Dorothea Tanning: The Artist Who Pushed the Boundaries of Surrealism

As Great Art Explained‘s James Payne notes in the above profile of Surrealist Dorothea Tanning, the emotional and psychological complexity of her work invites interpretation, particularly when it comes to one of best known paintings, 1943’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Its doors, young girls (femme-enfants, if you prefer) and sunflower were recurrent themes for her.

What’s it mean?

Tanning maintained the painting is about “confrontation:”

Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theaters where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim….

Art historian Whitney Chadwick, author of Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, dared to compare Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Pierre Roy’s 1927 work Danger on the Stairs, which Tanning may have encountered during her life changing visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s ground breaking 1936 exhibit Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.

Both paintings unfold on narrow, windowless landings. Roy’s features a snake, that harbinger of “Freudian symbolic content”, slithering down a staircase; Tanning’s two long-haired girls in Victorian deshabille and a “torn and writhing sunflower, an image strongly identified with Tanning’s Midwestern origins, close to nature and capable of conveying impressions of both fecundity and menace.”

Tanning bridled at the temerity of Chadwick’s characterization:

To compare my vision with the perfectly proportioned and very photographic depiction of a snake (anaconda) on a stair, neatly painted, somewhat in the manner of Magritte, is simple-minded. The scene, though infrequent, is possible in the natural outside world. Mine is not.

Could it be that the sunflower is a trap set for experts unable to resist the pull of publicly interpreting a Surrealist scene?

Tanning died in 2012 at the age of 101, but Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s sunflower continues to exert its siren pull.

Art historian, Catriona McAra, author of A Surrealist Stratigraphy of Dorothea Tanning’s Chasm sees it as a symbol of “defloration, menstruation and erotic nocturnal knowledge”, while art historian Selin Genc pegs it as “the unknown the child senses within herself: a source of concern and fascination.”

Far be it from us to hazard a guess in the public forum, though we’d be keen to get an adolescent girl’s unofficial take on it, particularly if she shares Tanning’s fascination for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is as yet unacquainted with the Surrealists, female or otherwise.

Given that many young teens understand gender to be a non-binary proposition, our hypothetical interviewee might appreciate Tanning’s staunch rejection of the label ‘woman artist’, insisting that “there is no such thing or person” and it is “just as much a contradiction in terms as ‘man artist’ or ‘elephant artist’.”

21st-century artists of all ages, genders and genres could benefit from her advice to “keep your eye on your inner world and keep away from ads, idiots and movie stars.”

That, friends, is how you make Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In a 2001 article in ARTnews titled The Oldest Living Surrealist Tells (Almost) All, Tanning, then 91 and “still alive in every way” spelled it out:

(Art) should make us feel good about life, or at least make us think about the big questions, the things that people don’t want to ask themselves anymore.”

Here’s some more of Dorothea Tanning’s work to get you started on those questions.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

DJ Cummerbund’s Astonishing Mashups Create Unexpected Collaborations Between Rock, Soul & Hip Hop Icons

“History in the making,” Jay-Z calls out a few bars into Beyoncé’s debut solo single “Crazy in Love.”

The sentiment may be even more germane, when he does it in remix master DJ Cummerbund‘s irresistible mashup “Crazy Together,” above.

The recent assemblage finds Queen Bey splitting screen time with The Beatles, as DJ Cummerbund weaves “Crazy in Love” together with “Come Together.”

The video is as much fun as the seamless audio, with a hammy cameo from Ringo Starr, courtesy of the 1981 comedy Caveman, and Yoko Ono and James Brown doing some heavy lifting.

John Lennon’s take as Brown fires up his Sex Machine is priceless. It really feels as if these unlikely collaborators were active, rather than passive contributors.

Here’s a peek into how DJ Cummerbund arranged the audio clips.

Asked in a 2020 interview with Digital Journal about the source of his inspiration, he responded:

I’m not sure if you can call it inspiration exactly, but I have a neurological condition that causes me to hear and feel melodies and frequencies where most cannot (in the wind, the soil, celestial bodies, etc.) This ultimately causes me to constantly hear songs on top of other songs to the point of extreme frustration and the only way to subdue that is to actually create what I’m hearing in my head. It’s almost therapeutic for me, and I was even told I could die if I don’t continue to create my works. It’s definitely like a curse sometimes but can also be a blessing as my music seems to bring a great deal of joy to millions of people.

An undersung element of these crowd pleasing remixes is how skillfully DJ Cummerbund ties things together by recording supplemental vocals and instrumentals.

