PEOPLE: Alix Dobkin

Otherwild, a shop in Los Angeles

Otherwild, Rachel Berks, The Future Is Female, Los Angeles
Otherwild, a shop in Los Angeles


Regular readers of this blog will know of my interest in Retail Theater. 

Now from Design*Sponge (one of my favorite blogs) comes this story about the Los Angeles store, Otherwild, and its owner, Rachel Berks. Not only does this give us a glimpse of the process of owning and managing a small shop, a topic which resonates greatly for me, as a former shop owner and manager, but also the piece discusses Otherwild's best selling item, THE FUTURE IS FEMALE t-shirt.


 You may know by now that I had a part in the creation of this shirt, and the button. And you probably know how my brains are near bursting with the wild popularity of this shirt, 40 years after Alix Dobkin and I made the photo that it was based on.


The future is female alix dobkin photo ©Liza Cowan 1975 copy
The Future Is Female, the original shirt, worn by Alix Dobkin. Photo ©Liza Cowan 1975



Judging a book by its cover: covers + blogs about book cover design

Yes! I do judge a book by its cover. So do you, probably. Most of my readers are pretty design savvy so you know you are critical, but even those of you who are not are still having a subjective response to the books you chose. Sure, we chose our books by author, by title, by subject or by a review we liked. These days, who is going to buy a book just for its brilliant cover?  Yes, I see some hands rising. But what if we are wandering around the bookstore? Or reading a review with a picture of the cover? What catches our eye? More importantly, what thrills us? What demands our attention? The cover.

  Ian Shimkoviak, The boodesigners, How wel live and why we die, book cover design, the human body details, cell illustration

Ian Shimkoviak: book  design. I love this!  The images are from The Human Body, by Cyril Bibby and Ian T Morrison. Puffin Picture book No. 102. Shimkoviak found the image here at SeeSaw. No worries, he's been generous on twitter and Facebook,  and I don't own the image anyway.

There are books I will pass by in the store simply because the covers are bad. They offend my eye. They do not thrill. Sure, for my favorite authors I'm willing to forgive almost anything just for the pleasure of the read, but a bad cover diminishes the thrill, and will likely kill random bookstore sales.

Authors have little or no control over the visual packaging of their books. It's not their fault if the design department of their publishing house has bad taste. But I do blame the houses for hiring  designers who crank out...visual garbage. Such a shame.

That said, there are so many brilliant book designers and so many ways to enjoy their work,  on the books themselves and through their websites and design blogs.  Book design is a good enough paying gig not only for the designers but for the artists and photographers whose work they often feature. Here are some  book covers featuring work by artists who have shown at Pine Street Art Works, or who are related in some way.

First, a photo by Cara Barer, whose work is always available at Pine Street Art Works. What can I say? Cara's work is stunning. Nicely featured here, with no distractions. Image relates  to the book topic  in an almost metaphysical way. Although it is a book of theory, the cover itself is lyrical.

 Cara Barer, ted striphas,
The Late Age Of Print. Photo by Cara Barer. Design by David Drummond. Columbia University Press.

Next, Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Alison's original ink drawings from her comic series, Dykes To Watch Out For, are available here at PSAW.

 FunHome, Alison Bechdel
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel. Illustration by Bechdel.

Next, a photo by me, Liza Cowan, for Laurie Essig's Queer In Russia: A Story of Sex, Self,and The Other.  I took this picture in Moscow in 1994.  The publisher made it blue and photoshopped it so that the figure of the author stands out. I'm satisfied with the cover, which I didn't design, although I would have right - justified  the subtitle and changed the line spacing to make it closer together. Would have made the Q smaller too, since it's huger than the head, but still, I'm proud of it. Not so pleased that they never paid me, but I was new to the field, and didn't understand that cover photos actually pay quite well. They said it would be good publicity for me. Hah. Fool me once.


 Queer In Russia, Laurie Essig, Liza Cowan photo
  Queer In Russia: A Story of sex, self, and the other. Laurie Essig author. Photo by Liza Cowan. Duke University Press.

Next: American Photobooth by Nakki Goranin. Nakki exhibited images from this book at PSAW in March 2008. We look forward to exhibiting images from her next book on Tintypes. In this cover images sell the book. Anything but a simple title would diminish their power. 

 American Photobooth, Nakki Goranin
American Photobooth, Nakki Goranin. WW Norton, publisher.

