U-M staffer is highlighting Ann Arbor, from A to Z


Bettina Senga was living in a tiny apartment in Manhattan when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

She quickly became weary of staring at a screen for hours at a time and figured others in her social circle shared that feeling.

To pass time and foster connections, she started what she called a “very aggressive greeting card campaign,” making and mailing as many as 30 greeting cards to family and friends each week.

“Ultimately it was a lot of cards to do individual things for people so I was looking for ways to make something handmade and unique but that wasn’t going to take as much time as each card,” said Senga, communications manager for the Center for Global Health Equity.

Bettina Senga, communications manager for the Center for Global Health Equity

She discovered relief printmaking, where the printing surface is cut away to leave the image raised. It not only made card-making easier, she’s using the technique to illustrate an Ann Arbor alphabet book she’s working on with the Ann Arbor District Library.

The idea for the book — currently titled “A2Z” — percolated after Senga left New York for Ann Arbor, a move she struggled with initially.

“Leaving Manhattan, where it always feels like the center of everything, to move back to Michigan at first kind of felt like I was failing,” she said. “I couldn’t help thinking, ‘How could Ann Arbor ever compete with Manhattan?’ But once I got here, I realized Ann Arbor actually has way more going for it than I thought it would.”

To celebrate the city she now calls home, and to help mark Ann Arbor’s 200th birthday, Senga is hoping to highlight some of the city’s gems in her book that is scheduled to be available in late October. But rather than sharing photos of buildings, people and places, Senga is taking the additional steps to ensure the book looks like a human made it.

“Especially with all the advances in (artificial intelligence), anyone can illustrate. And I think that’s good that people have access to that,” she said. “But there’s something special about something that you can tell isn’t generated by a machine.”

Senga’s journey from conceiving an illustration to printing it is lengthy.

“I’m doing all the illustrations in black and white, which has its own considerations,” she said. “You have to think through it differently than if you’re using color.”

She first identifies one or more illustrations to signify each letter of the alphabet and then sketches on a pad or tablet the object or scene.

It then needs to be digitally scaled up and down, depending on the size, and printed out. She uses a pencil to trace it onto vellum drafting paper, then flips that paper on top of a linoleum tile and traces over the image again with a pen or dull object to transfer the graphite from the pencil to the linoleum.

“The design is changing throughout all that process as I want to address things that aren’t working or have a new idea,” she said. “So basically, I’ve drawn the image three times by the time I actually start carving.”

She’ll then carve out the background of the image on the linoleum and then on her homemade inking table — two flat files she scored from U-M Property Disposition topped with sheets of glass shelving from an old refrigerator — applies ink to the linoleum with a brayer.


She made a printing press from a cold press laminator by attaching a boat crank to it to push the linoleum through, and from there, the image is printed, set out to dry, then scanned, cleaned up and ready to use in the digital space.

Coming up with the landmarks to illustrate each letter was its own challenge. Some came easily for Senga, especially ones related to U-M. The Big House for “B.” The Diag for “D.” The Wolverine statue on North Campus for “W.” The Orion sculpture outside the U-M Museum of Art for “O.”

She said she found identifying an object for the letter “E” was difficult until she elected to go with Endover, the official name of the Cube. She said she works with AADL staff to ensure “everything felt fair.”

“I wanted to select things that were establishments that people of all ages would know and recognize, not just things that in this year people would get excited about,” she said. “I wanted to pick things that were of historical significance but also things that were inside jokes or favorite haunts of people as well.”

The illustrations come with varying degrees of difficulty. She said one of the easiest illustrations was for the letter “Z,” for street artist David Zinn. One of the characters depicted in many of Zinn’s work is Philomena, “a phlegmatic flying pig,” according to his website.

“His work is one of my favorite things about Ann Arbor, so I knew I had to include one of his characters,” she said.

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Scenes with detail, like a crowded Diag or people milling about the banks of the Huron River, take the most time to carve. She estimated it takes about four hours to carve out the more detailed scenes, while she can do others in an hour or two. She finds the carving process filled with meaning.

“The thing about relief printing, is that you are focused on the light. As you’re carving your design, you are making marks that use light to focus attention for the viewer,” she said. “I think it’s an important reminder for me to look for the light in a world that often feels very dark.” 

Through this project, Senga hopes people can appreciate the beauty of Ann Arbor and the community around them.

“I hope the illustrations highlight the gifts this city has to offer,” she said. “There’s something really special about that synergy between the slow methodical process of carving out line by line all of the linoleum so you’re bringing to the surface a cherished part of the community that everybody has positive memories of and that people love and why they keep coming back and why I’ve stayed.”


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