Megan O’Connell

Proprietor, Salt & Cedar
Letterpress Workshop & Bindery
Detroit, Michigan

Megan O’Connell is the proprietor of Salt & Cedar, a letterpress workshop and bindery situated in a 3000-square foot former meat locker in Detroit’s Eastern Market. She comes to the business from a background in academia with expertise in graphic design history and practice, typography, bookmaking, curating, and contemporary issues in art. Together with her partner, Leon Johnson, and their son, Leander, she conceives of, designs, and generates a wide range of collateral — from custom invitations and calling cards to monographs and limited edition suites — for clients around the world. Within the region, Salt & Cedar has produced for Media City Film Festival, Corktown Cinema, Trinosophes, Cranbrook Museum of Art, MOCAD, The Detroit Sound Conservancy, i-prospect, Skidmore Studio, Urban Land Institute, The Arab American National Museum, Our Detroit, the cast and crew of Low Winter Sun, Third Coast, and Eastern Market After Dark. The studio’s first commission was a two-volume bespoke book for Beyonce. Collaborators include Matvei Yankelevich, founder of Ugly Duckling Presse (Brooklyn); Silva Rerum (Detroit); Alison Knowles (NYC); Imago (Reykjavík); Steve Locke (Boston); Mildred’s Lane (Beach Lake, PA); and Concord Museum (Concord, MA). Salt & Cedar’s work has been shared at MoMA (NYC), Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), Andalusia: The home of Flannery O’Conner (Milledgeville, GA), Print City (via Wayne State University, Detroit), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Printed Matter (NYC). Megan and Leon also host after-hours farm-to-table food events, film screenings/premieres, literary readings, design lectures, live music, and workshops at the back-of-the-press.

Photo of Megan O'Connell by Sam Sefton

Sam Sefton


Book: Orlando by Virginia Woolf (a love letter to Vita Sackville-West).

Sanctuary: A long stretch of beach with a vast horizon line. Or the woods.

Prized possession: Suite of Rob Roy Kelly American vernacular wood type specimens printed in the late ‘60’s. I am the only private individual to own one, the rest are held by special collections libraries and museums. We displayed them at Salt & Cedar in 2013, so that they would be accessible.

Motto: Composition is explanation.


Where were you born?

In St. Paul, Minnesota, fifty years ago.

What were some of the pastimes/passions of your earlier years?

Reading and drawing. I also enjoyed competing in sports — skiing, swimming, tennis, and soccer. In my teens, the Twin Cities had an exhilarating music scene. My home was near a small liberal arts college with a truly experimental station, so I collected albums based on what I heard on the airwaves. I got to see amazing shows, especially at the local gritty punk club. In college, I hosted a radio show and saw more of my hero performers play. Hand-in-hand with my affection for music was an interest in museums. I was fortunate to spend a summer as an intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC). Undoubtedly, Walker Art Center (where I eventually was hired as an instructor in the Education Department) and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts shaped my ideas about history, aesthetics, and freedom. I once took an intensive course with a ‘controversial’ artist whose exhibition was boycotted at the MIA. Censorship quickly became a red button issue for me. Maybe that’s why I am now a proponent of academic freedom, civil rights, gender equality issues, and free speech.

How did you get your start in letterpress printing?

A professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design casually showed me a small room that the design students had all but abandoned. It had foundry type and a press in it. After that toe-dip, I became the first intern at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, learning every aspect of bookmaking, including how to hand composite type and operate a range of Vandercook presses and an Alexandra cast iron hand press (a machine virtually unchanged since the Renaissance). I had access to paper studios at both sites, which was the perfect complement to learning about traditional forms of printing. From this base, I was able to design my own degree in Book Arts at the University of Minnesota. I continued studying papermaking, letterpress, typography, and bookbinding throughout my graduate studies at the University of Iowa. I also, fortuitously, learned various pre-press operations and was able to edition work on a Heidelberg press. Not long after, Printed Matter offered my work for sale and collectors bought it — all before I completed my MFA.

Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

It is tethered to the past and trajects into the future: there is great pleasure in using forms and combinations that don’t call for a ‘default setting,’ but are based on curiosity and possibility. Nearly always, I am in conversation with a client or a collaborator, so I see myself as a translator as much as a creator. There is a sense both of rigor and play here:  restrictions and rules don’t necessarily preclude improvisation. If a finished work is multivalent and opens up some questions or problems, I consider it a success. I don’t limit my work to letterpress, however. When I do design digitally, I apply the tenets I have learned from the analogue to the digital platform. The ethos of Salt & Cedar involves using vintage materials from around the city, some of which have been salvaged, so underpinning nearly every project is a sense of ‘reinterpretation.’ With letterpress, there’s a tangibility factor unrivaled by any other print medium, so it is gratifying to physically find my way through to a solution. Opening a case of type reminds me that I have to be both strategic and agile, as there is a finite range of ‘sorts’ in each. These tight parameters evoke solutions that wouldn’t occur using conventional methods of layout and production. The end result bears a sense of authenticity and — dare I say — aura.

What led to the creation of Salt & Cedar in 2012?

Somewhere between the venerable wine shop and the 125 year-old cheese shop, a print shop was born. We’re here due to the fact that the merchants of the district saw the value of Salt & Cedar as a neighborhood resource, a creative incubator, and a new type of enterprise in Eastern Market. I am forever grateful to the core group who cared enough to help us get up and running in no time flat.

Can you describe the press you use to make your pieces?

Ninety percent of what we print is on a Vandercook SP15 (‘Simple Precision’), built in Chicago in 1964. It is a cylinder press that Leon purchased for me about 15 years ago. It has moved with us from the West Coast, to the East Coast, and in 2011 to Michigan. It is named ‘Siam’ after my grandfather, a first-generation Swedish laborer who once worked in Detroit. Everything about it is ‘perfection.’

Do you have a particular approach [or process] as you begin a project?

First, I determine the substrate size and the color palette. I then begin to hone in on the tone the piece should have. Concerned with the typographic ‘voice,’ I decide which typeface or type family I will use. I then select paper, have it cut down to size, sketch, organize how many runs (and custom plates, if any) the project will have, set type, create a ‘grid’ or organizing field, lock up the type, proof, make a paste-up, correct the actual layout, mix inks, prepare the press (set the roller height, test the packing on the tympan, set the guides), proof again, and then run each color until the job is complete.

What tools of the trade can’t you live without?

Source books, typefaces I will not soon tire of, a pica ruler, a job stick, a self-healing mat, a stash of interesting papers, inks, a modest camera, x-acto knives in various sizes, artist’s tape, a sketchbook/journal, wall space, and flat files.

Is there a project/piece you’ve worked on that has provided an important learning curve?

A Birds Eye View: 33 Poems with Beans by Alison Knowles. It has stretched me in all possible ways. After many prototypes, it will be released early next year in a very limited edition. A related project involved printing a hand-lettered mesostic from John Cage to Alison Knowles. Every time I consider what the project has meant to me and my family, its meaning is compounded.

Who/what are your artistic influences?

The above, as well as my mentors, Hans Breder and David Dunlap, whom I just visited after a 20-year gap. I also hold the early 20th C. avant-garde movements in high regard, along with Fluxus. Any artist who has created multiples interests me. I’ve been reading a lot about Detroit-born artist Ray Johnson lately. Ultimately, all of the work I create is in direct dialogue with Leon Johnson, the wisest of the wise.

Is there a book or a film that has changed you?

A trilogy of films by Leon Johnson: Faust/Faustus; After; Fortress/Boy/Bridge.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It was not advice given, per se, but others have reflected back to me the fact that I embody ‘grace’ in various ways:  how I conduct professional relationships, in the way I teach/mentor, in accepting the obstacles inherent to all processes, in moving past disappointments.

What’s next for Salt & Cedar?

