Best of Phoenix

Best of Phoenix 2015: Paper Artist Karla Elling Is a Former Manager of ASU's Creative Writing Program

For more of the best people, places and things to do in Phoenix, check out our 2015 Best of Phoenix awards. 

Seventy years ago, my family left Hanford, Washington, where my dad was recreation director for a group of scientists working on a secret project, one they thought would end the war. I was 2 years old when we moved into Grandmother Payne's house on 29th Street and East McDowell. My first taste of the desert was dirt under an oleander hedge. The neighbor girls said it was like powdered chocolate.

Soon, Dad built what was then the northernmost house in Phoenix, on Windsor Avenue, now part of the Willo District. In the field across Thomas Road where St. Joseph's Hospital stands today, he hunted dove and quail destined for my mother's cast-iron Dutch oven. On Windsor, my desert experience was mainly alley dirt. On frequent family visits, however, on the hills behind company housing at the Inspiration Copper Company in Miami, I trailed my three boy-cousins to learn the names of things that grew in rocky dirt. Prickly things: banana yucca, ocotillo, Spanish bayonet.

Agave, yucca, ocotillo, opuntia — my obsession with these plants began at age 3. As a hand papermaker who grows a field of arid land plants then beats their fibers to a pulp, this fascination will go on until I can no longer wield a serrated harvest knife.

I've tried to leave the desert. When we got out of college, my husband and I drove across the United States, looking. The trees of New York, Vermont, and Maine smothered me. Dirt couldn't be sighted under all that green weed and fern. Boiled up, most temperate plants went to mush. Things molded, book pages foxed. For great handmade paper, choose a desert.

Thirty years ago, as the coordinator of Arizona State University's new graduate creative writing program, I said yes to everything: Yes, we can get the word out; yes, people will come to see Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, Denise Levertov, John Updike, Adrienne Rich. And, well, yes, I did forget to include a budget for advertising in those grants I wrote.

My department chair and mentor, Nicholas Salerno, thankfully said yes, too. Do take a class in fine arts from the new man, John Risseeuw. Do learn to print posters and invitations. We did bring great writers to the desert. Getting the word out was only a crank away on the hand press.

I have a postcard from one writer who gave me a poem to print. "Dear Ms. Elling: I am amazed that the trip to Phoenix takes all day; is there a Sunday flight? I have located a novel in Arizona and would love to have a day of sightseeing — mostly scrutinizing local vegetation, xerophytic plants, etc. Maybe you can make a paper hat out of a paragraph of mine. Or papier-mâché shoes. Don't set me up for a lot of interviews with inattentive newspapermen. Best, John Updike"

We took Updike up the Peralta Trail in the Superstitions. His borrowed shoes didn't fit, but he did not complain once. He had raw heels when we got back to the van. In the novel S., Updike wrote, "The rocks have this strange soft globby look and the saguaro cactuses instead of being green and formidable, as I pictured, are weathered and blackened and battered like rather pathetic old giants."

When I was a child, we didn't have many books. We made things, we told stories. ASU opened another world for me: great books, analysis and scholarship, poets and writers, print, paper. I've printed and made paper for hundreds of poets and writers including seven U.S. poets laureate. Most often, I've worked with Arizona's poet laureate, Alberto Ríos. Together we completed the Words Over Water project, 603 granite tiles around the Tempe Town Lake — Alberto's poems, my graphics and typography. Our projects are all about the desert.

The acreage where I live is a prickly nature preserve. The original creosote forest thrives around a field of Hesperaloe funifera, Yucca elata, jojoba, palo verde, mesquite, and an Arizona sycamore. No poisons here, so there are gopher and king snakes, javelina, coyote, Harris' hawks that feed on dove and quail, a roadrunner, collared and spiny lizards, centipedes, scorpions, and the occasional paper wasp. I draw them all, write about them, and print it up — letterpress on handmade paper. — as told to Robrt L. Pela