One year Anniversary of Flying Ketchup Press-- the Backstory with Polly Alice McCann
What’s your story? My story has two covers like a book. On one side of the coin, I’ve been a professor at a college, a former art gallery owner, I've sat on an arts board in Kansas City where I live. My family has been in the region for generations, and we are proud of our legacy of farming though it ended three generations ago-- proud of our distant but family ties to the famed Thomas Hart Benton--famous in our region anyway. I’m also an artist, a painter, and not least of all a mother of two great kids who both want to go into the sciences. Deep on the inside, I consider myself mostly a poet and a dreamer. Everything else is something I have to work at.
What is the other side of your story? Some of my strongest motivations for what I do each day come from my resolve not to give up. A lot of my energy comes from the day I woke up to find out I was a single mother. This was a life changer for me because I hadn’t planned on it. During college, as an art major, I would sneak into the library and read outdated books on housekeeping, sewing, laundry, and how to polish furniture. I know how to mend holes in almost anything. I did my senior art thesis on women's work and created sewn canvases with mended and torn structures. So when I found myself with not only one, but two art degrees (a master’s in writing), a mother of two small kids under 8 and also homeless, penniless during the middle of the recession—I was at a loss. I was a homeless homemaker. What did I do? I had to get in touch with some old dreams and move forward.
Why did you chose the path you’ve taken? Most of the women I went to college with, a small faith based college were having five kids becoming teachers and missionaries, adopting three kid and raising chickens. I guess somehow that had become ingrained in us as a great way to contribute to the world, by getting back to nature and just raising great families. I felt that way too, except I couldn't stop thinking about fulfilling my lifelong dream to be an artist and a writer. When Mayor Sly James of KC asked all the artists to come to speak about their vision for the city in 2011, I showed up. I remember afterward, I found some leftover pressed boards on the sidewalk. I painted them into paintings and had an art show in a café. Even more, I turned my bedroom into a studio and put the kitchen table in it. The rest of the house had to deal with. That cafe closed during my show, and it sure felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. However, to me, it was hopeful. I wanted to get back to being an artist. The picture book market had a big dip during the recession too, and although I had books and a great agent, my work was never picked up. So I didn't know what to do.
I remember it being a dark time, and I didn't know where to put my creative efforts. That's when Danielle D. Williams called me. We had taught art at KCAI community ed together, but again the recession had squashed it. Our courses were dropped, and the building eventually closed. Thankfully Danielle had a project. She needed me to help her do a community mural with the Lung & Lymphoma Society. Finally, an outlet! Together we helped kids with cancer celebrate at Christmas by painting a mural with handprints. That was an important moment when I knew I couldn't give up. Art gives life meaning to everyone, even in their darkest moments, it brings to light. It helps us to remember that we are a community. It also reminded me that sometimes there isn't all the time in the world left to make your dreams come true. The children and parents who put their beautiful red handprints on our mural of sunrise over green mountains didn't know how much longer they had left. I decided I needed to get to my creative work as quickly as I could.
That's when I went back to my first love, painting. Although I had shown art in galleries in other states I’d lived in, when I moved back to Kansas City in 2007, I couldn’t get any of the galleries to respond to my queries. I could have just gone down to talk to people and get in-person advice, but it took me a while to get into that mindset. So when I got the chance, I decided to take three months and have a full-time art studio in downtown KC. That led to working together with two friends to open an art gallery. It was called Paper Birch Landing. My favorite part was curating and writing about the artists. I saw how their creative work accelerated, expanded and deepened once they had an audience and a way to celebrate and share their work. Soon I had my work in many galleries around town.
Meanwhile, I kept writing, late at night on my laptop. Writing has always fueled my creative work, especially poetry. I had done my post-graduate work at Hamline University in writing for Children and Young Adults, however earlier I had spent three years at Bethel University Seminary doing non-credit independent study on the healing properties of art for both the artist and the viewer. I knew that's where I could find some healing time for myself in the work. What I didn't know was how much the writing would begin to take over. I wrote sixty six blogs and hundreds of poems about my journey as an artist. Today they are evolving into a few books on the topic of art and spirituality.
What did you hope to gain from making art, or what did you find in that time being an artist? While I painted, I created an illustration portfolio, and I still kept submitting my written work. I hadn’t studied illustration in school, but I knew it was one way I had hoped would be easy to tie together my love of both art and writing. It wasn’t. Illustration is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Now today I can tell you that it's about accepting yourself and who you are-- the mark making and stories that are personal to you. It’s about being completely vulnerable. It's really like being a child, but the kind that doesn't care what anyone thinks. Illustration is hard and the competition is intense.
During those years, I worked on my illustration portfolio and worked part-time jobs and ran the art studio. I also spent time leading and organizing writers groups with SCBWI. Then later taught intro to College Writing at the local community college. I found that college students in just two-semester could develop their writing from below college level to advanced work. I had no idea how empowering it would be for them to be able to find their voice. Next, I began teaching young creative writers online with Society of Young Inklings. Soon it became clear to me that the pattern I was seeing was particular.
When creatives who are encouraged and are given a place and a voice, big things happen for them.... and they, in turn, inspire their communities.
So finally, I made these observations:
My students were great writers but didn’t know it, however, their work was profoundly moving because they learned they had an audience and a community to write within.
A small band of kid writers called the Inklings were doing more than every adult writer I knew. They were publishing, creating and having fun. They were taking writing to the next level while still in elementary and high school.
The artists who took part in the art gallery I had been a part of surpassed being emerging artists because they were supported and encouraged by each other. They were flourishing: they had art shows, gave their studios and businesses names and logos. Then names and logos to their galleries and curated projects.
