachers to organize how we’re going to respond.

How do you talk to your daughter about politics?

MKS: I think we made a really big parenting mistake because we’ve been bashing Trump for months and saying how hateful he is and we didn’t actually think he’d be elected. So when he was, she was very scared because we’d been saying he’s full of hate so it was scary for her.

I know there are some conservative patches in Southern California, did you see any of Trump rhetoric crop up in your Facebook from back home?

MKS: No. I don’t know any Trump supporters. My family’s Jewish and radical so I didn’t encounter anybody. That added to the confusion of how this happened because I do live in quite a bubble.

Do you have a favorite piece?

MKS: Definitely from the books I have ones that I like more than others. I think in the new book I really like the Miriam Makeba and in A — Z I like the Kate Bornstein.

10:43 AM Berkeley CA

I look out the window and it appears the rain has stopped. I ask Miriam if we can go outside to see her studio. I struggle to put on my boots and step on the wet deck outside to avoid putting my boots on the floor indoors. We head through a green, beautiful backyard and shuffle into Miriam’s brand new studio. They have built it themselves, and it is still in the process of being finished. There is a sign on the stairs that lead up to a little loft/guest sleeping area that says “wet paint!” In all, it feels very open and airy.

Your wife is an artist as well. Do you have separate spaces or do you both use this space?

MKS: I can work pretty much anywhere so most of the space is hers and I use a table, a little wooden table. It’s really minimal what I need to do.

Do you ever work on your respective projects at the same time?

MKS: Yeah only, our work style is really different. She is extraordinarily meticulous and slow and deliberate, and I’m really fast and a bit sloppy. Our styles are really different so it’s not very conducive to work at the same time in the same place because she’ll ask my opinion on, like, a color and she’ll want me to look at it for a good ten minutes. My answer will come in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘that one’, whereas she could sit and look at color for an hour. So we both work with paper but in a really different way.

On the wall is one of Lena’s works, and based on all of the differing materials surrounding that desk, it is clear that the space is largely reserved for her. But Miriam stages her newest cut-outs and tools for me on her little wooden table.

When I ask her who they are, she tells me that I have to find out by reading the Buzzfeed article.

What are you working on now?

MKS: Well, we’ve just finished a journal that’s coming out in the summer and right now Kate and I are working on what we’re going to be doing next. So we’re writing proposals to our publisher and we’ll start on the new book probably this spring. In the meantime, I’m doing a skateboard company. It’s with a writer in L.A Tara Jepsen—she’s a comedian and a writer and she started skateboarding in her forties. I started skateboarding as a little kid and so we’re doing a skate company called Pave the Way. This professional skateboarder, Ryan Anderson, came out last month. He’s one of the most famous skaters in the world, and all of this homophobia has cropped up in skateboarding after that. And so we’re doing a deck with a bunch of gay people on the bottom.

Where can people get these boards?

MKS: Probably just a few skate shops. And Tara organizes these skateboard jams at pools with all women.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

MKS: We have this poster on our refrigerator over there that says ‘Be Nice and Help’—so something simple like that. In my interactions with students I try to live that too, and be an example. Don’t be a jerk, you know? Just be helpful, be nice.