Ozzy Osbourne fronts “Earth, Wind and Ozzys,” which marries his 1980 solo hit “Crazy Train” with Earth Wind & Fire’s evergreen “September” so successfully, it’s a let down to remember that a gorgeous, harmonized “I’m going off the rails on a crazy train” is an invented, not sampled disco chorus.

The combinations the DJ comes up with can’t help but force a fresh perspective on artists who would never in a million years have shared a stage or fanbase.

Step into a no man’s land where the rapid fire punk brattiness of the Ramones can coexist with the Hanson brothers’ lemon fresh, Tulsa wholesomeness, and Cotton Eye Joe comes in out of nowhere.

When a title like “Me and Coolio Down by the Schoolyard” pops into your head, it arrives as a self-thrown gauntlet. You can’t not see it through to fruition.

The late rapper’s “Fantastic Voyage” infuses Paul Simon’s gently nostalgic “Me And Julio Down By The School Yard” with some NSFW lyrics and a much harder outlook.

The lo-fi joys of double dutch and playground hoops from the original Julio video present a plausible  vision of a “place where (Coolio’s) kids can play outside without livin’ in fear of a drive-by.”

This being a DJ Cummerbund production, baseball Hall of Famer, Mickey Mantle and football coach John Madden, who were on hand for Julio, have to make room for his ever present muse, the late wrestling superstar Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

DJ Cummerbund is willing to consider requests, particularly if you do a bit of homework to ensure that your chosen songs’ keys match up and their BPMs inhabit the same realm.

See more of his mash ups, including Shaxicula, the MTV Video Music Award-winning B-52s/Britney Spears remix here.

In recent weeks, DJ Cummerbund has been opening for the B-52s during their residency at the Venetian.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Complete “Everything is a Remix”: An Hour-Long Testament to the Brilliance & Beauty of Human Creativity

Let me quote myself: “From 2010 to 2012, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson released Everything is a Remix, a four-part series that explored art and creativity, and particularly how artists inevitably borrow from one another, draw on past ideas and conventions, and then turn these materials into something beautiful and new. In the initial series, Ferguson focused on musicians, filmmakers, writers and even video game makers. Now, a little more than a decade later, Ferguson has resurfaced and released a fifth and final chapter in his series, with this episode focusing on a different kind of artist: artificial intelligence.” Above, you can watch the complete edition of “Everything is a Remix,” with all parts combined into a single, hour-long video. A transcript of the entire production can be found here. Watch. Ponder. Create.

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Behold 900+ Magnificent Botanical Collages Created by a 72-Year-Old Widow, Starting in 1772

“I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,” Mary Delany, a 72-year-old widow wrote to her niece in 1772 from the grand home where she was a frequent guest, having just captured her hostess’ geranium’s likeness, by collaging cut paper in a nearly identical shade.

Novelty rekindled the creative fire her husband’s death had dampened.

Former pursuits such as needlework, silhouette cut outs, and shell decorating went by the wayside as she dedicated herself fully to her botanical-themed “paper mosaicks.”

Over the next decade Mrs. Delany produced 985 astonishingly floral representations from meticulously cut, hand colored tissue, which she glued to hand painted black backings, and labeled with the specimens’ taxonomic and common names, as well as a collection of numbers, date and provenance.

In the beginning, she took inspiration from a giant collection of botanical specimens amassed by the celebrated botanist Sir Joseph Banks, with whom she became acquainted while spending summers at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her friend Margaret Bentinck, duchess of Portland and a fellow enthusiast of the natural world.

Bulstrode also provided her with abundant source material. The estate boasted botanic, flower, kitchen, ancient and American gardens, as well a staff botanist, the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander charged with cataloguing their contents according to the Linnaean system.

Sir Joseph Banks commended Mrs. Delany’s powers of observation, declaring her assemblages “the only imitations of nature” from which he “could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error.”

They also succeed as art.

Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, appears quite overcome by Mrs. Delany’s Passiflora laurifolia – more commonly known as water lemon, Jamaican honeysuckle or vinegar pear:

The main flower head … is so intensely public that it’s as if you’ve come upon a nude stody. She splays out approximately 230 shockingly vulvular purplish pink petals in the bloom, and inside the leaves she places the slenderest of ivory veins also cut separately from paper, with vine tendrils finer that a girl’s hair. It is so fresh that it looks wet and full of desire, yet the Passiflora is dull and matte

Mrs. Delany’s exquisitely rendered paper flowers became high society sensations, fetching her no small amount of invitations from titled hosts and hostesses, clamoring for specimens from their gardens to be immortalized in her growing Flora Delanica.

