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With Chinwe Okona / by Rich Gutierrez

As a teenager I searched for heroes in places where mostly power and ego lied. In order to find my power I had to bend beneath another's. It wasn't a balanced trade of ideas; it was a one way street of admiration. It took me years to discover the transformational influence found in creating something on my own. When I discovered zines and a D.I.Y community, I found the most courage. There is nothing quite like liberating yourself from, well, yourself. Telling those voices in your head that the world is indeed at your feet, you need to just take the step toward it. Nowadays, I don't look for heroes. I look to people like Chinwe Okona, peers who are taking risks in vulnerability and creating in the face of discomfort and hissing ego.

After years of battling against ‘creative demons’ Chinwe decided to run full speed into funding, editing, creating and distributing their first print publication, PALMSS, into existence. PALMSS describes itself as “an anthology of creative people and their work”. It succeeds in recording the thoughts, feelings, growth, and processes of everyday creative black and brown people. The first issue is made up of interview spreads accompanied with beautiful photography and impeccable design. It holds interviews from an expansive list of ten Los Angeles natives, ranging from writers, photographers, and digital media makers to visual artists, designers, a model, and a tattoo artist, to name a few. Their interviews touch upon an array of topics such as mental and physical health; beauty, gender, and sexuality; home, money and worth; race, identity, and more. It is important to have these types of documents so we can control our narratives and give some insight as to how we are all juggling life, love and creativity in a world that at times only seems to be made of discouraging attitudes and locked doors. I was happy to finally bug Chinwe into an interview to ask about her process, her feelings and the struggles of taking on such a project!

Let’s start with -- who are you and where are you from? Where do you stay now?

My name is Chinwe Okona. Where I’m from? That’s always been a hard question. The short answer is always Miami, Florida, but I only went to high school there after growing up all over the south. I lived in the suburbs. Now I live in Los Angeles, CA. I’ve been here for about a year and three months.

What is PALMSS?

PALMSS is a result of all the creative feedback I’ve had in my head since 2013. In short, it’s a print publication centered around the thoughts, feelings, growth, and creative processes of everyday creative people.

This project was your brainchild and you started it by yourself?

Yes, it’s a solo project. Before I landed on PALMSS I was always searching for a creative partner to do work with. Somewhere in that search I realized that I’m far too particular to work on something that has so much of my heart with another person. At least in the initial stages.

I feel that completely. It's hard but important to recognize that in yourself. Have you had any experience at all before this? Have you created zines, or had you any experience being an editor anywhere?

I really loved books as a child. My parents would have to confiscate flashlights from me because I would stay up all night reading under the covers. School ruined books for me though and I kind of transitioned into periodicals. My dad and I would read the paper together every Saturday and Sunday and I would always do the crossword puzzle. My first experience working on a periodical was in high school. I was the sports editor for the newspaper, where I first learned layout and inDesign. From there I got more into photography, which was the original concept for PALMSS. It was supposed to be a photo series. Whenever I photograph, I like to interview my subjects. I have all these records I never used from talking to people whose picture I took, but with PALMSS I decided that I should actually do something with the interviews. I also studied bookbinding quite a bit and have been getting more in comic books as case studies for layout design over the years. I figured making a magazine would be the best way to use all of that knowledge.

It's amazing how much applied knowledge you just absorb over the years by just doing you, but you have to shake yourself to realize how much knowledge you actually hold.

Definitely. That was a huge part of the process of creating the first issue for me. Forcing myself to see what I was actually capable of editorially and design-wise.

I love that. You once told me, “part of being good at something is not being perfect”. I like how powerful that is, to push yourself past the unknown and possible disaster. Putting yourself out there like that.

It took awhile to realize that, for sure. I spent 3 years immobilized by the fear of not achieving perfection.

I feel like a deterring factor for some people is this idea of ‘making it’ -- whatever that may be. I don’t believe ‘it’ exists. Its inspiring to see someone take an idea like this and make it come to life. Carving/claiming space for yourself and in the process creating a platform for other artists to shine. How did you choose the people to be featured in this first issue?

