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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

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  • 13 Aug 2022 1:07 PM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The last time I went to work on the machine, I was carrying a box of paper, trying to balance the bottom but stumbling on bushes, grasses, and flowers that had grown much taller than me. The weeds belonged in this place, so no one ever pulled them. My boots sank into the mud, and it was time to take deeper and more intentional breaths. It was important to be calm when I got to the door I was looking for. There is no path to the door, only traces of footsteps left by others, leading to a clearing surrounded by all this greenery. 

    Learning to open the door was the easy part; remembering how to walk there through the garden took the most practice. Several people showed me, some more than once. With each walk I took notes and made mental reminders so I could get back. I enter the familiar space and the door shuts behind me, leaving me in complete darkness. I set my paper down on a table using my hips to navigate and, with my hands now free, I clap twice and the lights flood into the room — a full letterpress studio. There’s a Vandercook Universal no. 1, a number 4, an SP 25. Any press will appear if you ask for it.

    The studio exists because artists needed a space to work outside of institutions that lock their tools away. This space was created by community, word of mouth, rituals, practice, tradition, the powers of wish fulfillment, and tactical steps. Everyone has a different way of getting here. The best way to remember the path is to return as often as possible. 

    Inside, I allow my energy to acclimate to the space and to the machine. I whisper my prayers. Soon my mind, body, and heart are in sync and I'm off like a rocket. For me it’s about the release of energy, about sharing parts of my life. I find myself entranced when I’m arranging type on the press bed — the puzzle that will reveal itself only with color or pressure. It’s the perfect process for my jittery brain. I pick the brightest ink possible, just for the thrill, and grab my paper, hands dirty, but too excited to stop to wash. I use language to make prints and once a print leaves my hands it is open to interpretation, but I can feel the transfer of energy from myself to my materials.


    The machine is a tool for creating vessels, like books, but the machine is also a vessel. This process, this space helps me navigate and stay afloat regardless of circumstance. To come to this place again and again is a necessity but it’s also a choice. When I can, I give care to my practice. When I can, I give care back to the body. My direct relationship with the machine helps me remain present and accountable to myself. Some of the objects I create on the machine have energy, and I can make a human-like connection to my prints because, through the letterpress process, I feel an activation of the materials.

    I’ll admit, it’s been a while since I’ve been back to this place. I let the fear of judgment far worse than my own hinder my process as I try to sustain a practice too often clouded by whiteness. I’ve let anguish and anger about navigating life under capitalism overshadow my path. My spirit wants nothing more than to return to this place, yet I realized I needed this stillness to regain the energy I had poured into my art practice. This break from the machine is not just a penance; it is also a rest, which is necessary because I am human. I must know by now that this place still exists in me because of all the times I’ve left my trace on that path. In the meantime, I keep my words and wishes in notebooks and post-its until I can return to the place where I go to make sure I don’t bury the voice inside of myself.


    Ruby Figueroa is a visual artist and writer from Chicago, IL. Their autobiographical work is a mix of nonfiction, prose and poetry seen in their letterpress prints, zines, artist books, monoprints, broadsides, and videos. Ruby’s work explores home and the relationship between humans, loss, time, and heartbreak.


  • 01 Aug 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Though we are certainly no experts, here are some guidelines that may serve as a starting point for non-BIPOC artists to think about cultural appropriation in their work. We humbly put these forth in hopes that non-BIPOC book and paper artists will begin to consider if and how their work is truly respectful and inclusive, and to recognize their privilege and positionality as part of the dominant culture with a history of colonization and imperialism.

    1. Non-BIPOC book/paper artists/makers: do you have a press or studio name, or have works with titles containing Asian-sounding words? If so, have you thought about why you chose this name, the cultural or historical context from which these words come? Have you profited from the name sounding more Asian, even though you yourself are not Asian?

    2. Non-BIPOC book/paper instructors: Have you taught workshops or classes on traditional techniques that come from cultures that you are not a part of? If you have the resources to teach, consider redirecting these resources into supporting Asian heritage instructors who are already teaching these topics and/or mentoring or supporting up-and-coming Asian makers to help them become the next generation of workshop instructors. They may not have the experience, skillset, or connections to teach workshops like you do, but they have a key connection to the culture, which is an important distinction. 

    3. If you are inspired by Asian culture and insist on expressing that in your artwork, and if you are not already doing so, we urge you to find ways to deepen your commitment to and allyship with Asian cultures and peoples. During the pandemic and amidst increased instances of anti-Asian violence, many of us in the Asian American community have been hurting and grieving. If you truly love Asian culture enough to use it in your own artwork, and if you want to go beyond cultural appropriation, we urge you to listen to your Asian neighbors/friends/colleagues, find ways to support and come alongside. If you borrow something from someone, how are you giving back?

