Brandi Katherine Herrera is a multidisciplinary artist, poet, and translator in Portland, Oregon.
In a coffee house on Southeast Belmont––
Brandi pulled out a square box covered in white book cloth, and placed it on the table. My eyes widened as she lifted the lid to reveal a display of Mutterfarbe: a limited edition artist book, comprised of three separately bound sections and an appendix of back matter. Brandi’s collaborator, book artist and designer Erin Mickelson of Broken Cloud Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico, made the 16-book edition of Mutterfarbe. She also contributed illustrations to the book’s second section. The collaboration between the two created a design that is relevant, yet classic.
Brandi pulled out the table of contents and I stared at the cover. The blind embossed title looked elegant and soft. I felt an undeniable urge to trace my fingers over the letters, and feel the texture of the paper.
Inspired by the German writer, Goethe, and his book, Theory of Colours, published in 1810, Mutterfarbe – translated Mothercolor – is an artist book that explores sixteen colors through poetry, illustration, photography and technology. Printed with archival pigment, each of the sixteen colors correlates to the landscapes represented in Brandi’s travel photographs. The book’s three sections, Natürlicher, Ursprünglicher and Farbe Gespräch are all unique in their approach to color theory.
Intentionally chosen and well-crafted text, paints a poetic story that both seduces and stimulates the mind. The book’s third section, Farbe Gespräch, portrays an imaginary cell phone text conversation between Goethe and Brandi –– a nod to technology’s impact on communication.
The illustrations in the second section of the book are considered “visual translations” of Goethe’s original illustrations. Line work of Goethe’s was recreated into blind impressions, before being color blocked, and then processed through a computer program to create glitch art, which is the use of digital errors to create aesthetic interest. Additionally, each edition includes a unique and colorful lenticular print –– a printed GIF that reveals line art illustrations as the pages are moved.
A reading of four poems from the first section, Naturlicher, of the book, Mutterfarbe.
WS: Your book pays homage to Goethe’s 1810 book, Theory of Colours. Originally published in German, it was a controversial book for its time because it questioned Newton’s theories. What first drew you to Goethe and his book?
BKH: Over the years, I’ve read bits and pieces of the only major English translation of Theory of Colours, which was published in 1840, and translated by Charles Eastlake. It’s a massive text. Most people don’t get too far past the section where Goethe talks about the psychology of color, and I don’t blame them. The language at this point is archaic, and hard to digest. Even so, Goethe’s theories are actually pretty accessible. Newton approached color through mathematic models that investigated the behavior of light. But Goethe wanted to investigate the eye’s experience of color. For him, feeling and sensing were more important than scientific proof. And I think people really connect with that, because it’s human.
Goethe’s work on color was so far ahead of the conventions of his time. It wasn’t until well after his death that theorists, scholars, and artists got over the whole Newton-Goethe b.s. and really started to take his ideas seriously. He considered Theory of Colours his life’s most important work, but never saw it recognized as such in his own lifetime. So, I think it’s interesting to look at the book now, after so much time has passed, and with that history for context. A lot had to happen before it could show up as much as it does now, in contemporary literature. One of my favorites in recent years was Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which references a lot of Goethe’s theories about the color blue. Another is Rebecca Solnit’s A field guide to getting lost, which I love. No one would (or could) have referenced his work so freely when the book came out. It was just too political.
WS: Can you recall the moment you came up with the idea for Mutterfarbe?
BKH: I had been thinking about the idea of translating a German text — kind of for fun more than anything else, just to see if I could even do it — and tried my hand at piecing apart the work of a few contemporary German poets. But nothing was really turning me on enough to want to finish translating more than a poem or two. One afternoon at work, Theory of Colours popped up on the Brain Pickings blog, and a door just kind of opened up. Goethe’s color theories were already deeply imbedded in my subconscious, so it was just like a little reminder to give them some active space. I started to consider translating it, even if that meant only a few small parts of the full text. There’s no way I was up to the challenge of translating the entire book. Eastlake didn’t even do that. Actually, he intentionally skipped over whole sections of the book, because he considered it to be too contentious. Anyway, unlike translating someone else’s poems, I could, in a way, do whatever I wanted with Goethe’s text. It’s creative commons because it’s so old. And, I liked the idea of maybe reimagining some of his ideas within a contemporary context. Starting at the source (of color) to gather material for a new, original work. To translate some of the text, then isolate only words and ideas in the translation, and then use those words and ideas as source text for my own poems, erasures, and experiments. I get really excited by process. So, it was sort of a dream project idea. And a really crazy one. Definitely a crazy one.
