Playing Our Parts: An Interview with Allison Leialoha Milham

Allison Leialoha Milham is an artist and musician from the central coast of California. She received her BFA in studio art from San Francisco State University and her MFA in book arts from the University of Alabama. Her work is held in prominent collections, including Yale University Arts Library and The Library of Congress, and is represented by Vamp & Tramp Booksellers and Booklyn. Allison is currently living in Mendocino, CA where she is rebuilding an old camper for use as a mobile home and working on book and print projects at various residencies. This interview happened in September of 2020, well into the COVID-19 pandemic. It was conducted over Zoom and edited later for clarity. You can see more of Allison’s work at:

Aaron Cohick (AC): Let’s start with the easy “getting to know you” question. How did you start making books?

Allison Leialoha Milham (ALM): I went to a community college in San Luis Obispo called Cuesta College and at that point I didn’t really know if I wanted to go to college or not, but I just thought I might as well take some art classes. So, I took a bunch of art classes there, mostly print-making and photography, and the photo professor Marta Peluso—who’s really wonderful—gave an artists’ book assignment. And then also, in a printmaking class, we took a trip to UCSB’s Special Collections. So, I guess through some early college classes. But also, there were all these other interests and things going on in my life at the time that I think led me to book making. I don’t know if I should give you the more-lengthy story.

AC: Yes! Sure!

ALM: Well, I guess it seems like most people in our field grow up loving books and reading a ton and that’s kind of the initial spark for them. My background is a little different—I’m not coming from that angle. As a kid I really didn’t read much at all, and I actually just recently found out—like just a few months ago, which is nuts— that I’m dyslexic! Which is both a huge relief to finally know but also really sad, you know, because I didn’t get the support growing up. Anyway, that’s another story, but yeah, I didn’t grow up reading many books, but I did grow up being super interested in working with my hands and in making things.

I got interested in craft and specifically textiles in my late teens. First I learned how to knit, and then I didn’t just want to knit, I wanted to learn to spin too so I could make my own yarn, and that led me to join a local weavers’ guild, the Central Coast Weavers, who are an amazing group of older women. They really became my early mentors. Through them I ended up taking workshops with some really incredible master weavers, and I learned how to spin, weave, and dye yarn. But I didn’t just want to stop there. I wanted to learn how to shear the wool off the back of the beast, and the whole thing! And that desire to under­stand and be involved in all the different parts and pro­cesses of making things continues to be really strong for me.

Then in college, I kept on with the print and photo classes and I loved learning all the processes and technical stuff and found working in multiples to be really empow­ering. And so all this led me to become interested in the book form as a way to communicate.

Oh yeah, and I was in a band at the time, and we were making our own CD covers with collage and carving these really crappy stamps, and that was really fun. So yeah, when I found the book arts, I guess it was like it is for so many of us—it just seemed to really bring all the stuff I was interested in together.

But it wasn’t through reading and being, you know, a booklover. I’ve always had a challenging relationship with words, and here I am in book arts, which is kind of hilarious. [laughs]

I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to working with my hands, and also to making music, because you can get a lot out without really needing to use words. It’s so much easier for me to express myself through music.

AC: Since you were just talking about music, and that plays a role in your work right now, can you talk about how that became a part of your life too?

ALM: I grew up playing piano. My parents made me take lessons, which I hated at the time. And at a certain point I started writing my own music and playing in some bands in high school, and then I’ve just kept up with songwriting over the years, mostly my own stuff. But recently I made some music for a friend’s film, a documentary called Sisters Rising. Music is just a much more immediate way to express myself. I can be free, and I can communicate in a way that I definitely can’t with words. It’s always been this really important creative outlet for me, whereas with my visual work, it’s a little more of a struggle—it’s just such a totally different way of working.

I’ve kind of bounced around a lot between different things.

AC: Do you think of yourself as a book artist?

ALM: I guess? Yeah, I don’t really know. I think I usually just say I’m an artist.

My project Uluhaimalama is not really a book. It’s a box with a bunch of stuff in it. [laughs]

If I say I’m a book artist, most people are like, “Huh?” You know . . . I think mostly it’s just a little confining.