Along with creating a selection of printed commissions in-house, we are preparing for the Detroit Art Book Fair (organized by DittoDitto), the Detroit Design Festival (in partnership with Untitled Detroit), Eastern Market After Dark, MAPC’s Print City (Wayne State University), an exhibition at Lake Forest Library (Illinois), a pop-up via Playground Detroit (at Michele Varian Boutique, Soho), ‘Power to the Vanguard’ the collected political ephemera of Brad Duncan (Trinosophes), a partnership with Mobile Frames International Filmmakers in Residence to screen the films of Julie Murray (Ireland), and an exhibition of heart-stopping, deeply beautiful works on paper by Leon Johnson (for ARK). All of this, in addition to our Book & Bread workshops offered a few times each month. The place is humming!

On top of being part-time faculty in the Art Department at Wayne State University this term, I have visiting artist gigs at The Press at Colorado College (with Aaron Cohick) and Virginia Commonwealth University (at the invitation of David Shields). PLUS a decidedly special project with Jonathan Kung (Kung Food), Joseph Wesley Black Tea, and Leon Johnson is currently in the works.

Cathy Gendron

Cathy Gendron Design
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Cathy Gendron is a conceptual illustrator for the editorial, publishing, and advertising industries. Her illustrations and paintings have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Utne Reader, and Seventeen. Cathy has also produced work for McGraw-Hill, Penguin Group, Kensington Publishing, IBM, Target, and Saatchi & Saatchi. She illustrated all the covers for Penguin’s best-selling Coffeehouse Mystery series written by Claire Cosi. Cathy is the recipient of awards from Communication Arts, Print, Society of Publication Designers, and the Detroit Creative Directors Council. She has served on the board of the Ann Arbor Art Center and more recently on the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission. Since 1987, Cathy has taught painting and illustration for the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.  She resides in Ann Arbor.

Photo of Cathy Gendron


Book:  Too many for just one.  Inspirational: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. Best recent: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Memorable: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner From the archives: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Motto: Art is Life. Meaning to me, strive to look at every part of every day with fresh eyes.

Sanctuary:  My studio.


How did you get your start as an illustrator?

My first freelance job came from my psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University. I drew portraits for a textbook he was writing. On his next book I was hired to produce the chapter openings (conceptual – the real thing). After McGraw-Hill received the final chapter art, they also hired me to do the cover image. I was so green that I sent the art rolled up in a triangular mailing tube. When it arrived crushed and unusable, my valuable lead for future work evaporated.  And by the way, the professor now heads an institute at Tufts and is a pretty famous guy.

Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?

I have a BFA from the late 70s. The language at school was all about abstract art and I was all about the figure. My favorite figure instructor kept trying to get me to LOOK at the model, instead of drawing shortcuts from my head. Those shortcuts proved to be a handy skill when I moved to illustration, where having a signature “style” is most often how we are remembered and how we get the next assignment.

What do you enjoy most about the conceptual element of your work?

Concept is the hardest part for me. Saying what needs to be said succinctly with the right message to the right audience is a challenge. When it works and everything clicks, it gives me much more satisfaction than painting a beautiful picture.

How do you go about making a character come alive on the page?

Being a voyeur may help. I love to watch people, making up stories about them in my head and guessing at what makes them tick.  Most of the preliminary drawing, the energy of the figures, comes from my head, but at some point I reach for my camera or turn to image search engines. Reference can be a dirty word in the fine art world but it’s a valuable tool in illustration. The trick is to use the specifics of a photograph (details that I can’t conjure in my head) and not lose sight of the original spirit of the sketch.  My secret weapon is the large mirror I keep beside my table.

Do you have a particular creative process or routine?

I’m guessing that mine is not much different from anyone else. I read the material for an assignment and do the necessary research.  Then I walk away from it and let the project seep into my thoughts. Sitting at my drawing table waiting to be inspired is almost never productive. When I’m really cooking, the project is with me almost 24/7. Daydreaming is underestimated.

What medium(s) do you typically work with?

I work with oils, applied in very thin layers (glazing), but I often do the under painting in acrylics. In my personal work I’m also teaching myself how to paint with the newer line of acrylics that stay “open” or wet longer than traditional acrylics. I have a blog (that I am not very good at updating) and over the last few years I’ve written several posts that show stages of my painting progress. Beware that you may have to wade through some travel posts to find them.

