In the UK most of the book arts programmes have disappeared and the skill amalgamated into broader degrees in graphic design, illustration, photography and craft. At the University of Chester, where I am a senior lecturer across a few art and design disciplines, we have no formal tradition of book arts curriculum. A few lecturers are introducing the skill in various ways which in turn is having an impact on final year students’ embracing of the method as a way of communicating their intended ideas.
This blog will consider the way in which across five years I have invested my personal time and emergent skills base to introduce students to basic binding structures in a collective and social workshop environment away from the studios where their “official marked work” is developed. Here I will discuss the impact the workshops had on me as an educator and practitioner, and on the students as self-selected participants.
These workshops developed directly from my practice-based PhD inquiry The Artist Book: making as embodied knowledge of practice & the self which emerged from my curiosity of whether new knowledge of practice, creativity, expression and the self might emerge from the embodied practice of making with one’s hands. I was inspired by the research of Reid and Solomonides (2007) who suggest that for creative students to engage successfully in their studies they must have the opportunity to “develop a robust Sense of Being [sic]”(p.37). The most valuable pedagogic conditions, according to Reid and Solomonides, will be those that create learning opportunities that encourage this embodiment of the creative self.
The bookbinding workshop developed from my desire to seek ways to engage with and alongside students in my practice and research to ground my own making within my pedagogic practice. In this way students were not being ‘instructed’ by a skilled specialist but rather collaborating with a committed enthusiast and researcher learning from their practice and experience.
I sought to explore how the workshop experience and setting, situated away from the studios where assessed work is produced, might influence students’ creative confidence through what Merleau-Ponty (2002) suggests is the body ‘understanding’ a new habit, ritual, skill, “to understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in a world” (p. 167). Within these workshops I asked students to use their bodies and minds in new ways, explicitly to use new tools (and familiar tools innovatively) to construct meaning which the body cannot perform itself (Merleau-Ponty, 2002): with ruler, paper, bone folder, folded signatures, sewing guide, awl, thread, beeswax block, needle, set square, glue, glue brush, book cloth and cover board.
An important aspect of the discourse produced in students’ handmade books is that these artefacts are wholly valued for the learned process and embodied skills they represent; these artefacts were not assessed. I was clear from the outset: students would not be fully skilled book artists after eighteen hours of workshop engagement. The value of their bound books is in the exploring and testing out new skills and methods they represent rather than their sale, or even, use value. These workshops are extracurricular and students voluntarily attend. The artefacts they produce in the course of the workshop series are signifiers of their newly acquired handcraft skills; the only expected learning outcome is that they ‘have a go’ (American: ‘try it out’).
Crucial to students’ gaining confidence in their making skills is my leadership on questions of quality, namely, that the artefacts they produced in the workshops are of ‘production quality standard’ rather than ‘absolute quality standard’ as termed by Sennett (2008, p. 79). Through working to the standard of production quality, students are encouraged to view their work as ‘work-in-progress’, as functional books that work like books, that signify ‘bookness’. Here we work to Sennett’s standard of “what might be possible, just good enough” (p. 45). My intention here is to lead students over six weeks of three-hour workshops from the folded book to the hardbound encased stitched book so that they are building upon their skills from the previous week and gaining confidence as they tackle a new structure. Were we to focus on Sennett’s (2008) ‘absolute quality standard’ students wouldn’t have moved beyond learning how to fold at exactly 90o with the bone folder. With this experience students learn enough structures with enough experience of folding, gluing and stitching that they are then able to learn other structures, stitches and bindings, proof of which is in their stitched artefacts displayed at their degree show.
In anonymous questionnaires I distributed across the years, students have responded positively to the experience. One graphic design student was interested in how making books has helped her understand the user’s experience: “It has enabled me to think outside the box a bit more in terms of design pieces that the audience are able to handle and manipulate”. A photography student felt more confident in finding new ways to display photographic work: “Confidence levels in my practical design abilities have increased and will enable me to present my photographic work in more creative ways without compromising on professionalism”.
Lawrie (2008) ponders whether design educators could encourage in our students a deeper understanding of their subject beyond skills leading to employability and entrepreneurship. She suggests, “…an answer may lie in the intersection of embodiment, meaning and signification” (p.205). I propose here that the elective extracurricular skills development workshop may be a pedagogic method that brings embodiment, meaning and signification of practice together in one experience.
University of Chester students from a variety of disciplines (Fine Art, Graphic Design, Photography) participating in the bookbinding workshop series
Lawrie, S. (2008). “Graphic Design: can it be more? Report on Research in Progress.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, (6)3, 201-7.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. New York, NY and London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Reid, A. & Solomonides, I. (2007). “Design students’ experience of engagement and creativity.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, (6)1, 27-39.
Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.