My lifetime of being a shitty little punk means that I’m always on the rough side of elegant, always a little off at the corners, dirty at the margins, so I have to keep working at it. I’m very stubborn.

Tracy Harrison

Artist feature: Tracy Harrison of Polygon Press & ZamZam Sounds

Polygon Press aka Tracy Harrison is one half of the husband and wife duo behind Portland’s premiere speciality dub imprint ZamZam Sounds and their sister label Khaliphonic. They’ve been pumping out killer releases like outernational cumbia dub from Colombia’s Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, double packs of once lost Disciples tracks, and roots killers from Bristol mainstays Dubkasm. Each release speaks to their commitment to quality control and artistic integrity in an age of download codes, YouTube rips, and RSD special releases. Every release is strictly vinyl, limited pressing and possessing the highest silk screened artwork that simultaneously references reggae’s African roots, the geometric abstractions of Islam, and punk’s DIY ethos. The artwork is what drew me in, like any record label should, and the music made me a fanatic. Khaliphonic is set to release two huge 10” plates of remixes from the likes of Egoless and Ishan Sound of one of their biggest records “Warning Dub”. We at Big Up Mag felt it was the perfect time to sit down and have a chat with Polygon Press.

Hi Tracy, I hope your holidays and your New Years were great, family filled, and festive. So what have you and yours been up to lately?

Hi Jake!! First I’d like to thank you for getting out to me about doing this.  It’s an honor to be asked questions about this work, and I really appreciate the opportunity to speak about what I do.  Over the holidays, I’ve been pulling prints like mad, getting all the Khaliphonic 05 and 06 10” jackets printed and ready to send out into the world.  We pressed 800 of each, so it’s been a lot of labor.

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I’m curious as to how you “became” an artist. We had spoken before and you mentioned that you were formally educated in Geography, so how did you become “Polygon Press” ?

Honestly, I have always been an artist. Tried-and-true symptoms: outsider, introverted, drew a lot, read about and identified with other artists. My mom insisted on going to museums and seeing art in person when I was growing up, and in fact she is an amazing artist herself (even though she won’t admit it). My first 2 years at art school (at the Savannah College of Art and Design) were focused on rigorous technical training in traditional media, but I wanted more challenges in terms of concept and more critical modes of approaching art practice, so I ended up at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, DC to complete my BFA.

DC of course has always had an amazing music scene, and I became close to some people who were in bands on Dischord and other DC labels.  I had lived in that area before, and had gone to punk shows and all that, but I’d never been on the other side of it. I loved being around dedicated, creative people who figured things out and made shit happen—from playing a show all the way to starting a venue for music or art, running a label, a recording studio—whatever it took, people dove in and learned as they went.  And that’s how we (Ezra and I) try to do our thing, just figure it out as we go, DIY.

I have always been an artist. Tried-and-true symptoms: outsider, introverted, drew a lot, read about and identified with other artists.

After my time in DC I came to Portland and spent many years trying to keep making art, and questioning the avenues where I should pursue it. After some long years, I’d had enough of it and decided I would make Art jealous by getting into Science.  It was hard as shit, but I got an MS in Geography, and spent many years professionally in geospatial science.  I did everything from digitizing features off of aerial imagery to hydrologic modeling; acquisition, processing, analysis and 3-d visualization of high-resolution terrain data; and straight-up cartography.  I eventually, inevitably, gravitated back to art and began taking on private graphic design clients.  I started Polygon Press after a couple of small screen-printing projects showed me that it was fun and viable.  Ezra and I always talked about starting another label (after BSI closed up in 2003) and in 2012 we went for it, with the plan that I’d be doing the jackets for our releases.  Ezra’s background in art is super robust, and we love discussing all the ZamZam designs as they’re coming together. 

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Your work spans across different areas from label design to clothing, but each seems to center around the silk screen method (or what looks like to be silk screen), so what draws you to this method of creation over more “formal” disciplines like pen and ink or oil painting?