Next, Connie Imboden, Reflections, 25 Years Of Photographs. Another photography book, the image is left to speak for itself, which it does eloquently. Connie showed her work at Pine Street Art Works in September 2007.


 Connie Imboden
Connie Imboden, Reflections, 25 Years Of Photography. Insight Editions, 2009

Next, Alix Dobkin's My Red Blood. Alix will be doing a book signing here at Pine Street Art Works in May. This cover uses an old snapshot of Alix in her girl with a guitar folkie phase. I saw the original mock up for this cover with a very different typeface, and it was weak. With this the title in bold caps, right justified, the cover becomes a symbol of strength, played against the sweetness of the muted rainbow tinted image. I would have made the subtitle shorter (not the designer's job) used upper and lower case of the same font family as the title. I don't really like the juxaposition of the two typefaces, but on the whole, the cover works well for me. In case you are interested, Alix writes about me in the last chapter. 

 Alix Dobkin, my red blood
My Red Blood, Alix Dobkin. Alyson Books, 2009.


If you are interested in book cover design here are some great resources. Enjoy!

blogs and websites about book design.

Caustic Cover Critic

Book By It's Cover

premiere de couverture

book covers anonymous

The Book Design Review

Faceout books

Book Cover Archive

Jacket Mechanical

Readerville Journal

covering photography

some designers:

My Book Covers: Megan Wilson

Good is dead: Chip Kidd

Helen Yentus

Elsa Chiao

Beyond The Covers: Ian Shimkoviak

Chin-Yee Lai

Everyday design goodness:

Design Observer


Letters from: Lily Tomlin

Writing letters to people I admired became a kind of habit for me in my young, pre computer, pre-internet years. While I sometimes wrote to elected officials about pressing issues, mostly I was consumed with pop culture and the fuzzy boundaries of pop culture and fine art. Hmmm...guess I haven't changed much.

The great thing about writing letters to people, unlike sending emails, is that sometimes they write back. And you have a genuine piece of history in your hands. There's just nothing that exciting about saving a print out of an email, but a letter on someone's stationery: a thrill and an artifact.

In this  example, I didn't actually write to Lily Tomlin - she wrote me me in a response to a review I review I wrote in the New York City newspaper, The Village Voice.

Lily had been on the TV Show Laugh  In since 1969. I was a big fan of Lily and Laugh In. In 1973 I was writing  occasional free lance reviews for The Village Voice, and seized the opportunity to see her one woman show in NY at The Bitter End. I was smitten.

 Lily Tomlin, Liza Cowan, review, village voice 1973 

Review of Lily Tomlin at The Bitter End, February 1, 1973


"Last night I saw Lily Tomlin at The Bitter End. She was so wonderful that I haven't stopped thinking about her. Every so often she stands back, looks calmly at the audience, then move on. She's in perfect control. At one point she fell down on the floor and lay there for a few minutes saying nothing, just looking at us, then said, "I see you're all still in your seats.""Part of her beauty is that she's not afraid to make herself look ugly, to identify herself with the most grotesque characters: she's an an aging beauty expert, mouth falling down into her chin, who reveals her secret beauty regime; she's Ernestine, the pushy switchboard operator from Ma Bell who contorts her face and body...She's a a gum snapping 1950's teenager at a dance talking to her girlfriend waiting to ba asked to dance; she's an alcoholic ex-rubber addict whose habit grew from pencil erasers to doorstops and rubber mats; she's a woman waiting on line at a redemption center watching another woman try to return a used cookie jar. Her characters remind me of diane Arbus Photographs."

 Lily Tomlin, signed photo, Liza Cowan, Alix dobkin
Lily Tomlin. The publicity picture she gave me at the show. "Nobody likes a pushy woman. Keep pushing! To Liza and Alix. Love from Lily." Alix is the singer Alix Dobkin, my partner at the time. Alix has recently published her memoir My Red Blood, which includes fascinating stories about singing in the folk clubs, including The Bitter End, in Greenwich Village in the sixties.

