Media & Techniques

Phil Hansen and the Power of Zines (Ep. 329)

Phil Hansen is back on the show! Best known for his Embrace the Shake TED Talk, Phil is also an artist, creative, and an advocate for advancing art education. In today’s podcast, he talks about publishing his new zine called Toska and the importance of hearing from artists about their work. He and Tim also discuss how the issues can be utilized in the classroom, the impetus for the project, and how he finds new artists to feature. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Coming back to the show today is Phil Hansen. Phil is a multimedia artist, an innovator, a creator, a speaker, and so much more. During the pandemic, he was a keynote speaker for one of our NOW conferences which was incredible. He gave us a tour of his studio. He led a collaborative art-making experience that was spectacular for everyone who came to the conference and created this original artwork with everyone who attended, and a fantastic experience. So, I’m really excited to talk to him again today.

I always want to hear from Phil because he has so many incredible things to say about creativity and he’s maybe best known for his TED Talk entitled Embrace the Shake, and in that talk, he discusses how he had developed a tremor in his hand which really took him away, sort of took his ability away to do the hyper-realistic drawing that he loved to do, and it really limited the type of art that he was able to create, and all of that together left him without a focus, without a purpose until he kind of decided to embrace that limitation. And so, if you haven’t seen that TED Talk, it’s definitely worth watching, and I would definitely recommend you do that. I will link to that so you can check it out, maybe even before you listen to this conversation. But Phil is here today with a new project, very excited for him to share it, talk about it, and let’s bring him on, and we can get that discussion started.

Phil Hansen is joining me now. Phil, how are you?

Phil: I’m doing great. How about you? It’s been a while.

Tim: It has, but I’m looking forward to having another conversation. So, welcome back to the podcast, I guess, first of all.

Phil: Thank you, yes.

Tim: But I guess, could you maybe for people who don’t know you or haven’t heard from you before, can you introduce yourself? And I guess for people who do know you, can you just give us an update on, I think it’s been a year or so since we’ve chatted, just on what you’ve been doing and what’s going on in your world?

Phil: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s funny to always think about what artists do we know because there’s so many of us doing things. So, yeah, I mean, so let’s see. I have been around for quite a while. I was posting videos in the early days of YouTube. So, that was where I kind of found my original virality, gave a TED Talk a number of years back. I was the artist for the Grammy Awards. I’ve done some commercial work. I do a lot of commission stuff. I end up doing a fair bit of presenting, sharing my art, sharing my story, that kind of a thing at this point. And over the last year, it’s been an interesting hodgepodge as many of our lives probably are.

Let’s see. I have a project that I’m in the midst of right now which is kind of, I guess it started as kind of coming out of COVID, one, just being away from people, and then two, everyone wearing the mask because I thought it’d be interesting to really see behind people’s masks, see their expressive faces. And so, I ask people to actually text me, just literally take a wild face, well, a wild picture of themselves and then text it to me, and then I’ve been drawing those on a huge canvas, and when I say canvas, it’s a piece of paper that’s 25 feet wide, nine feet tall.

Tim: Oh man.

Phil: Yeah. Honestly, if, and I do use that word even though I’m very much committed to it, but if I ever finish, it’ll be the longest project I’ve ever taken on and probably about 400 hours, and yeah. So, anyway, that’s the last year, just a lot of work and making things.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. I don’t know. I think anybody who has been able to continue to create during this time, consistently making, that needs to be celebrated because it’s been hard for a lot of people.

Phil: Yeah. Yeah, well, I feel like people went one of two directions. Either they created less which actually I’ve been kind of thinking about motivation a lot and that’s maybe what ties into what we’re going to be talking about today, but then some people just, they found that that free time allowed them a huge amount of exploration. They were super productive. So, actually, I would say that I am on the less productive side and I’ve been trying to give myself motivator type elements to be able to get back to projects.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. That’s cool. But whatever works for you, whatever you can find.

Phil: Yeah, yeah.

