Strong and Talented and Young
Austin's Raw Paw collective inhales life and exhales art
You'd think you were dealing with a bunch of shape-shifters.
Because you've already given up on the name of the collective – Raw Paw? What the hell does that mean? Is it some kind of animal disease? Does it have something to do with, um, Furries? – so you're going to focus on what this core group of twentysomethings and their myriad associates all over Austin do. That's the crux of arts reporting, after all: Focus on their focus, on the particular industry committed.
("We're hyper-aware of searching for a larger purpose, of figuring out how to make our own way in reality," says Jen, sipping at her tea.)
It's obviously about zines, right? Because that's what they do, this quartet of Jen Rachid, Will Kauber, Clementine Kruczynski, and Chris Dock Davis: At least once a year since 2010, they've published a thick anthology of art and writing. And it's not the low-budget celebration of creative expression you typically find in the scene; it's more along the lines, in the effectiveness and daring of its graphic design and the high quality of its showcased works and production, of something you'd discover in the gift shop of a progressive art museum. Like, maybe it escaped from New York's MOMA? Bonus: The fourth anthology's cover was illustrated by multimedia artist and gallerist Katie Rose Pipkin. So, yeah, it's definitely about zines.
But, no, wait.
("It's so beautiful to be part of a community that has such a vision and long-term potential," says Clem, checking a scheduling app on her phone.)
It's more about comics, isn't it? Because Raw Paw also produces the Rough House anthology of sequential art, and each issue has some original comics that wouldn't look out of place in a collection from, say, Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics. And the thing's printed on a Risograph, Kauber's thin beard growing ever more bristly as he works the touchy machine into the wee hours of a morning or three, and so it's all hands-on and vibrant with colors throughout. Bonus: The most recent Rough House boasted a cover by former Domy Books honcho and arts fomenter Russell Etchen. So, OK, maybe Raw Paw is about zines and comics? Sure, they're publishers.
But hold on a second.
("I feel this deeper sense of pride that, yeah, we're going to make this sustainable," says Will, gulping coffee, "and it's worth being purchased in the arena of business, as long as it's also more than just that.")
Maybe it's really about ... music? Because, among other things, Raw Paw also runs that popular Ditch the Fest series, the alternative-to-ACL spectacle that featured, this year, more than 40 bands – Marmalakes! Tele Novella! BLXPLTN! Milezo! – at Empire Control Room over the two weekends that the Austin City Limits festival was running. And they didn't just schedule the musicians and wrangle them onto stages hour after hour, the group also kind of invaded the Seventh Street venue and decked the place with full-on Raw Paw style inside and out, setting up lights and lasers, art installations, a drawing table, and other gambits for sensory engagement while the crowd-rocking soundscape shifted its eclectic, amplified topography through each afternoon and starry Texas night.
And Raw Paw is also a record label, issuing vinyl albums by local bands, producing CDs and flash cards and all the collateral that goes with them. And aren't Raw Paw people in bands, too? Like, Kauber is a guitarist for Hikes. And Davis, whose video for Milezo premiered on Entertainment Weekly's website last month, was bassist and singer with that artsy science band the Cymatic that's now turned into something else entirely, and –
("I think everyone in our mix shares something invisible and unspoken that's rooted in evolution of idea," says Chris, looking off into some far realm that maybe only he can see. "Like, we're past racism, we're past a lot of things that held people up in the past. We're like this new, open, ambitious web, focused on being a school of thought on how art and music can work.")
OK, let's start again.
David Jewell, poet-about-town and occasional film actor, isn't twentysomething anymore. The tall man from Illinois with the salt-and-pepper hair reaching for his shoulders is a couple years shy of the big 6-0. He's been performing his poetry around Austin since 1981, since before there was a slam circuit, before Chicago House and that whole scene (of which he was a solid part) started up and faded away. His poetry collection Lizards Again was published by Manic D Press in 1986; he turned into a cloud in Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001); he opened for Laurie Anderson at the Paramount in 2004; he's the frequent frontman for Electronic Planet Ensemble. This local Jewell has been around.
And now he's Raw Paw's poetry director.
"I got an email from Lyman Grant, [dean of arts & humanities at Austin Community College], asking if I could be interviewed by a student in his class," says Jewell. "It was for some archives they were putting together at ACC, about poets who'd been in town a long time. I was like, 'Sure.' Then I got an email from a student, who turned out to be Chris Dock Davis. And we got together for the interview and started talking about all sorts of stuff – Graham Hancock, cymatics, the music scene – and he showed me some magazines Raw Paw had published and told me they were doing vinyl records and about the art parties they throw. It was like a wave of creativity that I hadn't felt since the early Eighties. Then I went to one of their parties, and everything I went to that they put on, it was like next-level – which is a term I learned from them. And I just started hanging out with them more."
And now he's in charge of the Mind Maze series of poetry chapbooks that Raw Paw produces – each one featuring 20 works from a single poet, printed via that well-worked Risograph – and hosting monthly release parties at Malvern Books. And getting to know these Raw Paw kids and their complex ambitions.
