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Introducing: Sonder



Residing just a few blocks from our shop is local artist, art educator and now author, Megan Altieri.

We're pretty lucky to call Megan one of our closest pals. If I had to sum her up in one word, I think I'd choose "complex". In Megan's mind, there's no simple answer to any question. There's no yes or no, black or white, good or bad, but instead a million in-betweens that can be justified, analyzed and discussed for days. It's one of the many reasons we love her but more importantly, it's one of the profound ways she's able to connect with people. She's inherently curious about the complex lives we all live, and to her surprise a few years back she discovered a word for this feeling, Sonder. 

I'd like to say we sat down with Megan and shared belly laughs, high fives and coffee but given the circumstances, we did the next best thing, we zoomed. We discussed the launch of her first ever book, how it came to be and weird nonsensical questions that Megan took very seriously and answered even more thoroughly. Read what followed below and if you're interested in more you can follow her on Instagram and buy a book here! 

Top left: Amanda Jones (will be referenced as AJ), Erica Lang (EL) and Megan Altieri (An actual author answering our ridiculous questions). 

EL: Yo Meg! Thanks for doing this. We're so stoked to hold a copy of your new book. You'll be hand delivering all of them sealed with a sneeze, right?

That’s right, SQUEAKY clean delivery. The book is shrink wrapped and will only be touched by me and I’ve been religiously quarantining for 6 weasels and 3 donkeys. I mean 6 weeks and 3 days. And I’m feeling very well.

EL: Yea, sounds like it. Let's start with Sonder, what exactly does it mean?

Sonder describes the sudden realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. This project was born of that sentiment.

EL: How did this project evolve?

With the goal of advocating for a more empathetic society, I wanted to collect stories from strangers. They needed to be raw and unfiltered.  So instead of soliciting, I just listened for them. Over the course of four years, I recorded overheard conversations, typing them in the notes of my phone, scribbling them on scrap paper, or sending wildly out-of-context texts to my girlfriend. I listened for moments that could be misconstrued, debatable, relatable-really, anything that just felt honest.
I began to write down a physical description of the speakers along with their words, I’d comb through thrift stores, creating reproductions of their outfits, then, I’d hand stamp their quotes onto the clothing that illustrated them. The clothes became the canvas, giving viewers someone to imagine; they became echoes of and odes to each stranger. Ultimately, this snoopy behavior was meant to validate someone’s truth. Someone just as important as anyone else had an idea worth considering. It’s the entire spirit of the word sonder.

AJ: How has this body of work evolved from an installation to a book?

When I started creating these pieces, I imagined them all hanging together on a series of clotheslines, a presentation that plays with themes of vulnerability and curiosity. Visually, I wanted the clothes to move in the wind, to almost feel ghostly. So, in need of an outdoor space, I pitched the idea to ArtPrize 10, the biennial international art competition in Grand Rapids, MI, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum accepted my application to exhibit on their lawn.
It took me two full weeks to install. Unexpectedly, it had thousands of visitors and won the ArtPrize 10 Installation Public Vote Award. Then, three weeks later, I leveled it with a chainsaw and shoved it into garbage bags in my basement. It was quite the undignified demise, but it inspired the idea to document Sonder so that people could interact with the work beyond the original installation.



AJ: Down to are a new crayon in the crayon box, what are you?

I’m the back-up Brick Red crayon. You know, the Brick Red crayon is always worn down and stubby so you go for the next best thing, the Scarlet Red, thinking it’s suitable for your Clifford, your tomato, etc but that unexpected pink tone messes you up. I feel like the best way for me to serve humanity in this hypothetical is by being the body double the most used crayon in the box.


EL: What was the biggest fear you had to overcome during this project?