    4. If you have used Asian imagery or borrowed from Asian culture in your work, have you asked for consent? Have you provided adequate reference or documentation of your source material? If not, and if you are still profiting from this work, consider revisiting these works and thinking through if and how these can be revised. Though potentially inconvenient, this is the type of work that demonstrates responsibility, accountability, and care within our book art community.

    5. On an institutional level: book art curriculum is dominated by European theories, methods, and pedagogies. Educational institutions may consider offering courses about other cultures, so that students can be exposed to non-western design practices. Ideally these courses would be taught by folks with direct ties to the culture, but if this is not possible, it is worth asking: what is a responsible way of teaching about a culture that the instructor may not be a part of?

    Examining our use of cultural appropriation as individuals and as a field is but one piece of a greater project to decolonize the book arts. We can start to ask ourselves about other areas in our field that need examination on a greater structural level, such as collections practices, book arts curriculum, representation, equitable access, cataloguing, and so on. We welcome further explorations and conversation around any of these areas, and also welcome thoughts and feedback on how we can together cease harmful practices such as cultural appropriation. All of us in this field will be better for it.

    Steph Rue is an artist and papermaker based in Sacramento, CA. She received her MFA at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, and studied traditional book and papermaking on a Fulbright to Korea in 2015. Steph is co-founder of the Korean American Artist Collective and co-founder of Hanji Edition.

    Radha Pandey is a papermaker and letterpress printer based in Norway/India. She earned her MFA at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and specializes in Indo-Islamic Papermaking techniques, teaching classes in India, Europe, and the US. Her artist's books are held in over 90 public collections internationally.

    Catherine Liu received a Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts at the University of Iowa Center for the Book in 2019. To further their knowledge in natural dyes they received multiple University of Iowa Graduate Fellowships, a Stanley Award for International Research, and a Fulbright research grant to study dyeing, printing, and papermaking practices in China and Japan.


  • 15 Jul 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Recent posts in the Book Art Theory blog have raised questions regarding equity, gatekeeping, accessibility, and inclusivity in the book arts. In keeping with this important and necessary line of inquiry, we want to talk about cultural appropriation in the book arts, specifically the appropriation of Asian imagery, aesthetics, design, materials, traditions, techniques, and language. This is an occurrence that is found all over the art world, not just in the book arts, and not just with Asian cultures. But as we are three Asian book artists, it is what we know and can speak to. 

     

     

    Image description: a person presenting as a white woman, wearing white makeup, black kimono, and floral hair piece, and holding a fan. Free image on Shutterstock.

    Some instances of cultural appropriation that we have noticed: The use of random Asian words or characters to make something seem more "exotic" or have "Asian flair." Random references to Zen and/or Buddhism. Indian symbology like Om or meditating Buddha, prayer flags, or the arbitrary use of Asian calligraphy to create symbols. The "clever" use of chopsticks or bamboo in typography (this is not only culturally offensive, it is tacky). The erroneous use of the word "rice paper" to refer to Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese paper when there is no rice in the paper. Not to mention that using the term “rice paper” to conflate all of these different Asian cultures perpetuates a view that Asian culture is a monolith, which further strips Asians of their individuality. 

    We have no problem with cultural appreciation and collaboration, where there is a deep respect and intentional effort to learn directly from the source. We admire non-Asian book/paper artists who have spent significant time in Asian countries, learning the language and/or working directly with master artists, deeply investing time and money to humbly learn an art form that is not of their own heritage. Institutions like the Fulbright Program encourage and support this kind of thoughtful cultural exchange. We appreciate when these non-BIPOC artists have an awareness of their immense privilege, to have the resources to travel to previously colonized countries and extract cultural knowledge, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they might receive special treatment for being white.

    When elements of Asian culture are cherry picked and used in a way that feels exploitative, disrespectful, or tacky, this feels less like collaboration and more like appropriation. When the maker has no apparent connection or desire to deepen their understanding not only of the culture from whom they borrowed, but also of the people who carry the heritage – this feels like appropriation. And when non-BIPOC folks have a savior complex about the cultural knowledge that they are “rescuing” – this is not cultural exchange, this is colonization and appropriation. Even institutions that purport to encourage cultural exchange (such as the aforementioned Fulbright Program) can perpetuate this harmful practice of white saviorism – for instance, so many white Americans come to India to “discover” natural dyes, classical music, or other pieces of Indian culture, and then lecture about it while in India, to an Indian public. It is also problematic when we see that the instructors or cultural practitioners in North America/Europe are almost exclusively white, rather than those with lived experiences and cultural ties, such as immigrants. 

