Lowbrow inputs make my favorite muses. It feels like alchemy, transmuting pedestrian affinities into principled culture. I shared this insight with Dr. Ali Hussain during our interview about Ibn Arabi, an assignment during my tenure with the spiritually-inclined art collective Raise Karma, where I focused on running their blog. My article “The Art of Being” came from this interview and now lives in print amongst the pages of SONDER: 2020 Year In Review. This one-time print publication is the culminating creation of my time with Raise Karma and is, to date, the proudest achievement of my writing career. True to form, I chose its title from a BuzzFeed listicle.

sonder (neologism)
1. The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

SONDER is a beautiful collaboration of art and words that in the current mindset of the collective needs to be experienced,” wrote Destiny Turner, whose art is nestled into its very beginning, the crown jewel against my Letter From the Editor. In December 2020, Raise Karma floated the possibility of releasing a print project on a tight deadline, just one month to hit the presses, and I latched onto the notion quickly, driven, admittedly, by the essay I planned to contribute. During Spring 2020’s quarantine, I’d fallen deeply in love with a married man. In the months that followed, I watched the life/death/life cycle run its course as our relationship fizzled. SONDER offered my only chance at closure—using the raw materials of an emotionally immature heartbreak to create something real and meaningful.

Curating this publication divulged the most useful lesson I could’ve received in my forlorn state: it’s not about me. SONDER is client work created by ksmt studios, a partnership between myself and holistic designer Osvehanis Osman. As such, the project predominantly celebrates Raise Karma’s mission to empower creativity through spirituality. Three selections from Raise Karma’s blog anchor the publication, to this end. Examining and choosing these posts allowed me to settle on our journal’s name, which encapsulates my ethos for writing—my desire to pin down, for a moment, the complex series of circumstances attracting all manner of artists to their alternative lifestyles.

“I am loving the eclectic creative spirit flowing through SONDER,” wrote Destiny Muhammad, the San Francisco-based harpist whose previously unpublished Q&A we released to readers. Dr. Hussain added, “As I opened my complimentary copy of SONDER, I witnessed my own creative vision as an artist and someone who thinks seriously about the sacred dimensions of the creative process unfold before me.” Muralist Raphael Delgado graciously shared intimate dimensions of his creative journey with SONDER and stated that, “As an artist, there is nothing better than seeing your art in print and reading your thoughts interpreted by a writer. The article captured feelings and stories that I have always struggled to articulate… I sincerely felt heard, and after reading the article, I felt understood.”

Destiny Muhammad at her instrument. From artist website.

While I like art and enjoy beauty, I rarely pass judgement in the public sphere because I believe appearances are a matter of taste. Instead, I prefer to focus on context, exploring the story surrounding each creative’s career. There seems to be, within me, a natural proclivity for understanding artists, perhaps because I fancy myself an artist too, as a creative nonfiction essayist. In the spirit of dissecting the coronavirus’s impact on creativity throughout 2020, SONDER solicited two additional essayists to craft a collection contemplating this question through the lens of the mind, the body, and the spirit. My essay, A Body Is Enough, explores how lost love changed my relationship to my physical form. J.K. Hewitt tackles the head in Seasons of the Mind and Jade Brown explores her heart in Simple Spirit, Raw Spirit.

SONDER was the cathartic outlet I sorely craved in the bitter dusk of 2020,” wrote Hewitt, considering her experience with the publication. Creative opportunities are difficult for writers to come by. While painters and musicians boast flashy end products, we are always convincing audiences to exert the effort necessary to digest our work. Reading requires dedication. Instead of pushing the essayists to create false work in the name of drawing an audience, SONDER left its essayists to their own devices throughout the drafting stage. The three of us worked independently and came together after the fact, fostering a digital workshop as we edited each other’s pieces three times each.

“Working alongside the other women who lent their unique perspectives and talents to this publication was the next best thing to getting published,” Hewitt continued. Brown elaborated that, “SONDER has awakened facets of my writing that were otherwise hidden behind poetic jargon—which in my defensive, is my thing. I messaged Vittoria halfway into writing Simple Spirit, Raw Spirit and begged for an extension; it was my sly efforts into tapping out. The entire process was too revealing and I hadn’t become that acquainted with my writing before. But in true Vittoria fashion, she pushed me into that strained creative dialogue between myself and who my writing was becoming.”