Screen-printing is a straightforward and low-tech way to create multiples.  It democratizes the art object, in that each individual item isn’t so goddamn precious that regular people (like me, like you) can’t afford one. That way I can make something, but more people can have access – there isn’t this single item that gets to go into one collector’s home out in the rich part of town where only they can see it, enjoy it, whatever.  When I moved to Portland I had absolutely no money, so I worked two jobs, one of which was cleaning houses.  Houses owned by rich art-collectors, stuffed with gallery-purchased, capital A “Art”.  I saw where “Art” goes after it’s bought, and it was quite disappointing. Not to say that rich people can’t enjoy what they like and buy, but it feels like regular people are cut off from the access.  I don’t like that. Websites like Etsy, where I have a shop, have increased access to different kinds of art, but they’re not perfect either, so I’m still looking for the answer. All that said, I love drawing, I love painting. I see more and more artists selling good quality reproductions so maybe I’ll try that at some point.

I’m curious if you’ve ever had a gallery show or something similar, have you?

Like I was just saying, the gallery model of disseminating “Art” is problematic and I have wrestled with it, tried to find alternatives.  But I’ve also seen it from the inside.  I’ve had work in galleries in Portland off and on over the years, with success and certainly some failure.  Around 2001 my work was included in the Portland Biennial at the Portland Art Museum, and that was really a great moment of institutional validation for me.  But I’ve never felt very satisfied with that trajectory. You do a ton of work for a show, maybe sell some things…after that I would always get this great malaise about it, and not feel good about repeating that process.  It never felt quite right, so I never went full-bore into pursuing gallery representation.

A great example of what DOES appeal to me now is something that happened this summer.  Our dear friend Jesse, who runs the BoomArm Nation label here in Portland, set up an amazing record release party for the fantastic Seekers International: Her Imperial Majesty record that he put out.  The party was at Beacon Sound, one of our favorite shops, operated by another good friend, Andrew.  It’s a beautiful space, and Jesse asked me if I’d like to do some kind of art installation for the event. Ezra and I DJ’d, Gulls Rhythm Force played a set, and then SKRS did his crazy beautiful amazing thing. But for the visual art component—no constraints, no caveats from Jesse or Andrew—just trust in me and a big, big wall. 

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I made a 10ft wide x 6ft tall grid of prints in black and white and gold [pictures included].  I used the record jackets that were left over from the Disciples 2×12” (KHAL02) we put out last year as the foundation for it.  The piece was essentially an exercise in creating contrast—using very controlled thicknesses of black and white paint flats and stenciled patterns to create a huge gradient over the entire thing, then layering gold screen prints on top of that. The goal was to create something monumental in scale, to provide multiple moments of low and high contrast, easy and difficult visibility. I love to make work that you have to peer at, to look from the side, physically, to see it. The notion of visibility is important to me, as a woman who operates often in male-dominated work environments.  Being seen as your authentic self, as an effective individual, is no easy feat, and that idea of contrast—that is, standing out from the background, and controlling how you do that, is something I wanted to work with for this piece.

Your artwork constantly references the motifs of Islam’s fascination with mathematics (in form of arabesques), traditional African textiles like Akwete clothes and Kente textiles, but also punk’s DIY ethos. So my question, in a long winded way, is how and why do these “artistic visions” speak to you?

It is all about elegance—the way those works achieve a kind of balance between intellectual effort, technical precision, and visual pleasure. I am always seeking that elegance, and it eludes me, but I see it in all of the specific examples you mention, and also muqarnas, girih, Moroccan zellij tilework, manuscript illumination, Ghana Dutch wax printing, and on and on.  And my lifetime of being a shitty little punk means that I’m always on the rough side of elegant, always a little off at the corners, dirty at the margins, so I have to keep working at it. I’m very stubborn.

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Given both labels commitment to the DIY ethos, do you find it challenging to continue creating artwork in this fashion when programs like Photoshop and Illustrator can recreate the same designs with the click of mouse and a few keyboard shortcuts?

I use Photoshop and Illustrator all the time.  They’re just another set of tools.  Anyone, just like in music production, can rely too heavily on presets or contrived shortcuts, and certainly technology makes that reliance even easier. But I am just as comfortable using a mouse as I am an X-acto knife or a pen or a squeegee or a jigsaw.

What influences your art and process outside of the aforementioned styles?