    As artists, it is important to recognize the historical precedent for people from the dominant culture taking elements from marginalized people's cultures and using them for their own profit without consent, without acknowledgment of histories of oppression, colonization, imperialism, erasure, and violence. As educator Emi Ito states, "cultural appropriation has always been part of propping up the violence of white supremacy." 

    Borrowing from other cultures is often necessary in our field, and artists find inspiration from all kinds of sources. As book artists, we pride ourselves in our versatility and ability to draw from so many disciplines and traditions to create a bookwork. As our field is relatively new, we can only benefit and grow stronger as a field when we start to ask ourselves critical questions about how or why we make or use certain cultural elements in our work.

    This blog post is in two parts. In Part 2, we offer some guidelines for non-BIPOC book and paper artists to think about and reconsider cultural appropriations in their work.

     

    Steph Rue is an artist and papermaker based in Sacramento, CA. She received her MFA at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, and studied traditional book and papermaking on a Fulbright to Korea in 2015. Steph is co-founder of the Korean American Artist Collective and co-founder of Hanji Edition.

    Radha Pandey is a papermaker and letterpress printer based in Norway/India. She earned her MFA at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, and specializes in Indo-Islamic Papermaking techniques, teaching classes in India, Europe and the US. Her artist's books are held in over 90 public collections internationally.

    Catherine Liu received a Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts at the University of Iowa Center for the Book in 2019. To further their knowledge in natural dyes they received multiple University of Iowa Graduate Fellowships, a Stanley Award for International Research, and a Fulbright research grant to study dyeing, printing, papermaking practices in China and Japan.


  • 01 Jul 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Sarah:

    In November of 2019 I traveled to Yale University in search of swatch books and color cards. The Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color is home to a comprehensive selection of texts, historical examples, artist books, and other resources, including eleven bankers’ boxes of textile samples and paint chips. Color systems on a large scale, and individual sample books on a smaller scale, are attempts to communicate color across distance, disciplines, and cultures. Our personal interactions with samples and swatches are less rational and more emotional, driven by touch and memory. 

    I was drawn in by the tactility of these samples, the beauty of their presentation, and the kinetic structures that protect them.  I was also interested in the nuanced historical context for the production of these books. Like all manufactured objects, these color and textile samples were made in response to shifting technologies, economic factors, and complex national agendas. Color forecasting, the issuing of color cards in advance of a season, was an early form of planned obsolescence, and is still a major engine in the global economy. These color cards and sample books are part of our origin story as a landfill culture.


    Fairmont Color Card

    Early on in the design of Fairmont Color I planned to produce a series of color cards using my domestic surroundings. The pandemic interrupted the project and interfered with the foundational ideas for the book: what it means to be in a domestic space, how much (or how little) time I spent contemplating the colors and textiles that made up my private spaces. I shelved the project for a few months in the beginning of the pandemic, returning to it when I could find the time to engage in the repetitive tasks (thread winding and collage) that were necessary for its production. 

    Kathy:

    When I saw this project, I was immediately struck by the connection that Sarah’s work was making with the work of feminist artists in the 1970s who were foregrounding the materials and processes of domesticity in their radical art. The painter Miriam Schapiro in particular created collage paintings that repurposed fabric swatches and traditional quilt patterns into large-scale wall pieces that re-stated women’s domestic work as an art form.


    Miriam Schapiro, Nine Patch Gold, 1973, Courtesy Mills College Art Museum. (Gallery view, Possibilities: When artists' books were young, 2022, San Francisco Center for the Book, Kathleen Walkup, curator)

    When Faith Ringgold began her experimentation with fabric and quilts, working alongside Willi Posey, her seamstress mother, to create stuffed dolls, masks and story quilts that told of the oppression of Black people, her art was dismissed as craft. One gallery refused to hang two of her masks with other art in the gallery. Ringgold withdrew the masks and instead wore them to the opening. [1]

    Sarah’s work implicitly acknowledges this legacy while at the same time questioning how these intensely personal and familiar materials of her own domestic space contribute to the very twenty-first century challenges of social and environmental justice.