AC: Thanks for answering that. It was kind of a weird question.

You mentioned the book Uluhaimalama. That book is a nice summation of what your work is about. It weaves together all these disparate elements: personal history, political history, current events, activism, and music and it does it inside of a “fine press” framework. I’m interested in exploring what “fine press” means. It seems impossible to combine all those things, but your book does that. Can you talk about that project? You just said it’s a bunch of stuff in a box. So, what is that “stuff?”

ALM: I guess you could think of it as a fine press vinyl box set or a deluxe record release, or something like that? I also like to think of it as a box of tools.

I guess I’ll start with the music, which was the first thing I did. I chose twelve of the over 200 songs composed by Queen Lili‘uokalani. The Queen was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom and was overthrown by a small group of American businessmen in 1893. She was beloved by her people and really was a visionary leader in so many ways. And she also happened to be a super prolific composer. So, I decided I wanted to use her music and her story as a lens to explore Hawaiian history. I studied her songs, learned to play and sing them, and then went into the studio and recorded them. I play most of the instruments except for the steel guitar, that’s my friend Jon, and percussion was my friend Ian. Then I had a small run of vinyl pressed into a twelve-inch record. And the record is housed in this black sleeve printed with a pattern made up of signatures I copied from the Kū‘ē Anti-annexation Petitions of 1898. And this serves as a background for the stencil, which is the first thing you see when you open the box. You see the Queen’s image and the word ‘Onipa‘a—which was her motto and means to remain steadfast—and all of these signatures of people who were opposed to US annexation.

The stencil was the first thing I made after I finished the music. I used this really beautiful photograph of the Queen and turned it into a stencil in Photoshop. I had access to a laser cutter at the time, so I made about 600 of them. I was really wanting them to get out there and get used. So, when people buy a stencil, I always ask if they’re going to use it, and if they are, then I send them an extra one for free so they have one to keep.

Below the stencil and record album, there’s the lyric sheet and it’s a 12″ × 24″ sheet that’s folded in half. It has all the lyrics in both English and Hawaiian. My friend Julia Dehoff, a calligrapher in Tallahassee, hand-lettered it all. She looked at samples of the Queen’s handwriting and used a similar style. I scanned her work and turned it into photopolymer plates. All of the text and images in the project were printed from polymer plates, except for a few woodcuts. And most of the paper is my handmade cotton and abaca. But I also used some commercial papers and chipboard for the stencil, because I wanted it to have a utilitarian feel so people wouldn’t be afraid to use it.

And then underneath all that stuff there’s more stuff. There’s the booklet, which is a really important part. My mom co-wrote the text. She was a writer and was working on a screenplay about Queen Lili‘uokalani at the same time I was working on my project, so she had done a ton of research about her life and the overthrow and all that, and so we were basically collaborators on the project. Oh, and I should mention too that my mom’s side is where my Native Hawaiian ancestry is. And she, as well as my grandmother (her mom) and other aunts and uncles have been active in the fight for Hawaiian rights and sover­eignty over the years.

The booklet is a pamphlet stitch book, twenty-four pages. It’s a brief history of Hawai‘i, with a focus on the Queen’s life and her influence on contemporary struggles. My mom wrote most of it. I think it’s really good. The story is so sad, but like, that’s the whole point of telling this history. People really don’t know much about what happened in Hawai‘i—about the devastating and ongoing effects of colonialism there.

There’s also a set of postcards. I made about 1,000 of these. I really wanted them to be used and to get out in the world, so I made a bunch.

And all of this stuff is housed in this tricky parti­tioned clamshell box that has a lot of additional info and context printed on it as well.

As I pushed the project forward, things started getting really fancy, of course, as things do, you know. I think we’re all masochists in book arts—we like to make things really hard. And make things that take a really long time. [laughs] Which is great! And we get to make really, really cool things!

But anyway—it started getting really fancy and elaborate, then I thought, well, wait a second. This is about communication, and this is about getting the story out there. So how can I try to make it accessible to folks, since it’s only going to be an edition of 50, and likely more expensive than most people could afford? That’s when I decided to make different parts of the project available in all these different formats. So almost every part of the project—except the actual box itself—is available in various formats, and in open editions and online. The booklet is online, and I make photocopies and give them away or sell them for ten dollars. I basically tried to build a tier system into the project, so anyone who was inter­ested can at least access it in some way.

