Sisters are doin’ it for themselves: Creating the cover for Sarah Barmak’s Closer

Managing Editor of Coach House Books Heidi Waechtler shares with us the ins and outs of making the cover of journalist Sarah Barmak’s new book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality. Combining reclaimed feminine craft, the Exploded Views series geometry, and many blue-worded emails, read on to see how the team really came together on this one.


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“I added a bit of hair to gauge what it would look like, and can keep going or Brazilian this thing, whatever would work better.”It’s not a sentence I thought I’d ever find in my work email inbox, but when you’re working on a book that offers accounts of therapeutic vulva massage and public clit-rubbing demonstrations, you shed your inhibitions quickly.When it came* to the latest entry in Coach House’s Exploded Views series, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, by journalist Sarah Barmak, which examines the ways women are redefining our cultural model of sexuality, we knew we would have to go for the big one or go home. We’d already ventured down the ladyparts garden path with our covers for Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead and Little Cat (both designed by Ingrid Paulson), and in 1979, with the cover for the late A.S.A. Harrison’s underground classic Orgasms (which is cited in Barmak’s book, thus bringing Coach House full circle). The challenge with Closer was to make a cover that played up the book’s provocative and groundbreaking subject matter against the title, which was perhaps less in one’s face. As Barmak put it, “I haven’t called it Pussy: An Alternative History (no matter how much of a good idea that might be), so a cover that pops would be cool.”The author brought some pretty amazing suggestions of her own to the table. “For some reason, the recurring image I’ve had is of a pink or red background (maybe velvet?) and, in the centre, a crystal-studded vulva. Like if Damien Hirst did a diamond-encrusted vulva instead of a skull. Obviously, I’m not sure how practical this is!”Alas, an image search for “diamond-encrusted vulvas” left us hopelessly unfulfilled (I still keep hope alive it exists), and a Hirst commission wasn’t within our budget. We went into brainstorm mode with the author. A survey of comparable titles revealed that books about female anatomy and sexuality favour the abstract approach, à la Georgia O’Keefe. Some concepts in the symbolic vein that we entertained included artist Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party series and Mira Schor’s Semi-colon in a Flesh Comma. The Utroba Cave. Sophia Wallace’s Cliteracy series. Triangles. We also considered more representational imagery: anatomy textbook drawings, The Great Wall of Vagina, and images from the Cunt Coloring Book.In other words, we at Coach House had never been prouder of our Google search history.
One type of image that kept coming** up in our research: crafty interpretations of the female anatomy, specifically embroidery, crochet, and cross-stitch renderings. Etsy in particular is a bastion of yarn-based yoni. We were rather charmed by the idea of a low-fi, DIY aesthetic to match the book’s DIY approach to sexuality. And, as Barmak put it, embroidery felt “rather in vogue right now.”  Next up was sourcing the image. We found a couple of Etsy product images we liked, but weren’t able to make contact with the sellers to secure permissions and high-res images. Thankfully, Editorial Director Alana Wilcox remembered that Toronto-based textile artist and OCAD instructor Shannon Gerard was, in Wilcox’s words, “the go-to maker of intimate anatomy.” Seriously, check out Gerard’s site for all your crocheted sex organ needs.So we commissioned Gerard to cross-stitch some ladybits to call our very own. She brought an early version of the piece by the office during a tour with her OCAD class, and while her students got up close and personal with the printing presses, Gerard and I huddled to discuss the finer points of vulva design. Shannon had used a pearl as clitoris analog, much to our delight. As for colours, we knew we wanted jewel tones, but selecting the actual shades of thread in that moment felt both intimate and empowering. “I can make whatever amendments you like and depending how you photograph it, it can look flashier/fleshier,” she said in an email I will treasure forever. “I could also stitch over top of anything which would change the colour and design as well as give the vee-jay a more 3-dimensional effect.” Who doesn’t want that?Speaking of the project, Gerard says, “It’s not every day I get an email asking for an embroidered vagina. The best part might have been searching through my button collection for the perfect clitoris.”We eventually decided to have Gerard remove the strands of black “hair” surrounding the vulva on the embroidery hoop (as alluded to earlier); it wasn’t so much a political decision as it was an aesthetic one. And in the end, we were taken with how beautiful the piece was. It was sort of the equivalent of admiring one’s own vulva in a hand mirror – that moment of self-love that our foremothers had dreamed of!
Our friend at the Literary Press Group, Education and Engagement Manager Lauren Perruzza, brought her DSLR camera by one summer afternoon, and we did a vulval photoshoot, sharing the results using a Dropbox folder called “Coach House Big O.” All that was left was to place the photo in the Exploded Views series design template Ingrid Paulson had designed and select our text accent colours. The accent colours were pulled from the thread colours in the embroidery, and Barmak, working with Alana Wilcox, looked at dozens of permutations of different combinations, in different lights!This was probably the cover I had the most fun working on at Coach House (and it’ll be my last completed cover at the press, as I’ll be departing my position later this summer for a new job out west). The final product was a true team effort – and executed solely by women, I might add – and it embodies just the sort of unconventional, pioneering attitude that Closer advocates for.* The puns just find us.** We told you.* * *Thanks to Sarah Barmak and Shannon Gerard for sharing their stories with us for this cover, and to Heidi for putting this celebration of all things crafted vag together.