General 5-21-2007

Home and Away: The Nostalgic Heart

Mason Riddle spoke with David Coggins about his recent fine-press book "The Nostalgic Heart," a travel memoir that has won the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Award in the Travel/Essay category.


The Nostalgic Heart, text and reproductions of mixed-media photographic images and ink-on-paper drawings by David Coggins, Cobalt Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2006, 261 pages, $50.00

The Nostalgic Heart is my kind of book. Compelling to read, beautiful to hold in the hand and observe with the eye, and its emotional scent lasts long after it is left on the bedside table. I know David Coggins, but the book will resonate with people who don’t–that is, if they are plagued by a wanderlust that is always creeping up on you. The Nostalgic Heart is a passionate book written with a direct clarity about what it means to be restless, have an incurable longing for travel and still be deeply connected to the ideas of family, home, and sense of place.

In 1995 Minneapolis artist and writer David Coggins left his home for an around-the-globe, yearlong trip to explore the cities of the world. His “almost mystical” search was to find the “nostalgic heart” of each city, as described by the travel writer Paul Rambali in his book The Cities and Jungles of Brazil. Coggins found this quote there, that gave him the title of his book: “There is nothing more exciting to me than arriving in a new city…Eventually – and the longer it takes, the more comfortable I feel – one reaches a crowded old centre, the nostalgic heart….”

Along the way, Coggins walked day and night, taking photographs, drawing and writing in journals, meeting an array of people from artists to cooks to shopkeepers in cities that included Cuzco, Barcelona, Stockholm, Kyoto and Istanbul, among many others. At certain points along the trip family members joined him. Part travel book, part memoir, The Nostalgic Heart is a document of these cities and also a window into Coggin’s personal life as the year’s events unfolded, including the death of his mother.

There is a seductive complexity about the journey that Coggins elucidates in simple, unadorned prose. We soon learn of the “gracious and not so gracious” buildings and neighborhoods of the world’s cities, their cuisine and their cars, their poverty and their luxury, their art and their geography. At an art critics’ conference in Cairo, Coggins says of a woman in charge, “A scarf sits on her shoulder like a parrot.” There, he also learns that others more fearlessly embrace technological change than he. (Remember it is 1995-96.) We also learn what the world looks like through Coggins’ perceptive eyes. If a city’s atmosphere, its tension is still elusive to the reader, Coggins’ accompanying images illuminate the experience.

Early on in the book, reflecting on his wanderlust, Coggins notes Pascal’s contention that man’s unhappiness is caused by his inability to sit quietly in a room. Shortly upon his return more than a year later, in front of the fire in his living room with “my wife folded like a child in the chair,” Coggins writes “I am content. The restlessness fades. Pascal was wrong. A man can sit quietly and happily in a room provided it’s the right room. At least for a while.”

An Interview

What led you to apply for a grant to travel to the cities of the world?

The St. Paul Companies had a program in the ‘90s called the LIN (Leadership in Neighborhoods) Program. Its purpose was to provide grants to individual artists and people in social services to take time away from their everyday lives to travel or study or work with a mentor, to gain experience or knowledge that would make them better at what they normally do.

Why did you decide to explore the “heart” of these cities?
I have always loved cities, especially older cities in older cultures. I thought the hearts of these cities, their old squares, contained something vital and important to living in a modern, high-tech world that was changing rapidly. Personal computers, email, cell phones, these things were just starting to become popular in the early ‘90s. I was interested in what effect the digital revolution would have on face to face interaction, on the kind of human exchange that has taken place in squares and public places in cities for centuries.

When you embarked on your journey, were you already planning on publishing a book of both your photographic images and your writings?
No. It was only after I had gotten into it, after I had met so many interesting and wonderful people who showed me their cities, who had taken me, this lone, restless American, into the hearts of their cities and, in many cases, their lives, that I realized that it had to be documented in a book. It had to be presented in a formal, thought out way that honored and celebrated the experience.

Can you briefly explain the process of producing this book? Did you start with the images or the writing? In other words, as an artist did you first create the collaged and manipulated photographs and then, as a writer, write the accompanying passages based on your journals and memory? Or was it the reverse? Or a combination of the two?

When I returned I had a wealth of material — many journals and drawings, thousands of photographs. I worked on both the visual and written material at the same time, giving more priority to the artwork as I knew there were upcoming exhibitions. From time to time, I reworked my notes, polishing and refining and coming up with a format to combine both words and pictures. It was a grinding process, constantly editing and weeding out, but it was also satisfying because I could sense that it was growing into something worthwhile.

The scope of the book is quite universal, in that it explores cities of the world. But, your writing and images give the reader a very personal perspective on you and your journey. Was it difficult to create this balance between worldview and personal account?
It was difficult, but I think that was the challenge: finding the right balance, the right weight. The book benefited, I think, from its long gestation. The balance between external and internal, story and image, became more evident the more I worked on it. Basically, it was “less is more.” I knew from the start that I did not want the pictures to dominate, as they tend to do. I wanted the writing to hold its own. The book is more philosophical in the beginning perhaps and turns more emotional. I wanted it to be personal but not confessional, informative but not academic.

What do you want the reader to come away with after reading the book?
Cherish cities, especially the old parts. Make them more human and beautiful and walkable. Technology gives but also takes away, and takes before you know it. Lose yourself in other cultures. Find yourself in your friends.

The book is quite beautiful with its square format and rich rust orange cloth binding. It is easy to say that it is “a work of art” unto itself? How do you feel about the book as both objêt d’art and as a literary accomplishment?
Thank you. From the outset, I hoped the book would be both beautiful and readable. I wanted it, if possible, to appeal to the eye and to the hand but also to the mind and the heart.

How many years did it take to finally publish the book?

I got on the plane to Lima, my first city, in 1995. The book was published in 2006. It took eleven years, but I was determined to get it done, or maybe the word is “obsessed.”

Why did you decide to establish Cobalt Press and self-publish the book?
I showed a mockup of the book to a number of traditional, established publishers. They all liked it, some liked a lot, but they weren’t quite sure where it fit. Was it travel book, memoir, meditation? It is all those. I knew, somehow, it was going to be published. In the end, it was by Cobalt Press, a press I created.

Do you anticipate publishing more books through Cobalt Press?
Yes, the press was created to publish limited edition artists’ books.

Do you have any advice for other writers/artists who want to publish their own work?

Independent, self-produced books are much more common now and more legitimate. New technology has helped, but it’s more about a change in point of view. Creative activity is bubbling up everywhere in new and strange and wonderful ways. Some of the most interesting work in all fields is being done outside mainstream, conventional channels. Quality is still important. So is passion.

The Nostalgic Heart can be found at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center, Minnesota Center for Photography and Cobalt Press, all in Minneapolis; at Common Good Books in Saint Paul; Three Lives Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York City; and Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California.

Mason Riddle reviewed an exhibition of Coggins’ mixed media photographs from the trip at Jon Oulman Gallery for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in 1999 and wrote a catalogue essay for his 2004 exhibition, Drawings from Nature.