Everything Is Its Own Reward... It Really Is

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Imagine a world devoid of people. Now, subtract cars. Did your mind go blank too? Picture the ensuing stillness to be found in the midst of our cities. Now, convert your image to grayscale, adding slight artistic flourishes of color if you choose. What you're left with might resemble one of Paul Madonna's All Over Coffee strips, a project he's been publishing in the San Francisco Chronicle since 2004. But you might already know this.

In 2007, City Lights published the first collection of All Over Coffee, representing the first 300 or so strips (but containing just over 160 of them). The series has become much loved for its beautiful ink and ink-washed renderings of desolate yet detailed urban landscapes, most notably of San Francisco (but also including New York, Paris, Barcelona, and Tokyo, to name a few). These images are juxtaposed with various forms of text: aphorisms, autobiographical stories, flash fiction, and thoughts -- including both questions and answers, and even mini manifestos on the creative process -- that weave together a narrative as thrilling, revelatory, endless and humbling as an aimless walk through the city. And to read through each page is to occupy a space left for us to inhabit.

This month, City Lights published the second collection, Everything Is Its Own Reward. The book not only has more pages (220+), but the pages are also slightly larger. In this case, bigger is definitely better.

Immediately apparent is that all identifying features have been removed from the pages in Everything Is Its Own Reward: the strips are not numbered, dated, or titled, as they are in the first collection (though this information is available in the back of the book). There are no digitized borders and very few text boxes placed over the strips; instead, the drawings are scanned directly into the computer and printed as-is. A major barrier between reader and setting has been removed, and we are drawn directly into the strip.


This also means that the text, the only place that humans are manifested in these pages, is worked directly into the illustrations, and while the interplay between text and image has always been one of the primary focuses of All Over Coffee, this second collection highlights the improvements Madonna has made to his technique since 2007.

Everything Is Its Own Reward is broken into four major sections based on each function of text. This is, Madonna says, a direct result of putting the first book together and thereby understanding his own tendencies. "I noticed I had been working in a lot of themes. And I hadn't done that intentionally. ... I kept coming back to things. ... It was like I was trying one idea two different ways, and there would always be one that was more successful than the other." Realizing this, Madonna made a list of the themes, something he was then able to return to for future work.

Paul Madonna in his studio. Photo: Evan Karp

But this didn't quite help him move forward. Madonna felt stalled by the realization that he was repeating himself. "The pieces I was making were like, I'm done with something. I don't know what it is that I'm done with, but I'm done with it. And rather than saying I'm done with this work, I allowed the work to capture that emotion..." Referencing a strip from the new collection, he compared his frustration to someone who would criticize a tree for how often it blooms. "That's just kind of a silly idea," he says. "We're not born knowing how often we bloom; we have to figure it out, right?"

So he kept working, confident that inspiration would arrive through the process. After putting on a show to celebrate the five-year anniversary of All Over Coffee's weekly publication in The Chronicle, and having the opportunity to analyze the work as a whole, Madonna was able to perceive the next step. "It was a piece that I made," he says, referring to AOC # 390, which contains the first time he ever wrote 'Everything is its own reward.' "I hadn't thought anything more of it -- it was just one piece that I made -- but it seemed to rise above all the others and said, 'This applies to everything else.' I just love that process of letting the work speak to me."

In putting Everything Is Its Own Reward together, Madonna was intimately more familiar with his own process. The four sections progress from rumination to artistic statement, forming a narrative that effectively captures the creative arc he has traveled throughout the history of All Over Coffee. Each moment, each page is self-sufficient. But the book, too, is its own reward.

For more information about Paul Madonna and All Over Coffee, read this recent interview on litseen.com.

Paul Madonna will sign copies of Everything Is Its Own Reward on Saturday, May 21, 2011, 2pm at SFMoMA in San Francisco. For more information visit sfmoma.org. The event is free and open to the public.