In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.
This month, poet Benjamin Gucciardi talked to artist and painter Dom Villeda about the cover of West Portal, winner of the 2020 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry (University of Utah Press, 2021).
A Conversation Between Benjamin Gucciardi and Dom Villeda
Dom and Ben spoke after surfing together on a cold, gray morning at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, something they’ve done on and off for the past twelve years. They changed out of their wetsuits and sat on a rail of the Great Highway, looking out at the waves.
BG: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. To start off, how do you like to describe your work to other people?
DV: I paint signs by hand? <Laughter>. I start there. I think that’s a good opener. People will ask, well, what do you do? And I’ll say, I paint signs, but by hand. People don’t really understand what that means, you know? It means a lot of different things: people need visual representation for their business, for a protest, or for their book. And then it’s like, how do we move forward, what do you need? Let’s get into the details.
BG: And I know you also make some other art objects, for example, those letters you made out of wood, and those saws you decorated, both of which I love. Could you talk a little about that aspect of your work?
DV: The saws come from the small desert town of Northboro where my mom lives now, and it’s about how to take something and keep it, keep its life going. I take saws that are no longer functional and then put some type of message on them. Sometimes those are custom and sometimes they’re just whatever I’m feeling like expressing at the moment. Then the object will have a life of its own in a different way. I really like woodworking. I think that’s something I’ll get into more as I get older.
BG: Thinking about visual representation, whether it’s for somebody’s business or for a protest, one of the things I am really drawn to is the way you are able to convey the spirit of what you are trying to represent; you really pull that out in a limited space. I wonder if you could talk about how you do that. What is the process like for you to get to the core of something?
DV: I think a lot of that comes from what people might call street smarts or intuition. Growing up, my dad would always find stuff on the ground that was useful. Whether it was money or a tool or something else, he was always making the most of what was around him, making sense of it. And growing up in Oakland, I learned to be able to read a person off the bat to be like, am I safe? [My intuition] really helps me to meet somebody and understand where they’re coming from. Is it going to be a long conversation that they need, or are we just going straight to the meat of what they need done, like “I want you to say this” or “it needs to be this color,” for the sign.
And the same thing goes for an art piece, I’m always thinking, what’s at the center of this? For sign painting, it’s always about high contrast. You want the sign to be big and bold and readable. And the same thing is true for an art piece; you have to think about how to get straight to it with one or two words, with the boldest lettering you can do. There’s not much room to play around.
BG: I’m thinking about the connection between sign painting and poetry: you have two text-based mediums operating in compressed space. There is an idea within poetry that sometimes constraint—whether imposed by working in certain forms like the sonnet, or in a metrical pattern or rhyme structure—can actually be generative or creative as opposed to limiting. Do you feel like the constraints of your medium can be generative?
DV: Yeah, for sure. A lot of times it comes in the design process. If someone tells me “you can do whatever you want,” sometimes I feel like I don’t know actually know what I want to do. But when they give some parameters (“we want there to be an ocean,” “we want it to say this sentence”), it gives me direction, and now I can exercise exactly what I do well through their constraints. And I also see that in friends who are total complete artists to the bone, but they can’t function in life because they’re so free, so open. I recognize some of that in myself, but I am also trying to run a business, so I try to marry that openness and that constraint, both in life and in art.
BG: You were talking about growing up in Oakland, and for me, it felt really important that the cover artist for West Portal was someone who is also from here. Our mutual friend Brett Cook talks about the way the process of the object’s making is present in the final piece. Having you as the artist—as someone who is shaping the public visual landscape through murals and signs in a lot of western San Francisco and the East Bay—felt like it would really ground the cover in the place the book is set, which is West Portal (a neighborhood in San Francisco), but also the Bay Area more broadly. Could you talk about how growing up in the Bay Area influences your work, both aesthetically and visually?
DV: Definitely the graffiti scene, just growing up here in Oakland and San Francisco in the eighties and nineties, that was undeniably everywhere. And then having older mentor figures be heavily in that scene. So then of course I’m gonna be in that scene as well. And then later on being like, oh, someone will pay you to paint the word on their building? Yeah. And it’s not, you know, not gonna get you jail time. <Laughter>. That’s pretty cool, too.
BG: I know you’ve done some work with some different community organizations like Aerosoul, Critical Resistance, and Cycles of Change. Why is that work important to you?
DV: I grew up with hippie parents and a hippie grandpa. And it’s always just been like, if there’s a rally, we’re going. Or if there’s a march, we’re going. That’s always been common sense, what we did, it was never a liberal thing or a networking thing, like I’m gonna go seek out jobs or organizations. If there’s something going on and a lot of people I know are involved in it, I support it naturally. If it’s a mom-and-pop shop that can only pay me $10 for a job or someone who needs a protest sign, it’s like, I don’t have to care what the mom-and-pop is selling, they are rooted here, they are part of the community. I don’t have to care what the protest is about because I trust those people. I’m always going to be there to help if somebody needs something and I can provide it.