Yes, they became curators of other shows and opened other galleries. They wrote their own artist statements and blogs. They began speaking at places like workshops and colleges. They began helping other artists emerge. It was an exponential chain reaction of creativity that fed the community and then circled back to the creatives and went out again. That's when I realized I wanted to see this kind of catalyst happen for writers.
Meanwhile, the recession, digital publishing, self-publishing, and the #metoo movement caused upheaval in the publishing market. Now a lot of authors I know are going strong and creating some of the best books in the history of the field. Others have not found the right place for their project, or feel forced into self-publishing. They pay for each step of the process to complete a self-published book. Some really love it, and some feel they are going it alone. Worse, others have stopped writing altogether or stopped sending their work out as submissions. Why can't they get published? Maybe they want to write diverse books or write for markets that are underserved. Maybe they have topics that don’t have mass appeal or are risky subjects that publishers aren't willing to work on during this time of transition in the market. I found myself with more and more people telling me they had books with no outlet.
What made me keep going? Without hope, creativity dries up. I kept working at making a career for myself as an artist and writer because so many gave up. I thought surely if this is a survival test, then I will just survive. I figured I could break into the industry through illustration if not writing and I just kept trying. I spent more time and money and paid for a conference and a professional critique. This time an important art editor from my favorite publishing company told me that my work wasn’t really illustration and that I was going about everything the wrong way—in short, he seemed to say my portfolio was useless. In each rejection I received, no one had ever used any art terminology to composition, color, line, character that could in any way relate to improvement--I felt my fate was sealed. Ten minutes after the critique, I was at my lowest point ever. I had invested thousands of dollars into education, memberships, supplies, printing, advertising, marketing, and volunteering hours, plus two degrees into the field, and I had nothing. I was at rock bottom. I wasn't any further at age thirty-nine than I had been at thirteen-years-old when I had decided to become an author-illustrator then spent every day for twenty-six years trying to make it so. I had nothing to show for it except intention.
I’ve thought about that ten-minute critique every day since then, sometimes hourly, sometimes by the minute. The art editor said my work needed to be “effortless.” He said my paintings were not what Illustration is about. I was hurt but also skeptical, I did my master’s thesis on Maurice Sendak and incredible genius in his field who basically inspired the industry we have today. To me, the word "effortlessness" was not really how I saw writing and illustrating for kids or adults. However, every day while I worked five part-time jobs and while I painted and wrote and social media-ed myself into a frenzy-- I thought about how to make it. Everything told me that it should look effortless, but that working in publishing was exactly the opposite.
One day, it's like it just hit me-- Encouraging artists and writers is my favorite thing. I discovered there are so many writers out there. They have so many stories to share and voices that need to be heard. That’s when I began to dream up a different kind of publishing model. What if I could change the creative experience?
It started with just one book. At the advice of a local poet, I self-published one book I had submitted dozens of times and spent hundreds of dollars submitting it to whole book contests. That one book lead to so many things:
I was asked to read my work in public. I was asked to come back and teach a class. I was asked to publish a college literary journal. I was asked to lunch by a famous Jazz singer. I was asked to apply for grants. I was asked to edit and illustrate another book I was asked to edit and illustrate another book... and it just kept going...
People hugged my book. They said it was beautiful. They said it was so lovely to hold it. They said it made their day. They teared up when they would open it and read just one page. I got reviews on Amazon and an author page on Goodreads. That's when I realized I wanted other people, more people to experience this feeling of finally getting their voice out to the world. This feeling of community and this feeling of response and action. It's energizing. I could finally think of finishing projects because I had an audience. I wanted more people to experience that, but it became clear that not everyone has a background in illustration, graphic design, marketing, editing, teaching, publishing, and writing. I do. So I launched a publishing company.
Sure, some days I'd just rather hang out in my studio and paint, or go home and work in my garden, but I just can't stand that a generation of good writing is going to go to waste.
What kind of publishing company is it? Why keep trying methods that don’t work for us? Why spend two decades submitting to publishing giants and getting lost in the shuffle. Why push through with self-publishing and struggle through on your own if you don't have to? We want to create a third road, a 21st Century model to create a small press who knows books, knows your market, and who knows you.
Why Kansas City? We are in the heartland, in the middle of everything. We can catch perspectives possibly overlooked on the coasts, and we have a little more time and flexibility to listen to new ideas. Kansas City is a bustling, growing arts town. Authors and writers will be coming here to network, speak and take part in the new National Children's Book Museum coming soon to North Kansas City-- The Rabbit Hole is the place writers and illustrators from all over the world are going to come to. It's time to get ourselves together. We need a literary community ready to meet this creative cultural phenomenon. Yes, we need to embrace the victories of literature in the past, but we also need to look to the future. It's time to work together, it's time to write, it's time to listen to new voices.
How do we start? We are going to start with short story contests. And when you enter the writing contest to be published in a book-- that tiny fee to submit will go to promoting those authors who win the writing contests. So those contest entries will go to publishing the next person’s book. That book may be yours. I hope it is. You are helping other people get published while getting published. Our second phase will be to expand and open to submissions.
If you feel like your only choice as a writer is the red or the blue pill? Decades of waiting or pushing on alone. Let’s try a new method. So send your stories. Let’s go. I think it's time to catch up. Don't you?
Flying Ketchup Press
A Kansas City Publisher for the epic acceleration of great literature. Founded in 2018 to discover and develop new voices in poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction with a special emphasis in new short stories. We are a publisher made by and for creatives with a spirit of the Heartland. Our dream is to salvage lost treasure troves of written and illustrated work-- to create worlds of wonder and delight; to share stories. Maybe yours.