    Sarah:

    Thank you for those observations! I came to the use of fabric and textile organically through the research I was doing on color and industry (see Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s excellent book The Color Revolution). Once I had determined the course of the book and made the decision to use my clothes and bedding and primary materials, I found myself using my hands and body in unfamiliar ways. No longer tied to the press, I was engaged in hand skills that were outside of my experience but had a long history in connection with femininity and domesticity. Artists like Schapiro and Ringgold were certainly on my mind. I also found myself thinking a great deal about my mother, who for a time sewed all of her own clothes.

    I believe that this book was also made possible by collaborative work that I have been engaged in since 2013 with Shiftlab Collective. Working with other artists, watching their process and material choices, designing our projects collectively all have expanded my independent work.  Katie Baldwin and Denise Bookwalter in particular are printmakers and book artists who incorporate textile and quilting into their process. Spending time in their company certainly has expanded my ideas about materials and the nature of the book. 

    [1] Auther, Elissa. String Felt Thread: The hierarchy of art and craft in American art. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

     

    Sarah Bryant produces artist books and prints under the name Big Jump Press. She is currently an assistant professor at The University of Alabama where she teaches for the MFA Book Arts Program. Her work can be found in many collections, including The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, and The Yale Arts Library.

    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College. Her research interests focus on the history of women and printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. The catalogue for the exhibition she curated, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, is available through the San Francisco Center for the Book website. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

  • 15 Jun 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Why do so many people, when first exposed to the book arts, find themselves enthralled?

    I think a large part of it is in the physicality of using their hands in the processes they’ve just been exposed to.


    Many people now have never played in a sandbox or have forgotten the simple joys of playing in the dirt. But we all started our lives finding out about the world by using our hands to touch it, feel it, taste it, and having our fingers cut and burned.

    Here in the twenty-first century, as you know, our lives are increasingly filtered through disembodied electronic portals – screens that flatten our experience, distancing us from direct engagement with the physical world, antithetical to the deeper connections and texture we need to feel fully human. The book arts serve as a restorative, of physical action combining with intellectual activity and content. People new to book arts can be startled with a recognition of what they’ve been missing or have forgotten they had the capacity to do.

    Over the centuries writing has been an expression of societies and broader cultures. For example, Northern European mediaeval societies had variants of spiky architecture, spiky writing and spiky hierarchical thinking. It was a little less severe In Southern Europe.

    When I learned European calligraphy in the mid-1970s, I started from the beginning – wedges pressed into wet clay, using brushes and blunt reeds. Physical acts of making marks with my writing hand. I learned the seven or eight major writing styles from Trajan capitals to the Baroque copperplate of the mid-Eighteenth Century. In repeatedly tracing the “ductus” of alphabetic forms I absorbed their history and adaptations, learned context of the societies they were written in, and benefitted from their legacy. And I appreciated their formal malleability over time and culture.


    Tools for opposable thumbs 

    The physical actions of letterpress printing reinforce my sense of the allure of the book arts through the reconnection, and cooperation, of hand and brain. Each metal letter is a real thing to be put next to another letter. I told students in my private printing classes that in the print shop a nothing becomes a something: a word space is a real thing, with weight. Anaïs Nin writes well about the letterpress experience in Volume 3 of her Diary: 1939-1944: “You can touch the page you wrote.” “The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.” Building physical structures to hold text or image equally engage hand and brain. 

    60 and 72 American pica point Cloister Initials, from Frederic Goudy

    Frank Wilson, a neurologist, in his 1998 book “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture,” traces the evolution of the hand and its components and posits its influence on creating language – the hand points to or holds a thing that needs an identifying word. Our concepts about reality are largely drawn from a confirming touch. A substantial amount of the information the brain must work with comes through the sensing capacity of the hands.

    Wilson also argues that American education pushes children away from manual exploration to purely intellectual activity too early, stunting the hand/brain co-development process. I believe that this, at least in part, is the source of people’s joy, exhilaration, and relief that they have found where they belong when encountering the art of the (hand) book.

    Parenthetically, I think book arts programs could help other academic disciplines to reawaken the wonders of their fields by offering hands-on sessions, for example making a Jacob’s Ladder structure. Other disciplines don’t seem to pay much attention to their histories and processes like book arts does – whose skills and techniques are by nature historical. Philosophy classes would be enriched by directly experiencing the boundary of thought and touch. Wilson relates that mechanical engineering companies didn’t like to hire young engineers – they hadn’t played in a sandbox and had trouble conceptualizing the third dimension.


    36 Didot point Diethelm Antiqua, released by the Haas foundry around 1950. I had acquired a run of it as part of the Swiss/Canadian shop purchase I made in 2007. I may have been the only printer in the US who had it. I speculate it was Haas’ competitor to Palatino, released a little earlier by Stempel.


