Sight Unseen: Making a zine of Fuego volcano

In this blog post, I share the process of making a zine for my research project, “Sight Unseen: Using creative methods to co-develop experiences of eruption at Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala”. The main aim of the project is to use creative methods to capture and explore older people’s memories of past eruptions of the active Fuego volcano in southern Guatemala. I promised that through this project, I would deliver a “zine” of these memories, and that I would also blog about it. Voila! This first blog post consists of the following sections: Inspiration and context; How did I make the zine?; Timeline; and Digital Zines. Warning – this post is pretty long. Bring coffee!

Inspiration and context

First thing – what is a “zine”? A zine, short for magazine or fanzine, is a self-published work about a niche subject. It’s usually made for a small and devoted audience (i.e., fans), and reproduced via photocopier. One of my niche passions is the very active Fuego volcano in southern Guatemala, which I’ve been studying since 2017. (I even wrote a thesis on it!) The seeds of inspiration for my Fuego zine are sown deep. I first heard of zines at a workshop at the RWA Drawing School in December 2019. The idea of a cheap, versatile, and DIY publication really appealed to me, and I made my first zine that month on identifying common UK trees in winter (“Old Familiars”, below left). When lockdown bit us in spring 2020, zines gave me occasional relief from the despair and confusion of early pandemic days. I made a monthly zine from December 2019 to November 2020, including the legend of Juan Noj at Volcán Santa María (below middle), a treasure hunt of my Bristol neighbourhood of Easton, and – inspired by a chat with my friend Bob – an illustrated map of my PhD, the ”ExPhDition” (below right).

Other research projects, and the stimulating minds working within them, illuminated the path towards a Fuego zine. In early 2021, I received a small grant from the Jeremy Willson Charitable Trust (via the Geological Society) to explore memories of past eruptions of Fuego through interviews with older adults. I am so grateful to the people that awarded me: for trusting my research idea while I was between jobs, and for stoking the dream of returning to Guatemala in the midst of a British pandemic winter. While I waited for the world to reopen so I could use that grant, I joined the extraordinary GCRF-funded project called Ixchel as a postdoctoral researcher. Fuelled by both the JWCT grant and Ixchel, I moved to Guatemala in October 2021 to rekindle and build on the relationships I’d developed with people living on Fuego’s slopes (see here and here). I was, and still am, interested in research methods that generate dialogue, open spaces to share knowledge, and create tangible outputs. From the early days of Ixchel, I was deeply inspired by colleagues who pursued these methods. In particular, Dr. Teresa Armijos urged me to use my art to connect with people at Fuego by responding to their generosity in sharing their memories with a piece of my own self (see here).

Using art to discuss coffee crops with a local farmer

In late 2022, I was in the field asking older people to share their memories of Fuego’s eruptions – and discovered much more than I expected. The hamlet of Panimaché Dos was particularly intriguing and I am grateful to its residents for welcoming me. Through long conversations and walks above the hamlet I saw just how much the landscape and livelihoods of this neighbourhood had changed (see here). Panimache Dos’s story struck me as a powerful microcosm of the relationship between Fuego and the people who make its slopes their home.

Previous research projects have used visual means to communicate disaster narratives after hurricanes and floods. Dr. Gemma Sou’s wonderful and devastating work, “After Maria”, tells the collective story of recovery after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in 2017 and upturned the lives of low-income families. Her writing is stunningly illustrated by John Cei Douglas. Elsewhere, the beautiful pages of “Afterwards” contain visual narratives of disaster and recovery in three Indian states gathered by researchers from the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS). These works moved me. I made art in my spare time, and I knew Panimache Dos well: didn’t I already have both the tools and the place to test this research practice at a volcano?

I made a Fuego zine for both altruistic and self-centred reasons. I wanted to do research that felt generous, and to produce something tangible and analogue. I wanted to exchange, not extract, knowledge: perhaps art could be a novel way to document peoples’ stories of Fuego and, in documenting them, acknowledge that these stories have meaning? (Thanks to Beth for these words that I keep coming back to!) I also had a world inside my head – Fuego – and I wanted to blurt it out. Art speaks to other people, but it’s also a personal catharsis, and making a Fuego zine has been a gift to myself as well as a conversation with its residents. Anyway. I thought that people liked my art, so I thought it would be good to make more of it. However, like many academics, I’m a terrible time optimist. The zine took much longer to make than I expected: the first edition is 24 hand-drawn pages; the second, 32. On the other hand, the collective story of life beside Fuego could fill a library – in that case, 32 pages is a vignette!

