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Women in the Arts in Detroit, Series VII: Megan O'Connell

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WOMEN IN THE ARTS IN DETROIT: MEGAN O’CONNELL 

*photo credit Roderick Angle

Megan has been a part of my world here in Detroit since I moved here nearly 7 years ago.  She is the owner of Salt & Cedar letterpress here in Eastern Market and the space has become a haven for artists, culture seekers and those longing for an elevated experience. She is one of the most culturally savvy people that has ever crossed my path.  

OW: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work as an artist and as proprietor of Salt & Cedar?

MO: Letterform, linguistics, gender theory, art and design history are central to my practice. As an undergraduate, I migrated from creative writing to visual arts, and then to art history and art education, eventually designing a major in Book Arts, an emerging platform that combined disciplines. Simultaneously, I served as the first intern at Minnesota Center for Book Art, where I immersed myself in Western and Japanese papermaking, letterpress printing, and hand bookbinding. All of these fields and mediums continue to inform my creative output.

As a graduate student in a revolutionary program called ‘Intermedia’ at the University of Iowa, my repertoire expanded to include installation, performance, film, video, and offset production on a Heidelberg press. It was a wild ride, integrating traditional & experimental modes. Upon graduation, I accepted a position in the Art Department at the University of Oregon where I was eventually appointed Director of the Typography Lab. This was an interdisciplinary facility that I grew exponentially in scale and scope. A move to Portland, Maine in 2006 enriched my career, as I continued to research, teach, invent, and exhibit my work. I set up a studio that attracted some life-changing mentors, whose impact is still felt as I embark on new projects, strategizing about what future contributions and collaborations might be.

The Detroit era began with trips here to help envision a space for a community printshop. After working with architects, foundations, a board, and backers, the project was brought to fruition under my directorship. With the support of my former partner and our two stalwart sons, I peeled off to establish Salt & Cedar Letterpress in Spring, 2012. This, my current studio on Riopelle Street (formerly a small scale veal processing butcher shop), is set amongst meat packers, wholesale produce sellers, flower vendors, a distillery, and omni-present pallet movers. Daily, I gain inspiration from these family-run businesses—some with a longevity of five or six generations. Their work ethic, sense of integrity, and the ‘fabric’ they’ve woven in Eastern Market are magnificent. The relationships Salt & Cedar sustains with farmers and vendors feel galvanized.

As a crossroads and meeting place, Salt & Cedar is a site and, literally, an imprint that continually produces new alliances and conversations. As sole proprietor, I can claim that it is an ‘extraordinary’ situation. It best sums up the challenges and rewards of doing business here, as well as underlining a strong sense of ‘collective’ desire. Simply put, this press possesses an uncommon aura.

After a banner year of setting up a satellite studio in Paris; gleaning an understanding of small-scale printing in Europe; reigniting conversations with impresarios, artists, and writers in Berlin; teaching at the Press at Colorado College; and promoting the tradition of letterpress printing in various cities for the Balvenie Rare Craft Collection curated by Anthony Bourdain; the studio has experienced only forward momentum. I have hosted conspicuously talented visiting artists, a film premiere and discussion, May Day readings, Detroit Ento dinners (yes, each course had insects in it!), a USBG event, Joseph Wesley tea tastings, reconnaissance meetings for a new app, and hands-on workshops throughout the past months. The coming season will bring about sizable brick and mortar changes. Stay-tuned!

OW: Do you remember a defining moment that drew you to your field?

MO: One wintry Sunday, when I was studying in Minneapolis, I picked up the newspaper and found an article announcing the opening of a book arts center in the warehouse district downtown. The next day, I contacted the founder and was given a tour of the ‘bones’ of what was to be fleshed out as a fixture of the Twin Cities’ art and literary scene. Serendipitously, I was able to register for classes in exchange for unpacking the library, preparing fiber for washi, and distributing type into cases. Over time, I was hired on as an instructor and managed to use the studio as my own.

OW: What are you drawn to in the world of fashion and design?

MO: Perhaps because of my experience working with luxe papers, premium leathers, and bookcloth, fabrics and textiles are tantamount in importance for me. I’m especially attracted to those that show wear and age. The patina of riding boots worn for 30 years, the sheen of silk or satin that has enfolded someone for decades, a pair of tortoiseshell frames that show scratches from daily use, the softness of a mohair sweater, well-engineered coveralls with ink and/or oil stains, all hold a certain appeal. I am drawn to pieces that are adaptable and for which the materials show up just as they should: forthrightly. A revelation for me was viewing Wim Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes. It provides a portrait of Yohji Yamamoto, based in both Tokyo and Paris, which galvanized the significance of this aesthetic for me. Another influence has been J. Morgan Puett and ‘workstyles’ at Mildred’s Lane in upstate New York. Because of Morgan, I have a hand-stitched linen dress dating back to19th C. France. My personal canon of designers includes Jil Sander, Rei Kawakubo, Romeo Gigli, Miuccia Prada, Rick Owens, Yves Saint Laurent, and Burberry Prorsum. I also gravitate towards Rag & Bone, Muji, and APC for pieces that will remain viable for years. I’m often puzzled by what’s trending. I pluck from my garment bags and occasionally add accessories from Rachel’s Place in North Corktown. My son Leander, who has been a longtime fashion hero, recently introduced me to the Value World on Woodward Avenue. We both seem to have good shopping karma.