"It's great how they all balance each other," says Jewell. "It's like the Fantastic Four, in a way – like they all have special super-powers."
The Fantastic Four. Which isn't to mention Paul Grant, the youngest of the growing core and head of the Raw Paw record label; or Alex Diamond and Sean Morgan, who anchor the group's current visual-arts extension, Not Gallery, at Big Medium's Bolm Street compound; or Kyle Carter, graphic designer nonpareil – but we'll get back to him (and the affiliated powerhouse that is CogDut) in a bit. Right now let's look at those core four.
"I moved to Austin four or five years ago, with pretty much no real prospects other than trying to get away from the Dallas/Fort Worth area," says Kauber. "Typical exodus from suburbia. And subsequent poverty. And trying to convince my parents I was still worth a damn. Fortunately, my buddy Baylor [Estes] moved down, and we'd always talked about doing a graphic novel together. We used to sit in our garage and just talk about graphic novels all day – he was the illustrator and I was the writer, and we had, you know, a lot of notebooks filled with half-baked ideas.
"I was definitely getting very sad," says Kauber, "and it was hard to find friends or a job – I was donating plasma – and Baylor decided to move down on a whim, too. It got to where I'd just, like, write poetry all day, sit at Quack's on 43rd and write about the grocery-clerk girls, and Baylor would just sit there and draw – and he's the real social one, so he started meeting the community. And we've had some real big talks about it in Raw Paw, and the origin gets diffused under so many voices and proper opinion. But it's been explained and talked about that, maybe, in some respect, I was the founder of Raw Paw – but that there was a community already there, already brewing, that just needed a name and some kind of cause. There was a group of college kids, and I was kind of an outsider in that I didn't go to college, I didn't really have any prospects, but I knew I wanted to be a writer or write comic books with my friend. And we started hanging out with the crowd, and it was kind of uncomfortable at first, because everyone would ask me what my major was and I'd be like, 'Uh, I'm just trying to figure some things out.' And the more we hung out with them, the more people we met. And it seemed like, OK, this is a group of really close college friends who are also a section of really good musicians. Even though I was a musician myself, I'd pawned off all my equipment at a pawn shop on Airport, and I couldn't really do anything because I was constantly having to pay to keep my Telecaster afloat. It was an awful trap," Kauber frowns, remembering.
"So I was a neutered musician," he says, "and I guess I wanted to be validated as a person who was only able to write. I'm sure there was a lot of young, male, sexual machismo behind it, too. I was like, 'Yeah, I wanna get laid! I do stuff, too, I'm pretty cool!' At one of the parties, I met another poet named Ryan Miller, and we started building a little poetry group. We started doing poetry readings, and at that point there wasn't a way to make an album, but a zine is like an album for writers. It became clear that the community was strong and talented and young, and we wanted to record what we did, like hieroglyphics. That's when it took off: from the simple need to validate your own community."
"Yeah, the initial idea was zines," says Rachid, who lives with Kauber and Davis in a development called Austin's Colony, east of U.S. 130. "That was what we were gonna do," she says. "Will had the idea brewing for a while, and we started dating. And I was kind of unofficially helping things for a while, but then it became obvious that I was so much of Raw Paw that it was ridiculous. At the time there was this other fellow – T, or Talib [Abdullahi, now of Pragma Events] – and we started hosting poetry potlucks, we'd have wine and food, and they really caught on, people loved them. The house shows became really huge for us, getting all these people together for a specific purpose, people who weren't necessarily there to party, who were there to listen to people share themselves – setting that tone and having everyone be vulnerable in the space together, that really allowed for so many possibilities to happen. We didn't charge anything for them, but we knew that it couldn't always be free. But allowing it to be free at the start, that's the best way to get everyone out there, to get them interested.
"Of course we wanted to make money," says Rachid. "We want to be successful so we can sustain what we're doing, but money is not the goal, it's not the end-all be-all. It's not what defines us and keeps us going or not going. In a way, we're like, 'Whatever, money!' But as the parties and everything grew, we were becoming so good at doing it, that it was only fair to charge for it. And people wanted us to charge for it, to give them the opportunity to support everything that was going on. Then we started selling zines, trying to make a business of it – even though we know that zines are not where the money is. We are passionate about giving artists and their passions an outlet."
"I was involved with the Wardenclyffe Gallery, too," adds Kauber, "with Katie [Rose Pipkin] and Olivia [Pepper]. I think that's where the artistic side of Raw Paw came about, because we did a book for them, and we were like, if we're gonna be publishing art, then we have to be involved with the art community at a deeper level than hitting people up for submissions to the zine. So that worked out really nicely."
And where Kauber and Rachid are the group's main literary instigators, the super-power of Kruczynski is organization.
