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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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  • 01 Mar 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Lately, I have been participating in discussions regarding the artist’s role in artworks, specifically if the artist’s background and personal experiences should manifest in their artworks or if artworks should be more universally relatable and non-auto-biographical. In these conversations, the predominant mentality is in favor of non-auto-biographical works, which seems heavily tied to a desire for artwork to be accessible to every audience. These discussions have prompted me to contemplate the question: What do artists owe their viewer?

    My artwork is about memory and my drive to make my work comes from personal experience with Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM). SDAM primarily manifests for me in an inability to visually replay moments from my past, thereby making it particularly difficult to determine if my memories are genuine recollections or if they were fabricated from a narrative I created or embellished. But memory is universally untrustworthy for all people and that universal unreliability also plays a role in my work as I use my own lack of memory to frame questions about the truth and reality of a past that is inaccessible in the present.

    Beth Sheehan, “Memento,” 2015-2022

    I find myself on a potentially less-popular side of the auto-biographical art discussion, as I would argue that artworks should not (and cannot) cater to every member of an audience. I would like to further assert that by generalizing the accessibility of their content, an artist can lessen the importance and impact of their artworks for the community that relates to the artist’s auto-biographical works. Further, the removal of the personal can rob a viewer of the potential to understand experiences that they are unfamiliar with. 

    Through my artworks, I have connected with people who did not realize that their cerebral experience was abnormal because discussing the intricacies of memory and perception presents a difficult stage for communication. For example, if two people are discussing a shared memory, both may use the phrase “I remember,” but one person may be using visual recall to replay the memory like a movie (episodic memory) and the other person may be simply accessing the factual information their brain stored (more similar to the way we recall trivia). If my work contained no relation to my personal experience and instead focused solely on universal experiences of memory, I feel I would be doing my viewer a disservice. 

    Beth Sheehan, “In the Moments,” 2023

    However, even though my personal preference favors works that are founded in the artist’s experience, I also feel that everything is best in moderation. If an artist’s work stems from personal experience and that artist creates work that is self-referential and completely unrelatable, I would begin to question if the work should be shared with the public. So, then, I come back to my initial question: What do artists owe their viewer?

    To unpack that question further, I’d like to consider the following as well:

    -  Does the artist owe the viewer relatability, understanding, connection, universality, authenticity, or their story/experiences? 

    -  If the viewer is owed something, are they owed that thing within the artwork itself or in the artist’s statement or interviews?

    -  Is abstraction kinder to the viewer because it has the potential to be equally relatable/accessible regardless of the viewer’s experience? If the viewer presumes artwork will have a deeper meaning and then they cannot glean one from abstraction, will the work no longer be accessible?

    -  Should art be for everyone? Does your answer change if I phrase the question differently: Should all art be for all people? 

    - What are the sacrifices made when art becomes less personal and more universal? What are the sacrifices made when art IS personal?

    -  Do the expectations for the viewer/artist relationship change based on medium? Does visual art demand something different for the relationship than a medium like poetry?

    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 & Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.


  • 15 Feb 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For this post, I intend to create a space for conversation about the reading and performance of artist books, as well as introduce an Artist Book Reading Series co-hosted by myself and Aaron Cohick.

    During Codex 2021, Aaron Cohick of New Lights Press and I began a conversation about the lack of reading events or book performances in the artist book world. Why weren’t public readings of books more common in the book art world? My own interest in reading and performing artist books started with my thesis defense in 2014 and became a practice I continued to engage with via CBAA conference panels (1, 2) and live poetry readings and other literary events in Tallahassee, FL and Reno, NV. Reading and performing my artist books has always felt like a natural progression of the artistic work of my book objects, as they include primarily poetic experimental texts and typography intended to be performed aloud. In a book object, the sound of the text being read aloud is determined by the shape of the page and the caesuras and margins offering visual and audible pause. I, like many writers, compose text aloud, so when that text is letterpress printed onto the page, the act of reading aloud (again) causes my tonal breath to mix with the sound of a finger rubbing along the paper edge of the book, the small crack of the spine giving. The reader of an artist book gets to have a similar engagement with text and object, except with their own inner reading voice. However, the performance of a book allows for another iteration of the book object. These readings and events can include elements of choregraphed performance, or audio and visual presentations.

