PHOTOGRAPHY: Bel Poblador
SF Zine Fest 2014
Interview with Liz Mayorga, Director of SFZF 2014
In August 2014, I attended the San Francisco Zine Fest. I had moved back to San Francisco in March after having attended and graduated from a Master’s program in Writing at CalArts. As many post grads feel, I was simultaneously adrift and goal-oriented, exhausted and exhilarated, built-up and run-down. Upon returning to San Francisco, I was hungry for the same artistic community that I had found at CalArts: people who cared about other people as well as the art, who cared more about marginalized voices and authentic storytelling and less about getting that big publishing deal. I volunteered for the event and left with stars in my eyes. The San Francisco Zine Fest was one of those communities/events that made me feel that I would be alright in the real world, outside of the art school bubble—that there were like-minded people who believe in community and story-telling above all.
Afterwards, I exchanged a series of emails with Liz Mayorga, director of SFZF 2014 and a dear friend of mine, asking her more about SFZF. She is a writer and illustrator who received her MFA in Writing from CCA. I wanted to pick her mind about a few things: how SFZF started, the collective and community spirit of those who run SFZF as well as those who take part in it, the alternative paths to publishing that SFZF offers, and why she believes the zine fest is so important to an ever-shifting San Francisco.
In the About Us on the SFZF website, it says this: “SF Zine Fest seeks to advance the do-it-yourself ethos by fostering community throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In a weekend-long event we celebrate and support independent writers, artists, and creators allowing them to share their work with an ever-growing audience in workshops, exhibitions and public events.” How did SFZF even get started, and how has it evolved since its inception?
The San Francisco Zine Fest was founded in 2001 by Jenn Starfiend. SFZF started because the "Zine Alley" in APE (Alternative Press Expo—a branch off of Comic Con) closed. APE became way too expensive for zinesters to participate, so they started their own event. In 2006 Calvin Liu continued organizing, but stepped down and François Vigneault took over as the chief organizer from 2006 to 2011. He worked with another team of five people. François now organizes Lineworks NW, a comic convention in Portland.
When SFZF first started, there were about 46 exhibitors/artists. I'm not sure how many people attended, but it was a much, much smaller space. Since then, the event has grown to three times its original size.
The event started with an idea of showcasing artists and distributing zines. The leadership has changed. It used to be two to three organizers, and as the number of participants increases, so does our group of organizers. We now have ten organizers plus volunteers working to make SFZF happen. The people who continue to care about this idea keep SFZF going, regardless of who has to step down or move away.
How did you get involved in SF Zine Fest?
I went to SFZF for the first time in 2009, and I loved everything about it, especially how down to earth and approachable all of the artists were. I became friends with Rick and Eve, who had been doing SFZF for a few years, and Rick invited me to volunteer. I started by flyering and keeping track of the calendar.
How and why did your role in SFZF evolve?
SFZF has been transitioning in leadership for the past four years. When the last director moved, Sean Logic and I followed as Co-Directors.
I was in the middle of graduate school at the time and wasn't sure I could take on so much responsibility, but we needed to keep things going somehow, so I agreed to take a leadership role. Sean eventually got promoted at work and he didn't have any free time after that, so I became the only Director. But that's not to say other people didn't step up. Everyone did more than their share to make sure SFZF happened this year, and I'm grateful for the team.
I believe my role at SFZF changed as I became more involved with the DIY community. I became part of the POC Zine Project and started doing zine workshops for teenagers. That's when I thought SFZF could play a bigger role in San Francisco and reach out to the kids and artists growing up in all our neighborhoods. It's a good opportunity to highlight folks who are sometimes underrepresented.
Who was the team for SFZF 2014?
Jennie Hinchcliff, Sarah Godfrey, Ric Carrasquillo, Ramon Solis, Channing Kennedy and Emily Foster, Amy Burek, Rick Kitagawa, Sean Logic, and myself. We're all volunteers. Some of us are teachers, freelance artists, journalists, scientists, and librarians. We organize SFZF as much as we can on our spare time. Everyone's super talented and hard working—we're lucky to have such a strong team.