She also received donations of exotic plants at Balstrode, where greenhouses kept non-native plants alive, as she gleefully informed her niece in a 1777 letter, shortly after completing her work:

I am so plentifully supplied with the hothouse here, and from the Queen’s garden at Kew, that natural plants have been a good deal laid aside this year for foreigners, but not less in favour. O! How I long to show you the progress I have made. 

Her work was in such demand, that she streamlined her creation process from necessity, coloring paper in batches, and working on several pieces simultaneously.

Her failing eyesight forced her to stop just shy of her goal of one thousand flowers.

She dedicated the ten volumes of Flora Delanica to her friend, the duchess of Portland, mistress of Balstrode “(whose) approbation was such a sanction to my undertaking, as made it appear of consequence and gave me courage to go on with confidence.”

She also reflected on the great undertaking of her seventh decade in a poem:

        Hail to the happy hour! When fancy led

My pensive mind this flow’ry path to tread;

And gave me emulation to presume

With timid art to trace fair Nature’s bloom.

Explore The British Museum’s interactive archive of Mary Delany’s botanical paper collages here.

All images © The Trustees of the British Museum, republished under a Creative Commons license.

via Colossal

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Retired Math Teacher Helps Students Learn Geometry Through Quilting

Some real talk from retired geometry teacher Wendy Lichtman, above, the author of several math-themed YA novels:

Not many 15-year-olds care that two parallel lines are crossed by a transversal.

“But right here are two parallel lines,” she continues, pointing to a pink and orange quilt. “and these are transversals, and they are at a 90º angle and it feels real. You’ve gotta get it to look right.”

The teenaged participants in the Oakland, California program she founded to demystify geometry through hands-on quiltmaking get it to look right by plotting their designs on graph paper, carefully measuring and cutting shapes from bright calico of their own choosing. (Licthman has committed to buttoning her lip if their favored print is not to her taste.)

Lichtman came up with this creative approach to help a bright student who was in danger of not graduating, having flunked geometry three times.

She details their journey in How to Make a Geometric Quilt, an essay formatted as step-by-step instructions…not for quiltmaking but rather how those in the teaching profession can lead with humility and determination, while maintaining good boundaries.

Some highlights:

6. Sometime after the sewing has begun, and the math notebook is ignored for weeks, begin to worry that your student is not really learning geometry.  She’s learning sewing and she’s learning to fix a broken bobbin, but really, geometry?

7. Remind yourself that this kid needs a quilt as much as she needs geometry.

8. Remember, also, the very, very old woman who taught you hat-making one night long ago.  She had gone to school only through 5th grade because, she said, she was a Black child in the deep south and that’s how it was back then.  Think about how she explained to the hat-making class that to figure out the length of the hat’s brim, you needed to measure from the center to the edge with a string and then do “three of those and a little bit more,” and remember how you sat in awe, because three radii and a little bit more is the definition of pi, and this hat-maker had evidently discovered for herself the formula for circumference.

As the two become better acquainted, the student let her guard down, revealing more about her situation while they swapped stories of their mothers.

But this was no easy A.

In addition to expecting regular, punctual attendance, Lictman stipulated that in order to pass, the student could not give the fruits of her labor away.

(Solid advice for creators of any craft project this ambitious. As Debbie Stoller, author of Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook counsels:

…those who have never knit something have no idea how much time it took. If you give someone a sweater, they may think that you made that in an evening when you were watching a half-hour sitcom. It’s only when people actually attempt to knit that they finally get this realization, this light bulb goes on over their heads, and they realize that, “Wow, this actually takes some skill and some time. I’ve got newfound respect for my grandma.”)

Ultimately, Lichtman concludes that the five credits she awarded her student could not be reduced to something as simple as geometry or quilt-making;

You are giving her credit for something less tangible.  Something like pride.  Five credit hours for feeling she can accomplish something hard that, okay, is slightly related to geometry.

Examples of the current cohort’s work can be seen on Rock Paper Scissors Collective‘s Instagram.