    The literary world, including the behemoth Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), has embraced the physical embodiments of literature, including performances (have you ever seen Abraham Smith perform his work?), reading events that include audience participation, or the like. The literary world and the artist book world have previously collided and there are a number of artists working in performative reading modes, including, I Wish To Say…Vol 2. By Sheryl Oring and Selected Durations by David Abel, two artist books in the Cynthia Sears Artists Book Collection Bainbridge Island Museum of Art as discussed by Yuka Petz on Artist’s Books Unshelved on June 17, 2023.

    For a very recent example of artist book readings, this year at CODEX, Michelle Wilson & Anne Beck hosted an “evening of readings and performance” at the Rhinoceros Reading Room & Ephemera Collection. I hope this reading event is the beginning of a new series!

    I’m continuing to research the history of readings and performance related to or happening within the book arts world, looking to the audience of the CBAA Book Arts Theory and Criticism Blog to chime in with some suggestions. I suspect there have been many of these performances or readings that may not have been documented in any formal way and I am hoping that book arts peers can help me build up that archive.

    In the meantime, I will include the call for proposal for the Artist Book Reading Series co-hosted by Aaron Cohick and me. 



    • Artist books will be interpreted very broadly for this series. All visual/text formats are welcome: zines, limited editions, fine press, open edition artists’ books, visual poetry, comics, animations, digital art, hybrid media, etc., but all submissions must be tied to a physical book or other publication.
    • Individual readings will be 10 minutes long with four readers per event. Initial events will take place on Zoom but we are hoping to do some irl events in the future.
    • Readings can be live, recorded (audio or video), and/or can include visual elements. They could also be a combination of all those things (& maybe others!).
    • These are not talks about artist book projects. They are performative readings/enactments of the “books.”
    • All readers will be paid $150. Funding for this series will come from paying subscribers.
    • The deadline to submit for the May 2024 reading is March 1. The deadline for the fall reading is July 1.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana and holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. Her poems have been published in Puerto Del Sol, The Call Center, American Letters and Commentary, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Her artist books are collected nationally and Unidentified Found Object Song was a semi-finalist for the 2022 MCBA Book Prize.

  • 01 Feb 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In Fall of 2023, I started as Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. As newly appointed director, I was eager to make the book arts and papermaking studios my own. Taking over an institution like the UNO Fine Arts Press and Book Arts Program, with its long and robust history of fine press printing, and its excellent undergraduate book arts curriculum, was exciting, intimidating, complex, and also involved reassessment of the program’s aesthetic, vision, priorities, and budget.

    The University of Nebraska Omaha Fine Arts Press and Book Arts Curriculum began with Harry Duncan in 1972. Duncan developed the curricular program and published as the fine press Abattoir Editions, producing fine press books in editions of 200-300. Naming the press after Omaha’s stockyards tied the publishing work to Omaha’s mid-western landscape and sensibility, and planted the roots of fine press publications until 1985 when Duncan retired. After his retirement, Bonnie O’Connell directed the UNO Book Arts Program until 2019.

    Before I joined UNO, previous instructors, adjuncts, and gallery directors approached the task of clearing out and organizing the potential archival materials, even transporting those materials to the Special Collections Library on campus to be catalogued in the Fine Arts Press Collection. In fact, the recent exhibition at UNO Gallery, Pressing Matters, explored the history of UNO’s Fine Arts Press and the book arts curriculum. The exhibition occasioned an intensive inventory of the books and other archival materials, including its student work archive, as a way to organize materials for the display at the exhibition. This exhibition also used many items from the informal archive, including carved blocks by Karen Kunc (collaborator), newspaper articles about Harry Duncan and Bonnie O’Connell, and letters between Duncan and authors.