Is there an illustrator that you admire most?

That list changes monthly. At the moment I’m obsessed with Charley Harper.  He was a graphic genius, whose most spectacular images were of birds and animals geometrically reduced with amazing design sensitivity. A partial list of other favorites includes: Romare Bearden, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, Josh Cochran, Marc Ulriksen, Joe Sorren, Melinda Beck,  Nicoletta Ceccoli, Andrew Hem, and Leo Espinosa. And now I’m looking at children’s illustrators: Steve Johnson, Lane Smith, William Joyce, Peter Brown, and Jon Klassen.

What types of projects are you working on these days?

In June, I finished a book cover for a Penguin mystery series and an editorial piece for Eating Well magazine. But I’m proud to say that I’m hard at work on my first children’s picture book. It’s non-fiction and tells the story of how three brothers from Utah brought the Nutcracker ballet to the United States. Published by Millbrook Press, it’s due out some time in 2015.

Where do you find inspiration?

People-watching, artists from other disciplines, and other illustrators. I keep an unsorted folder of printed examples of good design, intriguing color palettes, anything that catches my eye. I read a lot and am in awe of good writing. I love to meet new people and learn about their lives. Travel and time off from the daily routine is critical to rebooting my brain too.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Keep it simple. Don’t over-think.

How do you define creativity?

Wow, how to answer that? I guess for me, it’s that magic moment when random thoughts come together to make something new, or to see something old from a new point of view.

What three things can’t you live without?

Sharp Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, deadlines, and my glasses.

Who in your life would you like to thank, and for what?

My father. We had a very close bond when I was young even though we argued constantly. He was an early feminist and taught me that, with enough hard work, nothing is impossible.  And my mother – the opposite of my father in many ways. She was quiet, understated, strong, and without a critical bone in her body. It took me too long to realize what an amazing woman she was. I want to thank her for giving me inspiration in the second half of my life.

Do you have any recommendations for aspiring illustrators?

The illustration field is crowded and the talent out there is astounding. Hard work and passion are critical if you want to succeed.  At CCS keeping a sketchbook is mandatory, but very few students take that requirement to heart and I often do not practice what I preach. The deadline pressure on my book project is intense and I’ve been drawing non-stop (nine to ten hours every day) for the last two months This experience has reminded me what it is like to be “in the zone” and how that only comes with practice, practice, practice. 

Katie Derosier

Exhibitions Manager
University of Michigan Museum of Art
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Katie Derosier serves as Exhibitions Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  She oversees the management of up to fifteen temporary exhibitions each year.   Since joining UMMA in 2001, Katie has worked on a range of exhibitions, including The Romanovs Collect: European Art from the Hermitage (2003), Multiple Impressions: Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Prints (2011), and the upcoming HE: The Hergott Shepard Photography Collection opening in February 2015. In her earlier post as Curatorial & Exhibitions Coordinator, Katie provided research assistance and contributed writing to such exhibitions as Graphic Visions: German Expressionist Prints and Drawings and Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment.  While living in New York in the 90s, she served as Assistant for Administration in the Department of Modern Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Katie’s not working you can find her in the garden with her dog Rosie.  She resides in Ann Arbor.

Photo of Katie Derosier by Jane DeChants

Jane DeChants


Book:  Everything on gardens by Louise Beebe Wilder

Destination: the Atlantic coast

Work of art: Caravaggio’s St. Matthew cycle of paintings at the San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome

Motto: Volevi la bicicletta. Adesso, pedali. (You wanted the bicycle.  Now, pedal.)


When and how did get your start in museum exhibitions? 

Though my work at the Met was largely focused on new acquisitions to the collection, I was given the opportunity to work with curators on several exhibitions including a small show of Hans Hofmann’s paintings from the collection.  Smaller, collections-based exhibitions, in particular, were a great training ground for what the process can be.    

How would you describe your behind-the-scenes, multi-tiered role at UMMA?

