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Art Mag Publisher Finds His Creative Identity in ‘Spunk’

A selection of covers of Aaron Tilford's "Spunk" art magazine. Tilford wrote in the 10th issue that the intention has always been “to inspire, to explore, to create, and to see things in a new way.” | Aaron Tilford

A selection of covers of Aaron Tilford’s “Spunk” art magazine. Tilford wrote in the 10th issue that the intention has always been “to inspire, to explore, to create, and to see things in a new way.” | Aaron Tilford

Aaron Tilford grew up drawing. “When I was a kid, I’d make little books. I would come home after seeing whatever the new animated movie was, and I’d make a book of it. I’d draw the scenes and staple them together.” Many years later, beginning in 2003, Tilford began stapling — rather, paying out-of-pocket for a print company to staple — his art magazine, Spunk, now in its 11th issue.

“When I first started doing [Spunk], I thought it would fund itself,” he says over coffee and doughnuts one recent morning in Bloomington, his hometown. “It will be a breeze.” But, Tilford quickly realized, “Okay, this is not going to work out.”

Tilford created Spunk, a more-or-less annual 5.5-by-8.5-inch art journal featuring work by artists from around the world, while working full time as a print designer in New York City. “I felt creatively stifled after I started working full time,” he says. “I realized I had, or was learning, the skills of layout design and had the resources at my fingertips to make a publication of my own.”

Aaron Tilford. | Mauricio A Rodriguez at ramimagery.net

Aaron Tilford. | Mauricio A Rodriguez at ramimagery.net

Though he really enjoyed the process of publishing Spunk — meeting artists, collecting their writings, paintings, and photographs, and meticulously joining them on the pages of an offset-printed journal — it was evident early on that it would be a labor of love, not a viable source of income. “I’ve never made any money from Spunk,” Tilford wrote in the zine’s 10th issue. “Never.”

When he had a regular job as a graphic designer, Spunk generated just enough revenue to allow Tilford to keep printing. “It usually pays for itself,” he says, grinning, “but that’s about it.”

Tilford moved from Bloomington to New York City in 2000. He arrived with a passion for graphic design, and, shying away from a career in corporate PowerPoint presentations, ended up doing design work for small nonprofits. But Tilford dreamed of something more personal, more intimate, more … artful.

Spunk no. 10 (the last edition he published in New York before moving back to Bloomington in 2015) is an open diary punctuated by the journal’s distinct flavor of sometimes glittering, sometimes somber art. The written portion, composed entirely by Tilford, is a sort of self-reflection through interviews with other New York artists (writers, actors, DJs, drag performers), but also a commentary on coming home. Tilford evokes the likes of Joan Didion: “I sometimes re-read [her] essay Goodbye to All That in which she recalls the initial magic she felt in New York and how at some point it left, and so she left.”; and Henry David Thoreau: “I’m prone to having … default daydreams when the city gets too much for me, which is often. … My mind careens back to my home state of Indiana, to the rolling hills and forests and quiet.” Tilford admits that it’s his plan “to become an abstract expressionist painter later in life.” For now, though, his abstract expressions manifest themselves on the pages of his art magazine.

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“It looks like a magazine but it’s really an art project and it’s always personal,” Tilford says. “The first issue was just friends. I said, ‘Let’s make a magazine.’ Then it grew in organic steps. It got bigger each time and the contributors got more diverse. Most contributors are queer, and they’re all from all over. East Coast, West Coast. Even Europe.” It is imperative to Tilford that Spunk not be exclusive or strict in its focus or presentation. “I don’t want to be ‘-centric,’” he says. “That’s not who I am. Because it’s personal, it always reflects to some extent my own life.”

Tilford says that Spunk has become his creative identity. He claims the titles of curator and publisher. For Tilford, it’s all about the layout of the magazine, from the offset days to the now (less expensive) digitally printed format. “Design is imperative,” he says. “Spreads first, then lay out the text. So there’s always an element of chance where the text flows next to the images.” Tilford takes pleasure in finding how one writer’s text coexists on the page with another artist’s images, sometimes unfolding in a found synergy.

The art he selects for the magazine is often “stumbled across,” Tilford says. But it’s always something he’s attracted to, something he might not have known he was seeking out. In all of Spunk’s 11 issues — the most recent issue, Another World, was published in December and is the first perfect bound edition of the magazine — the photographs are evocative, erogenous, curious. Spunk is at times subversive and cheeky. The mag provides a platform for artists who are often underrepresented. “The gaze of all mainstream media is straight/hetero with gay/queer cameos or one-offs,” Tilford says. “Spunk just flips that. It’s mostly queer and mostly male, but certainly not all.” The art is fine (in a scholarly sense) yet daring and mysterious, and the written pieces are sincere, humorous, bleeding, and real. Spunk is a better micro-journal than you’ll find on most shelves, even if it is hard to come by.