    I have worked in extremely well-organized studios, such as the studios at Florida State University and Small Craft Advisory Press, and at University of Nevada, Reno, and Black Rock Press. Those studios have developed systems to determine what elements of an edition’s production to keep, and what elements can be recycled or upcycled into student work. These systems prioritize both “perfect” proofs as well as “interesting” proofs that contain the kind of misprints that look like a whole new piece of art. As a working artist, I’m inclined to keep every small scrap of paper (and all of the proofs) because paper is expensive and I need paper to make mockups for the next project. But I know for the most part what the imperfections of each print look like and can assign them value according to how close to the final edition they are. Understanding the value of materials I’m less familiar with is proving to be more difficult.

    In the UNO book arts studio, I have encountered stacks of unbound sheets, original drawings and early mockups by Bonnie O’Connell, Harry Duncan, former students, and even surplus Abbattoir and Fine Arts Press title labels for books. Absolute treasures! The history of fine press printing is told by these stacks of sometimes-unfinished editions. Luckily, I can call on Bonnie to clarify whether some of the parts of books are TBB (To Be Bound) or simple overage that can be whittled down to a few copies for the Harry Duncan archive in the Special Collections Library on UNO’s campus. However, and for example, Abattoir Editions has not produced much new fine letterpress printed work since 2001, but much of the completed books and material components of print and binding production remain in the Fine Arts Press studio storage area, leaving me with decisions to be made regarding where or if to archive these materials.

    Surrounded by the materials, separated into stacks for the UNO archivists to peruse, I’m asking myself the following questions:

    What are the benefits for keeping some of the archive in-studio?

    • These materials can be used for examples for class
    • They allow me to make repairs to books, including those that are in the Fine Arts Press archive in the UNO library and beyond
    • For studios that house Presses, the students are exposed to the overage, and can integrate them into their projects
    • Students can see the process of a piece, including sketches, inspiring new ideas and approaches, encouraging them to keep going during the slog of makeready.

    What are the downfalls for keeping so much archival material in the studio? Mostly, it is an issue of space. And, somewhat, a preservation issue. I don’t yet have archival boxes for keeping documents in an acid-free environment, but I plan to build up this system of safe-keeping in the next year or so.


    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana and holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. Her poems have been published in Puerto Del Sol, The Call Center, American Letters and Commentary, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Her artist books are collected nationally and Unidentified Found Object Song was a semi-finalist for the 2022 MCBA Book Prize.

  • 15 Jan 2024 11:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In this follow up post to Let it Bleed, part one, I will explore further the relationship between basic color interaction theory and the ways that full bleed photographs influence one another. I will compare three artist books ­­– two made by former students from my Book Arts classes – along with one of mine that I have used in classes as a teaching tool for the past few semesters.

    The first book, The Nature of Us by Ashley Swindell, is a case bound book with full-bleed images and flyout pages throughout. This combination allows for the flyouts to be pulled out to interact with a page spread or tucked back away at any time. The photographs in her book depict the transition from previously rural small-town Ohio into a more suburban new housing development reality. The images in the book layer upon one another; past, present, and future are inextricably linked both in binding and in image interactions. As there is no space between the images, they are always seen in relation to one another. Flyouts at times appear as details of faraway elements in the photographs. Other times they extend the image outside of the standard book length, and when left out they inform the subsequent images. This relates to the subject matter of The Nature of Us in that it embeds and expands the dialogue between loss of the rural and replacement with the suburban; we cannot see one without consideration of the other.

