HUNTINGTON — On visual artist Sassa Wilkes’ website she simply states, “I am Sassa, covered in paint and stumbling toward the light.”
For part of the past year — well, 243 days to be exact — that stumbling toward the light has been a frightful and excited journey into the future and into the new. An exceptional contemporary painter who currently has three paintings up at the just-opened inaugural Juliet Art Museum Invitational Exhibition at the Clay Center, Wilkes dove headfirst into some uncharted territory — writing her first book: a serial novel. Far from being just a book, “Qualia” has been a unique art project by Wilkes that combines immersive digital storytelling with painting, drawing, sculpture, music, digital media art and performance.
Wilkes, the owner and operator of the nonprofit art gallery and studio Make in Barboursville, has been publishing a new chapter online every Sunday morning at 6 a.m. from December 2018 until March 31. Now finished, Wilkes is bringing the book to life with a little help from her friends. She is sharing the interactive project and novel in an exhibition of works and interactive experiences at a launch party called “Chapter Thirty-Eight,” which will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Steptoe & Johnson in Huntington.
There will be live music throughout
the event by Tricera, with special vocal performances by Sassa and Emily Cloer at 7 p.m., and then again at 9 p.m. The launch party is free and open to the public. Wilkes, who will be displaying about 20 to 30 paintings at the launch party as well, said initially she had planned for an art exhibit on her birthday at Steptoe & Johnson, which has several of her commissioned works.
However, when she took a fiction writing class with nationally known, locally based author Sheila Redling, this idea for her novel began to manifest itself in her mind.
“I had been tinkering with doing narrative paintings and I didn’t think I would be writing a novel,” Wilkes said. “I thought it would be cool to base some paintings on a surreal story that would maybe present like poetry ... but when I was taking this class, the story started becoming more real in my head. I was starting to write something and sticking to a schedule. I was also pursuing personal change and trying to do things outside my comfort zone, so in class I’m made a list of a bunch of stuff I would like to do.”
The future set sci-fi story starts with this attention-grabbing beginning: “On August 5, 2037, I buried my son in the woods.”
The story synopsis on the cover is: “When the Government imposes a mandatory, cloud-based memory upload intended to free processing space in your brain, a woman living on the fringe of society with her young son has a choice to make; consent to treatment and continue life in the Commune, or flee to the mysterious Lighted Woods to live with her mother, their 117-year-old spiritual guide. Join her emotional journey through distorted time and reality on a quest for truth.”
To move the book along, Wilkes wrote the serial novel, ambitiously releasing a chapter a week.
“One thing being a perfectionist is that I would have just kept changing it until I didn’t like it so I said I will release one a week and I won’t change it,” Wilkes said. “Putting it together was kind of a neat puzzle to solve. A lot of writers said publishing a serial was very difficult, and it was really challenging. I didn’t pre-write anything but the last three chapters. I wrote then right when they were due and let the story go wherever it wanted.”
Wilkes said the feedback from the group of readers she emailed the weekly chapters to was invaluable.
She said her mom, Annette Campbell, and her sisters, Ginny Campbell and Alison Campbell, were very helpful in the editing process.
“I am a decent writer in terms of self-editing, but I did have people who were beta readers,” Wilkes said. “When I sent it around, I was like, ‘If you see any errors, please email me.’ A little bit it was publicly edited as it went along. They would also let me know their impressions of it and if it made sense. The book got more intense and so I have these timelines all over my wall to keep track of the time travel and I had readers to keep checking on that to make sure it was all straight.”
Wilkes not only wrote the book, but she also did the art for the covers, of course. She taught herself InDesign to lay out the book, created interactive e-elements in the book, and really got out of her comfort zone by creating some of the music.
“It was so much fun almost like an interactive magazine layout in the book,” Wilkes said about the interactivity of it. “I wanted the words to do some crazy things on the page so if you read it one chapter has a fake government website that pops up and there’s a lot of music in it. In the book, I have QR codes so that songs will play. In Chapter Four, you are helping the main character and you vote on it and it responds, so the layout of the book is intense.”
The book’s multimedia journey took on an interesting musical twist. Wilkes was sharing the stories with her husband Zach’s band with Matt Wicker and Scott Stephens.
A well-known area guitarist who also teaches at Route 60 Music, Stephens wrote some music based on the story and also fleshed out some of the musical ideas for Wilkes. Stephens also came up with a new name for the band Tricera that will be playing ambient and improvisational jams on Saturday night they have created specifically for the book.
Wilkes, who has never sung in public, will be singing a nine-minute aria about her lead character with an assist from classically trained singer Emily Cloer, who has been giving Wilkes voice lessons.
“It all kind of came together and that level of musical collaboration is really exciting to me,” Wilkes said. “I always wanted to learn to sing and I’ll be singing a nine-minute song I wrote at this place. That is terrifying, but it was designed to be terrifying. I sort of feel like a naked baby out in the street. I love learning to sing and I’m feeling really excited and celebratory about all of it.”
The setting for the party will be decorated like Chapter Thirty Eight, a place in the last chapter of the book.
“It will feel like that place,” Wilkes said. “Sheila Redline and Ryan McKenzie are going to be sensory sommeliers with kaleidoscope glasses and in a room with neon light and glowing drinks, and all the food is pink. I am also going to have a collaborative drawing that I am having everyone do. It is like the most fun I could think of to throw into one evening.”
Wilkes, who will have about 20 to 30 paintings on display at the law office for the party, said she can’t thank Steptoe and Johnson enough for their continued support of her art, and for jumping right in to go along with her wild creative ride.
A limited number of copies of the book will be available to purchase Saturday.
“I don’t think the art is finished until somebody else has a reaction to it,” Wilkes said. “You spend months and months on paintings and then usually hang them on white walls and everyone stares at them. That feels like an old way to appreciate something and feels tired. After getting done with a project like this I am like just bouncing up and down on the inside because I finished it.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Qualia,” a novel/art experience by local artist and now author Sassa Wilkes, has been a 243-day art project by Wilkes that combines immersive digital storytelling with painting, drawing, sculpture, music, digital media art and performance.
THE LAUNCH PARTY: The project and novel will then culminate in an exhibition of works called “Chapter Thirty-Eight,” which will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Steptoe & Johnson, 825 3rd Ave., Huntington.
ON THE WEB: Go online at iamsassa.com to find more information about this unique project, which is up to Chapter 11.
BOOK TRAILER: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lx-ojqhW3Ho