This feedback nearly shattered me when I received it all recently. The span of time where we worked through our essays, that nebulous space between Christmas and New Years, was the most emotionally tumultuous of my life. After ‘breaking up’ with my lover, I left my day job, lost some friends, and fought through the dark, cold, isolating winter, struggling to sustain the conviction I could complete this project, the most responsibility any organization had ever entrusted me.

Focusing on the greater objective bolstered my strength, as did my partnership with SONDER’s Director of Design, Osvehanis Osman. Together, our dynamic duo conducted the many moving pieces comprising the journal’s greater symphony. Working closely with Osman animated this process with a new level of meaning, just as Osman’s expertise allows SONDER to access deeper dimensions. For example, the colors chosen across its spreads align with their corresponding chakras.

“I wanted to treat SONDER as an art form alongside all the artworks that were included,” Osman stated in summary. “My thought process was to cohesively have my designs live harmoniously with each entry on each page, representing their significance visually. By taking themes and elements from the contents of each essay, I began to place them within the bigger picture, which was our theme of going through 2020 together amidst the pandemic. During the entire process in which Vittoria and I had a week to bring SONDER to its tangible form, I went through a spectrum of emotions which, in itself, was very reflective of 2020, compressed into a week. I had never tried to cover so much ground, creating over 100 iterations within such limits. Absorbing the stories and the art throughout the process left much to introspect, which then led to pushing through to bring you SONDER.”

There’s an artful balance between word and image at play. SONDER features two photo spreads from artists involved with Raise Karma throughout 2020, the year of the collective’s inception. “I feel so happy to be represented through this journal,” wrote Azzah Sultan, Raise Karma’s former Artistic Director, whose work shines in the first of such spreads.

By Azzah Sultan
Melipat, 2020
Hand stitched batik fabric, acrylic paint, on canvas
49 x 24 in

We also hosted a Superlative Competition, harping on the yearbook themes pertinent to a Year in Review. After our team devised five titles for the taking, 900 voters selected two semi-finalists in each category from a Google Form totaling nearly 30 nominations. 2,000 voters then selected the final winners on Raise Karma’s Instagram story. Each winner is printed in a special spread for this surprisingly lively battle. Among these champions ranked Emerald Rose Whipple, who won Class Activist for her 2020 print initiative which helped Orange Babies donate lifesaving supplies to pregnant mothers and babies affected by the AIDs crisis in Africa.

“It is such an honor to be recognized not only as a creative, but for the worthy cause of child rights which is very personal to me,” Whipple remarked. “I love the work Raise Karma is doing to empower the arts through spirituality. Aiming to continuously create space for artists and storytellers to proliferate is an essential practice. I hope that my work can inspire many others to continue in the valued tradition of art, philanthropy, culture and peace.”

Meanwhile, NYC-based multimedia creator SacSix won Life of the Party, predominantly for his work organizing #ArtClinicNYC, an actual outdoor location that provided contract-free, complimentary coloring pages from actual street artists at the height of the pandemic. “Supporting the community has always been important to me. I believe in karma and the idea that when you give, you get in return,” he wrote. “The art community is stronger together and I look forward to bringing people back together when we can safely come out of COVID.”

By Earthiest Elements winner Iris Scott
Neptunian, 2020
Oil finger painting on canvas
183 x 152 cm

And so, as SONDER’s limited copies sell out and make their way into the hands of the rare few fated to acquire them, I complete several personal processes by pausing to ruminate on everything this project meant to me. This exercise counterintuitively brings me to the conclusion that it’s not about me at all. From the pinpoint impetus of personal pain can spring incredible manifestations of utterly unique beauty.

Reading and re-reading the entire journal through this process showed me that though each individual possesses a disparate story, eerily tight parallels unite us. These themes are not of love and light all the time, but they do track with persistence. Last year elucidated society’s collectively faulty value systems, which breed malaise and inequality. We can submit to the issues, or we can tear each other down over them, or we can band together in a common struggle to create something beautiful. Something you can hold and read over and over. Something with design elements that exist in perfect synergy with its beliefs. Something that’s still available for purchase, while supplies last, here.