    Brian Allen is retired from 45 years working with letterforms, from calligraphic to phototypeset to letterpress to digital. Twenty of those years were spent in digital font production for startups, IBM, and Monotype. He enjoys the art, craft, and culture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


  • 01 Jun 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Share Public Access to Creative Endeavors, or the SPACE coalition, was created to combat physical and cultural barriers within the art world for marginalized communities. We, Elaina Brown-Spence, Erica Honson, and Meera Mittal, formed the coalition while in the MFA Printmaking and Book Arts program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We wrote a quasi-manifesto addressing our values as artists and issues of accessibility within the art world. This document, which was later offset printed by Erica Honson and Amanda D’Amico in the Borowsky Center for Publication Arts and made into a zine, was the launching point for us to join the movement to expand inclusivity within the art world.

    We began specifically addressing book arts within our quasi-manifesto by asking, “Who gets to be in Special Collections, museums, libraries, universities, et cetera?” These establishments provide legitimacy, status, economic gain, and avenues for professional growth for the artists whose work they accept. The quantity and locations of exhibitions and collectors on an artist’s CV affects whether gatekeepers will afford that artist another opportunity. And each of those opportunities connects an artist to a network of people who may afford them further opportunities. Furthermore, an artist’s confidence in their ability to succeed professionally, and their sense of value within society, can directly impact their career. Part of that self-perception is built from the validation of being chosen by exhibition spaces — by seeing one’s identity, history, community, and voice as being worthy of public representation. 

                  

    makeSPACE, a quasi-manifesto, offset zine, 2022   

    The way artist books, specifically, are presented, read, and interacted within exhibitions often limits their accessibility. Most artist books are meant to be interacted with by human hands as an integral aspect of their content, materials, structure, and reader experience. But many exhibition locations are inaccessible physically and culturally to numerous communities. This is also due, in part, to the practice of preservation in the book arts field. In response to this, we wrote, “Artist books, regardless of content, are not accessible when acquired by Special Collections. This needs to change. Books in Special Collections remain unread; they lose their “bookness.” Books need to be held, read, touched. Preservation shouldn’t be at the cost of seeing and handling books in person…. Liberate the libraries.” One of the tasks of the Special Collections librarian is to create a certain experience for the reader. When a librarian immediately acts suspicious towards a visitor, interrogates them about why they want to look at the books, and hovers over them during reading, all in the name of preservation, that artist book was not truly read, and the reader may not wish to return to any Special Collections. So, there is a need for more and different spaces for artist books to be read, for artists to have multiple avenues of advancing their careers, supporting themselves economically, and sharing their work as it is intended to be shared. For community members consuming the art, having opportunities to interact with artist books in spaces which are welcoming and inclusive could create richer dialogues and greater cultural impact which are essential to the purpose of art itself.

    Our next action was curating an open-call exhibition, titled makeSPACE, held both in a gallery at the University of the Arts and virtually via Instagram. We sought to utilize the privileges of being students in a graduate program at a private arts university to create an exhibition opportunity for artists who may not have access to such establishments. Our open call for submissions encouraged artists with any identity, educational background, and level of artistic experience to submit their work. For one artist, makeSPACE was the first time they had work accepted to a gallery, and for another, it was the first time their pieces were accepted outside of a student show. The artist books in the show were displayed on open pedestals, with a sign that told viewers they could touch and handle the books (in our call for submissions, we stated that any artist books in the show must be available for handling). By opening this gallery to people outside of the university, we hoped to create chances for communities within and outside of the institution to connect, for people to experience artist books as they are meant to be experienced, and for marginalized artists to have opportunities to be seen and heard.


    makeSPACE exhibition, Gallery 224, 2022

    https://www.instagram.com/heymakespace/

    In joining the conversations on and movement towards accessibility in the arts, we wanted to acknowledge and speak with people who have been doing this work for some time, hear about their practices, and share space. To do so, we organized a panel discussion with Nasheli Ortiz-Gonzalez from Taller-Puertorriqueño and Yuka Petz. In tandem with the panel and the exhibition, we also hosted zine workshops at the Free Library of Philadelphia. All events were free and open to the public. It was important for us to meet people in their community at the library for the workshop and online via Zoom for the panel discussion to reach people wherever they may be.

     

    Elaina Brown-Spence, Meera Mittal, and Erica Honson make up the 2022 graduating class from the MFA Book Arts and Printmaking program at UArts in Philadelphia, PA. Together they formed the SPACE Coalition in 2021 working towards accessibility in the fields of book arts and printmaking and the art world at large.