Once completed, these quilts will be donated to Bay Area foster children and pediatric patients at the local Children’s Hospital.

via BoingBoing

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Bisa Butler’s Beautiful Quilted Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Jean-Michel Basquiat & More

Via Boing Boing

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Winnie the Pooh Went Into the Public Domain, and Someone Already Turned the Story Into a Slasher Film: Watch the Trailer for Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood and Honey

Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood

Where Christopher Robin plays

You’ll find the enchanted neighborhood

Of Christopher’s childhood days…

Those sweetly sentimental lyrics were penned not by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-The-Pooh but rather the Academy-Award winning songwriting team of brothers Robert and Richard Sherman, who also penned the scores of Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Jungle Book.

If you are under the age of 60, chances are your concept of Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Owl, Rabbit and Tigger is informed by Winnie the Pooh and Honey Tree, the 1966 Disney cartoon that launched a successful franchise, not E.H. Shepherd’s charming illustrations for the 1926 book, Winnie the Pooh, which entered the public domain this year.

This means that Milne’s work can be freely reproduced or reworked, though Disney retains the copyright to their animated character designs.

Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University, told the Washington Post that the bulk of the inquiries she fielded in the lead up to 2022’s public domain titles becoming available had to do with Winnie the Pooh:

I can’t get over how people are freaking out about Winnie-the-Pooh in a good way. Everyone has a very specific story of the first time they read it or their parents gave them a doll or they [have] stories about their kids…It’s the Ted Lasso effect.We need a window into a world where people or animals behave with decency to one another.”


Judging by the trailer for their upcoming live action, low budget feature, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, Jagged Edge, a London-based horror production company, is not much interested in Ted Lasso good vibes, though they do manage to stay within the limits of the law, equipping a black clad Piglet with threatening tusks, and dressing the titular “silly old bear” in a red shirt that doesn’t exactly scream Tummy Song.

More like Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Producer-Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield whose as-yet-unreleased credits include Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare and Spiders on a Plane told Variety that “we did as much as we could to make sure [the film] was only based on the 1926 version:”

When you see the cover for this and you see the trailers and the stills and all that, there’s no way anyone is going to think this is a child’s version of it.

Here’s hoping he’s right.

The trailer traffics freely in slasher flick tropes:

A bikini clad young woman relaxing, obliviously, in a hot tub.

A hand held camera tracking a desperate, and probably doomed, escape attempt through the woods.

Unnerving warnings written in blood (or possibly honey?)

The childish scrawl on the sign demarcating the 100 Acre Wood is both faithful to the original, and unmistakably sinister.

Equally disturbing is the lettering on Eeyore’s homemade grave marker. (SPOILER: as per Variety, a starving Pooh and Piglet ate him…and apparently discarded a human skull nearby.)

The “enchanted neighborhood of Christopher’s childhood days” has gone decidedly downhill.

Director Frake-Waterfield paints Pooh and Piglet as the primary villains, but surely the college-bound Christopher Robin deserves some of the blame for abandoning his old friends.

On the other hand, when a college-bound Andy tossed his beloved childhood playthings in a giveaway box at the beginning of Toy Story 3, Buzz and Woody did not go on a murderous rampage.

As Frake-Waterfield described Pooh and Piglet’s devolution to HuffPost:

Because they’ve had to fend for themselves so much, they’ve essentially become feral. So they’ve gone back to their animal roots. They’re no longer tame: they’re like a vicious bear and pig who want to go around and try and find prey.

An interview with Dread Central offers a graphic taste of the violent mayhem they inflict, even as Christopher Robin, as clueless as a bikini clad innocent in a hot tub, bleats, “We used to be friends, why are you doing this!?”

Unsurprisingly, the film’s tagline is “This Ain’t No Bedtime Story.”

View production photos, if you dare, here.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto Her allegiance has long been with the 1926 version. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Hear the World’s Oldest Known Song, “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” Written 3,400 Years Ago

Do you like old timey music?


You can’t get more old timey than Hurrian Hymn No. 6, which was discovered on a clay tablet in the ancient Syrian port city of Ugarit in the 1950s, and is over 3400 year old.

Actually, you can – a similar tablet making reference to Lipit-Ishtar, a hymn glorifying the 5th king of the First Dynasty of Isin, in what is now Iraq, is older by some 600 years, but as CMUSE reports, it “contains little more than tuning instructions for the lyre.”

Hurrian Hymn No. 6 offers meatier content, and unlike five other tablets discovered in the same location, is sufficiently well preserved to allow archeologists, and others, to take a crack at reconstructing its song, though it was by no means easy.

University of California emeritus professor of Assyriology Anne Kilmer spent 15 years researching the tablet, before transcribing it into modern musical notation in 1972.

Hers is one of several interpretations YouTuber hochelaga samples in the above video.