WS: Each one of the three sections of Mutterfarbe has a different perspective to the story. Can you describe those perspectives?
BKH: Erin Mickelson — my collaborator on Mutterfarbe — likes to think of the book’s three sections as a sort of model of the scientific process. Following the path of that old high school acronym, PHERC: Problem / Hypothesis / Experiment / Results / Conclusion. I never paid much attention in science class, so I don’t ever remember learning that. Erin’s way ahead of me. But when she explained it, I was like, “Oh, yeah! Right!”
So, telling the color story (or any story) in this book was also about the two of us solving a problem, through those steps of hypothesis and experimentation. And in the end, it all comes together in this bizarre mash-up of results (the conclusion, which is the third section of the book). The most important thing about Mutterfarbe, though, is that there is no real linear narrative, other than with color. And because of the way Erin designed the artist book as individually bound “books” (housed within a box), it’s also modular. You can move it around in any way you like. Read it in any order. Look at sections, side by side. Compare and contrast. Each time you pick up the book, it becomes a new kind of experiment. I guess in that way, the structure also aims to mimic the whole model of scientific observation and discovery.
WS: You describe the book as a color palette with words, how is that so?
BKH: When I created the color swatch poems in the first section, Natürlicher, I gave myself a kind of constraint. I told myself that I could only use words that I found in the section of text I’d translated that had to do with the psychology of color. Goethe structured that chapter of Theory of Colours into sections that went into detail about each color in the spectrum, and how each is supposed to make people behave, or feel. I started to kind of think of each of those sections of text as paint on a palette. Green paint and red paint and yellow paint, also red-blue and blue-red and all of the other combinations he defines. I decided to start pulling out colors, one by one, as if I was painting with them. And then blended them in order to make the poems that correspond with each of the 16 colors of the book. So, the poem for “Haute Normadie,” which is a kind of yellow-based green, only has words in it that came from Goethe’s text that describe the psychology of yellow, and of green. I used that same process on all 16 poems, based on their corresponding colors.
WS: You have been working on Mutterfarbe for two years. How has it changed the way you perceive color?
BKH: Color is just really important to everything I do. In that way, I’m not any different than anyone else. But, I also kind of obsess over it. It’s almost always the starting point for anything I write or make, and sort of becomes the subtext to whatever story I end up telling, whether it’s with text, or image, or even sound. I don’t know that making this book has changed my relationship with color, or the role it plays in my life. But, it has given me a new idea of what can happen when you spend that much time thinking about and working on any single project. If I were being totally honest, I’d say that I don’t really ever want to see those 16 colors again. Ha. But they’re a part of my story now. I’m glad they get to live in this book so that I don’t have to carry them around any longer.
WS: The book incorporates technology through the images and the writing. Why was that important for yourself and your collaborator, Erin, to include in the design and layout of the book?
BKH: I think that as a translator, it’s important to look at the tools we’re using today to talk to each other. Using our smart phones, and buggy technology, which breaks down so much of the time, in really significant ways. We talk to each other across great distances (or across a counter) with our phones and our laptops as go-betweens. But also as meaning-makers, and as companions. It felt like I needed to address that somehow in the book, and in how I chose to translate the text. A lot of it was done in the most traditional sense — word by word, with only a dictionary and my own knowledge of German. But, I also used the Google Translate app’s “Word Lens” feature to experiment with “smart translation” technology in the second section of the book. And I used Google’s automatic language detection technology in the conversation I made up between Goethe and myself in the third section. So much of that Google translation wasn’t accurate, but I kept it, anyway — flaws and all, because a lot of it was really beautiful and poetic in its error.
Erin folded technology into the construction and design of the book, too. The square shape of the color swatches and photographs, and of the book and the box it’s housed in, is meant to reference the pixel. But also this whole nostalgic, Instagram square format of photography everyone’s so obsessed with. We’re both a little bit tired of the limitations of that, so it’s kind of like our own little dig at social media.