    The Nature of Us, consecutive page spreads, case bound book, Ashley Swindell

    The second book, Home by Maggie Myers, is a “cased-in” accordion binding with occasional “half-pages,” and the page spreads throughout the book are full bleed photographs. In Home, Myers is conflating photographs taken in her childhood home with photographs taken in her college apartment. The photographs are close ups of walls and surfaces. Light and shadows move through the accordion pages, with the binding knitting together the two separate spaces. Diagonal rays of light seem to transcend the edges of the individual images, resulting in a sort of panoramic viewing of one single space. In this, a comparison can be made to the study showing three colors appearing as two (see color study example in part one) in that images of like subject matter/formal relationships can reduce down, such as three images becoming more like two. 

    Home, accordion binding, Maggie Myers

    The third book, Ground by Jeff Nilan, was initially constructed as a “board book” with full-bleed photographs and one “flyout” page spread. I have always been fond of this book – the photographs and their sequential order – but to me it has never felt like it was settled or comfortable in its binding. Over the past few semesters, I have used this book as a teaching tool by redesigning the layout and binding style while keeping the original nineteen photographs in their original order. With this, I can begin to talk to my students about image/layout /binding relationships through a direct comparison of the same content. The images below show the same page spread as presented in three different binding types: an accordion binding, a Japanese four-hole binding, and the most recent iteration, a traditional case bound book. The case bound iteration is the first to include space between the images, along with removing the potential for altering the sequence as is possible in the accordion version.

    Ground, case bound page spread, Jeff Nilan 

    Ground, accordion page spread, Jeff Nilan

    Ground, Japanese binding page spread, Jeff Nilan

    Relating the image interactions of these three books to our discussion around color relativity, flyout full-bleed images, and accordion image progressions is like adding additional background colors to the Albers style color studies. In the color study example below, we see that the turquoise strip on the bottom is the same as the strip and individual bars within each of the four backgrounds. There are five distinct color files being used for the study. However, due to the color subtraction and simultaneous contrast effects, we get the appearance of nine hues – 5 distinct colors interact to appear as 9 hues. The turquoise hue is changed in varying degrees of value, intensity, and hue, depending upon which background it interacts with. The turquoise then is a constant, but an inconsistent one; it is unable, when submersed into the full bleed background colors, to show itself for what it is on its own. The turquoise is always seen and interpreted in relation to the background color. Colors influence one another and so, too, images influence one another, especially when the images are flush against one another on at least one contiguous edge.

    5 hues appear as 9, digital color study, Jeff Nilan 


    Jeff Nilan received an MFA from Indiana University in 1999. Growing up in Nebraska, Nilan’s art draws influence from the landscape and culture of the Midwest and he is interested in the ways art reflects and shapes the mythology of this region. Jeff resides in Delaware, Ohio and is Professor of Studio Art at Ohio Wesleyan University. 

  • 01 Jan 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For the past twenty years I have taught three courses: Color/Design Fundamentals, Photography, and Book Arts. One place where the concerns of the three courses meet is in designing page spreads for artist books. In my book arts courses, students often use the convention of the "full bleed" page layouts when using photographs in their books. I would like to explore the qualities of full-bleed images in book design, as it relates to the concept of "simultaneous contrast" and "color relativity.”

    In my color/design courses, I posit that color is relative – always influenced by light and proximity to other colors. I stress that this relativity happens whether we want it to or not, so we should understand how it works. I base this study on the findings of a nineteenth century French chemist, Michel Eugene Chevreul, who published the book The Laws of Contrast of Colour: And Their Application to the Arts, in which he outlines the idea of "simultaneous contrast" in color interaction. Speaking about the juxtaposition of adjacent colors, contiguous on one edge, Chevruel writes, "now as these modifications cause the colours to appear, when looked at together, more different than they really are, I have given them the name of the simultaneous contrast of colours."[1]

    Clarity of the color effects can be seen in the classic teaching studies of Josef Albers, who was influenced by Chevreul [2], by making studies in which 3 colors appear as two or three colors appear as four. In these simple arrangements, placing two full bleed color blocks adjacent to one another and adding one additional hue into both blocks will result in either an expansion or a reduction of the individual hues.  

