For her fall freshman seminar “Studies in Visual Biography,” Jessica Helfand gave her students a unique assignment: to “re-invent” a person based on a real-life shopping list, one that was abandoned by its maker and later found by someone else.
The grocery lists were taken from Bill Keaggy’s online collection of more than 2,000 such lists, written on scraps of paper. The eight freshmen were asked to write a paragraph describing the list-maker and then create a collage that illustrates some aspect of his or her life.
The resulting biographies and collages have been collected in a book, “The List Project,” made by Publication Studio, an Oregon-based experiment in sustainable publication, which is in residence through Nov. 19 in New Haven at the Coop Center for Creativity, 196 College St. The studio’s visit is hosted by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and ArtSpace New Haven in conjunction the ArtSpace exhibition ”Library Science.”
In her introduction to the book, Hefland — a senior critic in graphic design — explains the ways in which her students were inspired to think about biography as they “excavate the personal odyssey of the individual who might have made” the shopping list they each were given.
“Such inquiry obliged them to mine their skills as amateur biographers, forensics experts and newly minted visual thinkers,” Hefland writes. “Was the scribe young or old? Single or married? Gay or straight, black or white, male or female —and why? Is it the handwriting? The paper choice? Do the items on the list give the person away? And what of the wretched penmanship, the poor spelling? What are the visual cues, and how does our imagination play into reading and interpreting such seemingly random details? What is challenged, lost, or gained in constructing the imagined back story of a total stranger, and what does this say about our back stories, and the biases we unwittingly invoke as we try to understand the stories of others?”
Her teaching assistant, Jessica Svendsen, an M.F.A. candidate at the Yale School of Art, designed “The List Project.” She found examples of more than a dozen kinds of ledger paper for the cover so that each book cover is unique, says Helfand. In addition, stick-on labels for the cover and inside the book were found locally at a flea market, and the rubber stamps that were used for the title were purchased in the New Haven stationary store Perkins.
“The project was all very collaborative and locally produced,” Helfand says.
The grocery list-makers imagined by the freshmen include a woman who unexpectedly became pregnant but experiences the freedom of her former life when smoking cigarettes (her list included infant formula and Marlboro Lights”); a widow and mother of three who, unbeknownst to her family and friends, works at night as a stripper (her list includes undergarments from Wal-Mart); a struggling writer who has lost hope (her list includes reminders to write letters and buy a pistol); and a shy teacher whose only real social contacts in life are her many pets and her first-grade students (her list mostly includes pet food).
Her students’ creations, says Helfand, are as revealing as the grocery lists they used to spark their imagination.
“While the lists themselves may be long forgotten,” she writes, “the work that follows [in the book] will endure — becoming, in a sense, a collective biography of these young artists at a particular moment in their lives. And what is a list, after all, but a fleeting gesture of permanence in a world that never ceases to change? In the end, we make lists to stay afloat: part blueprint, part life raft, they contribute to a sense of who are in the world, helping us to navigate as we crawl inevitably forward. … In their own bumbling way, lists bear witness. And so, it would seem, should we.”