Seeing Lily in person, in the intimate club atmosphere of The Bitter Endwas exciting enough. The fact that she took the time to write to me was even better. And look how the piece of mail had to travel to find me:

 lily tomlin handwritten envelope 

click on a smaller image and it will enlarge

  • Blog letter-lily 1
  • Blog letter-lily 2
  • Blog letter-lily 3
  • Lily letter 4312
Lily Tomlin, Liza Cowan, handwritten letter

"Dear Liza, did I ever write and tell you how amazed I was that you would mention Diane Arbus and me in the same paragraph? It was a comparison I was very happy about. And flattered. And I had been telling someone just that night before your piece came out how I felt I was doing something similar in my approach to whatever it was I was doing. And since you were the first and only person besides me to make that observation and I think is is a good and interesting one, I want to mention the use of it in a piece done on me in "The New York Times" and tell you that we are on a couple of the same wave lengths. Love, Lily"


So my advice is not that you should write reviews, although you might, but to take the time to write a real letter, on real paper to the people you admire. One, they will appreciate it. Two, you never know what you will get back.

Next time I will show you  letters I got back from Bea Arthur and from Lorenzo Music from the show, Rhoda, after I wrote to them.  And you know I'm kicking myself for never writing to Soupy Sales.

PS: If you like reading historical letters, here's the website for you:  Letters Of Note, Correspondence Deserving Of A Wider Audience.  Endlessly fascinating.
I welcome your comments.


The Boston Globe announced that Polaroid Corp. is shutting down its film manufacturing plants in Massachussets and abandoning the technology that made the company famous. They are interested in licensing their film technology to an outside firm, but if that doesn't happen, the company intends to make only enough film to last into next year. According to the Polaroid website, they have exciting new inkless, ribbonless digital printing technologies to introduce, but as exciting as this might be, it still might mean the end of another great film format. Such is the way of the world.

In light of this, I've dredged up some ancient polaroid images of my own. I took these in 1983 at The Michigan Women's Music Festival. I had a booth (with no tent, so it was actually just a bit of ground)  in the craft area selling the greeting cards and buttons that I manufactured in my business, White Mare, Inc. In addition, I made photo buttons.

Images1 In order to make buttons from Polaroids, you have to use paper-only technology. Not plastic laminated photos. I bought a used Polaroid - maybe a Land 250 or 215. It looked like this one. It was totally manually operated, meaning I had to set the aperture and  shutter speeds, using a hand held light meter. This is something every photographer should know how to do, but in the field like that it was a bit stressful, at least at first. Once the image was processed, which took place outside the camera, the paper parts had to be peeled  apart and then you had to apply a gelatinous fixative. The timing of the peeling operation had to be exact. I spent the day or two before the festival officially opened setting up my outdoor studio. I had to build a backdrop and test the light conditions.

This was in a clearing in the woods. It was hot and dusty by day. Cold and damp by night. I didn't have a tent or awning, and I was using professional grade button makers, which rusted each night. I kept a spiral bound notebook for field notes of camera settings, weather conditions and backgrounds. These images are from that notebook. It blows my mind that they are now almost 25 years old.

Smack dab in the clearing. I didn't have a tent or awning. My graphics were awesome though. This is my 13 year old step daughter, Adrian Hood, the best assistant I've ever had. On the table is an assortment of my wares, including my American Sign Language "I Love You" card and buttons.

This is what a notebook page looked like. This was the beginning of the tests. Still working on the backdrop. This is Jhane, my other assistant. She was great, too.

The backdrop was quite small. This is a later photo, in which I've changed the backdrop to white. 

My backdrop was a yellow and white checked plastic table cloth. This is Alix Dobkin and Bonni Cohen.

Ruthie. with balloon.

Sometimes i'd take the camera out to document what was going on at the craft bazaar. Here is artist and graphic designer Clsuf, with a young friend, Yolanda. No, that's not my mannequin.

At the Red River Menstrual Pad Booth. One of my favorite pix that I've ever shot.

Mask Making.

Bonni Cohen, craft fair director. Wearing a Clsuf Women in Art T-Shirt. I've turned the tablecloth around to have the white backing show. Better for photos.

Adrian Hood wearing one of my American Sign Language "I love you" buttons.


Timothy Morgan. We must have seated her on a tarp for this one.

This was one of the most satisfying photography experiences of my career. The quality of the film was wonderful, the people I took pictures of were excited, happy, curious and radiant.  I learned on the job to  bring some people out of their shells, to overcome their shyness and express themselves in front of the camera, while I was taking care of the technical details of shooting and then cutting the paper and pressing the buttons.  All this fun, and for only a couple of bucks a pin.

Not bad for a rustic photo op.