“Spunk no. 10.” | Photo by Dason Anderson

Tilford curates the art and writing for Spunk from a variety of art communities near and far: art professors, digital artists found on the internet or in galleries, friends of friends, and sometimes people who might not even consider themselves artists or writers at all.

Now that he’s back in his hometown, I ask Tilford how he gathered content for the 11th issue, specifically, and if he tapped any local talent. Bloomington might be tranquil and slow-going compared to New York, but it is a testament to Spunk’s non-exclusivity that Tilford included ten local and regional contributors in Another World. The issue contains content from Rachel Ankney, Sarah Baghdadi, Mia Beach, Ed Bernstein, John Berry, Sam Bodenstein, Daniel Carson, Mat Whiteley, Chris McFarland, and Robert Kingsley. Ankney’s stark, raw portraiture; Beach’s familiar yet unsettling photography; Kingsley’s classic, contemplative oil work; and the contributions from each regional artist fit comfortably alongside non-local artists who are generally more established in the urban scene. “Quality can be found everywhere,” Tilford says.

***

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The tone shifts dramatically from Spunk no. 10 to Another World, and reflects Tilford’s own shifting life. Spunk no. 10 looks out from New York, longing for home. Another World expresses movement, but in its foreword, Tilford evinces the futility of moving, physically, to a “better place.” It also exposes the dense fog that often hangs between two places and how being “somewhere else” doesn’t always answer every question. Bloomington’s “calmness is healthy and nurturing,” Tilford says, now 44. But to him, it can also be stagnating in terms of creativity.

“New York is a really tough, challenging city. When I moved there, it was like sensory overload. Energy level alone — it felt like I was trying to ride an electric bull,” he says. But, in time, Tilford became integrated to the tight-knit gay art scene in New York. “I don’t think the specific kinds of communities I was involved in in New York exist in Bloomington. Here, I connect with ‘older hippie types.’ All my friends are straight people in their 60s.

We laugh and I take another bite of doughnut. I can think of a few photographers and poets who might fit Tilford’s bill, but, back home after 15 years, he’s struggling to find “one other gay man in town” communicating artistically to the degree he saw in New York. “Coming back to Bloomington, I realize the drop in energy,” he says.

“Spunk no. 11: Another World.” | Courtesy image

To help himself get to know Bloomington better, Tilford, a freelance designer, also DJs Monsieur, a “speakeasy-style party featuring eclectic beats,” at Bloomington’s Root Cellar Lounge on Sunday nights. “I thought I would like to start a DJ night when I moved back,” he writes to me in an email, “but I did not plan for it to be a specifically gay night. … Each week I feature some (usually) gay man on the poster that has contributed in some way to either gay culture or the larger culture — for example: Gore Vidal, Alvin Ailey, Vito Russo, James Baldwin, Rock Hudson, John Waters, Allen Ginsberg, etc. But to be clear, the party is not just for gay men. It spotlights them, but it is for everyone.”

***

Despite not making money off of it, Tilford has no plans to stop publishing Spunk. “Ten was my minimum goal,” he says. “As hard as things were, I had to put out ten issues. I’m always kind of working on the next one. I’m always collecting images. It comes together. I had this fantasy of going back to expressionistic art, becoming an abstract painter. But now I’ve got 11 issues. Maybe 11 is number one of the second volume. If it is my life’s work, then I’m leaving some kind of legacy.”

And Tilford seems happy with that. “Spunk is more of a surrealist journal than anything else directly comparable,” he says. “Ambiguity. To put out a magazine with hard content means there’s a strictly defined audience. I wouldn’t want that. It’s less interesting. I want it first and foremost to be artful and smart.” About Another World, the newest issue, he says, “It’s four short stories all revolving around traveling, going places. I always think things should resonate universally. It’s not about me, it’s about us.”

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There’s nothing left on my plate but a few crumbs, so I ask Tilford the question I most want answered: Do you feel like you have to do this? His reply: “Yes. Yeah. I didn’t feel like it would be my main identity when I started it, but it’s where my instincts took me. Other than DJing, you know — but that’s something different. Spunk is my creative identity now.”

The most recent issue, Spunk Another World, is available for purchase here.

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Dason Anderson
Dason Anderson is a writer, editor, and Dungeon Master from southern Indiana. He's a big fan of Star Wars and the Sunday comics section. “Life’s a garden. Dig it.”
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