For the past 22 years, AHA has released Praxis, our annual creative anthology, as a printed book. But 2020 has challenged us to think about redefining the way we’ve typically done things.
As we all navigate the global COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been working remotely since mid-March. So we decided to embrace this new world and try something new for our 23rd issue. This year, for the first time in our agency’s history, Praxis has gone all digital.
The new format allowed us to embrace the unknown and explore new creative mediums. The theme for this year’s issue is “Dream,” and we looked to our dreams—both literal and metaphorical—and collective hopes for a better future to help shape our artistic visions.
Praxis 2020 features 17 pieces from 20 contributors who created poetry, prose, music, video, painting, animation and more. We spoke with four of them to get more insight into what their creative processes looked like in a year unlike any other.
Elia Sykes, Marketing Coordinator
Elia designed a digital mixed-media piece.
This is your first year contributing to Praxis. Were there any challenges you ran up against?
A: I was excited for an opportunity to collaborate on something that represents our agency in such an incredible way. Praxis feels like the collective spirit of AHA. It was a challenge to get started and embrace my discomfort, but at the same time, being vulnerable through my piece made me feel like I was getting pulled deeper into our community.
Talk a little bit about your submission.
A: My piece is an expression of how I’m subconsciously processing darker moments. When I created this piece, I was having recurring dreams fueled by anxiety and stress. I was experiencing sleep paralysis some nights, and other times I’d wake up out of breath with my heart pounding and mind racing. In my dreams, and in my Praxis piece, reality is deconstructed while uncertainty and chaos weave themselves together.
You work in the marketing department at AHA, but you also have a background in design. What do you like about both marketing and design? Are there any similarities?
A: The common thread for me is pure communication. Whether it’s marketing or design, I’m trying to make deep connections and tell a story.
When you’re designing, do you prefer working digitally or on a physical canvas?
A: I prefer to work completely digitally when I’m designing, but I incorporate ideas based on my drawings or paintings I’ve done. I enjoy physical mixed media, but most of my art lives in the realm of line drawing, where I can focus on precision and intricacy.
Did Praxis give you the opportunity to make something that you may not have created otherwise?
A: I haven’t been designing as much as I would like lately, so Praxis definitely encouraged me to break through my recent creative block.
Do you find inspiration working on your own, or do you generate more creative energy when you’re working with others? Did not being in the same physical space as your colleagues affect your creative process when working on your piece?
A: I like having a balance of working on my own and collaborating. On one hand, I deeply value my colleagues’ insights and feel that the best ideas can come from conversations bursting with questions and what-ifs, but I also need to set boundaries for myself so that my work remains true to my vision and doesn’t morph into something else entirely.
These days, my “office colleagues” are my partner, Logan, and our two dogs. It’s nice to have creative conversations with Logan because he brings a different perspective and challenges my thinking in a way that only he can, since we know each other so well. That definitely influences my creative work in a positive and meaningful way.
Kevin Klinskidorn, Writer
Kevin wrote a short story.
Have you contributed to Praxis in previous years? If so, how was this year different, especially considering this is the first time that Praxis has gone all digital?
A: I had something in last year’s issue, yeah, but this year wasn’t all that different for me. Although it would have been cool to take advantage of the digital platform and link to the Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots song “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” that I imagine the family is listening to in the kitchen in my story.
Talk a little bit about your submission.
A: In a lot of my writing, especially the shorter stuff, I’ve been interested in the compression of time and how POV can shift at different points within a piece. This one does some of that, kind of zooming in and out of a life at different points. I like the idea of looking at different moments in a person’s life that might not seem consequential at the time but add up to something meaningful in the aggregate. With this one, you’re not really getting the hindsight of an old man looking back at his life but, instead, a strange narrative foresight.
Do you also write in your spare time? How does your personal creative work differ from the writing work you do on a day-to-day basis?
A: Wow, OK. WOW. Who’s got “spare” time these days? I have a couple short stories that I’ve picked up and put down a few times this year. And a novel project that I’ve been slowly—like, GLACIALLY—working on (also playing with time, sorta kinda). But, for the most part, I feel like my personal writing has kind of been on a distant back burner this year—had a new baby and a new pandemic to occupy most of my time.
Every once in a while, I get to work on more explicitly fictional stories for our clients, but I guess I end up thinking about audience in a totally different way when writing for clients versus writing for my own (very small) audience of one (it’s me—I’m my audience).
Did Praxis give you the opportunity to make something that you may not have created otherwise?
A: This piece is probably more of a continuation/variation on a theme for me. In an earlier—more childless—life, I prioritized time to do more of my personal writing. But it’s always good to have a project hanging over me to twist my arm.
You have an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers. Do you think having an MFA has been conducive to the writing you do in the marketing world? Why or why not?
