Artist Stefan Gibson’s (BFA 2020) new self-published book was years in the making. In fact, he wholly scrapped the first two versions, he tells me one afternoon in January.
Titled Where To Begin, the book began in Stefan’s final year at ECU. It grew throughout the pandemic into an exploration of “the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we tell each other, the stories that we’re told.” It digs into the ways past and present influence one another and how meaning and identity have shared roots in where we’ve been.
“I was working through the lens of someone looking back on their life,” says Stefan, who now works in Reception and Information Services at ECU. “An older figure struggles to remember something he wants to communicate, punctuating a life lived. You view their life through little vignettes, the myths and histories of self.”
For Stefan, the creation of meaning and identity are slippery processes, influenced by a complex web of factors. Beliefs, experiences, place and culture all affect personhood, regardless of whether one embraces or rejects them.
Stefan notes that he himself grew up in different parts of the world and travelled regularly as a young person. He and his family moved from the Caribbean to Saskatchewan, often returning to visit relatives. Some of this worldly experience now shows in Stefan’s openness to uncertainty.
“It feels like everyone I talk to has a solid idea of what’s going on,” he says. “Whereas, when I look back on my experiences, the topics of self and interpretation feels more nebulous than the clear-cut stories I’d heard. And I tend to lean into being less sure about anything. I think this book was largely about me trying to work those things out.”
Each page of Where To Begin features one of a series of delicate graphite drawings. This secondary “visual text” charts its own narrative that parallels the writing. But the two narratives aren’t identical, Stefan says. Rather, the writing and the drawings cooperate to build a fuller picture of the central figure’s life.
“I wanted to explore how illustrations and text can work together and collaborate without the text simply describing the images or the images strictly illustrating the text,” Stefan says. “I wanted to see how to make that all work together in a different way and push that relationship further.”
This concept is one Stefan has been chasing for a while. The final version of Where To Begin took 18 months to complete — a period that began in the early days of the pandemic. And that was even before the proofing, printing, binding and distribution began. All of which Stefan very intentionally handled on his own.
The decision to avoid the traditional publishing industry was partly about wanting “to see what was possible without getting a stranger involved,” he says. “And it could have crashed and burned.”
But it didn’t. Stefan credits friends and family for their support during the book’s early stages. He also thanks foundation program advisor Gaye Fowler for her patient work as an editor. Many more people throughout ECU also helped Stefan see the book to completion.
“Being in a creative community and working in a community-oriented manner are big parts of my practice and general way of moving through the world,” Stefan says.
The result is a sensitive, gorgeous work that sold-out its first small run almost immediately. A second run soon followed. Stefan produced roughly 200 copies in total, each handmade start-to-finish. One of those copies now lives in the ECU Library Artist Book Collection.
And despite needing “a break of some sort,” Stefan isn’t done. He aims to continue pursuing his themes, potentially in a new book.
Meanwhile, he’s happy imagining the futures of all the copies of Where To Begin that are now circulating out in the world.
“The physical object goes on to have its own life, free of the maker and whatever intentions they had in the beginning,” he says. “I wanted to make something exactly how I wanted to make it, and then be able to put it out into the world and have people interact with it in their own way.”