     

     


  • 15 May 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In this article, I would like to unpack some of the reasons gatekeeping can perpetuate. I believe most of the reasoning is understandable and justifiable, but I want to encourage our community to think through ways we can open gates of all sizes.

    Students don’t have access to equipment, so they can’t learn this technique.

    Fair, but equipment access is a privilege and there can be economic barriers preventing access to that equipment for all makers, not just students. Additionally, there may be times when artists will not have access to equipment for other reasons, such as at many artist residencies. It can be difficult to teach certain techniques without equipment, but even just adding a quick mention to your students about the kinds of workarounds they could research may eliminate a mental barrier that would keep them from making books or prints again. 

    It is also important to be transparent about the costs and benefits of investing in quality equipment. Some workarounds/DIY equipment can be so frustrating, the maker abandons book arts when they could have invested 10 more dollars for a better brayer, awl, etc. and eliminated most of their struggle. Additionally, newer makers may not be aware of the grants and assistance available, so even just briefly mentioning that possibility can open gates.

    Book artists and printers love to talk shop – we are constantly discussing what down-and-dirty tricks work, what style press has which common problems, and what equipment is worth purchasing or skipping. This kind of “institutional” knowledge is almost impossible for students or new book artists to research in an effective way, so by freely giving that information to newer makers, the community opens space for innovation.


    This is too advanced to teach.

    I hear this mostly regarding workshops and, given time constraints, equipment constraints, and participant experience constraints, this is a valid concern. However, many advanced courses in book arts and printing are only offered through higher education programs. Enrolling in one of these programs can be a huge barrier if one does not have the time, finances, or learning style best suited for higher education. Additionally, academia can manipulate aspects of these advanced courses – adding pressure to boost enrollment which may change the curriculum, limiting student access to instructors who juggle terrible schedules as they try to live on adjunct pay, and forcing external standards for grading, etc.

    There are, of course, some advanced courses taught as workshops outside of academia, but I would like to encourage an expansion - not only in number but also in topic. I would love to see more courses (introductory and non-introductory) about critical theory, concept + content, professionalism, the role of words in book arts, implementing multimedia, problem solving, and innovations in technology for book artists.


    Students don’t need this information; they only need this information.

    This may be a choice made for the sake of time or to limit confusion – it is often accidental gatekeeping. I do not think this kind of curation needs to be eliminated. However, it is important to make efforts to provide resources to students and new book artists so they may acquire the information themselves. This may be as simple as reminding them that there are multiple ways to accomplish something – while teaching a letterpress course, mention that some printers and artists print by hand – or by recommending resources the students can use to expand their knowledge. (Here is a resource guide I have been working on.)

    These students are too young or too old to learn this.

    It is more common to hear this argument when considering what topics to cover in children’s workshops. However, I am surprised at how often I have heard this in reference to undergraduate students or the age of workshop participants compared to graduate students. This argument is intentional gatekeeping and feels lazy to me. I genuinely believe anyone can learn anything and it is not the place of the instructor to hold knowledge back. Allowing age to act as a barrier shows an unwillingness to adapt one’s own teaching style. If individual instruction is needed, additional time can be built into your course. If physical limitations exist, there are tools to assist.

     

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.


  • 02 May 2022 5:38 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    Generally, I have found the book arts community to be welcoming and happy to have conversations that seek to expand rather than limit ideas about book art. However, I also feel that gatekeeping, or limiting access to something, is still too commonplace within the tight-knit book arts world. Gatekeeping shows up in many ways: through elitism about education, stigma against certain processes or techniques, opinions about the validity of works based on the price tag or amount of time put into the piece, or discrimination against artists of specific demographics. It can be hard to navigate, especially for those new to book arts. In our digital age, and particularly with the pandemic spurring such an intense pivot to online and video-based learning, information has luckily been more equitably accessible than ever before. The switch to virtual learning opened the gates for people in locations where there are no book art centers, people who are agoraphobic, and people who find it difficult to fit in-person classes into their schedules. Often Zoom classes are recorded as well, which provides better access for people with severe anxiety, those who need to receive instruction at a different pace, or those who prefer to understand an entire process before they attempt it themselves. With live captioning technology, virtual learning also opened gates for anyone who needs or prefers captions when receiving auditory instruction. Additionally, many organizations implemented pay-what-you-can or sliding scale models to their services, classes, and memberships which opened the gates to those that found the financial investment of participating in aspects of the book arts community to be a hurdle.