A: I think working on an MFA, having that time to read and to write, made me think about writing stories differently than I might have had I not gone through that experience. It definitely made me a more careful, thoughtful reader, which, I hope, has made me a more thoughtful writer.
I can’t say I would draw a straight line from the MFA world to the marketing world—other than wanting a job with benefits. But I think all the different jobs I’ve done over the years, including teaching and studying writing, have informed what I do in the agency world.
I never really planned to work in this business, but I often think about a conversation I had with an art director friend at my first agency. We were talking (griping) about working at a creative agency, and he kind of interrupted our discussion (gripefest) and said, “Most of us didn’t plan on this, but it’s one of the few jobs that lets you make stuff and have crazy ideas with a bunch of other artists and actually get paid decently for it.” And I think he’s probably right.
Do you find inspiration in solitude, or do you generate more creative energy when you’re around others?
A: For my personal writing, I tend to need some quiet, at least for initial drafting and revising. But I have a few writing partners with whom I’ll trade work when it’s in a place for more eyes. For marketing stuff, I find that collaborating with other writers and designers will usually get the work to a better place than where I might’ve gotten it working on my own. I like the way ideas can bounce around a room (or, lately, a Zoom) full of smart people and get stronger and more interesting. I find that kind of energy extremely valuable in this business.
Elaina Ilminen, Senior Writer and Editor
Elaina wrote, performed and recorded a spoken-word video piece.
You’ve contributed to Praxis in previous years. How was this year different?
A: I decided to take advantage of the new medium by challenging myself a bit. I’ve always wanted to work on videos, but I only took one semester of Premiere Pro in college, and that was 12 years ago. And honestly, with all the craziness of this year, I ended up immersing myself in the video and audio of this project over a weekend and then refining it throughout the rest of the week to meet the deadline. The project evolved a lot from my early idea to what I ended up submitting.
Talk a little bit about your submission. What are some of its thematic elements?
A: Unrequited love is definitely one thread that carries throughout, and it’s also about moving on and trying to focus on other things like living a full, curious life. Looking to nature, the ocean and stars with wonder and awe. I don’t like the cliché of girls being princesses needing to find a prince.
When I lived in Wyoming a few years ago, people couldn’t understand how I ended up there alone. The assumption was always that I came with my husband. And despite all this and the joy I have found in an independent life, I still get lost in the ideas of love and happiness. I do get lonely, of course. And I do sometimes look at incredibly beautiful scenes outside and wish I had someone to share them with.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve dreamt a lot about past loves. And I think that is why this piece came to the surface for me this year. It started in my head after I lost the man I talk about in the piece. I never wrote about it, but occasionally I’d explore it throughout the years in my head. Then one weekend in September, the full piece formed in my mind, and I spoke it to myself as I made tea, which is when I decided to perform this deeply personal piece. I still feel awkward about it.
You’re a writer. Can you talk about how you decided to go beyond a written piece and how you would define your submission?
A: Janelle Monáe calls her music videos “emotion pictures.” Maybe it’s an attempt at something like that. Despite being a writer, this was very much a spoken-word piece. I practiced it several times and jotted a few key phrases, but I’ve never written it down entirely. And my goal with the visual and audio accompaniment was to try and bring people into the emotional space I often find myself in.
You really pushed yourself to learn new things to create your video submission. Have you worked on anything like this before?
A: I’ve never really made a video like this. It’s not what I had in mind when I found out we were going digital for this year’s issue. I originally wanted to write a song and film an intentionally rough music video. But as the deadline drew closer, I was nowhere near finished with the song. I had parts of several songs, but I couldn’t finish them. This idea formed one weekend, and I kept it as a backup in case I could finish the song.
Tommy Botthof, a colleague at AHA, was going to play guitar, but we couldn’t find time to collaborate and I didn’t want to do a song without him. I think that’ll still be a future project though, for sure. And it’ll probably be a really uplifting and celebratory tune.
Both video and sound mixing have intimidated me a bit. But now that I’ve done it, I’d love to do even more.
Do you find inspiration in solitude, or do you find that you generate more creative energy when you’re around others? You worked on this year’s submission mostly on your own. How did that affect your creative process?
A: It really depends. I can be creative on my own. I write, paint, draw and come up with absurd business ideas. But I also love to collaborate. I think riffing with someone can be the most inspiring thing.
The piece I submitted resonates with solitude and feels appropriate for my current reality. I live alone with my cat, Sir Calvin Underfoot. Most of my family is in the Midwest. Most of my friends are scattered around the globe. We’ve all faced challenges this year, and I have wanted to hug them. Babies were born, and I couldn’t hold them. And at the end of a long day, I just wanted to be held. That and my reflections on my past relationships made this come to life.
For last year’s issue of Praxis, I worked with my friend and colleague Alyssa DiJoseph to co-write a story and match each other’s tone. It was an interesting challenge. One similarity is the self-consciousness that haunts the process. Then there were some thoughts like, “Am I writing well enough to measure up to what she’s writing?” I put together this year’s piece in solitude, and now those thoughts have shifted to things like, “Will anyone like this piece? Am I a mopey cliché?” But the idea came and I acted on it, which I feel good about.