My role is to build a strong foundation for every exhibition and to help keep the ship on course.  I’m involved in all the preliminary planning, such as calendaring the exhibition slots, creating the budgets, managing deadlines, and running project team meetings.  Ideally, I do my foundational work and then largely step aside to let the team perform their respective roles. My work is focused and detail-oriented, which I really enjoy, and once our projects get underway it’s a team-driven experience.

Which exhibition has presented you with the greatest learning curve, and why?

The Betye Saar project was my first experience in both organizing a national museum tour as well as contributing writing to a publication in tandem with my regular exhibition responsibilities.  My learning curve was very specific to developing the skills needed to grow and succeed — how to juggle multiple (sometimes competing) priorities, negotiate terms with tour partners, and write for a larger audience — generally how to be nimble and organized.

What three things typically come together in the best exhibitions? 

A fantastic concept (a curator’s wonderful idea), a team of people who are smart and talented (and enthusiastic, too), and the resources to make the project possible. 

What have you enjoyed most about managing the current roster of exhibitions at UMMA?

Experiencing that moment when everything comes together.  The team has met, the curatorial vision has been articulated, the checklist has been confirmed, the deadlines are being met, the layout has been created, and the exhibition is on track.  When you think conceptually and plan so far ahead, it is a great moment when you realize that it is all quite solid and real.

How far in advance do you begin working on an exhibition?

Our exhibitions range in size and scope, so some come together more quickly than others.  Typically our planning — knowing what an exhibition season or an entire year will be — is a few years out and it’s in that advance period where I do a lot of my work figuring out timing and schedules, consulting with colleagues, finalizing agreements. Aside from the day-to-day oversight of our exhibitions, I live very much in the future in my work.

What’s the first thing you do when you finish an exhibition?

Two things: first, I always clean and organize my desk (as a means to clear my head). Second, I visit the exhibitions when they open to the public.  At the point an exhibition is open, I’ve spent months if not years with the project and when deadlines loom the beacon for me is thinking about visitors experiencing what we’ve created. 

Do you have a favorite art history book/resource?

When I researched and wrote for exhibitions I used the University’s Fine Arts Library frequently and it was my best resource.  A well-worn copy of Ray Smith’s The Artist’s Handbook has also been indispensable over the years. Today my best resources are my connections with colleagues at other museums — we often call on each other for advice, ideas, and support.

What three things can’t you live without?

To-do lists, people in my life who inspire me, and a garden to dig in.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life, and why?

My mother.  She moves through the world with kindness and curiosity — an unbeatable combination in my book. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Do what interests you.

Lisa Waud

Floral Designer
Owner/Founder, Pot & Box
Floral Design/Horticultural Decor
Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan

Lisa Waud is the owner and founder of Pot & Box, an Ann Arbor-based floral design studio situated in the Zingerman’s industrial complex on the south side of town. She founded the business eight years ago after moving back to Michigan from the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. In 2013, Lisa opened a second Pot & Box studio housed in a vintage Airstream trailer in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood with lead floral designer, Katherine Yates, who manages the Ann Arbor location.  When Lisa is not immersed in fresh flowers, you can find her exploring Detroit with her dog, Zero, or scheming her next trip to an inspirational city.



Book:  Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart was the catalyst for my expansion from a gardening service into fresh flower design.

Flower:  This is an unfair question!  It used to be the dahlia with its endless petals. Then I picked up on the intensity of the ranunculus, but lately I’ve been smitten with the delicate astrantia.

Motto: Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Sanctuary:  I have a cabin up north on the water.  When I’m there, all is right with my world, even with its infuriatingly patchy internet.


When did you first realize that you were intrigued with the art of the flower?

When I realized that flowers and plants were a possible medium, something in my whirring factory of creativity clicked.  Floral and garden design is no different than any other field of combining colors and shapes; it just has the added challenge of perishable elements. I was surprised that I feel closer to chefs with that challenge than I do with graphic designers or interior designers. And I’m starting to understand that the longer you work in your field, the more you have to build on when you want to pull off really interesting work.

How did you get your start in the business?