    While there has been an excellent push toward equitable accessibility in the ways mentioned above, I feel there are further discussions that need to happen to open our community even wider as some of the paths toward greater accessibility are not as clear. Early in the switch to online teaching, I noticed conversations about the types of classes students could handle through virtual learning, an expected lack of quality due to the format, and concerns about recording intellectual property. These points are important to think about but are also areas where gatekeeping can seep back into actions. In my next article, I will breakdown some of my thoughts on these points, but I want to encourage open discussion about them as well as about other points that I may have overlooked.

    Some of these points are: - Students don’t have access to equipment, so they can’t learn this technique. - This is too advanced to teach as a workshop. - Students don’t need this information, they only need this information. - These students are too young or too old to learn this. - No one wants to be on Zoom for more than 2 hours, so I am limited in what I can teach. - It’s impossible to see anything in online classes/teaching - online is too difficult. - Teaching workarounds or methods for making without equipment is too difficult or pointless because the equipment is too important. - If I share my process as a video, I’ll be out of a job – anyone can share my video instead of taking my classes.

    The book arts community has so many published books depicting binding techniques but so few published books on printing techniques and an incredibly sparse amount of (quality) video tutorials available, so the explosion of accessible classes has been incredible. As that explosion stabilizes, our community has the opportunity to consciously decide how we are going to add to the culture. Putting in the work for equitable access to high-quality information and instruction is a promising way forward.

    There were plenty of growing pains in the last few years, but many organizations and institutions have made it clear that the additional access provided by virtual learning was in fact growth and not a temporary adjustment. It is exciting to see the number of virtual offerings that are continuing even as we have started to transition standard operations back to in-person and it is exciting to think of how much more access we can provide for people in the future through methods we haven’t explored deeply yet.

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 19 Apr 2022 4:21 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    For many book artists and book art educators, there is an increasing dialogue in making books in collaboration with and response to archives and Special Collections. To have artists working with those collections supports their vitality, assuring that such holdings are not just relics of the past, but instead active and continual contributions to current inquiry.

    The most successful responses to archives are when an artist forms an intersecting narrative between the archive and personal allegory. In her Sobre Adaptaciones y Engaños a Primer Vista (On Adaptions and Deceptions at First Site), the artist Viviana Carlos (https://vivianacarlos.com) mines an archive for material and goes on to transcend this material by crafting a narrative about collective and personal memory and the human experience. 

    Sobre Adaptaciones had its origins when Viviana Carlos was hired by a private photography collection in Los Angeles to serve as its cataloguer. Carlos, a transplant to Los Angeles from Mexico, had become interested in the history of palm trees in Southern California, and the collection where she worked had numerous historical images of palm trees throughout the city. She learned that these iconic trees of Los Angeles were themselves transplants. The Spanish missionaries who colonialized California originally planted palm trees for decorative purposes and, in the case of date palms, for food. Going through the archive of images, seeing many of them repeatedly, Carlos began to see them as a personal metaphor for her own story of migration.

    As the concept for the book developed, Carlos found herself struggling with questions. As first, she didn’t know how it would evolve, but knew that the central idea was transplantation. At first, she asked herself, with no ownership of these images - did she have a right to use these them? As a cataloguer, she had the skills and knowledge to research the Doctrine of Fair Use and Creative Commons, so she was certain that there would be no copyright violations. Yet these images were part of a history that she did not feel she belonged to as an immigrant.  In addition, she was plagued with a deeper question - did she have a right to tell her story? She felt conflicted because her story of migration – one of legal documentation – was not as difficult as that of others. 

    With these questions in mind, Carlos made the intuitive leap to tell her story through metaphor rather than literally. Sobre Adaptaciones is made of images of palm trees sourced from the collection in which she worked that were in the public domain. 



    The text, in Spanish and English, provides a series of facts about palm trees. 

    As the book unfolds, these facts become an elusive description of the human condition.  Through this, Carlos creates a narrative that transforms the historical basis of the archive to become a personal mythology. 


    To keep archives and special collections thriving, we as educators must ask ourselves how to develop ways for students to connect these collections to their own identities. We must find ways for students to see these collections not only as relics of the past, but to help them find metaphor and meaning that are relevant to their experiences. Carlos credits her time studying with instructor and documentary photographer Celeste Alba Iris of Miradas al Foto Libro (https://www.miradasalfotolibro.com) as forming the conceptual basis for thinking of an archive as materials and personal symbolism.

