Michelle Maguire and her husband Aaron Beck adore their Aunt Doll.
Funny enough, they’re not even sure she likes them.
But that was hardly the point, or rather an obstacle for the photographer/writer couple, who recently completed Salami Dreamin’, a hand-stitched, vibrant chronicle of the aforementioned Doll, now a Canton-cum-Florida snowbird with a penchant for potato chips, hot sausage, Cleveland sports, and absolutely zero tolerance for idle chit-chat and sundry bullshit of any kind.
The result is what Beck calls a “a not-precious book about family,” released first as an art installation at Seventh Son, where the couple got to transfer the fascinating, sometimes foul-mouthed spirit of their aunt.
“We love anyone who has a way with words—especially people who don’t know they have a way with words, like Aunt Doll,” Beck said. “The only motivation, for me, was to share with as many people as possible what I hear Aunt Doll yell at the Browns and Cavs in her TV room, because I love to hear the friends I share these things with laugh really hard.”
Maguire couldn’t help but incessantly document Doll on their visits, worried she’d not be able to conjure in her imperfect memory, their memories of life back in Canton.
“Aunt Doll’s generation—even beyond my own family—has always been my favorite. They’re street-smart. They share great tales of hustling and living it up during Canton’s heyday, stories which paint a culturally vibrant picture of my hometown. So, whenever we’d visit, my camera was always rolling, for no other reason than to capture and preserve them for myself. I never wanted to forget their voices or their dialogue.”
Each page of the book—which Michelle learned to make, which Michelle learned to make, thanks to printmakers at Floodwall Press and bookmakers at OSU Libraries’ Conservation Lab—features hand-printed lithograph and silkscreen portraits of Doll. The images are derived from photographs by Maguire and are accompanied by letterpress-printed scattered narratives from Beck’s pen.
Not only does the dual voice of the couple create a surreal, yet relatable product, but the lightly “kissed” impression of letterpress and foil stamping gives each page a unique vibrancy.
From late morning through early afternoon on any given summer day, Aunt Doll is on her back patio in a cushioned glider. The letters SPF mean about as much to Doll as the Russian alphabet. If her skin is showing, it’s getting bronzer by the minute. All she needs is a blazing-hot afternoon, a terry cloth romper, her 32-ounce sipper of Crystal Light, and a Danielle [“Duh-NELL”] Steele novel.
“Shit, I’ll see ya. I ain’t goin’ anywhere today, babe. The sun’s out, and my ass is stayin’ right here. This is it.” The birds roosting on the telephone lines chirp out in the still, humid air of the treeless yard. A weedeater whirls away somewhere down the street. “You know one of these days I’m gonna shove that camera up your ass, Michelle. Hand me the newspaper, babe.”
Beck and Maguire, after putting the finishing touches on 50 copies of Salami, sat down with (614) to spill a little extra about Doll—who, despite coming to the opening installation, could be described roughly as “over it,” or never into it in the first place.
It seems your subject was more than a little ambivalent about this book project.
Beck: I’m thankful that she’s only recently moved from not caring at all to somewhat ambivalent about the book. I can’t imagine taking editorial feedback from Aunt Doll. It’s hard enough to get her to share her recipe for wedding soup.
Maguire: She’s lukewarm on most things: the “ferocious wind” (gentle breeze) that’s out to take down her hair, the man across the street who leaves weekly messages on her machine in hopes that she’ll eventually agree to a lunch date (“I don’t need that shit.”). It’s no surprise that she’s indifferent to me spending a year making a book about her.
What is universal about Aunt Doll and her interactions with you two? Is there some generational statement made here, or is that even too specific of an angle?
Beck: Aunt Doll’s show-don’t-tell, Zen-like existence is really inspiring to me. She’s unguarded and unfiltered. She isn’t selling anything, you know? I love that quality in anyone, no matter their age. It’s just such a carefree and simple way to exist in the world. From what everyone in the family says, Aunt Doll’s been this way all her life. The fact that she’s going on 85 is just that: a fact. I don’t find it shocking or kooky that at age 85 she casually curses, eats pretty much what she wants to, knows a lot more about the NFL than I do, plays strip mall slot machines with her vegetarian hairdresser of 42 years, exercises most mornings, and yells at me to shave my face. I find it refreshing and hilarious.
Maguire: If there’s a generational statement, it’s that old people don’t need to be sweet, warm, and cuddly and spewing unsolicited life advice all the time to be wise. Aunt Doll has a foot in the past but is really observant about the contemporary world. If you get a seat next to Aunt Doll, you’re guaranteed to have a good time. I think that’s a constant conveyed in this book. Aunt Doll craves no attention. When the three of us are together, she’s rolling her eyes at both of us. She thinks we’re idiots.”
Best moment for you over the course of making this book?
Beck: Sometime last fall when Michelle was showing Aunt Doll prints in Aunt Doll’s TV room. She lost interest about four seconds into the exercise, returned to her plate of sheet pan pizza and roasted chicken, started cursing about Johnny “Mazelle’s” latest idiotic exploits, and told me: “If you want to, Air, go to the basement and crack open the bottle of Crown Royal that Uncle Phil got for Christmas in, hell, I don’t know, the ’80s. I’m not gonna touch it, I’ll see ya.”
What does this book add to the world that wasn’t there before? Does it essentially break down to thinking the world needed to know more about a chicken wing/hot pepper-eating, NBA-watching, ill-tempered old granny?
MaGuire: It adds another story, which I’m all for, especially if the story stars a woman with an undying love of coney dogs. Aunt Doll just happens to be 85. I believe that people who are authentic, who put on no airs, who aren’t selling a schtick, a brand, or their services, who aren’t jiving you, who are 100 percent independent-minded, should be celebrated and admired—no matter their age.
Beck: It adds to the world a beautiful book with a—I hope—lively story about a woman who cares deeply about everything she does. How her hair looks after she gets it done every Friday, the flavor of the food she’s going to eat, and all the good things Lebron James is doing for Akron—everything receives equal attention from her. At 85, she’s engaged, sincere, and authentic, and she’s been that way her whole life. Aunt Doll speaks her mind and she can be testy and strident, but one thing she is not is a one-dimensional Shit-My-Dad-Says crank or sitcom stereotype. The vignettes in the book make that clear. Also, I don’t know what the world needs, because I can’t think in grand terms, but if something makes you laugh, it probably makes someone else laugh, and that’s good for the world.
The book and prints are available at salamidreamin.bigcartel.com.