AC: So, there’s the whole box, and that’s the “fine press” version. And then—like you said—the book is available digitally. And the music is available digitally as well?

ALM: Yeah. Both the booklet and the music are free online.

AC: And then there’s a version with just the record and the booklet?

ALM: Right, there’s another version, which I call the “standard record,” and that’s just the record in a simple jacket that comes with the booklet and a sticker. Some of it is letterpress printed, but not the whole thing. I had hoped to promote the music more and that that would draw people to the rest of the project, but you know, all the marketing stuff can be such a challenge.

AC: Yeah—marketing is hard to do. When you think about the project—all the editions—do you have any idea of how many copies there are overall?

ALM: The limited-edition box set is 50 copies, and then I did another couple hundred of the standard record, and about the same amount of the CDs, then yeah, about 600 stencils, and gosh, I don’t know, hundreds of booklets and stickers and postcards at this point. A lot. And the items that are an open edition I want to make more of. I’ve sold and given away almost all the stencils and booklets at this point. I need to make more soon.

It’s kind of tricky. Because I love going deep into all the craft processes and really going to the nth-degree on everything. I kind of can’t help it. But then it’s like, “Okay, now this is going to be available to only a very limited group.” And that’s not the point.

AC: That was one of my questions for later: the tension between activist content and a limited edition. You’ve already spoken to it a bit, but do you have anything else to add about that?

ALM: Yeah—sorry, I just realized—I’m terrible, Aaron. My computer battery is a little bit low! So let me get a cord here.

AC: Is that your trailer?

ALM: Yeah, this is the half that’s done. And the other half [rotates view] is not done.

But it’s coming. This is what I’ve been throwing 100 percent of my creative energy into these past few months. It is so much like making books. Oh my god. Figuring out how to make all the different parts work together and getting familiar with all the materials, making jigs! I swear all bookbinders would make excellent carpenters. It’s a lot of the same skills. It’s just a lot bigger.

Yeah, the tension between limited edition work and activism . . . Okay, I’m plugged in.

They are kind of conflicting in a lot of ways. I don’t really know. I mean, I’m so grateful for artists who are able to respond so quickly to things, who can crank out posters and ephemera in the moment. That’s so needed—to have powerful visuals for these movements. But I often can’t work in this way. And I wonder about when things take a really long time. I think, “This is going to be too late.” Things are happening so fast, and we have to act now. But I guess how we act can take a lot of different forms. I guess figuring out the most effective medium to convey your message is the key.

But I really do think there’s a place and a need for the slower processes as well. I think the physicality and the intimacy of the book as an art form can be really powerful. The formality and beauty of finely made objects gives them a power. And I think people can really sense the time and love that goes into this type of work, and the viewer can really feel that.

I think artists’ books have the potential—keyword, potential—to reach people on really deep levels, that is if people are able to experience them. I think I’ve heard Marshall Weber call it a kind of quiet activism. And this is one of the things I think about: if my work is really going to have the reach and impact that I hope it does. Is that quiet activism enough? There are times, especially this past year, when it really doesn’t feel like enough. And that’s when we really gotta ask ourselves, what is the best way, form, medium, etc. to tell this story, to get this information out there? Maybe this needs to be a poster, or maybe this needs to be a zine, or maybe this needs to be a performance.

I come back to the idea that we all just contribute in our own way. And I guess, or I hope, that all adds up somehow to the change we want to see—if we all play our parts as best as we can.

I really do think that accessibility is so critical, especially if our work is dealing with pressing issues. So yeah, there’s a big tension for sure between fine press editions and activist work. And I really don’t know what the answer is, but I know for myself that I want to continue to think of ways I can reach people beyond the special collections reading room. Don’t get me wrong, I know that tons of students and community members get to learn about and experience our work thanks to these public collections and to our amazing librarians. We really are so blessed to have that venue, that outlet. But I do hope that we continue to find more ways to get our work out there and to reach people. I think we do a lot of touting of how accessible our medium is. And, of course it is in a lot of ways, but I also have my questions.