When I choose the people, I thought the entire scale of the project was going to be ten times smaller. I had no intention of doing a Kickstarter, or having other people submit content. I thought it was going to be more of a zine? I don't know what I thought. So for that reason, I chose friends whose work I admire and who I think are smart, and then a few people I had just met who I thought might have interesting things to say.

Going back to what you were saying about ‘making it’ -- I’m so over seeing interviews where people list their accolades and who they know and who they work with and how much money they’ve made. Those interviews don’t really feel inspiring to me, so I tried to choose people who I thought would be honest. I was working on figuring out so much of my own art identity shit that through my conversations with people I was hoping to find insight on how to ‘be an artist.’ And I hoped that’s what other people would find too. I like it when I can see that similarity that we are all always in the midst of a new discovery or working on ourselves through creative outlets. “Making it” has this feel of... nowhere else to go?

I could not agree more. *Clap emojis* When the project turned out to be more than a zine how did you figure out how you were going to be funding this magazine? The printing quality of the magazine is great. I feel like simple color xerox copy would not have done these pages justice.

Thanks! I actually made a hand bound copy with color xerox copy. It’s not bad but yeah definitely wouldn’t have done it justice. For funding…… I’m trying to think of the simplest way to say this.

It's ok I got time. I’m listening to D’angelo’s entire catalog on Youtube as we speak.

Great job. I was going to self fund it but I realized that I probably couldn’t pay for the quality I wanted out of pocket, but also my friend Yuri was like, “You should do a Kickstarter because that’s a great way for people to find out about the project in general.” That was two weeks before my birthday and I decided my birthday would be the best time to kick that off because people would be paying attention to me. In terms of promo, Kickstarter was great, but in terms of my brain, I was a fucking wreck for 30 days.

Smart move with the birthday! Why a wreck?

I like being paid attention to, but I would rather die than be an attention seeker. Everything about it was just so, “Hey look at me! I need help! Hey I’m telling you about this thing again!” I don’t even really post on social media in a super organic way or very often because I have this block in my brain that’s like, “you’re going to bother people if you’re posting too often or talking too much.” On top of that, asking people for money is really hard. And then you’re realizing who has your back and who doesn’t (whether it be financially or even just spreading the word), friends AND family? It’s a lot. God I was such a mess lol. But I guess that’s also part of pushing myself, getting outside of that feeling of anxiety that I shouldn’t be talking up my work.

Wow, yeah that’s real. I often have trouble monetizing things I really care about. Not 100% the same, but I feel you on trying to not be a bugaboo. I’m sure it was tough! Back to the people inside the magazine. You started this project by yourself, but since then, have you grown a team?

I guess the team would consist of my content editor, Olivia, and I. I have a full time job and I realized that there was no way in hell I could get through all the editorial content (transcribing, editing, etc.) by myself by the launch date so I jokingly tweeted that I needed an intern (even though I have zero Twitter followers) and Olivia who I went to college with was like, “I’m down.” I don’t believe in interns though, so she’s legit “staff.” She’s up in Astoria, OR, though, so it’s just me in LA. A team would be tight, I would just want to be able to pay people for sure.

That would be nice! With that being said are there any future goals or dreams you have for PALMSS?

Whew. I actually wrote down a list of goals to achieve with the first issue; have all of the representation be people of color, sell ad space, have a party, stock at a book shop...you’re actually helping me achieve the only one I had left right now--be interviewed. I guess my big dream is to be self employed as a result of PALMSS, but without compromising the integrity of the publication. I would love to see the magazine financially support a gallery/event space with some sort of retail component, but I would be happy with any kind of growth that doesn’t call for me to compromise my morals or vision.

I respect that. It’s really easy to bend on morals when people are waving money. I was going to ask if all the Black and Brown representation was purposeful. Why is that important?