    Digital color study examples by Jeff Nilan

    In my photography courses, we explore how images influence one another in a group, a series, and ultimately in a sequence. We come to see that the information in photographs, regardless of the color/tonal qualities, is also relative. Like color, images are influenced by proximity to other images.  This subject matter seems especially pliant when images are placed flush against one another with a "contiguous edge." As this happens whether we intend it to or not, we should understand more about how it works. A book that I regularly show in all three of my courses, that combines the concept of simultaneous contrast with photographic imagery, is Some(W)here by Andres Gonzalez.

    I stumbled upon Some(W)here years ago at Photo-Eye Books, when I randomly pulled the small cloudy grey casebound book off of the shelf because it had a blank spine. In fact, other than the title on the front and back covers and a minimal colophon, there is no text throughout the book. Opening the book, we are drawn into the sequence with a close up of landing gear on an airplane. What follows is a seeming travelog of images, both disparate in subject and related in tone, that are knitted together as full bleed page spreads with occasional partial pages.

    Gonzalez, Andreas (2012). SOME(W)HERE. Amsterdam: MartSpruijt

    Images in the book often transcend the gutter, sometimes pinched, with the main focal point of the photograph sinking into and out from the gutter. Images become layered when passages of partial pages interact with previous and those yet not arrived at, such as horizon line from a yet unseen landscape. Full width pages then become hints, fragments, place holders, that we can we hang on to for brief passages, before they disappear back into the text block.

    Just as a brown rectangle in the Albers' study mentioned above surrounded by red and green cannot be seen as it is when surrounded by white, in Some(W)here, I would suggest, the images can never be viewed as individuals, uninformed and shaped by the others.  They are, as full bleeds, a continuous vibration of subject matter.   

    [1] Chevruel, M.E. (1861, 3rd Edition). The Laws of Contrast of Colour: And Their Application to the Arts. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge. Link to the Getty Center Library PDF:


    [3] Gonzalez, Andreas (2012). SOME(W)HERE. Amsterdam: MartSpruijt.


    Jeff Nilan received an MFA from Indiana University in 1999.  Growing up in Nebraska, Nilan’s art draws influence from the landscape and culture of the Midwest and he is interested in the ways art reflects and shapes the mythology of this region.  Jeff resides in Delaware, Ohio and is Professor of Studio Art at Ohio Wesleyan University. 

  • 15 Dec 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I frequently see the word “intimacy” associated with artist books. But what exactly does it mean? What we lack in a shared understanding, we make up for with diverse definitions that offer myriad ways to experience and interpret artist books. Yet, lurking beneath these definitions is a shared sense of euphemism, one that limits what intimacy can be. First, I will catalogue several existing uses of the concept in our field. Then, I will offer a more expansive vision of intimacy.

    Intimacy as exchange

    Having an “intimate” experience with a book is conceived as an imaginary meeting-of-minds with the book’s creator. In an article for The Art Newspaper, tellingly titled “In an ever-mediated world, artists’ books offer an intimate encounter,” Jacky Klein discusses the increasing popularity of artist books: “The growth of the sector also attests to the continuing lure of the book as a space for an intimate, unmediated encounter with its maker.” [1] 

    Tia Blassingame and Ellen Sheffield describe artist books similarly in a Bainbridge Island Museum of Art exhibition, “Troubling: Artists’ Books that enlighten and disrupt old ways of being and seeing.” They write, “Artists’ books have an uncanny ability to take even the most challenging, complex, polarizing content and mix it with techniques from papermaking to paper engineering and printmaking with almost any other elements…in order to have a conversation with the reader/viewer. These conversations may be intimate, emotional, educational, thought-provoking, opinion-altering, and world view expanding.” [2] However, this form of conversation is often one-sided and reduces the potential for other types of intimacy. 