How did the team choose what the panels would be and who the panelists and special guests would be?
We start by making a list of people we'd like to invite as our featured artists. In the past, we've invited artists with roots in DIY art who have moved to more mainstream successes.
But this year, we decided we could redefine success. There are people who have been tabling at SFZF since the very beginning. They have created a long archive of work, have contributed a lot to the community, and they too deserve to be celebrated.
We approach workshops and panels in a similar way. There are way too many talented people we'd love to feature, and we use our brainstorm session to draw ideas for other ways in which we can share our talent. Workshops and panels give us the opportunity to engage our audience in a different way. It allows for a give-and-take relationship that goes beyond supporting art through money. There are a few questions that come to mind: What knowledge can we share with people who might not always have access to artists? And what issues keep coming up in the Bay Area? How can we use these workshops and panels as a way to entertain, inform, and support each other?
Talk a bit about the letter of apology that was posted on the Zine Fest website as well as the events surrounding it.
We had a significant boycott against one of our exhibitors, and some people asked that we un-invite the artist. We got together to debate the matter. It was one week before the show and we still had to run the event, so we decided we couldn't just kick someone out this close to show-running.
But while those of us based in the Bay Area worked on a unified response, an organizer who was helping us with emails from far away responded to people before we did. His main message was "Your concerns are important to us and we will get back to you as soon as we have an answer." However, he voiced his own debate in one of those responses. He raised the question, "Where do we draw the line between personal history and artistry?" He was worried that by judging one person and pushing him away, we'll do the same to more people. It was a valid concern, and he made sure to note that he was responding as an individual and wasn't speaking as a representative of SFZF. But he made a few comparisons that were not politically correct, which angered the recipient even more, so this email made a few circles through the internet. Rumors started spreading that the exhibitor people were protesting was our featured artist, shedding light away from the three artists we were actually highlighting and all of the good work we had done. We felt like all of our efforts were starting to fall under an unpleasant shadow, so we apologized to the community for the email and rumors and not communicating better amongst ourselves. In the midst of all the false information and overwhelming negativity, we decided to approach this apology with sincerity and without any more slander.
We made many mistakes this year, most of which could have been avoided with better communication. But what we were trying to keep in mind was this: SFZF is still a great show where young artists get to exhibit their work for the first time, and where professional artists get to share their side projects.
So much good comes out of SFZF, it isn't fair for one person to take the attention away from that. We promoted all of our positive work to try to backlash against the internet hate, even if we knew it wouldn't remove the negativity that had already started. We needed to remind ourselves of why we were doing this.
How do you foresee SFZF evolving or changing, especially as the environment and social makeup of SF changes?
Like everything else, SFZF will always evolve. A newer generation will take it over. The group dynamic is always changing. People bring new ideas, and we push ways to make things even better. But there are some things we will fight to keep the same, like affordable tables, free admission, and our commitment to DIY art.
Lately, it's been a challenge to keep things going. Everyone's aware of how rent has sky-rocketed. Well, the County Fair Building, which is where we've had SFZF for the past 10 years, keeps increasing its rent. We're considering other venues, but it's hard to find an affordable space in San Francisco that could host more than 100 exhibitors. If we do find a more affordable and accessible location, we may have to decrease in size. While that may help make things more manageable for us as organizers, it would also mean less people will get to participate. San Francisco is already experiencing an exodus of artists; we would like to keep fighting for a space where artists of all socioeconomic backgrounds can exhibit their work.
Yes, the San Francisco demographic has changed a lot over the past few years, and it will always change, but we can't ignore the different pockets of people who have established themselves here long, long ago. The Bay Area has a long history of attracting artists and people who don't fit into the norm. It's part of the Bay Area's charm. Regardless of how much new money comes into the area, I don't think this area will ever completely lose some of its personality. That's why I think it's crucial to create the time and space for this personality to shine through.
What does it mean for you as a woman of color to be directing SFZF?