AC: I don’t think any of us have found a satisfactory answer yet when we’re trying to gauge all those things and how they work together. And I think it’s okay to be conflicted about it. But I love how your work does that. It’s exploring all those avenues at once. You have that high craft object that you get to spend all this time on and really get into the process with, but then you have these other versions of it that are distributed in other ways. We’ve seen other printers, like Felicia Rice, that have done that in the past. I like thinking about these objects in these multi- modal kinds of ways—beyond just the limited edition.

ALM: Thanks, Aaron. And yes, me too! This is so important! I love Felicia Rice’s work and how she collaborates with so many different artists and brings in so many different mediums: film, sound, sculpture, book arts. To me, those are the types of projects that are really success­ful because there’s a bunch of different ways people can access and experience them. Like you said, gauging how all these things actually work, and what impact our work actually has, is hard.

With Uluhaimalama, I definitely thought about this stuff a lot. And also how we all learn and take in informa­tion in such different ways. So, by having so many differ­ent parts and formats, it makes the work that much more accessible.

AC: Oh wait—sorry—you did forget one piece of Uluhaimalama, which is the lei.

ALM: Oh right, the lei! This kind of relates to what I was just saying. So the lei kit, which I call Lei Kū‘ē—kū‘ē means protest—is a set of forty-nine flowers, thread, and instructions on how to make the lei. There are forty-nine rather than fifty flowers as a subtle acknowledgment of Hawai‘i’s fraudulent statehood. The flowers are printed with the same pattern of names I traced from the anti-annexation petitions, which are known as the Kū‘ē Petitions.

My idea with the lei was to provide a tactile experi­ence of making as part of the project. Again, I was think­ing about kinesthetic learning and the relationship between using our hands and how we take in information. Which I know we all think a lot about in the work we do in book arts.

Each part of the project serves a different function. I thought a lot about how I wanted to provide tools for the viewer. And how important it is that when we learn these histories and take in all of this new information, that we don’t just stop there, that we’re then compelled to act in some way: sending a postcard, using the stencil, maybe wearing or displaying the lei.

You know, things like that—the idea is cool, the lei kit is cool—but has anyone made one? Probably not. [laughs]

I really, really love Felicia Rice’s work so much, and that box for Doc/Undoc is so incredible. But when I went and looked at it, I had that same thought: Oh, all this stuff—who’s actually going to put on this lipstick? The idea is so good, and I love how immersive and interactive it becomes. I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t matter that nobody’s going to actually use it. It’s just the idea that matters. [laughs]

AC: I don’t have an answer for that either.

I know that you are currently working on another big book and music project. Do you want to talk about that?

ALM: Yeah, so it’s been underway for a couple years now. [laughs] Two years ago, I had a songwriting residency at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which was really great. And that’s when I started this new set of songs. The project is about grief and the recent loss of my mother. My mom and I were super close and I’m still processing it all, so it’s been slow going.

The music is mostly done. I recorded the songs with some friends in San Francisco, but they still need to be mixed and they’ve just sort of been sitting there because I’ve been pretty blocked on the other parts of the project.

Eventually, it will be a small box containing a book, the seven-inch record, and probably a foldout poster or set of prints. I’m not sure yet. And the box is really a big part of the project. There’s a lot going on with the box. I’m building in these tiny sound pieces that are activated when you open the lid, so that the music is integrated into the experience right off the bat. I’m trying to not make it too complicated, but that seems to be near impossible for me, unfortunately. Luckily, it’s just a seven-inch this time. [laughter]

It’s . . . it’s happening. I’m just a little stalled right now. Especially with the writing.

I can be really, really insecure about my work and especially writing. I’m not a good writer. I’m not a great drawer or designer either. I can do these things. But I feel like one of the reasons I probably make complicated, multi-layered work is because I feel like by bringing all this stuff in, then I can say what I want to say because it’s not just one thing that I’m having to depend on. If I say all of this stuff, and bring in all this different work, then you’ll really know what I’m saying.

I guess it’s kind of all about insecurity and wanting to be heard and understood and all that. [laughs] Sorry that’s kind of a jag.