Brian Smith, Designer
Have you contributed to Praxis in previous years? If so, how was this year different?
A: I have, and each year has felt unique. In my first year here, I collaborated with a writer at AHA and provided illustrations for creative cocktail recipes, and last year, I did a photo essay and designed an AHA soccer scarf.
I wanted to push myself to do something unexpected again this year, and the digital platform really opened up all kinds of possibilities. The biggest challenge was probably figuring out what I wanted to do.
You did an individual submission for this year’s issue, and you also collaborated with several other contributors to do designs and illustrations for their written pieces. How were those experiences different? Do you find inspiration working on your own, or do you generate more creative energy when you’re working with others?
A: I really love doing illustrations to pair with other people’s creative written work. Sometimes it can be challenging to visually align with what each of us sees in our own heads, but in my experiences with Praxis, it’s been a remarkably seamless and gratifying process.
Collaborating in this way takes some of the pressure off of coming up with your own ideas in a vacuum. I really kind of let go and let the words on the page form the visuals, and I try to translate what I see into the illustrations. In that way, there’s an unexpected freedom I find in collaborating with other creatives.
That being said, I do find inspiration working on my own as well. It’s a different kind of creative energy—maybe a little more frenetic—and there’s a lot more exploration and messiness in the beginning. Sometimes it takes me a little longer to home in on what I want to create, but I’m always seeking inspiration from other sources, so it’s never a truly solitary process.
Describe what you did for your individual submission.
I have a burgeoning interest in field recording, so I spent the summer going on solo hikes with my new TASCAM handheld recorder. Beyond the occasional noise of rushing wind and water, it’s kind of amazing how quiet Pacific Northwest forests can be. It’s especially apparent when you set out to capture sound—the creaking of a dead tree, the clicking of grasshopper wings and the clinking of sliding rocks. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with these recordings, but I knew I wanted to weave them together somehow.
Texture is something that has always fascinated me. Not just the physical aspect, but the textures of everything around us in the world—the soundscapes of a place, the visual tapestry of nature, the patterns of a language. These things give me a sense of grounding and connectedness to the world. There’s beauty in the imperfection of textures and nature that I find super interesting and comforting.
So for my Praxis piece this year, I set out to capture some of those textures and patch them together to create a unique, dreamlike soundscape. I also sourced and incorporated bits of an old 1939 Works Progress Administration recording, available for fair use from the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. I wanted the music to have a watery, almost painterly presence in the piece, flowing through and loosely binding the field recordings together.
I also put together a simple accompanying motion graphic to act as the “album cover” to the track, which was inspired by the shadows of tree branches and water lapping over smooth, colorful stones, one of my favorite natural textures.
Talk a little bit about your background as a designer and an illustrator. Do you see differences between the two? What are some similarities?
I was drawn to art from a young age, but I also loved books and writing. I was never formally trained as a designer, but I have an undergraduate degree in art with a concentration in printmaking, which shares some core principles with design. I also love the written word and received my graduate degree in writing and book publishing, with a concentration in book design.
My first job out of graduate school was as a production assistant at a children’s and young adult book publisher, where I designed book layouts and various marketing materials. I eventually took over as the design and production director, had ownership of the book designs and actually became a contributing artist for a couple projects—all of which solidified my interest in the design world.
In a way, I see design as a way to practice art from a practical perspective. There are definitely differences between the work I do in a purely artistic realm versus professional, but they’re not dissimilar in many ways. Often I find one will inform the other and vice versa. It’s always fun to find ways to bridge those gaps and even sneak a little more artistry into the corporate world.
Is design something you do just for work, or do you enjoy doing it in your free time?
Normally, I’m happiest when I’m traveling and experiencing different cultures and places, but that couldn’t happen this year, so I went to the woods a lot. I also focused on new little hobbies, like the field recording and sound mixing. Additionally, I spent a lot of time hanging with my cat, reading, watching films and TV and drinking wine with my wife in the backyard.
It’s definitely hard for me to spend extracurricular time on my computer, especially doing design work, but I do volunteer design work for a couple organizations, and as a passion project, I also design for a local Premier League soccer supporters club.
Are there any designers or artists that you admire?
Oh, plenty. I couldn’t name them all, but there are a few that influenced my Praxis piece this year. Chris Watson is an amazing musician and wildlife sound recordist who initially got me interested in field recordings. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist and sound recordist who does some really interesting work in the Olympic National Forest. And various experimental musicians, composers and sound artists like Ipek Gorgun, whose album Ecce Homo definitely influenced my interest in sonic arts. I also love the traditional Japanese aesthetic worldview of wabi-sabi, which is typically a common thread throughout my work.