The Story

by Anna Clark

I was born in Iowa City, IA on May 18, 1977. After short stints in Illinois and Missouri, my family settled in Forest City, IA—a small town in the north-central part of the state. I’m the second born of four children. As a kid, I wasn’t labeled “the smart one” or “the social one” or “the musical one”. I was “the artistic one”. I was also the stubborn, athletic, and independent girl who enjoyed sports, National Geographic magazines, and being outside and despised formal wear but I won’t get into that.

Kindergarten (1982-83)
8th grade (1990-91)
12th grade (1994-95)

Growing up, I loved to draw and doodle. I also loved jigsaw puzzles, magnetic desk sculptures and obsessively played the video games Qbert, Tetris and Minesweeper. Patterns and connecting things just made my brain happy. At some point in 8th or 9th grade, I think these passions merged and I started drawing these connected geometric shapes. I’d draw it when I had to sit quietly—like in school or church—and especially loved drawing it on the back of my left hand and up my arm because that’s when it really came to life, as it twisted and moved in the world with me. I distinctly remember my father and teachers making me wash it off because it looked like a tattoo. Never deterred and always rebellious, I never stopped drawing it. It looked cool, it didn’t harm anyone, it relaxed my brain, and it was my creation.

This “pattern” has followed me much of my life. In high school around 1993, I drew it on the back of my Algebra notebook. Around 1994, I incorporated it into a vase I made in sculpture class. In college around 1998, I drew it in a classmate’s sketchbook. In early 1999, I drew it on my friends Shamani and Elrico’s hands while waiting at an airport. And in the summer of 1999, I drew it on my left hand during my summer graphic design internship.

After graduating from Iowa State University (BFA Graphic Design) in 2000 and working in Minneapolis, MN for a couple years, I moved to Dubuque, IA in 2002 to work as a web designer and front-end developer. A year and a half later, I began taking graduate classes at The University of Iowa in Iowa City. For four grueling years, I lived and worked full-time in Dubuque and went to school part-time in Iowa City. Needless to say, my social life suffered and I struggled to make friends.

In the spring of 2007, I was finally down to my last semester. I was 29 years old and I had to take a drawing class to fulfill my MA degree requirements. I thought it was a waste of time as I had taken numerous drawing classes as an undergraduate. But it was during that drawing class — taught by David Dunlap — that the concept of LLLinked was born. While working on this exact drawing, I was really annoyed that the edge of the paper stopped it from continuing. I didn’t want it to stop; I wanted it to keep growing. So I started thinking of ways to extend my drawings. “What if I butted up another sheet of paper next to the one I was working on?” I thought. “If I continuously did that I could continue the drawing for however long I wanted.” And then my love for puzzles made me think “what if I cut up the drawing into squares and made a puzzle out of it?” And then my business and web development mind thought “what if I gridded some paper, drew the pattern, cut out the squares, sold them and created a website that kept track of where each square went. Each square could be anywhere in the world. And the only way for the entire drawing/puzzle to be complete would be if all those people came together at a particular moment in time!” I got chills just thinking about strangers choosing to meet, creating something together and—in so doing—forming a shared story and lifelong connection.

I created a mini version of this concept in 2007 as a Christmas gift for my family (see below). My parents have the center square. My brother has the top square. I have the right square. My younger sister has the bottom square. And my youngest sister has the left square.

In the spring of 2008, I moved to Iowa City for a new job. I bought a house, got a dog and started a new chapter in my life. The concept of LLLinked marinated in my mind and I brainstormed what I should call it, the logo design and sketched out how I would organize and track the pieces. But procrastination took hold and years passed by. My full-time, soul-sucking corporate job and burdensome student loans enslaved me and stole my ambition. My priority at the time was working my ass off doing freelance design work on the side to pay off my student loans, get rid of my “masters” and build up my savings to become self-employed. But not a day went by where I didn’t think about LLLinked.

Finally in 2016 — when I was 39 years old, free from student loans, newly self-employed and having seen nine years of my life fly by since first thinking up LLLinked — the rumination became unbearable. I could feel my elderly future self screaming back at me “Anna! Would you stop procrastinating! If you don’t do this, it will be the biggest regret of our life!” So I researched what specific materials I should use and what size the squares should be given the limitations of my workspace. And then at 8:20AM on October 24, 2016, I started LLLinked.

And over the next 9 months, I drew. In my free time, in the mornings while my coffee was brewing, late at night when I couldn’t sleep, on the weekends. Whenever the loneliness and stress and monotony of life became overwhelming, LLLinked was my peace. By the summer of 2017, I had completely finished Sheet 1 and the majority of Sheets 2-9.

Animation of Sheet 1 being created

In the fall of 2017, my focus shifted to how I was going to create the prints of LLLinked. The handmade aspect was very important to me as was the fact that it was created using physical ink and paper—not the intangible 0’s and 1’s of the digital world where mistakes can be undone. So initially, my plan was to create screenprints of each and every square. I even created test prints to understand the screenprinting process. However, I quickly realized the exhausting amount of time that would take. In addition, printing the squares individually would likely result in few squares aligning perfectly together. So I decided offset printing the sheets and then cutting the squares would be the best route. I would still need a digital file for printing and so I would need to cut each original sheet into its 12 squares (because my scanner bed size was smaller than the sheet size), scan each square, and piece them back together on a computer. But that time commitment wouldn’t be as laborious.

In the spring of 2018, I wanted to document the work I had completed up until that point before proceeding with cutting Sheet 1. So on May 4, 2018, I had a photoshoot where Sheets 1-9 were linked together for the very first time.

