by Shazreh Malik
photos by Alex Crick
Here’s what happens when a couple of hard-working, capable, and creative women agree on an idea: victory, triumph, success, and then some with The Better Bombshell. The idea, in this case: to bring forth art, talent, and dialogue by employing and collaborating two parallel and equally important genres of communication – visual art and writing. With a published book in hand, their blog running successfully, and a few other projects underway, Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson join me for a conversation at the spot of their creative revelation – Louisa’s, a coffee shop in the Seattle neighborhood of Eastlake.
“We wanted to find a way to bring together our two networks,” says Thompson, a figurative, narrative painter, and a curator. An established professional, she is connected to a variety of visual artists. She found the perfect business partner in Austin, a successful literary non-fiction writer, and an editor, with several contacts amongst writers. “We both really value our communities as a writer and an artist,” says Austin. “We create active roles for ourselves in the literary and artistic realms, and it seemed like a natural next step to bring them together.”
And these two ladies make a great team. They carry the utmost respect and admiration for one another, and the determination to realize their ideas and aspirations. Which is why they chose to be business partners. Vaguely acquainted from several years back, Austin and Thompson connected again because of their shared interests. Enter, that famed coffee shop, February 2012.
One of their first tasks was to develop dialogue. Austin and Thompson created several topics, and sent them out to their peers. “The one over which we got the most reaction – both positive and negative – was the Better Bombshell concept,” says Austin. They had this much figured out: solid opinions, whether in their favor or not, work better than neutral responses. “The thing that gets the most reaction is the most provocative.”
As women of today, they wanted to explore modern female role models. And they wanted to know what the community had to say about it. “It’s not something you can do in a vacuum,” says Thompson. As Editorial Director and Art Director, respectively, Austin and Thompson reached out to several writers and artists. Some they knew personally, some whose work they knew of, and some of the “big leagues,” including Roxanne Gay, Craig Childs, Dave Barry, and Rick Bass. The contributors were formed into teams of two – a writer and a visual artist, who were to combine their efforts and reflect their thoughts on the subject. The book, a collaborative anthology, has a total of forty contributors, and hence, twenty chapters.
The list of rules and guidelines was short, and the freedom of expression is clearly visible. Austin has gathered for the book a diverse selection of essays, short stories, and poetry. You can’t tell what you might find on the next page. Meanwhile, Thompson has used her curation skills to collect a great variety of visually and conceptually strong artwork in the form of paintings and photography. Every chapter varies in content, style, and genre, and each team had a different approach to the idea of the bombshell. The one aspect that remains constant though, is the femininity of each contribution. It’s astonishing to see how well the art and the writing complement one another, as if both were the work of the same person.
The Better Bombshell project not only serves as a platform for the writers and artists to showcase their work on, but also as a place to network. Because of this project, friendships and alliances have been formed. A community, consisting of women and men, has been brought together. Some of these ‘teams’ are now working on independent projects, notably Ming Holden and Jody Joldersma. From what started out as a chapter in The Better Bombshell, The Survival Girls is now on its way to becoming a full-length book. It is being published by Austin and Thompson, and is scheduled for release later this year. The book is about a theater group for Congolese refugee girls, which just happens to be in the ‘good books’ of Hillary Clinton and Anne-Marie Slaughter.
It sounds fun and exciting, and it probably was at times. But this was no easy ride for these ladies. They have devoted a lot of their time and energy into getting the project to where it is now – all while balancing their freelance careers as writer and artist, so they can pay their bills. They both had very promising careers that they have had to sideline for this project. “We are 100% committed to do everything that we do,” says Thompson. “And we’re doing it at 150%,” adds Austin. It’s demanding, and it’s tough, and they still sometimes have their doubts. “Some days, we have great days,” says Thompson. “And some days, we are like, what the hell did we do!”
A big aspect of their project was the fundraising. They had to pay the contributors. They had to publish and market the book. They couldn’t do this without any funding. And they couldn’t just beg, borrow, or steal. Well, couldn’t borrow or steal. They had to beg, of course. They ‘asked’ their friends and family to pre-order the book online. They ‘accepted’ tax-deductible donations made to their project (with the help of Shunpike, a non-profit umbrella). They ‘received’ a grant from The Awesome Foundation, Seattle Chapter. Then there were the fundraising events. A pin-up art auction at the Sound Spirits Distillery. A 1960’s-themed murder mystery party in Fremont Abbey, where they auctioned off a variety of products ranging from spa certificates to video games.
