To know the work of Devin N. Morris is to know the work of a world-builder, someone untethered by notions of dimension, temporality, gravity, and materiality. Devin is an illustrator, collage artist, sculptor, bookmaker, collector, and dreamer of spaces where we can be at home. Home is always a tenuous concept for Black people in America, oftentimes a memory we carry in our heads, a scent, a story, choreography, and the items we’ve managed to keep with us along the way. What I mean is, it can be more of a feeling than a specific place, and Devin’s work is all these things—a metaphorical clearing of newspapers off the sofa to make a place for the placelessness. A welcoming. You can glimpse these invitations in Devin’s work. Oftentimes, the most pleasure is found in Devin’s finds, whether it be the work of a candlemaker or clothing designer included in one of his zine fairs, or the scraps of discarded fabrics and furniture that find new life in one of his collages. Devin’s work always reminds me of the poet Nikki Giovanni, who once said, “We will take what we have to make what we need.” Devin lovingly gathers up all that we are in order to imagine exactly what we need—now, and in the future.

Portrait of Devin N. Morris in the studio. Photo by Sarah Kobos

JW:              What is your first memory of books? Of being read to?

DNM:          At home, books were in the house. Dr. Seuss, The People Could Fly, the Bible, and hymn books. Books were around like toys. In my grandparent’s house there is a built-in cabinet and bookcase at the bottom of their stairwell that had all these numbers books. They always played the lottery; they were trying to manifest what numbers would make them money and all that. My grandparents live in Northwest Baltimore, Park Heights, and I would spend weekends with them—and we would take trips, a lot of trips. For anybody working in graphic design, I’m pretty sure that their first memory of falling in love was through looking at bookshelves.

                     In the basement, there would be Jet magazines and truck magazines. That was one of my earliest interests in engineering because truck magazines had all the details about engines. My grandmother would read the paper and I would read the funnies—we would have our Sunday mornings and I made her coffee. In middle school I read E. Lynn Harris with my mom and her boyfriend. Somehow, nobody knew I was gay? Literally we read all ten of his books and his autobiography. In middle school I also read a book about a white horse, a ghost horse! And after that I was hooked.

                     I’ve always been a reader and a writer; it’s so quiet. It’s something I need just to exist.

JW:              What is your writing practice like now?

DNM:          It’s nonexistent. I write in my head. I actually would like to create a more rigorous practice, because it takes me a while to start writing again because I like to write and collage. I do everything in a collage so a lot of times the stories are just thrown together from four different places, but I think that practice could be stronger.

                     Last night I revisited a line I wrote in a story from two or three years ago—another Fourth of July where I was biking around Bed-Stuy and thinking about war—and I realized I think about this story every Fourth of July. So now it’s time to fully develop this into a story that is more than a reflection. I’ll have these thoughts and then it’s time for a full story.

JW:              It all sounds iterative. And it’s occurring to me while listening to you talk that part of your writing practice probably comes out in your collages because there’s always a story being told in them.

DNM:          Yeah, there’s always a little paragraph embedded in there.

JW:              I see it in a door off the hinges, a shoulder, a leap from one frame into the next. A movement.

DNM:          That’s it. And in some of it, there is no story, or just the idea of a story that’s been going on for a while, that I keep addressing in the work.

JW:              Is there a story in Not Far Off (2021), your gorgeous piece that was recently shown at Company Gallery?(1)

DNM:          There is always a substory, a subjournal about violence, about relationships, about memory. I want to speak to what’s overcome. I love the doors falling. I’ve also been creating characters through these appendages. The initial idea of me showing that doorway with the falling hinge was thinking about how these objects become vulnerable and I acquire them. That’s something I’m always working through and thinking about—something falling—for whatever reason. It leads to a garden.

JW:              I’ve been thinking a lot about you as a memory worker—but not just memories as in things you’ve experienced, but maybe even like future memories that we might want to have. It feels so resonant with your work as a collector. You always seem like you are holding onto things for the future and for the past—perhaps saving things we don’t yet know that we will need.