I never cared for titles or leadership positions—not because I wasn't capable of them, but because I prefer working quietly in the background and getting things done. My experiences taught me that there are two kinds of people in the workplace: people who talk, and people who do. Most of the bosses I have encountered talk. The more they talked, the more I did, and I didn't want to be like them. Granted, I have also had great bosses, but for some reason I couldn't see myself in their position. I think a lot of that has to do with the way I grew up. I was taught to take pride in the most humble work, and I do.
SFZF exposed me to a different type of group leadership. I joined the team just as François moved to Portland, and François was a great manager. He delegated work according to people’s talents and abilities, and he carried himself as an efficient organizer rather than a "boss." Even though I never got to work with François, I really appreciated the culture that the SFZF organizers continued to develop. After a year or so, I started speaking more. SFZF helped me to identify and validate my own skills. Organizing helped me change the way I perceived myself. The DIY culture that encouraged me to create the things I wanted to see also encouraged me to model the leaders I looked up to.
I could see why so many people seek "important" titles. A title can change the way you see and carry yourself. In most cases, I've seen that change people for the worse. After all, we're set up to destroy each other when we compete for power. But now I've witnessed how titles can change people for the better, too. If you are aware of how your team is more important than you, how your team makes you stronger, and you validate others' skills as well as your own, you help everyone grow. I once heard someone say, "If you want to be successful, you need to surround yourself with successful people." That can be interpreted in a few ways. After SFZF, I interpret that bit of advice to mean that people build each other up to be successful.
But I realized that working quietly in the background is a disfavor to my community, and that it goes against everything my parents have fought for.
In today’s publication and literary world, what can events like SFZF represent and offer?
Excellent question. Now that APE (Alternative Press Expo) is moving to San Jose, there is a lot of talk amongst comic book artists as to whether or not we need a comic convention in San Francisco. At the same time, major comic book publishers, such as Fantagraphics and Last Gasp, have launched kickstarters to keep their businesses running. This might seem grim, but I think it's just evidence that things are changing and that we need to work together.
Zines are an alternative to traditional publishing. They provide a way to practice your craft and share creative projects without waiting for someone to say "I want to publish your work." It takes guts to do that, and anyone who exhibits their work that way deserves an audience. Zine fests are a good way for people to see what's up and coming. It's also a good way to establish relationships between local artists and more traditional literary circles. There are a lot of talented artists at these events, and while zines are one form of validation, they should also be acknowledged by mainstream publishing houses.
And there's also the issue of experience. People come to Zine Fest, not just to shop, but to experience Zine Fest—talk to artists, engage in workshops and panels, trade zines with people. You can't get that online. These events create a great atmosphere and more people including major writers, publishers, curators, should also be a part of it.
How can events like SFZF aid in access to the publication/literary world for marginalized groups and communities?
Through events like SFZF, we have an opportunity to talk and express a lot of things that might otherwise be censored. It's a different level of freedom, which is why it can provide marginalized groups with a platform. Zines were a way to discuss political ideas and build connections, and they will continue to do so for those who aren't well-represented in mainstream press.
For people who might have an interest in creating a similar event in their cities where nothing of this nature might currently exist, what advice can you give them to help start the fulfilling, necessary, but quite complex journey? What do they need to keep in mind, and where do they start?
SFZF is a community event that takes place once a year, but it is a full time job for organizers. We're constantly thinking about it and planning for it on our spare time. It really helps to have folks on board who don't work 9-5 hours or only work part-time, because organizing an event like this requires a lot of flexibility. It also requires a strong group of people to help with the administrative parts. Once the logistics are taken care of, the most important thing is to have a space for people to gather. With a little bit of advertising, artists and attendees will start showing up. Most of my experiences with SFZF have been extremely positive and life-changing. The whole team of organizers feels the same way. This sort of love and affection has kept SFZF going. If you are interested in starting an event like this, be prepared to love the event and to give a lot of yourself to it. It might seem like a lot to give, but it will be worth it, because it will give you just as much.
Bel Poblador is a Los Angeles native, writer, and editor who lives, loves, and creates in San Francisco. She received her MFA in Writing from CalArts in 2013 and is an editor of the anthology Best of Trop, Volume I: Watching the Cash Roll in Since 2012. Bel is a rock that holds the ocean.