I am always looking around me, at everything from vistas to textures. As much as I can, I carry my big camera—not only to take pictures for their own sake, but to jot down visual notes before they disappear. We try to travel as much as we can, and being in a different landscape or culture really feeds me. I am also a book fiend, and I pore over science/natural history/technical illustration, antique/traditional textile and jewelry design,17th-19th century image-making of all kinds, manuscript illumination from the earliest times from all cultures… my eyes are constantly hungry. And I do still love to go see big art shows in museums. A few months ago I made a special trip to SF to see J.M.W Turner’s late work at the De Young Museum. I was able to see it with a dear friend from art school. He and I share a similar critical and aesthetic vocabulary, so we had the best time digging into Turner’s work…and even though I didn’t come home and take up painting again, it was still wildly inspirational.

Perhaps a more existential question, but are you “happy” with where your art is now? What I mean is do you feel that you could improve further in your artistic style? Are there more avenues to explore?

I am never satisfied. There is always room to be better, in art and in every other aspect of life.  Each record we put out is an opportunity—for all of us involved in it.  For myself and Ezra, the producers, musicians, vocalists…to be represented out in the world. I can always work harder to do right by them. 

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Both the ZamZam and Khaliphonic release schedule is constant, sometimes with 3 releases a month. So how long is your process from sketching out potential designs to a project’s full completion? In a previous interview, you mentioned how you “version” your designs, so I imagine sometimes it gets down to the wire and a tad stressful at points.

There are so many great records that are lined up, we’ve had to compress the timeline and ramp up the release schedule… it’s getting kind of brutal! We learned the hard way that getting our records mastered and pressed a few at a time enables us to control the flow, rather than have to limp behind when the pressing plants can ‘get to it’. I have to design the labels very far in advance of a release coming out because the plant can’t press the records without them. So I get my first rough ideas together for the jacket so I can finalize the typeface and layout for the label for each record (I don’t want the labels to look wildly out of place once the jackets are finished).  Sometimes I won’t get back to the jacket design for 3-4 months… and during that gap, I try not listen to the tunes I need to design for.  I need them to be as fresh as possible when I really go in… and I can’t seem to listen to anything else when I’m actively working on one. Other tunes introduce foreign elements to the design and things start looking wrong pretty fast. Ultimately I do end up with many versions, just like a tune, that emphasize different elements etc. By the time I get to printing, I’ve looked at and listened to the pairing so much, they are solidified. And because the timeline has been finalized for so long, I’ve usually worked enough print time into the schedule. Usually.   

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Speaking of release schedules, Khaliphonic is set to release a double set of 10” remixes of one of ZamZam’s biggest records, “Warning Dub”. Can you elaborate a little on the impetus behind this release?

Ezra sent the stems of both “Nubian Dub” and “Warning Dub” (Zam19) to Egoless, at his request, for his own personal live mixing and they came out just… phenomenal.  As soon as Egoless sent them, we basically said “we know these weren’t intended for release, but…” Then Ezra and I went back and forth about format and packaging—there are a lot of ways to deal with 4 tunes! But we both love the 10” format and hadn’t done one yet. From a design perspective, I really loved not dealing with a center diecut. And after doing a trompe l’oeil diecut on the last Khaliphonic release (KHAL04 Peaman) it felt glorious, almost decadent to use the center space. All the remixes on these 10”s are massive, and the art needed to be super bold, very serious, dominating, to match. The patterns are made from each other, just as the tunes are, so they are united but unique. 

Any other surprises in store for ZamZam and Khaliphonic in the coming months? Or are your lips sealed?

Well, we do love to surprise people with what’s coming, but I’ll drop a few sweet names on you: LAS, J:Kenzo, and Compa.  Stay tuned!

As a big fan of label artwork, I have to know what is your favorite artwork out of the records you own?

This is a very, very tough question to answer.  I definitely love the Lyrichord, Ocora and Impulse records… you can spot one a mile away—labels so iconic in their packaging, imposing stylistic constraints on themselves and then really going in, developing within that. It’s way too hard to narrow this down.

Like all endings of our interviews, whom would you like to Big Up??

I have to Big Up Ezra, my ultimate companion in all things. I must also Big Up our daughter, who is a huge part of what we do (even though she does get impatient with us spending so much time on our labels!!) As we are supporters of music and art, I have to SUPER big up all the other supporters of art and music out in the world.  You keep going and we will, too. And all you underdogs of all kinds out there reading this? A huge Big Up to you.


Alter Echo & E3 ‘Nubian Dub’: Egoless Remix + Dj Madd Remix is out now via Khaliphonic.

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