DNM:          I am a forager, in a way, as far as what I pick up from outside—found domestic objects for my collages which is one way I am a collector—but I am a forager of craft in general. I am always foraging for objects to put into an archive. My favorite recent thing was a metal fleur-de-lis that fell off a gate and little tchotchke that remind me of Baltimore. In the publishing world, I am a collaborator and a collector. I collect a ton of books for many different reasons. I like books that speak to history, and every object I collect is a vessel for time and experience, and that’s what books do quite naturally. They piece together history, but they also contain emotions. And sometimes zines make different concerns, ideas, and emotions more easily accessible because of their compact nature. I’ve always thought about artists and the spaces in which I found myself in community, that I’m able to collect from and take things from or preserve things within that framework. I’ve always seen that act as encouraging possibility. And I knew one thing that artists were not encouraged to do was to understand all the ways they could exist. They’re just told to compete. And a lot of people are insecure because there is no encouragement or any other way, and so those spaces to me were so important to populate and create, and to then be a part of too.

The artist’s archive of found objects. Photo by Sarah Kobos

JW:              I would love to hear about the beginning of 3 Dot Zine and the first Brown Paper Bag zine fair. Because something I’ve always admired about your work, even before we met and became friends, was collaboration for the sake of collaboration, rather than being mediated through a larger infrastructure like a group show, or filtered through the lens of hierarchies or algorithms, or even a sponsored opportunity that becomes performative, which I still love to see. But it feels beautiful and radical to see alternatives to the models that are not as familiar.

DNM:          I don’t do open calls for a reason. They encourage a certain known body to show up, whereas within the spaces I create there are people who I seek. And I’m like, “You, you’re great. Let’s work. Do you need help with your book? Like, how can we get you here? Oh, you need a plane ticket? Do you need to stay at my house?”  I create a space because I want these people to be here, and I want everybody to experience it in a certain way. I seek people. It’s not like I’m thinking outside the box. I just don’t understand the box, so I’ve never prioritized certain forms of being inside of one. To me, the book as a form presents a series of hypotheses that can be explored in any direction, and that’s what attracts me to books: interesting findings.

JW:              What was your first interaction with whatever we might call a zine? Did you start making things and then come to an understanding that this is what culture calls a zine, or did you first stumble onto something that you later identified as a zine?

DNM:          I still don’t understand what zines are and I never really cared.

Devin N. Morris, Baltimore Boy, 3 dot zine (2015). Photo by Sarah Kobos

JW:              The word doesn’t even make sense!

DNM:          I remember people being like, “Where should I house a zine?” I’m like, “Where would you house paper?”

JW:              [laughs]

DNM:          The first zines I probably ever encountered were pamphlets, like in the doctor’s office. The driver’s manual to me is an excellent zine. It is an excellent design book.

Issue #2, Grey Areas (front cover), 3 Dot zine (2015). Photo by Sarah Kobos

JC:               It is very well laid out.

DNM:          Very well, you know? That’s a structure. You know, we re-create the structures we understand as books, so there wasn’t a place where I didn’t recognize zines but I didn’t realize what they could be creatively. I saw True Laurels, which is Lawrence Burney’s book.(2) They were doing parties and making music and doing shit, and it was just so simple. Once I saw it, I understood it—that’s what culture can be. At the time, I was just on Tumblr. I didn’t understand people who were sharing other peoples’ images. A re-blogged social platform was strange for image-making and there were too many cooks in the kitchen and in authority, and that felt strange to me. Not that I need an authority, but I also just don’t need an opinion. And so this was like image opinions, and I didn’t want that.

                     So I thought, oh, I can create my own—I can be in control of my image; so I wasn’t thinking as an artist. I just knew I wanted to control my own images and not project lifestyle onto people, which I thought magazines were doing and also, again, that re-blog culture and lifestyle shit. All these curative things I don’t need. People should be able to choose.

                     At that point I was taking on the persona of being the editor, which led me to the artist, and that gave me all of my eyes. And it began through that process, as a chooser, as a photographer, that I was collaging for the first time. That whole first book—each page was designed by hand—we had thirty pages laid out over a coffee table and we made it into a book.

JW:              And when was that?

DNM:          3 Dot started in 2014 with Issue One. 3 Dot is about space and space can be created. Space can be given. Space can be a creative process. Space can be—space is everything. It’s visual. It’s anything.

Issue #1 (front cover), 3 Dot Zine (2014). Photo by Sarah Kobos
Issue #1 (interior spread), 3 Dot Zine (2014). Photo by Sarah Kobos

JW:              In the conversations we’ve had, you’ve talked a lot about the futurity of 3 Dot becoming more of a press as practice.