How did I make the zine?

The zine really took off with the ovens of Panimache Dos. I was fascinated by them: they’re a powerful symbol of the havoc Fuego can cause. The day we visited those ovens, we saw a mossy and fern-fringed specimen in a village back garden; we visited its sibling in the quiet hills above. That day I felt such a rich melancholy: the oven, mouth gaping in surprise at being abandoned, squatting incongruously in a lush field under an unfeeling blue sky over which clouds moved like harried commuters. Thinking about that day fills me with an emotion that I can’t fully articulate in writing. Drawing is sometimes a slightly better medium, and the subject became one of the first pages of the zine.

Top part: “There is an oven, where once there was a bakery”.

As my interview work continued, it became clear that the stories about Fuego were so numerous that couldn’t be contained in a single volume. So, since anything I made would be necessarily incomplete, why not just make something? The way I start most zines is by making a storyboard. The storyboard for the first edition of the Fuego zine was based on conversations I’d had and interviews I recorded in 2018, 2019, and 2021 – 22, and made while on holiday in July 2022. Like a great drawing, a good storyboard should feel a bit like a vomit – you don’t think too much about it while it’s exiting you. However, subconsciously while making the storyboard and consciously while revising afterwards, I was led by the following questions:

  • What are the most evocative memories?
  • What themes and details crop up time and again?
  • Who has a strong presence of voice?
  • What visual elements can I use to tell a powerful story?
A storyboard of the first image of the zine, created in July 2022.
The storyboard of the first edition of the zine, created in July 2022.

Once I had the storyboard, I could make all the pages. For some pages I drew a finished version straight from storyboard; for other pages, I worked from the storyboard through a rough sketch to a final version. The images below show a sketch (bottom left, June 2022) and its final incarnation (bottom right, October 2022):

I spent most of October 2022 making the zine, and was running out of steam when I got a second wind through ZineZilla 2, Bristol’s annual zine & illustration fair run by UWE undergraduate students. It was a good occasion to share art, but more importantly an opportunity to talk with new people. I had a really fascinating conversation with Paul Ashley Brown. He validated the idea that you could make a zine for yourself as well as for the storytellers. Buoyed by that encounter, I finished the first edition and took it to Guatemala in November 2022.

My idea was to revise the first edition by discussing it with the people whose stories I’d illustrated. The delivery and discussions will be the subject of a future RwV blog post! Briefly, during the month of fieldwork I held another round of interviews, this time making illustrations and notes as people talked; I held a small workshop in Panimache Dos, hosted at a friend’s house; I designed an activity and participated in a women’s workshop run by Teresa and her colleague Cristina Sala; and I trialled a scribed conversation with a friend to tell the story of another community devastated by Fuego (Sangre de Cristo). I wanted to know whether what I’d drawn captured some of the collective story of a community.

  • A group of women and children stand around a table on which they are using pictures and words to create a story of their village..
  • A woman sits beside a handmade poster telling the story of her village beside Fuego volcano.
  • Two pages: to left, an illustrated map of an exodus; to right, the map corrected through conversations with local people

We’re almost at now! I returned to the UK in December 2022 and, armed with new notes and illustrations, attempted to reflect on the fieldwork and use these reflections to inform a second edition of the zine. This mostly went well. The second edition of the zine contains new words – new images – new illustrations – and I am writing now from Guatemala, where I am here to share the zine again in the final stage of the project. ¡Saludos desde Antigua!


A hand-drawn timeline on blue paper describing the making of a fanzine.
A visual timeline of the making of the Fuego zine.

Zine as PDF

First edition:

Second edition:

That’s all for now! I hope you enjoyed reading about my process and how I am trying to fuse art and volcanology. Please come back if so – I hope to share more in future.

Sight Unseen is generously funded by the University of Bristol’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Impact Accelerator Account (IAA) Seedcorn fund. Thank you to this fund for nurturing the seed of a Fuego zine!

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