On a windy, late spring day in Chicago, Jacob Barnes met fellow Ball State alumnus Mason Pippenger for lunch at Montrose Beach, overlooking the waters of Lake Michigan. During their meal, Barnes pulled out his manuscript, plopped it onto their table and asked Pippenger, “Will you collaborate with me on this project?”
Barnes’ manuscript consisted of poems he wrote in multiple journals, on spare papers on his desk and in his phone’s Notes app in December 2019 following a breakup. By himself for the first time in years, Barnes’ poems were letters to himself as he began his journey to find self-love.
“I’m a gay man, proudly and loudly,” Barnes said. “I grew up in a small rural town in Indiana where I was closeted for much of my life. I was always hiding who I was, and I always knew who I was. My parents and my friends were always loving, but I didn’t see anyone like me.
“It has taken me to this point to find that inner empowerment and inner peace with who I am. Everyone deserves that moment where they can look within themselves and say, ‘I love you.’”
Early this spring, Barnes compiled his poetry by writing it down in cursive on a legal pad to turn his work into a poetry art book about self-love and self-care. In six chapters — fill, submerge, soak, float, sink and drain — the book “TubLove” invites readers to explore themes of intimacy, identity and loss through the metaphor of a bath.
“I meditate in the bath because it’s really hard for me to get to that place of silence,” Barnes said. “In meditation, you’re trying to go into that stillness, and I can just link in with it easier in a bathtub.”
Pippenger initially met Barnes during a Muncie-based editorial photoshoot in spring 2018 just before Barnes left Muncie to pursue a season of summer theater as an acting major. The two kept in touch over social media, and when Pippenger moved to Chicago this spring, he messaged Barnes to hang out now that they both lived in the same city. After agreeing to be a part of Barnes’ project during their lunch together, Pippenger became the photographer for “TubLove.”
Pippenger’s interest in photography began in eighth grade when he downloaded Instagram and saw photographers capturing bodies he wasn’t used to seeing in magazines. Now a photographer himself, Pippenger said he enjoys highlighting people of color and other marginalized identities in his photographs.
“I like to make sure whatever I put out there is a real, authentic perception of whatever the subject is, whoever the subject is,” Pippenger said. “I want [my subjects] to feel like they see themselves in the photos I take of them and capture a little bit of this person's identity … I like to explore what your body means to you and what identity means to you.”
Most of “TubLove’s” poetry is paired with Pippenger’s photographs. However, there are a few poems that stand alone. Barnes said trusting his intuition and having discussions with Pippenger were the leading forces behind “TubLove’s” layout.
Pippenger said his photography featured in “TubLove” captures the anonymity expressed in Barnes’ poems, as Barnes told Pippenger he didn’t want his face shown in the portraits. The photography within “TubLove” is raw, Pippenger said, because he and Barnes often decided the day of a photoshoot where the photos would take place.
“We really wanted to capture [the feeling that] you could put yourself in this [photo],” Pippenger said. “Black people, queer people, straight people — we wanted anybody to be able to see themselves, see their bodies, see their skin in a way they related to these poems and the themes self-identity, self-love and self-discovery.”
To edit his poems, Barnes brought in Sophie Baker, a 2019 Ball State alumna who is also one of Barnes’ family friends, as he attended Ball State alongside Baker’s sister. An avid reader and writer, Baker has kept journals since she was 10. The “TubLove” editor said poetry was a way for her to express her thoughts and emotions, and she has continued the practice as an aspiring author based in Indianapolis.
Baker pushed Barnes to elaborate on his thoughts and themes and sometimes rearranged lines in his stanzas. Baker said her goal as Barnes’ editor was to help the work reach its peak potential rather than infuse her own voice as a writer into Barnes’ work.
“[Working on edits with Barnes] flowed because we let each other be artistic to the utmost of our ability and just put ourselves into [‘TubLove’] without judgment,” Baker said.
Baker said working on the book didn’t feel like work because it was fun to connect and talk regularly with her family friend.
“Jake and I have gotten a lot closer throughout this process because we were friends before, but we weren't super close people who really understood each other on a deep level. We've gotten there because that's what art really does — it brings you to that point,” Baker said. “When you're working with someone in that artistic way for so long, you really get to see sides of them they don't always show everybody else.”
Barnes also brought in Talon Reed Cooper, a 2020 Ball State alumnus, to join the “TubLove” team as the poetry art book’s managing director. Cooper and Barnes grew up together in Frankfurt, Indiana, but they didn’t become close friends until Cooper’s sophomore year at Ball State.