While the original tablet gives specific details on how the musician should place their fingers on the lyre, other elements, like tuning or how long notes should be held, are absent, giving modern arrangers some room for creativity.

Below archaeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill explains his interpretation from 1998, in which vocalist Lara Jokhader assumes the part of a young woman privately appealing to the goddess Nikkal to make her fertile:

Here’s a particularly lovely classical guitar spin, courtesy of Syrian musicologist Raoul Vitale and composer Feras Rada

And a haunting piano version, by Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali, founder of Pianos for Peace:

And who can resist a chance to hear Hurrian Hymn No. 6 on a replica of an ancient lyre by “new ancestral” composer Michael Levy, who considers it his musical mission to “open a portal to a time that has been all but forgotten:”

 I dream to rekindle the very spirit of our ancient ancestors. To capture, for just a few moments, a time when people imagined the fabric of the universe was woven from harmonies and notes. To luxuriate in a gentler time when the fragility of life was truly appreciated and its every action was performed in the almighty sense of awe felt for the ancient gods.

Samurai Guitarist Steve Onotera channels the mystery of antiquity too, by combining Dr. Dumbrill’s melody with Dr. Kilmer’s, trying and discarding a number of approaches – synthwave, lo-fi hip hop, reggae dub (“an absolute disaster”) – before deciding it was best rendered as a solo for his Fender electric.

Amaranth Publishing has several MIDI files of Hurrian Hymn No 6, including Dr. Kilmer’s, that you can download for free here.

Open them in the music notation software program of your choice, and should it please the goddess, perhaps yours will be the next interpretation of Hurrian Hymn No. 6 to be featured here on Open Culture

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold a Secret Gallery of Art Created Using Discarded Gum on London’s Millennium Bridge

Throughout history, determined artists have worked on available surfaces – scrap wood, cardboard, walls…

Ben Wilson has created thousands of works using chewing gum as his canvas.

Specifically, chewing gum spat out by careless strangers.

His work has become a defining featuring of London’s Millennium Bridge, a modern structure spanning the Thames, and connecting such South Bank attractions as Tate Modern and the Shakespeare’s Globe with St. Paul’s Cathedral to the north.

A 2021 profile in The Guardian documents the creation process:

The technique is very precise. He first softens the oval of flattened gum a little with a blowtorch, sprays it with lacquer and then applies three coats of acrylic enamel, usually to a design from his latest book of requests that come from people who stop and crouch and talk. He uses tiny modelers’ brushes, quick-drying his work with a lighter flame as he goes along, and then seals it with more lacquer. Each painting takes a few hours and can last for many years.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson works very, very small.

For every Millennium Bridge pedestrian who’s hip to the ever-evolving solo exhibition underfoot, there are several hundred who remain completely oblivious.

Stoop to admire a miniature portrait, abstract, or commemorative work, and the bulk of your fellow pedestrians will give you a wide berth, though every now and then a concerned or curious party will stop to see what the deal is.

Wilson, who works sprawled on the bridge’s metal treads, his nose close to touching his tiny, untraditional canvas, receives a similar response, as described in Zachary Denman’s short documentary, Chewing Gum Man:

They make think I’ve fallen over and they may think I’ve had a cardiac arrest or something, so I’ve had lots of ambulances turning up…I’ve had loads of police.

His subjects are suggested by the shape of the spat out gum, by friends, by strangers who stop to watch him work:

I’ve had to deal with people memorializing people who have been murdered. People who have been so lonely, or remembering favorite pets; people who are destitute in all sorts of ways. It goes from proposal pictures, ‘Will you marry me?’, to people who I drew when they were kids and they now have their own kids.

Like any street artist, Wilson’s had his share of run ins with the law, including a wrongful 2010 arrest for criminal damage, when a crowd of schoolchildren who’d been enthusiastically watching an itty bitty St. Pauls taking shape on a blob of gum witnessed him being dragged off by his feet. (He asked if he could finish the picture first…)

He may not get permission to create the public works he goes out daily to create, but he contributes by clearing the area of litter, and as he points out, painting on discarded gum doesn’t constitute defacing anyone’s actual property:

Technically in one sense, I’m working within the law …if I paint on chewing gum, it’s like finding No Man’s Land or common ground. It’s a space which is not under the jurisdiction of a local or national government.

See more of Ben Wilson’s work in his online Gum Gallery.

Photos in this article taken by Ayun Halliday, 2022. All rights reserved.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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