During the summers of my college years, I worked as a gardener for a seasonal company in my hometown until starting my own business with a friend. Eventually, I moved to Ann Arbor and founded Pot & Box, specializing in container gardens — pots and boxes. One thing led to another — during the weekdays I was a gardener and on the weekends a wedding florist.  While each followed their own set of design rules, both gardening and floristry fit well into the business, and I was enjoying my work. 

What led to the creation of Pot & Box in Ann Arbor in 2007?

After moving around the west coast for a few years and finishing school, I just knew it was time to move back to Michigan.  Ann Arbor was the only city I considered. Lucky enough, it was the perfect city to hatch my business, especially considering the economy at that time.  It would be a few years before I went full-time with my own business, but I appreciate the skills and connections I obtained until I was able to take that leap.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

It depends on the season, the day of the week, and how much coffee I have had.  If designing for myself, I tend toward clean lines and mono-floral in unusual vessels, or many simple vases overflowing with textural, foraged foliage and flowers.  The common theme to my aesthetic is a juxtaposition of some kind. I like modern if it’s habitable, and clutter if it’s well-aligned.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

When my client believes I understand his/her vision thoroughly, and then grants me flexibility to incorporate the season’s most beautiful offerings is the moment when I do my best design. So, I suppose what I enjoy most about my work is clear communication. When I say that, it sounds so business-speak as opposed to waxing poetic about flower petals, but it’s true.

Where do you typically source your flowers?

In the warmer months, we pull from the cutting garden right in front of the studio.  It’s a really lovely day when we take an order based on the most beautiful blooms of the day. We also enjoy working with local growers to source seasonal flowers for our daily deliveries and events. Of course, we can’t grow every flower we want whenever we want in Michigan, so we source from local suppliers with farms in California, South America, and in tropical areas around the world. Luckily, flowers grown in environmentally and socially-responsible ways are becoming the norm as demand grows.

What led to the creation of Pot & Box in Detroit?

I never could have explored my interest in Detroit without knowing that the Ann Arbor studio was in the capable and talented hands of Katherine Yates.  We had been working together for years when she came on as studio manager, and when she did, I was able to really consider opening the second studio in Detroit. I had been visiting the city more and more, and eventually it was obvious that I should make the move and expand our business.

Where can people go to find your traveling, stocked-full-of-blooms flower truck?

The flower truck makes appearances at pop-up markets and retail hot spots in southeast Michigan, with times and locations posted as we book them.  We’re currently stocking the former ice cream truck with a line of goods we call APT. DEPT., with fresh flowers, vases, plants, and containers geared toward efficient, designy, urban life.

What is it about a simple bouquet of fresh flowers?

Exactly! That’s the gist of my business plan.

What types of projects are you working on these days?

These days, I am working on my dream project, actually.  Next May, florists from Michigan and across the country will fill an abandoned house in Detroit with fresh flowers and living plants for an installation called Flower House. In addition to welcoming the public for visits over a long weekend, we’ll offer a few slots for couples getting married at the stunning venue.  I aim to raise the bar for innovative floral design in southeast Michigan, and anticipate national media coverage.

How do you define creativity?

If you can take something that’s just an idea and give it life, that’s creativity. If you can make something you have done many times before and have it feel fresh, that’s also creativity. If you can take something trendy and have it feel unique, there it is again.  

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Specifically, the best advice I ever received was from Mark Hodesh at Downtown Home & Garden, who said, “Don’t do it.” What he was advising me not to do isn’t important. What is important is that I actually listened. One of the reasons I am still in business after eight years is that I can be incredibly fixated (read: stubborn). Learning that it’s ok to walk away from an idea was — and always is — humbling, but it is just as crucial as following through.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned as a business owner?

The greatest lesson I’ve learned (so far) is a hybrid of two answers above.  As a small business, your clients and followers are invested in your journey of success. If you communicate with them about where your inspiration is leading you, they love to hear the honest narrative, even if it’s about a design that didn’t work or a direction you didn’t take. Sharing the story is another currency of business.

What drives you these days?

I have been absolutely buzzing with inspiration this summer. I’ve made so many lovely connections with florists here and in other cities, and there’s a new school in session.