BG: Will you tell me a little bit more about sign painting as an art form? You were the first person I met who was doing that professionally. I remember there was one day when after surfing you had this book of letters and all these different styles and I was really struck by it, it was something I’d never seen before. What drew you to it?
DV: I’ve probably drawn stylized letters since third grade. My grandma was into calligraphy and I was into graffiti so it was just kind of a natural progression. Hand-based sign painting kind of died out for a few decades. It was much more common before vinyl lettering was invented; before, that’s what you did. Traditionally, people would apprentice with a sign painter for some years and learn all the tricks of the trade. But I just kind of fumbled through it myself, which I think was good and bad in a bunch of ways. I kind of figured it out on my own and now get to meet other sign painters and see the cool things that they’re doing. I’m like, oh my God, it’s so much easier than what I do <laugh>.
BG: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you more about that too, being self-taught, that’s something I really resonate with. I never took a class in poetry. I never studied it formally. And I feel like that has let me be less self-conscious, maybe, more willing to try different things like the halo poems in West Portal (the text in these poems is formatted in a circle on the page, and there is no beginning or end). I wonder if you could talk about that for yourself. What was the process of teaching yourself this art form? How do you feel like that allows you to be in the space in a different way?
DV: I think that being self-taught helps a lot in the freedom within lettering. On one hand, as sign painters, we’re trying to paint as well as we can to get a letter down. But on the other hand, people are paying us because it’s hand-painted. So it’s almost like if you were a perfect sign painter people wouldn’t be as into it. I really enjoy the looseness of it, that there are little wobbles here and there. It’s about appreciating the human hand. Versus being like, you’re not a computer, this sucks <Laughter>.
BG: This is reminding me of a concept in Japanese aesthetics: Wabi-sabi. If you make a circle out of stones, if one of the stones is slightly off, you can appreciate the roundness more due to the imperfection, you can appreciate the beauty more by recognizing its impermanence and incompletion.
DV: That’s it exactly, I see a lot of that in art in general.
BG: Thinking about the cover of West Portal specifically, I really love how you can see that human hand in the lettering, and in the shape of the circle, in its slight imperfection. Could you talk about how you came to that final image?
DV: Usually, I come up with several different ideas, and as I am working out those concepts, the process reveals the direction I should go in more so than me being certain I want to do it a particular way. I knew the portal, I knew that physical space from riding the train growing up, and I wanted the portal to be part of it. You talked about the tunnel being central. I have memories of that tunnel, you’re just out there walking around and it’s pretty quiet, and that’s an intense tunnel right there, the whole visual experience changes, you speed up, you get out and suddenly you’re in a much busier part of the city.
I wanted to paint it very quickly and with brushes that are almost harder to control. So, however it came out, it would come out and I would have a little bit less control. I wanted to show as much movement as possible.
BG: You really captured that movement from here to there, that sense of a portal. And I love that blue that you ended up picking. I’m not sure if I remember this correctly, but I think when I asked you how you chose it, you told me you had that color left over from something else you were working on?
DV: I remember it being leftover paint and I actually might still have some left over <laughter>. But that happens a lot, you have a big job and then you have this color left over. So it’s like, where else can this color work?
BG: I love the spirit of that, it feels so connected to the poems in the book. Kind of like, these experiences, this grief, this joy, this language, this is what I have. And I am trying to make something with what is left over. Another thing I love about that color is it feels very evocative of the sea and the sky and the West, like when you look west from where we are right now, it feels so evocative of that direction, both in reality and in the imagination.
DV: Yeah, definitely a color for out here. In the water, you said today was a nice day, there was no wind, but it’s like the sun’s also not gonna come out today <laughter>. But for us, that’s a great day; water’s warmer. Not warm, but warmer.
BG: On that note, we both share a love of surfing in the ocean, and your aesthetic has a surf influence and a skate influence as well. How do you feel like surfing, time, and the water influence your work?
DV: A lot of my life is spent surfing, so it’s going to come across in the signs that I make and also just the appeal of the tones we get to enjoy. Usually, at sunset, I’ll be in the water and that’ll be the moment that snaps me out of the fact that I’m surfing and I’ll say to myself, well, you’re surfing, but you’re also just floating in the ocean right now. You can take a deep breath and appreciate where you’re at. Let’s say you were here but here was Brazil. You’d be so much more present and in the moment, and you’d be able to soak in the colors of Brazil in a different way because you see things from a whole different perspective in the water.
Dominic Villeda is a multi-disciplined artist from Oakland, CA—a third-generation gold and silversmith, second-generation calligrapher, and first-generation sign painter. Out of a desire to create functional and accessible artwork, he has spent the past 19 years working as a professional sign painter and muralist for mom-and-pop shops throughout California.