AC: Not at all. So that project—it’s a record. It’s a seven-inch record.

ALM: Uh huh.

AC: And a book.

ALM: Uh huh.

AC: And a poster?

ALM: Yeah, either a poster or it might be a separate suite of prints. I’m kind of breaking up some of the content as separate parts of the project: the book, the prints, the record. And I’m really excited about the vinyl. I have a friend—I think I mentioned this to you before—but I have a friend who does some really cool experimental vinyl lathe cutting, and he’s going to lathe-cut some acrylic mirror for the seven-inches that come in the boxes. There will only be ten or so of them. The mirror is important for some of the content. But then, besides those fancy ones, I’ll also make a separate version, just like I did with the other project. Those will be much less elaborate, and I hopefully will be working with Paper Machine in New Orleans on those.

This is really the first time I’ve made work that’s so directly about my own experience. I think that’s the main reason I’m blocked, because it’s really hard for me. And it’s about such a hard subject—loss. Yeah, so that project is happening. It’s just slow.

AC: Slow projects have their own kind of danger. [laughs]

ALM: Indeed. Sometimes I really wish I knew how to do it a different way. To get stuff out faster. But I bounce around between things so much. And right now, I am totally in camper-building mode. And that’s all of Allison right now. I don’t even feel like I’m an artist right now. I mean, I’m being very artistic and creative in the camper. But my practice is really sporadic, and I work really slowly. I think it will be good to get a regular practice going. Once things settle down in my life. It will be interesting to see what happens then. Maybe I won’t have to make everything so big and complicated and overwhelming. Maybe I can find other ways to work. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing these posters that I started when I was at The Press at Colorado College, and other quick things in between, so that’s been good.

AC: Do you want to talk about those posters?

ALM: Yeah, sure. I just made a couple more at the In Cahoots Residency. They’re wood type posters that are speaking to the movement in Hawai‘i in different ways. One of the most recent ones that I made says: “Aloha ‘Āina Will Save the World.” Aloha ‘Āina is a really import­ant Hawaiian idea, a core value that means “love for the land.” It’s about having an intimate and reciprocal rela­tionship with the land. ‘Āi means food, so ‘Āina, the word for land or earth, actually translates to “that which feeds.” I’ve been getting really into thinking about the way language shapes our worldview. And I really believe that Hawai‘i and our Native Nations here on the continent are leading the way in terms of teaching us how to take care of this earth and of each other. There are a lot of other meanings of the phrase, but that’s the gist.

So yeah, the posters are just sort of sitting there right now. I’m eventually going to update my website and try to sell them to raise money for some organizations.

But right now, I’m focused on making sure I have a bed and a kitchen and all, and my art has been on hold until I get settled in up here. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. Take care of myself and get myself in a good, stable position, in a healthy position, so that I will be able to focus on my work and contribute to my community. My mom’s death really rocked my world, so it’s been a process.

AC: Earlier you were talking about when you settle down and have more of a routine. Why does that seem so difficult for so many artists now? You know, we’re not that young anymore, and we’re still stuck on this stuff. These are kind of bigger issues.

ALM: Oh man, totally. Well, I think it’s always hard for artists. And our society and many of our families certainly don’t offer much support. Our way of life makes it really hard to take care of ourselves and to make art. All that stuff that is really, really important. And I guess that’s been one of the things COVID has done for us—I think it’s really helped, or forced, us to reprioritize things in our lives. Part of what I’m doing with the camper is trying to simplify and strip down my life so I can survive on a meager income and have more time to be in my commu­nity and to make work and contribute. People do it! They make it work somehow. People are superheroes—people that have families and careers and make work and are doing advocacy work. And I’m just like, I don’t know how. [laughs]

I think there are superheroes. But I think for a lot of us it’s just really fucking hard. To balance it all, you know.

AC: It is always a battle. What are you looking forward to?

ALM: I’m really looking forward to COVID being over and being able to start a connection to the arts community up here in Mendocino. And I’m excited to get my camper finished and set up a little studio space so I can get back to work on some projects. And I love fall and winter. So yeah, definitely looking forward to being hunkered down and hopefully getting into a good groove with my work.