Leslie Stainton

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Leslie Stainton is an Ann Arbor-based writer and editor.  Her latest book, Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts, is a personal history of the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—one of the oldest theaters in America. Leslie’s other titles include Lorca: A Dream of Life, a biography of the Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, which won the 1999 Society of Midland Authors biography award. She has written for numerous publications and journals, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Opera News, American Theatre, Michigan Quarterly Review, The American Poetry Review, and the online journals Brevity and Common-Place. Leslie also serves as the editor of Findings, an award-winning magazine for the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her earlier work includes a post as founding editor of Inside Borders and editor at the U-M Museum of Art. She is a two-time Fulbright award recipient.  Leslie was the 2010 creative nonfiction fellow at the Prague Summer Writers Workshop. She resides in Ann Arbor.

Photo of Leslie Stainton by Sean Carter

Sean Carter


Book: Anything by Patricia Hampl.

Most treasured possession: My outlook.

Destination: Spain

Motto: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)


Where were you born?

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

What were some of your earlier passions and pastimes?

Collecting dolls from around the world (a hint of the wanderlust to come), going crabbing on the Rappahannock River, theater. Anything to do with theater.

When and how did you decide to become a writer?

If I had to pick a moment, I’d say my 13th summer, when I was briefly a student in a boarding school in my grandparents’ hometown in Virginia. Deeply homesick, I’d sit in study hall in a fluorescent-lit gym after dinner and write out my anguish in my journal. It’s the first time I realized how writing can help make sense of life. The other answer is that I’ve always loved making sentences.

What led to your decision to write Lorca: A Dream of Life?

I fell in love with Lorca—his poetry and plays, his mercurial personality, his childlike take on the world—in graduate school, when I was doing an MFA in theater. For my thesis production, I wrote an original script based on Lorca’s Poet in New York. That led to the idea of a biography. I was also horrified by the story of his death and wanted, for lack of a better word, to “resurrect” Lorca—especially for American readers. I was lucky enough to get a Fulbright to fund two years of research in Spain. Without that grant, I would never have had the chutzpah to pursue the book.

What did you learn from sitting down to write this book?


Do you have a particular writing process or routine?

Nothing I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share. Except in my day job (as an editor at the U-M School of Public Health), I’m a slow and fairly wasteful writer. My computer is full of files labeled “fragments,” “draft,” “notes.”

What intrigues you most about the craft of writing?

I’m intrigued by how the search for the right word or phrase or structure so often leads to a realization or understanding I didn’t know I was capable of.

Which authors do you typically turn to for inspiration?

Patricia Hampl. Virginia Woolf. Rebecca Solnit. Charles Wright. The Best American Essays series. My friend and former biography professor Stephen Oates. Jonathan Raban. André Aciman. Daniel Mendelsohn. Most of them contemporary, alas. I need to do more reading from the past.

How did you come to write Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts?

This is a building I’ve known and loved since I was maybe 12 years old—the Fulton Theatre, whose foundations were once the walls of the colonial jail of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Inside those walls the last of the Conestoga Indians were slaughtered in 1763, and African Americans fleeing slavery once languished. That a major American theater should arise on such ghosted ground has always struck me as both absurd and acutely poignant.

Why was this project important to you?

My friend Keith Taylor says that as writers, we all have certain god-given stories that are ours alone to write. This was clearly one of mine. I spent a fair amount of time working in the Fulton in my teens and early twenties, and that’s when the compulsion to write its story really took hold.

What topics are you drawn to in your essays and articles?

The usual suspects—time, death, parents (lately those three are pretty much one). Theater. The power of place. Social and racial injustice—I’m beginning work now on a book about my slaveholding ancestors, the Scarletts of Georgia.

What three things can’t you live without?

My husband. My passport. My memory. (If I could choose a fourth, it would be my kitchen.)

Who has had the greatest influence on your life, and why?

My mother, who taught me to look—really look—at what’s around me.

What’s one of the best sentences ever written?

From Federico García Lorca: “Solo el misterio nos hace vivir.”  (Loosely translated: “Only mystery keeps us alive.”)