The lack of humility it takes to write a book-- you have to believe your ideas are worth sharing, and even if you do believe that, you have to present them with a tone of certainty which can be terribly uncomfortable.
On the bad days the voice in my head was saying that none of this is thought provoking. I’d look back at a commentary I thought was brilliant the day before and think, “this is just a caffeine-induced spiral that your weird-ass brain took off with, this isn’t relatable, this isn’t the foundation for a good conversation…”


EL: Now that the book has been published are there places in the book that trigger any of those insecurities?

There is a quote by a woman explaining that she has noticed a trend in female culture where we’re afraid to whole-heartedly empower one another for fear of losing our own strength. I presented that quote with an illustration and commentary showing a woman offering to share her raisins with another woman but not offering to share her chocolate. Like, I’ll tell you your shirts cute but I don’t want to add anything TOO generous to your ego. It made so much sense to me. Like, “keep your nasty-ass raisins, let’s give each other that good-good, that rich stuff.” But all my editors were like “I mean, I love raisins...soo” And I was like, “It’s totally a general consensus that raisins are a below average snack. Then when I saw that page in print I had a flashback to all of my best raisin experiences and I was like “oh no...”


AJ: I believe this is your first book, but you never know with you... how did you figure out how to develop your writing voice?

Actually, when I was in 5th grade I got a poem published about having an anaphylactic reaction to a peanut butter cookie called “One Bite”. It was REAL dark, messed my mom up pretty good.  

But in my second literary production, I’ll admit I did struggle. I have a distinct speaking voice-- I’m very casual and interactive in the way I tell stories. So being concise, direct, and leaving space for ambiguity was hard. There are times where my writer’s voice felt awkward to me, trying to stifle out my natural expression of humor and storytelling in exchange for something a little more tongue in cheek, like a true narrator. 

Megan Altieri, Author, Artist and Art Educator. 


EL: Are there any quotes you decided not to use because they hit too close to home?

So many! Hundreds. Maybe I’ll still use them. Interestingly enough, the quotes I decided not to use were most similar to my favorite quotes in the book-- the ones that were maybe a little taboo, or had the potential to ruffle feathers. Those are the important ones that hopefully make people think about why it might have rubbed them the wrong way, or triggered a judgement or an assumption.


But the ones that I left out, felt like one step too complex to tackle with use little space I allowed myself as a narrator. Choosing how to frame a quote by a black man, as a white woman was hard at times depending on the context I wanted to highlight. Would my commentary be read as a whole-hearted attempt to empathize with someone? Or just a chick under-qualified to shed light on a perspective that wasn’t mine?


There are also unused quotes that highlight snippets of abuse, intolerance, and or small-mindedness. But every time I would try to write those commentaries I struggled to frame it unbiased enough to be a true narrator. The point of including many of these quotes was to highlight the idea that there are multiple interpretations to every story-- My job was to inspire empathy in the reader for both sides of the story. Often I struggled to be the voice of empathy for intolerance even though I knew it would probably be incredibly relevant and impactful.


AJ: How do you feel about garden gnomes?

No opinion. Wait a minute, strong opinion. I have a microcosmic example to explain an idea on this. I have come to understand a flaw, a quirk I have. I have what I call sticker-commitment issues. It blows my mind that people can buy a sticker and stick it on a thing. I’m not sure if I’m paralyzed by my connection to the sticker or if it’s the surface it has the potential to live on. Is this sticker not good enough for the moleskin notebook? Or is the Nalgene not good enough for the sticker? Whatever the reason, it’s very hard for me to commit to those flippant decorative choices. Still working on dissecting all that this means for me but in conclusion, people who decorate their yard with garden gnomes certainly do not have these commitment issues and I have mad envy and respect for their sense of self and assertiveness.


AJ: What do you think of in the car?

Almost every day on my way to work I think about how I’ve made the same drive for 6 years to the high school where I teach. I love my job so much that sometimes I crave the discontentment that makes you want to move, change your scenary. But then I take inventory on that commute and all that it means and feel incredibly lucky. Then I get down on myself for trying to exchange a part of my life that gives me purpose and joy for something new and exciting. I wonder if that perspective is valid or if it’s immature or privileged. 