    Intimacy as disclosure

    In The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker uses Duane Michael’s Take One and See Mr. Fujiyama to discuss a category she calls photo-narratives with text. She writes: “The captions are handwritten under the images and have all the characteristic immediacy and intimacy of personal jottings.” [3] The implication is that unedited, or at least, unpolished statements create “intimacy,” that the direct trace of the artist’s hand reveals a certain rawness. The viewer performs the role of voyeur, witnessing something private, illicit, but placed in plain sight by the artist’s own hand.

    Intimacy as physical closeness

    In gallery didactics and artist statements, I often read “intimate” as a euphemism for “small” — the smaller the book, the closer one must be to properly experience it. Such closeness may, but does not necessarily, entail the disclosure of personal jottings or shared thoughts and feelings of the definitions above. 

    This physical closeness is not just a feature of the book and its reader but also of elements within the book. We see this in Clive Phillpot’s essay “Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books.” He writes, “The fact that certain bookworks combine words and pictures intimately, in a non-illustrative manner, complicates [analogies to film and poetry] and makes for further richness.” [4] As a formal feature of the composition, physical proximity is meant to inform the viewer’s interpretation, but this is a unidirectional form of meaning-making. It also isn’t clear how intimacy here differs from mere closeness, or whether all comingling of text and image is intimate. 

    Toward a new intimacy

    Despite the variety of uses above, the euphemistic connotations of “intimacy” saddle the word with conservative baggage. Quality and value are absent from phrases like “being intimate,” and its default use assumes an interaction between two people. It is no surprise that the “intimacy” of the artist book often mirrors the heteronormative encounter — artist and reader, giver and receiver. 

    However, Johanna Drucker pushes beyond this conservative paradigm, writing “No single encounter with a successful book closes off its polyvalent possibilities.” [5] On the following page, Drucker uses “intimate” as physical closeness, but she also gestures toward an expanded definition: “Enclosure and intimacy are two familiar features of this spatial embrace, and as a personal experience offering itself anew to each viewer, the book is unparalleled for its richness of detail, variety, and repleteness.” [6] 

    That experience is not rich in spite of the book’s embrace but because of it. The agency of the book mediates the exchange between artist and viewer. By recognizing the third party in this relationship, we can trouble the heteronormative paradigm of intimacy. This further expands the multiplicity of experiences and meanings already implied in Drucker’s claim that each reader sees the book anew.

    Previous forms of “intimacy” conceive of two people as close together, physically and/or metaphorically, as possible. In the context of artist books, such an intimacy erases the object it is supposed to theorize. Instead, we must recognize another, queer, polyvalent intimacy. In this expansive and inclusive intimacy, the book is not an inert layer of mediation between two people, it is an agential object that amplifies their experience.

    1. Jacky Klein, “In an ever-mediated world, artists’ books offer an intimate encounter,” The Art Newspaper, April 22, 2020,

    2. Tia Blassingame and Ellen Sheffield, “Troubling: Artists’ Books that enlighten and disrupt old ways of being and seeing,” Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, accessed December 3, 2023,

    3. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York City: Granary Books, 1995), 264–265.

    4. Clive Phillpot, “Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books” in Joan Lyons, ed., Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (Rochester, N.Y.: Visual Studies Workshop, 1985), 129.

    5. Drucker, 359.

    6. Drucker, 360.


    Carley Gomez is an artist and writer in Madison, Wisconsin. She is co-founder of Partial Press.

  • 01 Dec 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I am grateful for the collaborative work of Tate Shaw and his decision to publish Cancer & Love as a VSW Press book. As I mentioned in Part I, the book began during the start of the COVID pandemic, necessitating a long-distance collaboration. During the lockdown, I experienced expanses of productive time, married with long gestational periods. Tate’s description of his work as that of ‘midwifery’—helping the artist to birth their vision—is aptly true for Cancer & Love.


    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-fold Mohawk Superfine, 7x7.75, with 5x7 booklet. 

