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Art People: Sally Alato cuts it out

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With poor TV reception and the nearest movie theater 60 miles away, Sally Alatalo grew up depending on the world around her--namely her father's Texaco station in northern Michigan--for visual stimulation.

It was "a convenience store before there were convenience stores," she says. "My dad sold all kinds of things--candy bars, corncob pipes, fishing lures, bread, milk, sunglasses." But it was the packaging of these items that she found interesting. "I especially remember being fascinated by the wrappers on ice-cream treats. They all seemed much larger and appealing back then."

While working in her father's store--cleaning counters, stocking shelves, and helping her brother pump gas--Alatalo became an avid reader of pulp paperbacks: mysteries, suspense thrillers, detective novels. "I read a lot. I looked at a lot of magazines. I read the newspaper a lot more rigorously than I do now. I remember being especially intrigued by the sensational headlines in newspapers."

Alatalo's interests might have remained mere diversions had she followed the usual path for girls in her hometown: early marriage; motherhood; endless days of laundry, cleaning, and cooking; and maybe a part-time job to supplement the family income. But her small-town existence was disrupted when she won a poetry contest in high school. Part of the prize was a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy. Alatalo spent two years studying at the prestigious boarding school, receiving encouragement to take her writing and art seriously and to look beyond her hometown for fulfillment.

After Interlochen she attended Marlboro College in Vermont, taking time off in 1979 to hang out in New York City, where she lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side and earned her way as a dishwasher. She also filled lots of sketchbooks and visited museums and galleries.

But after a while she returned to school and, as an exchange student, studied at Birmingham Polytechnic in England. There Alatalo met an artist who ran a print shop in London. "I worked for him for more than a year grinding stones for artists and doing all sorts of high art printing," she says. She found a job in a commercial shop, printing on plastics and creating signage. Alatalo was hooked.

At the School of the Art Institute, where she studied printmaking after college, she started publishing artistic magazines. She named the first one Du Da to evoke the Dada movement, particularly the design and typographic innovations of artists like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch. Each issue was packed with images reminding Alatalo of her childhood: a salmon-shaped seafood salad from a women's magazine, photos and drawings from cookbooks, illustrations of domestic bliss.

Five years ago Alatalo changed the name of her magazine to Duz, a tribute to one of the more cheesily named laundry detergents--"Duz does everything"--on sale at her father's store. She also started to play with its format.

Duz #2, devoted to deconstructing the Cinderella myth, came in the form of a shoe box. Inside was a single gold shoe carefully wrapped in tissue paper, a map with part of Cinderella's story printed on the back, and a tiny wire-bound book with illustrations on how to cha-cha.

Duz #3, just out, comes in the form of a large piece of yellow wallpaper--an homage to the classic Charlotte Perkins Gilman novella The Yellow Wallpaper--over which Alatalo has printed birds in flight, knotted ropes, and a repeated portrait of a woman in 50s-style formal wear (a black dress and pearl necklace) with carefully coiffed hair and a perfectly blank smile.

Soon after the first issue of Duz came out Alatalo created Sara Ranchouse, a publishing company devoted to putting out artistic books in inexpensive paperback formats.

The first few books in the Sara Ranchouse catalog have, fittingly, been send-ups of various pulp genres. Moore Lande and Doug Huston's western epic Vast is constructed entirely of sentences, each carefully footnoted, from other western epics, while Alatalo's The Continental Caper critiques Raymond Chandler by juxtaposing selections from The Big Sleep--in which women are described entirely in terms of their hair color and style--with fashion photography and writing from the 40s and 50s and contact prints of snippings of hair from 63 different women.

Alatalo's current project, A Rearranged Affair, involves taking apart 188 Harlequin romance novels and reassembling the pages into 188 new works, each containing one page from each original book. Then she'll bind the unique volumes with a Harlequin-style cover that includes a suitably generic plot teaser on the back: "She was cheated out of her inheritance. She despised his advances, though he could potentially save her from financial ruin. . . . He wants her sexually throughout the novel. Despite his many attempts, she agrees to be with him only after he proposes marriage. As his wife, she regains her lost social status." After Alatalo reads through each version she'll decide which she likes best and publish it in an inexpensive "trade edition."

Sara Ranchouse publications can be ordered directly from Alatalo at Sara Ranchouse Publishing, P.O. Box 476787, Chicago 60647.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Sally Alato by J.B. Spector, photo of Duz #2.

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