The two kept in touch, and in April, Cooper and Barnes were in Barnes’ hot tub each with a glass of wine, Barnes told Cooper he was writing a poetry book. He then asked Cooper to work with him on the project.
“That transition from friendship to working relationship is fascinating,” Cooper said. “I'm learning now as I get older that in college, you will spend time with people in rehearsals or on set filming something, and you also have close friendships with them. College is a really good learning point for me to understand how to have friendships but also to have working relationships with those people. It's been, overall, a fantastic experience to learn.”
As the managing director for “TubLove,” Cooper oversees marketing the poetry art book and ensures the team meets its deadlines. Cooper said developing social media partnerships is also a large part of his Muncie-based job, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when it’s essential to make virtual connections with readers and supporting artists.
“We have a lot of people we consider close friends who also are artists, and artists carry art,” Cooper said. “Our idea is if we have our close personal relationships sharing the art we are producing, then it will be more successful because it's going to be easily accessible to different artists. They're going to want to consume this book because not only is it created by somebody they trust and some love, but it's also created by a group of passionate artists.”
Jacq Clark, a 2017 Ball State alumna, also helps market “TubLove” as the team’s outreach program director based in Detroit. Since October, Clark has reached out to publications, podcasts, bookstores and online shops to partner with the poetry art book.
She’s also in charge of “TubLove’s” artist collaboration project where photographers, dancers, actors, muralists and other artists across the country will create artworks in their mediums to pair with the poetry featured in “TubLove.” These artist collaborations will then reside on “TubLove’s” Instagram page.
“Being the only woman [at ‘TubLove’] other than Sophie is different,” Clark said. “I can offer somewhat of a different perspective on how we can communicate with people and how we can share what it means to love yourself and love a community in a more maternal and nurturing way than some of the boys can.”
Because the “TubLove” team is spread across Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Muncie, the team meets via Zoom and FaceTime while collaborating through Google Docs. Barnes said he and the “TubLove” team rely heavily on respecting each other and leading from a place of love as they work together safely and socially distanced.
“As creators, we hold this tremendous power,” Barnes said. “The things we are creating right here and right now are going to influence and manifest our futures. If anything, the pandemic has solidified, for me, the power the arts and creators hold. As artists, we are empathetic beings, and we can relate to people. That's something we have to remember in this political environment we're in. It's stepping up to that power as creators, accepting the challenge and becoming love warriors, justice warriors and equity warriors.”
Clark said her experience curating and promoting a show from scratch during a Ball State immersive learning class taught her how to collaborate with people who have different artistic views than herself.
“[I learned] how to compromise and recognize through that compromise that at the end of the day, it's not about the individual in the project, it's about the art itself, and remembering that is priority,” Clark said. “[The class] also taught me how to carry myself with professionalism in every environment while still maintaining my integrity as an artist and as an individual within a product project.”
While every member of the “TubLove” team identifies with the LGBTQ community, Clark and Cooper both said “TubLove” isn’t solely meant for queer people and stressed that anyone can read and relate to “TubLove’s” themes of self-love.
“That's one of the things we're really proud about — yes, it is created by queer people, but it's about self-love and the loss of love,” Cooper said. “It's really about being human. You don't have to be queer to understand that.”
As each team member takes care of Barnes’ “baby,” Pippenger said, he hopes readers realize and support that each person involved is not a big name who is a part of a big publishing house.
“[We] are everyday people who have a passion, and we have the confidence, the desire and drive to chase after it and literally work our butts off to make it happen with the resources we have,” Pippenger said.
While Baker said she believes everyone should prioritize finding self-love, she doesn’t love the cliche, “How can someone love you if you don’t love yourself?” Instead, Baker believes in the saying, “How can you know how much someone should love you unless you're loving yourself fully?”
“If you love yourself 30 percent, someone else can come along and love you 50 percent, and you'll think it's the most amazing thing in the world,” Baker said. “In love, you need to be honest, whether it's love for yourself or love for others. This book is honest and straightforward. What I think people will draw from this work is love stems from honesty. Be honest about your feelings and your desires and pushing yourself and others to meet those needs.”
As Barnes continues working on projects focusing on spreading love and questioning what it means to be a human being living on Earth, he said, he hopes as many people as possible experience “TubLove” and feel empowered to love oneself and one another bravely and boldly.
“I believe the highest form of this life is love,” Barnes said. “When we are in a loving state and frame of mind, we are operating at our highest. When we love, we create magic.”