Tim: But I wanted to bring you on today because you have a really cool new project that I think is exciting. I think that’s worth talking about. It’s this new zine that you’re publishing. So, can you just tell everybody a little bit about the project, what they need to know about it?

Phil: Yeah. Let’s see, the quick version, well, the name of it, let’s start with that, it’s Toska, T-O-S-K-A. That’s actually a Russian word that means some version of deep sadness and pain and anguish, and I thought it was kind of a beautiful word because Russia, of course, they have a deep history with literature and they have lots of words for suffering, unfortunately, in the Russian language.

So, it’s a zine that’s all interviews with artists. So, I’m not breaking any ground in terms of the point of the zine, but really what I’m trying to do is bring a lot of living and working artists to classrooms, not just through the zine, but of course the PDF is available for free online that people can access, and then also I’ve connected with an art educator, Laura Hensley, and she’s actually tying each issue to the national standards. So, it’s kind of this double element, one is that the zine is very approachable for students. It’s, I guess very living, very contemporary artists doing a little bit edgy. I try to push the envelope once in a while with an artist and then of course tying it to the national standard. So, all of a sudden you have a way to bring it into the classroom really easy which is cool.

Tim: Yeah. That is really cool. So, let me ask you. I’m just thinking about the artists that I’ve seen from the copies that I have, just like you said, pushing the envelope a little bit, but also showing just some diverse types of art making, diverse points of view. Where do you find these artists? What are you trying to get out there? Who are you trying to showcase and why?

Phil: Yeah. Well, so we might have to go back to the beginning, but I’ll skip the beginning for the moment. I think a lot of it really was coming out of this idea of for me growing up, I wasn’t exposed to very many artists except for, well, to be honest, dead white guys, and so I kind of had that experience. I think a lot of us have. And so, that was the art that I was exposed to growing up, and so I wanted to find a way to not just for me myself to meet other artists because it’s of course super inspiring and interesting to connect with people and to really try to share. Honestly, I think that’s another big part of the zine is just trying to be not fluffy and not trying to sell oneself, but just, hey, here’s my story. Here’s who I am. Here’s my successes and maybe some failures and to bring that story to people.

How I find the artist is a little bit different because for my job, I get to travel around a bit, and so as I travel around, I try to meet up with different artists in different cities. They’re one on one conversations in person, and so I just kind of hunt around in that city, looking for an artist that has a bit of a body of work, and at least from the outside, I’m kind of thinking hopefully that they have a story to tell, that kind of a thing. And then I just reach out, we meet up, and usually chat for, well, anywhere from one to three hours depending on the flow of the conversation.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. Is there a particular type of art that catches your eye sometimes, or are you looking for all different types of things? Is it stuff that is interesting to you personally, or are you looking for stuff that you think may capture the attention of a wider audience?

Phil: Yeah. So, I mean, at the end of the day, I’m sure I’m having more of an influence than I’d like to. I definitely want to show a variety of artists that basically any student could bump into one of these issues and feel like they connect to that person. And so as much as I’m looking at the art, and I guess it does tend to be a little more on two dimensional, kind of that traditional side, but we get into street arts, surrealist arts, really fine portraiture to stone carving. So, really trying to run the gamut in terms of the approaches and the artist stories. But really, yeah, I don’t know. Actually, I kind of lost that train there, and it happens. The artist’s brain. I say that. It’s just, yeah, a lot of us, our brains kind of fire in different directions at different times.

Tim: Yeah, for sure, for sure. So, let me ask you this. I know you mentioned that you’re working with a teacher, you’re tying things into kind of the national standards. So, I guess the question is why will these zines be of interest to teachers or of interest to students? How do you see them possibly being used in classrooms?

Phil: Yeah. So, a couple of different things is one, the physical zine is cool and approachable, but a teacher doesn’t need to have that, but I do offer that at literally at cost for printing and shipping if a teacher wants to subscribe, but all the PDFs are available for free right on the website because of course, many teachers have a wonderful screen that they can pull things up, and so being able to have the PDF big and for everybody to look at, at all at the same time is super cool. Being tied to the national standards, I think is another big thing. So, we have a very approachable zine with real conversations with living, working artists that you can go connect with online, and then you have a way to bring it into the classroom and meet those standards, and I think that little combination, and of course, free which we all love free.