LLLinked; Sheets 1-9

It was around that time where I began a philosophical journey I never planned to go on. Up until then, my relationship with LLLinked was up close while quietly sitting at a table. But when stepping back and looking at LLLinked from above, I started to focus on and think deeply about the white space — the open areas between the inked areas — and about the point during the process of creation when nothing becomes something. The white space was always there. But it wasn’t until the ink was added that it became visible. Which made me ask “is nothing something?” and “does something make nothing something?” Because if nothing is something, then who am I? What makes “me” me? Is it my “somethingness” or my “nothingness”? I had never been much of a philosophical person. But those questions permeated my mind. Numerous online searches for “is nothing something” revealed I was not the first human to have had those thoughts! : )

On July 8, 2018, I was finally ready to cut Sheet 1. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist and the anxiety leading up to that day was high. Although the handmade aspect of drawing LLLinked was important to me, the fact that it is a puzzle and its pieces/squares need to be perfect in order for them all to fit seamlessly together was also important. I had fears of screwing up, making crooked cuts, and the squares not being perfect squares. And then my fears became reality when I didn’t firmly hold Sheet 1 and my guillotine cutter pulled the paper slightly out of alignment. (Note: my pause around 4:30 in the video below is the moment I noticed I hadn’t cut perfectly on my pencil marks.)

While I was staring at my imperfectly cut squares and beginning to ruminate about how my vision of LLLinked wasn’t going as planned, I was reminded that I am imperfect. I am not a perfect, soulless robot. I am an imperfect human being. And imperfection is what makes creation unique. So I adjusted my way of thinking, accepted my imperfect squares, relaxed a little, and told myself that as I continued LLLinked, I would embrace future moments of imperfection. That I would loosen my grip and desire for complete control and let the art be what it becomes.

Now even though I was embracing the idea of having imperfect physical squares, I could still make the digital squares of LLLinked perfect. By using the computer to correct the small gaps and misalignment of lines between sheets, I could make all the digital squares fit perfectly together. However, for me to do that for Sheet 1, I needed to finish the eight sheets that surrounded it (Sheets 2-9). And because every sheet isn’t fully finished until the lines of LLLinked extend into the eight sheets that surround it, I actually needed to draw into the third ring (Sheets 10-25) before I could cut the sheets of the second ring (Sheets 2-9).

So back to drawing I went. For the next eight months, whenever I had moments of time, I butted up my sheets of paper and drew into the third ring. To speed up the process, I only focused on drawing on the outer sides of the sheets, not completely finishing each sheet. On March 8, 2019, before I cut sheets 2-9, I had another photoshoot where I linked sheets 1-25 together for the very first time.

The next 10 months was a whirlwind of activity: cutting Sheets 2-9, scanning squares, rebuilding sheets in Photoshop, creating digital files for printing, filling in the majority of Sheets 10-25, building this website, finding a company to produce custom archival QR Code + RFID labels, and working with a web developer to build the functionality behind this website. I worked at a frenetic pace with my mind set on launching LLLinked on May 18, 2020.

But my plans would soon come to a screeching halt. I am not sure what happened on Feb 2, 2020. But in my universe, something cracked. I remember that day not only because I was watching the Super Bowl at a favorite neighborhood bar, but because the date is a universal palindrome. Out of nowhere, I had a panic attack. I have no idea what caused it. Maybe it was work burnout. But this panic attack created a profound feeling of dread, loneliness, and hopelessness within me that I had never felt before in my life. It started the year of anxiety.

Over the next twelve months, anxiety was relentless. From the disarray of the Iowa caucuses; to my complete loss of creative drive and unexplained weight loss, insomnia, and vertigo; to a global pandemic and social distancing; to nationwide unrest and demonstrations demanding equality, liberty, and justice for all; to health issues with loved ones; to a derecho ravaging Iowa; to both my dogs dying; to the US presidential election; to the death of my 100 year old grandmother; to the attack on the US Capitol. Although my suffering was minor compared to most, February 2020–January 2021 was, nonetheless, a life marker year for me.

My primary achievement with LLLinked during that time was that I printed, labeled, cut, and signed the 1,188 square prints of Sheet 1.

February through September 2021 had me occupied with finalizing print and packaging materials of LLLinked, product photoshoots, building the online shop, and finishing up the development of this website.

Finally, on October 19, 2021, when I was 44 years old, nearly 15 years after the spark of an idea, and 1,821 days after I put pen to paper, I launched LLLinked. To say the journey was mentally exhausting would be an understatement. Only a handful of people “got it” when I explained my idea of LLLinked to them; most people’s eyes glazed over. Some people told me my vision was a pipe dream that no one would ever follow through on. The primary person helping me through the entire process was my future self nagging me to keep pushing forward. I also thought about the humans in the future, who I will never meet, who might form a friendship because they hold a piece of my art — my handmade social media — and that thought also gave me hope.

The beauty of LLLinked is not in the paper or the ink but in the power of choice. LLLinked may never fully exist in physical form as its squares can only be reunited if owners — complete strangers — choose to meet in person. And the limitless, unique stories that can be created and shared over time because of that choice, connects with a deeply human part of me.

I have learned a lot about myself, life, and the process of creation while drawing LLLinked. Most notably:

  • Never forget what you did as a child that did no harm, calmed your mind, and brought you joy.
  • Listen to your future self. Remember your past self. Be your present self.
  • The visible makes the invisible visible.
  • It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s what makes creation unique.
  • Trust the process.
  • Life is a journey of choices. There are choices you have control of and choices you do not. There are choices you make that affect you, choices you make that affect others, and choices others make that affect you.
  • We are all pieces of an interconnected web of creation.