DNM:          I want to design things and make things. I don’t always want to have to tell you what the idea is or be the editor, so now I want to be the publisher. Just go do whatever it is that a creative body working through publishing wants because it should be done. And I believe in things that exist, so I want 3 Dot to be something that helps things exist. I want to be someone who can help things exist and that’s why I want to publish—and I also want to make videos of people and I also want to, like—

JW:              —make ceramics!

DNM:          Yes! I want to make my specialty objects and editioned things. 3 Dot provides a framework to present it within, so I essentially want to create a lab, you know? I am interested in being a publisher and working directly with artists on very singular projects that ask us, as creators, to find ways for new things to exist. I want to create objects that attract people to them—as a publisher and a bookmaker.

JW:              Yes. Something I love about immersing myself into a text and printed materials is that it’s a deeper immersion into someone’s mind, process, practice. It can feel like pushing back against the way digital feeds condition us toward ephemerality, disposability, rapid movement, and a watery experience that passes by so quickly. Which isn’t to say zines and books aren’t chaotic—they are—but I think a lot about how so much of expression of self is funneled through and extruded through social platforms. Even when we think we’re expressing ourselves, they’re actually telling us how to express ourselves, you know?

Waking Up Black Special Edition Poster, 3 Dot zine (2015). Photo by Sarah Kobos

DNM:          Yeah, definitely. They’re socializing us.

JW:              Not to say that books don’t socialize us, but I was revisiting your zine, .r (2017), and really enjoying the experience of a journey through your mind, and it is a collage of images and text and experience. It’s not necessarily that printed written materials are more linear or even more precious, but it did feel like a respite.

DNM:          I mean, our mental peace has become what we are fighting for—we’re fighting for our peace because we’re so distracted. It’s an act of freedom to me today because the mind is the power. Your mind is your greatest power and every day that we give in to the conveniences of social capitalism we sacrifice a part of our being.

JW:              Sometimes I think the space that’s created is the space to surrender, to dream more, to use your imagination, but also allow your gut response to emerge when you’re reading something in a nondistractive way. What do I think about this versus just trying to file something away? When I am too busy deciding if I need to know this, or I have to position myself in support of this or against this now.

DNM:          You know, my first time falling in love with books was reading about a ghost horse. A ghost horse! So I know that I can read a book and fall in love with the feeling, just like you can fall in love with the visual quality of a show. I can jump into so many things. I can actually work my mind out. That’s why I like Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (Grove Press, 2018) so much because it’s really speaking to a beautiful African tradition of spirituality but putting it into this contemporary context, like how everyone is battling their mind, themselves, demons or whatever, and that I love.

JW:              It’s cool you bring up Akwaeke’s work too because I’ve been revisiting all their books in succession and just really noticing how much the form is pushed. There is just so much use of space and blank space and different narrators and different—like in Dear Senthuran (Riverhead, 2021), using letter writing as the narrative form. It’s thrilling to see someone pushing up against our ideas of what structure and format can do. And I’m wondering if there are things you want to do with books that you haven’t gotten to do?

Pocket Books, handbound leather cover journals. Produced at Center for Book Arts during Morris’s residency. Photo by Sarah Kobos

DNM:          I entered the book world because I was fully interested in creating images and the zine was a vessel for it, and I happened upon this larger world that I found to be a kind space and a creative space for me. The creative objects that come out of the book world are byproducts of being generous and in a community. Personally, as a collaborator, I want to think through emotions. I want to challenge the experience of reading written text. What about a book with a hole in the center? Or an object that represents the idea that is held within the book? And even though I don’t collect images of other people’s families, I would love to support people who do that—finding a way to produce well-made family photo albums that house images that are hidden away in bags and closets. I can’t guarantee what that will ultimately look like, but for now, I know the feeling. But beautiful book design for sure. I’ve always been inspired by Truman Capote for writing in multiple forms, journalistic, a little bit of diary, and then facts. Just different tones and a lot of it. And through design I want to create objects that are very covetable and new. Craft is what I want to prioritize. I want it to be very powerful, very powerful and emotional. That’s what my goal is in general, to create an emotional experience. I actually understand where I’m at now, how I want to achieve it, or at least how to build a team so we can think it through.

JW:              I love that. That’s so beautiful, Devin.

Jenna Wortham and Devin N. Morris. Courtesy Devin N. Morris and Jenna Wortham
  • (1)

    E. Lynn Harris was a bestselling author in the 1990s. His novels focused on stories of young gay Black men.

  • (2)

    DOG. New York: Company Gallery. June 4–July 10, 2021.

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