WS: In the third section of the book you have an imaginative text conversation with Goethe about color, while watching the cult classic film, The Holy Mountain. How does this comment on modern technology?
BKH: Translating someone who is no longer alive is like trying to talk to the dead. You can’t just text Goethe and be like, “Hey, what were you thinking when you said that one really fucked up thing? Why did you choose that word? What did you mean by this or this or that?”. You just can’t. And it’s really frustrating. You have to sort of entertain yourself by imagining that you could have a real-deal conversation. So that’s what I did.
I had been watching The Holy Mountain, which is so outrageous and gorgeous and I guess I just figured it would be something Goethe would have loved. So, I thought: what if I watched it with him? And: what if we had a dialog about color in the film, while we watched it? Because no one calls each other any more, I thought it also made sense to have the conversation via text, using our imaginary iPhones. So, the entire third section of the book is a 13-foot long leporello-bound text convo with Goethe, complete with screen caps of the film. I like to tell myself that he would have really gotten into that.
WS: You contributed all, with the exception of two, of the photos in the book. The photos were taken during your travels of the US and France, and were used to select the color palette of Mutterfarbe. How much did geography contribute to the color story?
BKH: There are 16 colors in Mutterfarbe. And all 16 are carried throughout the entire book, including the back matter (appendixes). Each of those colors was pulled from the landscapes and build environments I was traveling through and living in during an extended period between 2014-2015. Throughout the American Northwest, Midwest, and in Normandy and Burgundy, France. Each of the colors in the book, then, takes its name from some thing or another in that particular place (Omaha, Black Squirrel, Milk Bath, Tickle Creek, Confiture, etc.). In this way, they form a kind of place-based narrative of their own, even if it’s loose. I doubt anyone would really pick up on that. But it was a process that mattered to me, because there isn’t otherwise much of my own story in the book. Not personally, not really. So, it was kind of my way of inserting myself more overtly into a story that’s about color, first. And about Goethe, and language, second/third.
WS: What was your biggest influence throughout the books construction?
BKH: I think just the act of living without much, and a lot of travel. I was at an artist residency in France at the time, and traveling both before and after that, and I basically lived out of one duffle bag for almost a year. Living with so little, and moving so frequently from place to place, at the mercy of other people and their spaces, was really liberating (and eye opening). It forced me to focus more acutely on my own need for stuff, and the value of things. Color, and language, started to become all that I needed. One morning, I had a fantasy about throwing my duffle bag into the creek outside the mill we were living in, because I just couldn’t imagine wanting or needing any of the shit it contained. I didn’t want to carry it around with me anymore. It was too heavy, both literally and figuratively.
If someone had thrown my book in the creek? I’d have drowned trying to save it.
WS: Yale has just purchased one of the 16 books in the limited edition for the Faber Birren Collection on Color, where a first edition of Goethe’s book also lives. Scholars from around the world will be studying and enjoying your artistry. What is next for you?
BKH: Yale was really exciting news. I think Erin and I both cried and then drank a lot of whiskey. It was sort of hard to believe, and still is. That Mutterfarbe has a permanent home next to all of these amazing textiles, artifacts, artworks, and rare books on color — including Goethe’s, and a first edition of Newton’s — is pretty wild. It’s an honor. I have no idea what happens next. The hope is that other collections and archives will acquire a book, too, until all 16 have been placed. And to also show the book in more galleries, and museums. But, if Yale was the only one, I would have absolutely nothing to complain about.
WS: Post election season there are a lot of people struggling to find motivation. Can you recall a time in your life that gave you the courage to create?
BKH: My sister’s death in 1984, when I was 7, and she was just 9. I don’t really make anything, write anything, that isn’t because of her, for her. Things influence me, and even play important roles (like color). But that comes, and goes. Nothing, really, matters much, other than her. She has given me the courage to make things and then tear them up and then put them back together again, my entire life. It’s because of her that I do any of it at all.
Mutterfarbe is an object of beauty––a color palette of words. Receive a virtual walk-through and explanation of the book here, and visit Brandi’s personal website to stay up to date with all of her upcoming work.