Tim: No, free is definitely good. I think teachers appreciate that as well, but I’m just going to put a plug out there for subscribing, getting the actual zine in the mail because personally I love that tactile sensation. I love having something in my hands, and I think a lot of our students are the same way. And so, like I said, it’s super cheap to subscribe. So, even if you have just one copy in your classroom, I think it’s worthwhile to have that, to let kids flip through the actual pages, read things, see things, and I feel like things can be more inspiring at that point.

Phil: Well, look, there’s so much there! I’ve had teachers who said they just kind of throw it on the supply table. And so, they can use it in a lesson, of course. They can use it for some sort of prompt if there’s extra time. If you want to have a reflective moment on Friday, well, that’s where we can connect back to the national standards with the questions and lesson ideas that Laura has put together. But then the other thing too that I want to throw out is that I do have one issue coming up probably towards the end of the year that is going to actually tie back to some of the origins of this project which is stories shared anonymously from artists because of course, many of the amazing educators listening, they have their own stories from the arts, and this project originally, in the very origins as things kind of grow and develop, it actually started out, the idea was to interview artists, but keep it anonymous. So, you didn’t know who the artist was and then they could share completely openly about whatever experience they had.

Tim: Mm, yeah.

Phil: And so, I’ve been collecting stories from not just an artist that has happened to have been featured in the past issue, but just any artist who wants to reach out to me. So, any educator out there, if you have a story on the art side, maybe on the teaching side, but something that you definitely need to be anonymous with but you’d like to share and get out into the world, reach out and connect because I’m going to have an issue all about that coming up.

Tim: Oh, that’s intriguing. I love that idea. So, let me ask you too, you talk a little bit about the artist interviews. How do those usually go? Are there similar topics that you like to cover with artists? Are you’re trying to get stories that are consistent from each person, get multiple people’s view on the same idea, or is every interview different? What are you looking for with these interviews?

Phil: Yeah. So, I mean, and of course this comes into with my interests, and so I don’t tend to focus on why the artist creates what they create. I’m more interested in how they have kept creativity in their lives because for so many of us, the creativity can kind of get pushed to the side with more responsibility as life changes, that kind of a thing. And so, I tend to, of course, research every artist. I write up a big list of questions, and then we just sit down and talk for a couple hours or one hour, whatever it is.

But it starts out with kind of looking at their background, where they came from, were they supported, were they not, how they get into art, how did they find their voice, those standard building questions, but then still arriving to this place of just asking questions about creativity because living a creative life presents so many beautiful things, but then a lot of challenges too, or of course, just balancing your creativity with relationships, or if you try to make a living from your creativity, that’s going to change how you interact with what you create. It’s going to change your art or change the way you feel about your art in some ways. So, I just kind of dig into any and all those questions, depending on what’s what the artist is, where they’re at and what they want to share, I guess, too.

Tim: Yeah. No, that’s interesting, and like I said, I’ve enjoyed reading all the ones that I have. Now, I guess, I mean, it’s tough to do this in an audio format, but can you take people through sort of what they can find in a zine? If you’re flipping through the zine from the beginning to the end, can you describe just sort of what’s in these Toska editions, what we’re looking at each time?

Phil: Yeah, yeah. So, basically the quick version is you’re looking at, one, is so of course when I interview the artist, I’m asking a question and then they’re answering it, and so the zine kind of takes that format where you see their name and then my name, and we’re just kind of… It’s a back and forth conversation. So, that’s the starting point. From there, you get to see, of course, a lot of their art. So, it’s a very visually pleasing little zine to look through. And then I do break it into topics too. So, it’s not like you have to read from beginning to end. You can read each page individually. You can just pick up one zine, read one page, and be done, and hopefully get something out of that, that one little nugget of information the person shared. So, it’s quickly approachable, digestible. It’s already been kind of boiled out into that moment, and even in the interviews, if we talk about a topic at two different times, I usually kind of merge them, massage it together so it’s all answered in one nice little paragraph for the reader.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And I think just going back to the classroom idea because that’s what we do here, it’s really accessible for students as well. It’s not a really thick thing where they’re going to have to sit down and spend a lot time with it. They can just glance through things. They can come back to things, and like you said, it’s very easily digestible, which I think is pretty accessible.