Not to mention the marketing. “No matter how good the book is,” says Thompson, “If you don’t go out there and market it, no one will do it for you. ” They’ve already held a number of promotional events, including a black-tie book launch gala at the Olympic Sculpture Park, some book readings, a meet-and-greet brunch at the EM Fine Art Gallery, and a presentation on gender and media at the Seattle Central Community College. Their marketing efforts have gone national now. Their book tour has taken them to Massachusetts and California. And they are not stopping here. They have several events lined up, including book readings at Third Place Books, East West Bookshop, a few retirement communities, and two women’s correctional facilities.
The book is getting great response, but their ‘grand slam’ is to have copies of The Better Bombshell in libraries all across the country. And that is a purpose of the project that they still have to meet. According to Thompson, before the book can be placed in a library, they will have to stock copies at several bookstores. And they’re doing just that. “We put on our comfortable shoes, literally hit the street, and go walk bookstore to bookstore. ” As a result, the list of bookstores is growing. All proceeds from the sales of the book are being delivered to the Washington Education Access Fund, where they have set up a Better Bombshell Scholarship Fund for women interested in the arts.
They have worked their fingers to the bone, and it’s paying off. Austin and Thompson are being contacted by several writers and artists, who are eager to contribute to the Better Bombshell blog. “Writers with huge distribution, and a dozen books, are approaching us,” says Austin. “I get letters from artists everyday,” says Thompson. “It’s become this fun thing that people want to do. ” The blog runs on the same format as the book – original writing and original art are brought together to create each post. Austin talks of how the book has helped create on the blog a whole community of writers, artists, readers, and viewers. “Our blog is getting thousands of hits!”
Austin and Thompson are also being pursued by several organizations to do projects for them. They have started their own production company, and are publishing a second book, even venturing into film and TV, and doing art shows. An art show on firearms and the second amendment is scheduled for June. They are struggling, at this point, with trying to figure out how to manage everything, while giving it their best.
Surely, the Better Bombshell project was a recipe for success. But with great success comes great – controversy and this project has had its share. Surprisingly, despite its obvious subject matter, the Better Bombshell project has received objection from some of the academic feminist community, which was very discouraging for the two ladies. “Some of our harshest critiques have come from them,” says Thompson.
After constant dialogue and debate on the topic, you eventually form your own opinion of the ideal female role model. For Austin and Thompson, it’s the woman who is powerful, active in her community, passionate about what she does, and good at doing what she does. Women that “have it all, and be it all” are ‘better.’ They are free of stereotypes and expectations. However, the book does not name any ‘better bombshells,’ which never was their intention. Their aim was to just break down the term and the idea of a bombshell. This is reflected in the cover of the book, where the image symbolizes deconstruction.
They wanted to question culture’s dependency on stereotypes. Austin discusses how, throughout history, stereotypes have been attached to women’s roles, changing every decade, or so. And Thompson feels that when it comes to the ‘ultimate woman’ title, two categories have been stereotyped for consideration: the likes of Kate Upton; and the likes of Hillary Clinton. While these women totally deserve it, not everyone falls into their leagues. What about everybody else? While Austin and Thompson did not set out to term any one as the better bombshell, or to become ones themselves, the book really gets you thinking. I ended up making a mental list of “better bombshells in my opinion,” and let me tell you, these two made it there. They conceived of an idea, worked very hard to bring it forth, and are giving their best to accomplish more. They are everything a modern woman should be – smart, confident, funny, talented, and driven by a cause.
Alex Crick – photographer
If you follow live music at all in this city, then you run a 97.4% chance of having seen the work of Alex Crick (it’s an official percentage I swear). He’s a freelance photographer in the Seattle area who also happens to be one of the nicest people on the planet. One of the things I like most about Alex is his articulation beyond his lens. Though he is soft-spoken, he contributes actively and thoughtfully to his work, his community and whatever else he is interested in. I took an impromptu photo lesson from him one time during an Art Walk and I still have the diagrams because they make me giggle. The Triple Door’s Musiquarium currently has one of his pieces in their “Rocktography” exhibit through the end of this month with fellow AFA darling Suzi Pratt. – Anna