The representation was super purposeful. I’ve worked a bit in apparel and have dabbled a bit in fashion writing, I love clothes and streetwear culture, but it’s such a drag to see mad skinny white girls in high fashion and a very specific type of light skinned black/brown girl in streetwear culture. Conversely, I have felt like a lot of projects that prioritize representation take the stance of, “this is a BLACK magazine for BLACK people by BLACK people” and that’s also not me. I’m still figuring out what my own blackness means. So I guess my approach was to “normalize” representation of people of color in a way. Like that first Day Space Night ad--the clothing line isn’t explicitly like WE MAKE CLOTHES FOR BROWN PEOPLE. I felt like the vibe was more, “hey black people are models. That’s normal.” I don’t know if I explained that very well. It’s intentional but in an organic way I guess.

No, I totally get it. I think that organic process is nice and good change of pace. How was the opening night party? what’d ya do?

Day Space Night hosted in their production space near Chinatown in LA. They actually just moved to a storefront in Chinatown that’s so nice. It was kind of the last hurrah for them at the old space as well. Two homies who were both a part of the issue 1 DJed, Jihaari and King Marie, and there was a performance by Twin Kids, who are also friends of my from college. I was expecting around 75 people? Ended up with 150+ which was wild. I’ve never thrown a party before so it was everything I could have ever dreamed of. Also in a place like L.A. where people are so segregated, the crowd itself was like a dream come true. I have a lot of different friends from different spheres of my life, so it was like a black people, brown people, white people, queer people, some very straight people, friends I’ve had since middle school, all interacting with each other and just being cool. It was the kind of party that I always want to go to, but never exists. Wished so bad that I wasn’t hosting.

Photo by Oriana Koren.

Do you have any big Influences that you look to for inspiration?

That’s hard. I have a hard time really honing in specific people. But if I had to choose, I think Vashtie is super dope just because of how multifaceted her career is; she’s a DJ, she’s directed music videos, and designed her own Jordan. I feel like my interests cross into so many different worlds that I hope to kind of model myself in the same way as someone who can do it all and work with tight people but still be pretty low key. In terms of my work specifically, I’m really just inspired by black women who are storytellers. The way Faith Ringgold tells lineage through quilts, Kara Walker and her shadow figures, Alice Walker wrote the entirety of The Color Purple as a series of letters, Carrie Mae Weems and her photography work -- women who’ve really been able to convey a feeling, regardless of mediums. It kind of gives me hope that whatever message I’m meant to convey will find a way out, I’ll run around and ended up creating in the way that I’m supposed to one day.

I like that, like you just realize you are where you are supposed to be, putting your faith in that is a really beautiful way to create. Did you learn anything in the process of making PALMSS that you weren’t expecting to?

I had a thought that’s stuck with me since a few weeks before the release. After doing all this, it’s so baffling to me when people say they can’t do things. Like, “oh I can’t draw” or “I’m not a good writer.” I wonder if our creative talents are a result of some “thing” that we have in us or if creativity comes when you test the bounds of how patient you can be with yourself. Huge parts of the editorial design and photoshop stuff that I did were things I had never done before, but I guess I learned that my personal creativity is more a question of patience and resilience than having something in me that someone else doesn’t have. I like to think it’s like that for all of us.

I was going to ask if you had any advice to give somebody who was thinking of taking on a project like this, but I feel like that is great advice. Unless you have anything else you could add?

Just do things. Don’t feel like you have to wait for a time or a place or a person or the perfect formulation, just start doing it and it will unravel as it’s meant to in the end.

Visually the magazine is so heavy in color. I really loved the aesthetic and overall feel. When can we expect another issue? Will it follow suit in the symbolic nature of Issue 1?

Issue two is set to launch end of April; I actually just booked the space for the launch party this past week, so I guess it’s actually happening. In terms of the the visuals, I don’t envision it being too different. I want to really solidify the thematic element of plant life; consistency is really important to me and I’ve learned you can follow a similar roadmap and end up with a completely different product, so I’m trying to be really disciplined with that. I think ultimately the people and their words will really craft the overall feel of the next issue, so I’ll leave it up to them.

Learn more about Chinwe Okana and their work at chinweokona.com. Issues of PALMSS are available at palmssmag.com.

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