    By encouraging students to mine archives, we must ask them to go beyond appropriation. This is not just because appropriation is currently debated, depending on who is asked, as trendy or as inappropriate, but because the art of the book demands a deeper, more nuanced and layered approach. Yet the question remains, how do we do this? One method is to introduce works like Sobre Adaptaciones to our students, allowing them to see examples of diverse voices responding to collections and archives as models for artist books. 

     

    Michelle Wilson is an interdisciplinary thinker, whose work involves papermaking, printmaking, book arts, installation, and social practice. She holds an MFA in Book Arts/Printmaking from the University of the Arts. She exhibits widely and is one-half of the collaborative duo the Rhinoceros Project. She teaches printmaking, papermaking, artist books, and seminars at San Jose State and Stanford.

     

  • 01 Apr 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    If we take books like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Yves Peintures (1954) as examples, rock music emerged as a genre roughly around the same time artist books cohered as a medium for modern art. Since the ‘50s and ‘60s, rock has fractured into many sub-genres, while also maintaining a coherent identity that distinguishes it from other major genres, like country or pop. So the term “artist book” or “artist publishing” might be about as useful a term as “popular music.” Occasionally, we need to talk about all of popular music, but it’s more common to write about specific groupings of musicians, fans, producers, songwriters, etc. We need the umbrella term "artist book," but whenever we want to write about artist books, market artist books, buy artist books, plan an artist book fair, etc. we should consider the advantages of classifying books in terms of audience. This doesn't mean the categories have to be rigid or limit artistic expression — consider that musical artists make legendary work both by blurring/transcending genre (Lil Nas X) or embodying genre (Chris Stapleton). 

    In his history of popular music in seven genres, the critic Kelefa Sanneh argues that “the idea of transcending genre suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging, as if the greatest musicians were somehow less important to their musical communities, rather than more. (Did Marvin Gaye transcend R&B? Did Beyoncé?) … It is strange, anyway, to praise genre mixing without also praising the continued existence of the genres that make such mixing possible” (xi). [1] Just as musical artists work within and against existing genres, artist books participate in existing literary and visual art genres. There may also be genres that are unique to artist books, but it is these shared ones that provide inroads for larger and more diverse audiences.

    The link between classification and audience is key, and thus existing classification projects reveal a great deal about the intended audience. In “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index,” Mary Anne Dyer and Yuki Hibben of Virginia Commonwealth University discuss their effort to develop a “local genre headings index to be used in the online catalog to provide enhanced access to the libraries’ collection of artists’ books.” However, “the list of genres was composed of terms representing book art facets of structures, binding techniques, mediums, and formats.” [2] Calling ‘accordion fold’ a genre is like calling ‘guitar’ a genre, and most rock fans want to discover new rock artists, not a country artist who happens to play guitar. Genres should open up the field, not just help people who already make artist books.

    The inherent interdisciplinarity of artist books poses challenges, but also opportunities for connections, which genre can facilitate. For example, India’s partner uses artist books to teach public history. He has a collection of artist publications featuring facsimiles of primary sources, with and without commentary. Content type and subject matter are what is salient, not the binding or material. Book-as-primary-sources might not be a genre (yet), but it demonstrates that a collecting parameter can be narrow and still expand the use of artist books beyond practitioners. 

    We’re interested in the possibilities of genre for every player in the publishing communications circuit. We are readers, looking for more of what we like, more easily. We are makers, hoping to reach the audience for our niche publications more easily. We are critics, scholars, and thinkers, writing with specificity about segments of an ever-expanding field. We are publishers, placing publications and their creators into meaningful dialogues and debates. We are educators, teaching about artist books but also using artist books to teach other topics. We are collectors, changing the meaning of our library with each book we add. We are information workers, cataloging and describing works to make them accessible. We are curators, soliciting proposals and offering opportunities, who need to articulate what we can accept, fund, care for, and make meaningful. 

    Yet questions remain: Does genre exist without marketing and middlemen? Are genres only characteristic of mainstream sectors of the culture industry? Is genre really a question of type or just taste? Will naming genres stultify the field? Or will leaving them unspoken serve only those whose work fits into our existing, implicit taxonomy?   

    [1] Sanneh, Kelefa. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021.

    [2] Dyer, Mary Anne, and Yuki Hibben. “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 31, no. 1 (2012): 57–66. https://doi.org/10.1086/664914.


    India Johnson makes books and non-books. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Center for the Book. She also attended fine bookbinding school at LLOTJA Conservatori Arts del Llibre. Based in Iowa City, India exhibits her work locally, nationally, and internationally.

    Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.


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