Phil: And again, it’s not a promotional fluffy conversation. It’s a real conversation. So, I mean, I’ve already heard from teachers and from students who are like, “Oh, this person actually feels like they’re talking to me,” as opposed to it’s not one little blurb that they thought about a lot and posted online. It’s actually just a slow meandering conversation that’s been… You get the idiosyncrasies of somebody’s way of speaking too, the pauses, all that kind of stuff. So, you even kind of hear their voice in that, almost like a transcript which is nice.

Tim: Absolutely. I think there’s some value in that because for a lot of students, for a lot of people, if you just spend all your time reading artist statements, and like you said, those things that they spend a lot of time thinking about and writing, those can be incredibly inaccessible. It can be really off-putting to try and read that. And so, like you said, just hearing that authentic voice is worthwhile.

Phil: Yeah, and it’s funny, I’ve definitely had a couple artists that… This didn’t make it into the issues, but where they kind of, as I asked a question, they laughed, and they’re like, “You know, I should refer to my artist statement. Wait, where is that?” So, that gives you a good indicator of the casualness that we kind of shoot for where I’m vulnerable, they’re vulnerable, and it all adds together to hopefully create something that the student and the educator haven’t quite bumped into in the same sense.

Tim: Yeah, for sure, and I think you do a very nice job of that. Just one last question before we go, people who are interested and want to check this out, where can people find it? Where can they access the free copies? Where can they learn more about the zine?

Phil: Absolutely. So, the zine again is called Toska, T-O-S-K-A, and so the website is just, and that is it. You’ll find all the abilities to order past issues, subscribe, and of course get the free issues as well as the little PDF document that ties it all to the national standards.

Tim: All right. That’s awesome. And like I said, it’s incredibly worthwhile, so I hope people will check it out. But Phil, thank you for your time. Thank you for the conversation. Always great talking to you.

Phil: Likewise.

Tim: Always great to hear what you’ve been working on. So, appreciate it.

Phil: Yeah. Thanks so much.

Tim: Thank you to Phil for coming on. I have loved reading all of these zines, browsing through them, learning about these artists, about their work, about their process, just kind of hearing in their own words, and I also love hearing about things from Phil’s perspective. One thing that I appreciate as he has put all of these together is he has kept an eye out for us as art teachers. Each issue of the zine is available for free on the website as a PDF, and every single issue also has a PDF of questions and lesson ideas for art teachers to use in their classroom. It’s fun as you’re flipping through these zines, as you’re seeing this, thinking about how it can translate, how it can inspire kids, how it may coordinate with a lesson that you’re already doing, or it may inspire a kid who sees similarities between what they’re working on and what they’re seeing in the zine.

There are just so many ways to use them as I think about it. They can be anticipatory sets. They can be things that help you introduce a lesson. They can be something to close your class. They can be an exit ticket. They can frame a discussion. They can provide ideas, provide prompts, and just give you ideas for new lessons, and if nothing else, just they’re a resource for kids to explore when they’re looking for ideas, when they’re looking for inspiration. Everything in there can be tied to the national standards, and Phil talked about that too. Having an art teacher sort of look over everything, design things, and tie everything back to the national standards is a wonderful way to do it.

And so, like I said, I appreciate all of that, and I think if you check out the zines online or even subscribe so you get the physical copies, it’ll be most definitely worth your time. Give that a look when you have a chance. And once again, thank you to Phil Hansen for coming on, visiting the podcast again, and hopefully we’ll be able to talk to him again soon.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we’ll talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.