Books that are themselves a work of art. An amalgam of the visual and the written word in one perfect flow. This is what artist Alexandra Grant had in mind when this year when she founded her small publishing house, X Artists’ Books alongside actor Keanu Reeves and graphic designer Jessica Fleischmann. X Artists’ launched a total of four books in 2017, which compliment each other in an astounding way but are also diametrically different: The Artists’ Prison, High Winds, The Words of Others (Palabras ajenas), and (Zus).
The Artists’ Prison, Grant’s own collaboration with visual artist Eve Woods, presents a dystopian future in which artists can be punished for their creativity. High Winds is described as “an adults’ book for sleepless nights,” with images that can certainly make the reader feel in a state of half dream-half wakefulness, floating in a world that is surreal but also incredibly vivid.
Grant has delved in book publishing before. In 2011, she worked alongside Keanu Reeves in putting together a book that combined Grant’s images with Reeves’ words and the result was Ode to Happiness, a study in hopelessness, humor and internal monologue. From this collaboration and friendship with the actor, Grant was inspired to find a way in presenting books that served as working spaces for different artists to express their creativity.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Alexandra Grant explained more about the reason behind X Artists’ and the incredibly satisfying experience that she’s found in these different collaborations.
How was the idea for X Artists’ born?
I kept thinking that there’s this subliminal place between the writing and the visual, and that’s what I wanted my playground to be. And that’s partly how the book company got started, and because every year we want to create at least four new spaces, four new playgrounds, new ideas. It’s not philanthropy in the old fashioned sense, but these books area about creating opportunities for our writers and our artists. Also, hopefully engaging readers and viewers with new ideas. Our new book, High Winds is the collaboration between a graphic designer and a playwright, and that is so cool that these people got to work together.
Did the idea for founding the company alongside Keanu Reeves emerge from your previous collaboration with him on your book Shadows?
Keanu and I collaborated on two books: Ode to Happiness and Shadows. I actually made Ode to Happiness for Keanu based on a very funny sixteen line poem that he’d written, and then we just surprised him with the book. We never really set out to publish a book really, but all our friends though it was incredibly funny and wanted a copy of it. Later, we got in touch with Gerhard Steidl who is a top printer in Europe, and it was such an honor to work with him.
I am a huge believer in organic creativity, sometimes it just takes years for ideas to arrive. Shadows came about because an editor in Paris wanted us to do an image and a text back-to-back, and I thought it would be very cool to take photos of Keanu’s shadow, and then he could write about that. The magazine never really happened, but we did the first photo shoot and the pictures turned out really beautiful.
So to inspire Keanu, I sent him a quote from Malcolm Lowry from his work Under the Volcano, in which there’s a Mexican woman and an American man and she says to him “I don’t even have a home, I can’t offer you a home, but you can live in my shadow.” And I loved that! I thought it was romantic, generous ambiguous. I mean, what does that even mean? And the fact that every person no matter who they are, has a shadow and that makes us equal in a way.
That first night, Keanu ended up writing eighty-five poems, and they were all so beautiful. What I ended up learning from Shadows ,is that a good idea can become a book, but then the book can become an exhibition. Shadows created so many different worlds and realities, and that shows that books are connectors. They open spaces instead of closing them down.
I had no idea Keanu Reeves was also a writer. He’s such a versatile actor, and I imagine that as a writer he performs in the same way.
Because of his profession, there’s so much focus on embodying. So when he uses his own words, I think he’s very thoughtful. He loves books, he’s a huge reader, and this is a big part of who he is, being committed to writers and reading. I can’t speak for him of course, but I do know that our shared passion comes from being in love with storytelling and great writing.
Your own body of work as an artist is quite impressive. Will you still produce art in the same way you’ve been doing, or are you now more dedicated to publishing?
There’s four of us working in this company: Jessica ( Fleischmann) is a very talented graphic designer, and she handles everything related to design, the paper choices and everything related to that. My sister, who has a PhD in History of Science that I barely understand, is involved too as an editor, so it’s very much a team effort. This year, we’ve done four books in six months which is quite fast, but the books were pretty much finished by the time we got involved. So these are huge collaborations, but the thing that is interesting is that all of us have other jobs; so we’ll do the number of books that we can do with the four us involved. The way the company is set up now, it fits in without taking away from other parts of our lives.
Your collaboration with visual artist Eve Woods, The Artists’ Prison, is described as depicting a society where creativity can be considered a crime. Do you think this in true in today’s art world?
I’m now in my forties, and I think it’s interesting that when you’re this age, the idealism of youth doesn’t go away, but the locus of identity certainly shift a bit. When I was younger, I believed there were going to be so many more women in art. And there are, but not as many as I had hoped. So The Artists’ Prison is about the shift of idealism, the conundrums that you find in any creative profession.
I’m going to put you on the spot and ask which one of the four books published this year is your favorite?
I like each one of them for completely different reasons. But in founding the company, we didn’t launch until we had all four books ready. I grew up speaking Spanish, so I’m always torturing Keanu about el abanico de posibilidades (the fan of possibilities). For me el abanico that we’re presenting with the company, is what’s interesting. The fact that we are able to have one book that was almost Kafkian deadpan satire, then another that’s a trans-male playwright who makes a Western is just amazing. So my favorite part is that we were able to present the whole assortment of these books to people.
What would you like readers to take away from these works?
For me as a human, a maker, and now as a publisher I always wanted to present something that gives a sense of possibility, freedom and permission. People have very different responses, so I’m very interested in feedback and if we can inspire and say “you have the freedom to think creatively,” then that’s the best job we could have done as publishers.