"With the poetry potlucks, I'd seen the underlying magic, and I knew that it needed help," says Kruczynski, who lives with two cats in an apartment on the outskirts of Hyde Park. "In this weird way, I knew that it needed me – in terms of what I can give to them as structure and stability, in building on what they had already built, making it stronger. So I segued into that, started getting into the organizational meetings, did more and more helping that way. It became clear that the group hadn't given any thought to the structure or business side, so I developed a leadership team – like, who's making the decisions here? A lot of things came out and it shifted to be a lot more firm and the decision-makers were a lot more unified. Now here we are, a year later, and we're growing so rapidly, and it's so beautiful. So, yeah, all the logistical, behind-the-scenes things – that's totally my jam."
Although Kruczynski makes her living as a personal coach, that business isn't what led her to Raw Paw. "A friend of mine had a communications class with Jen at UT," she says, "so they got involved, and Jen came into our friends group through that. Jen's a photographer, and I was doing a lot of modeling at the time, so we did a photo shoot together and really hit it off. It was kind of a risqué shoot, which is a testament to our friendship, that the first time we met, the first time we really hung out, it was a naked shoot in the woods – with glitter! – so our friendship right away was very intimate. And over time, I got more involved helping her and her Raw Paw friends with their events." But, even as the collective continues to expand – through chance scenarios like the above or more intentional outreach – Kruczynski doesn't run the meetings. "We all sort of run the meetings," she insists. "I pushed for having an agenda, for structure and predictability. Routine time slots. The rhythm, the underlying pulse of it. But I would say that Chris runs the meetings. He's the one who sets the tone right away. He's the visionary, the leader who's like, 'OK, here's what we're focusing on today, here's where Raw Paw's at.'"
"When I was a kid, I was pretty much allergic to everything," says Davis, pushing aside the swath of long blond hair that wind has shifted into his eyes. "I was allergic to fruits, vegetables, plants, animals, seafood – there was a whole spectrum of sickness, and I grew up as, like, a sick kid, y'know? Got to high school and started experimenting with drugs – LSD, meditation, stuff like that. Then, all of a sudden, end of high school – boom! – I was normal. I still have all those allergies, but there was a point where it didn't even matter anymore. I knew what to avoid, I knew where to eat and how to eat. My other sicknesses, because I got control over that, kind of faded away, and I was healthy.
"So I came to Austin from the suburbs north of Dallas and was I ready to hit it – to pursue business or to pursue art. And I chose art. I entered this contest at UT in my first week here, and I won. Entering freshmen had to do this short video about 'If the eyes of Texas are upon you, what do you want them to see?' I did this cartoon of me changing into different things, and I didn't explain myself at all, and it was a song. So I got in front of all UT Austin, and I was like, 'Yeeeeeah, oh shit, I can actually be an artist!' It was instant validation – and that was how everyone here knew me. It felt like, with that boost, you can kind of feel people come toward the energy and the ambition. Like, you can see it in people. You can tell when someone's got the drive, the confidence. It's people who genuinely believe they can continue and be artists. There's a tonal thing, y'know? And I was just trying to do as much as possible – screenprinting, design, websites, making fashion, making music and throwing music shows, making videos, writing poetry – just everything I was doing, trying to figure out where I could apply all my energy and all my certainty, all the strange codes that the cryptic alien ghosts and god-figures transmitted to me – I'm just kidding – but I'm kind of not, you know what I mean? That's how I got to Raw Paw: by working really hard and keeping a keen eye on who was working really hard and working with people who, our tones kind of matched up." This, from a man who's skilled in matching up the more concrete tones of pigment as part of the design firm called CogDut.
That's short for Cognitive Duty, of course.
"I was screenprinting as CogDut," says Davis, "and that started making money and got maybe a little attention. From there, I got the help of some people – like Will, like Kyle Carter – and we took the facets of the business that could sustain us and focused on those. So now CogDut is a design studio with a focus on screenprinting, web, and identity. We pay our rent and we pay our food and we're about helping art."
And some of the art helped is for bands on the Raw Paw label or art shows or house parties or zine releases thrown by Raw Paw, but more and more of it is for groups who have yet to be drawn fully into the Raw Paw groove – a groove that comprises many forms of creation and unexpected combinations thereof. And who knows what manner of expression, which area of industry, this crowd will choose to engage with next?
You'd think you were dealing with a bunch of shape-shifters.
"We just wanna make friends with everybody," says Rachid. "I mean, time and resources, we can't help everyone, but if people are aligned with Raw Paw, then they are Raw Paw. We're about 'What is it that you wanna do with your life? Well, do it.' And that's how we keep on taking on all these different things."
Oh, and the collective's name?
"Supposedly it was from a woman named Bonnie," says Kruczynski. "She named quite a few organizations at that time, through the same technique: starting with one word and then switching letters. So Raw Paw was just an offhanded thing – no meaning at first, just a pure, unadulterated sound that came randomly."
And which now signifies a diverse and burgeoning community driven by one deceptively simple mission statement: "Inhale life, exhale art."