I have the say that Orleans + Winder triggers new ideas of what a wardrobe can consist of. I admire how carefully curated the store is. The restrained color palette of both the environment and stock itself deeply appeal to me. The shop has introduced me to fresh, young designers such as Marc LeBihan, Monarc 1, and Serien Umerica. I admire the care that goes into designing and making these garments and the way they combine with other minimalist pieces.

OW: How has your personal style manifested over the years?

MO: My mother had a huge influence—a very blonde Scandinavian, often suntanned and always well-coiffed. She placed an emphasis on ‘timeless’ style, but with updates sprinkled in. She dressed to the nines for evenings out. I remember wrapping up in her mink stole and smelling her signature scent: Shalimar. There were six children in our family, and I was the youngest by five years. Four older sisters paved the way sartorially for me, too. Starting at a young age, I noticed what they wore and would draw inspiration from them. Twice annually I was taken on a shopping trip which consumed an entire day. Items hand-picked by a dandy named Jack were loaded into the fitting room. I would choose exactly what I wanted without

compromise. When we would go on vacation, I had such an extensive wardrobe, I felt I should change outfits a few times a day. The foil to this was the strict limitation of school uniforms. I began wearing one at the age of two-and-a-half and continued for a decade. I went to a convent school run by Carmelite nuns, the place F. Scott and Zelda chose for their daughter ‘Scotty’ when they resided in St. Paul. There were expectations about how one was to show up. These standards continue to bleed through into the present day, although, like every Catholic girl, I have reflexively tried to reject them. I am okay with ‘old school’. In contrast, one alumnae let her rebellious streak run to the nth degree: ultimately designing costumes for Prince.

The roots of my Francophilia might be traced back to adolescence, when I began wearing French designer clothes. By High School, I was labeled a ‘preppy punk rocker.’ I bought my first pair of skinny black jeans for a trip to Greece when I was 17. During that era, I modeled for Horst, the founder of Aveda, but preferred wearing scant make up and not bothering to do anything but add a dab of Tenax my hair. Kelly Lynch’s sister taught me how to apply make-up and averred that I had a ‘sellable face’. In my early 20’s, interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working at a ‘chic’ Upper West Side restaurant, living on Central Park East, and going out to East Village clubs for long nights of dancing and underground shows meant dressing across genres and codes. The over-the-top 80’s styles that were abundantly on-display in the various neighborhoods in Manhattan wowed me. However, I liked mixing things up subtly, wearing, for example, a distressed fringed suede jacket (think Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy) with an equestrian-themed Hermès scarf. That still seems to be my strategy.

My wedding outfit was auspicious: I painted by hand a two-color geometric design by Russian Constructivist Varvara Stepanova onto raw silk and had a local designer re-create her Soviet Gymnast uniform: a tank top and shorts. I complemented it with a jacket he sewed for me based on my own drawing, made from fabric I dyed. Before the ceremony, the dewy faced little girls couldn’t hide their incredulity that I wore ‘shorts’ to get married in. I am not certain how to trace the years that have ensued, but as time passes, I notice that my flair for the dramatic still comes into play. Most of the time I don’t dwell too much on my image; I trust my intuition. For example, in May I was photographed for AFAR (a travel magazine) wearing zero make-up, not even tinted moisturizer. I am secure in showing up as I am. Living in Paris last Summer, I wore hand-me-downs from stylish pals. My go-to accessories were a motorcycle jacket and boots I found on the street (gasp!). When working in my Detroit space, I traipse around barefoot -hence the phrase 'barefoot and printing' - and don whatever is top of the ‘somewhat clean’ pile in my sleeping loft. As a contingency, I have four dark-hued jumpsuits in a range of cuts and fabrics that help me feel ready to take on the day and might translate well into the nighttime.

OW: Who or what in the art world is on your radar right now? 

MO:

Who:
Sonia Delaunay, Pauline Oliveros, Marcel Duchamp, Alison Knowles, Tino Sehgal, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, Flint Magazine, Sun Ra, Paul Elliman, Lorenzo Eroticolor, Sylvia Beech, and Guy Debord.

What:
The symbology of the spiral and circle, scores for deep listening, linguistic games, an entire oeuvre involving the bean, immersive environments, interactive videos, boxed collections, a friend's novel as travel companion, poetry and an invocation of the spirit, conflation of subject/object, posters signaling freedom, revolutionary bookshops, the practice of
détournement, and the seminal text The Society of the Spectacle.

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