AJ: Someone gifts you an elephant….

I blow out all the walls in my house so he has ample space. I make a bedroom for myself out of a walk-in closet. I buy lots of second hand TV screens from facebook market place and I puzzle them together on my biggest wall to make a large screen. Then, I send a GoPro to an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand, I ask them to plant it on their most social beast and collect footage. That footage plays on loop for my elephant to feel connected. After a couple of weeks I feel guilty and send him back to his homeland and I continue to sleep in the walk in closet.


EL: What was the leap from the Artprize Installation to creating this rad Coffee Table book?

When I conjured up this project, I was observing the socio-political climate of 2016 and trying to come up with something to promote understanding for each other. I knew from the moment of Sonder’s conception it was going to feel a bit kitschy because it had to be palatable to anyone and everyone to really make a difference. That was okay because I identified it as a reflection of my heart and mind rather than an artistic expression. The book was a chance for me to fuse my artistic ideals and preferences into that concept that meant so much to me.


EL: How did you plan the layout for this book?

Oh my gosh. You don’t want to know...I mocked up the entire book on powerpoint. My favorite tool to make things disappear was creating a text box then using the “fill” tool to make it white. When I’d show my friends who work in digital media they would be like “Are you an alien. WHAT IS THIS”. I eventually bought InDesign.


EL: What about Sonder keeps you wanting to explore?

My partner tells me “Art is my wife, psychology is my mistress”. I definitely have aesthetic preferences, but the priority, the passion in my work always deals with the human experience. So ultimately, the concept of sonder was the only thing that mattered, I had to see that project to fruition in whatever way presented the “human connection” the best. Sonder evolved from a deep interest for people. The printing, the clothing collecting, and installations, they’re vehicles to support the theme of connection. 


AJ: Why eavesdropping?

I wanted to take raw, unsolicited content from the world. If I asked a stranger to tell me their story, they're going to pick something they think is funny, interesting, insightful… I didn’t want that. I wanted something raw. I wanted something I could present out of context, that might lead a listener in multiple directions of contemplation.


AJ: What’s next, now that the book is completed?

I’m working on reaching more viewers through @sonder_articles on instagram. It’s been fun to figure out how to introduce Sonder as an installation and as a book.
For the last month I’ve also been commuting to Saugatuck Center for the Arts to install Sonder in their indoor and outdoor exhibit! During lock down, you can still visit the outdoor installation, the indoor installation will be 


AJ: True or false, you’re known to binge eat candy.

True. Only when the sun goes down and only the most average kinds of candy. Twizzlers, dum dums… It’s a pattern I’ve noticed.


EL: Juicy question, did anyone ever catch you eavesdropping into their conversation? 

A couple times I’ve been pulled into the conversation amidst the eavesdropping. For one particular story, I couldn’t resist bringing myself into the story in third person. We’ll just say I had a run in with an old man who attempted to roast me for not joining in on his reindeer games. Pages 32 & 386 can give you more on that story.


EL: Okay another juicy bit...were there any photos that didn't make it into the book?

I found a sink on the side of the road and insisted it was perfect to illustrate a particular quote about a woman blanking on her speech when she approached a microphone. The sink shed fiberglass all over my car and got rust on my floor mats. I carried it around in my car for months before the photoshoot. When it came to the shoot, we couldn’t compose the vision with the equipment we had after many attempts. It ended up being the only concept/shot we didn’t use in the book. 

Thanks so much for sharing a small peek into your brain. We've been chewing on the book these past few days, and it tastes so good. There's so much to digest. Okay I'm done with the puns. For folks who made it this far, you are a saint and a scholar and you can find more content like this here and purchase a copy of Sonder here



Comments (2)

  • Julie Lang on June 06, 2020

    LOVE sonder. What a great project!

  • Juli Evans on June 06, 2020

    I love every bit of this! Thank you!

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