    Below Tate describes his work as editor­: “As the current editor of VSW Press, I consider myself less an editor and more a facilitator of artists’ visions for a publication made with available means. When I’m selecting or inviting an artist to publish a book with VSW, I’m conscious of how the work is in dialogue with—or making completely new additions to—the themes and perspectives found in the roughly six hundred titles published by the Press, founded by Joan Lyons in 1971. About 85% of the Press’ catalog was published by Joan. Women telling their own stories through images and texts (including diaries) to make books about being women, lovers, bodies, having health events and encounters with the healthcare industry, all are present in that history. Connected to Cancer & Love, specific past titles from VSW Press that come to mind are Joan’s own book The Gynecologist and Susan E. King’s Treading the Maze

    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-fold Mohawk Superfine, 7x7.75, with 5x7 booklet. 

    “I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on Joan’s work as a publisher and my own work with artists in part because I was recently asked to interview Joan for a kind of retrospective of her work at a prominent gallery in the region. In addition, as part of a 50th anniversary issue of Afterimage: the Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, I was interviewed in connection to an earlier interview I did of Joan that Afterimage published in 2004, when I was her student. Here is what I said in that piece: 

    “‘Despite being more comfortable and friendly with Joan after two decades, I was more intimidated to interview her the second time, earlier this year. As a student, I believed I knew more than I did about her practice and publishing approach. She is often described as a feminist artist—and she is—but I had a narrow, masculinist view of what that meant. I’ve been party to Joan’s commitment and fierceness firsthand and have always heard stories about her willingness to wade into conflicts. I think I anticipated she would be assertive and authoritative about her role as an editor and publisher. Back then I wanted her to tell me the secret to selecting and shaping books to be published because that’s exactly what I wanted to do and I wanted to be seen as such an authority in the field. But she basically said that she worked in service to artists’ visions and midwifed productions into being. And after learning to do just that for years with VSW Press, I understood Joan’s approach more from lived experience, which is humbling and edifying. I see more of the pluralism in Joan’s feminism now and attempted in our most recent interview to reframe that same question for her to discuss how she helped ground and support a plurality of voices through her work as an artist, printer, and publisher.’”

    “So all that to say, when I’m working with artists I try to model Joan’s approach of midwifery (if I can claim the metaphor). Where I’m most directive is being open to and suggesting that artists draw from their interests in other modes and media like literature, film, sound, etc. or to affirm and be supportive of ideas that may seem crazy to them or ones they haven’t seen before. This leads to more intersectional and experimental publications and more creative challenges. Unfortunately, I’m always mindful as well to try and keep editions at a relatively inexpensive retail point of less than $75, if possible. Because I’d like people to read the books we make and not just have them be collected or boxed up somewhere (or remain in the Press storeroom, for that matter). My experience working with artists on books is they will have ideas and approaches to their material that would never occur to me to personally try and accomplish, which was very much the case with Cancer & Love. It’s been a creative puzzle we’ve been handing back and forth for years to try and resolve for ourselves and for the reader.”

    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga. Early clothbound dummy on left, final wrap-around post structure on right, with 6 booklets in French fold envelopes.  

    Given the grace of time and Tate’s ongoing support of the vision, it became apparent that the book needed to incorporate more text from my chemo journals. The reader may read as much (or as little) as desired. The growing text necessitated numerous structural dummies, that in the final puzzle became saddle-stitched booklets, fitted into envelopes formed by French folds. These in turn created the need for spine-padding, which in turn necessitated the cover design to morph from a clothbound codex to a wrap-around one. Tate shared that opening the wrap-around cover and laying the booklets out, created the necessary material/immaterial space to read Cancer & Love. Solving the ‘creative puzzle’ with Tate was a deep and engaging privilege!


    Kathy T. Hettinga is a book artist, designer, photographer and hospice chaplain. Awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, her books are in collections from Harvard’s Fogg Museum to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.

    Tate Shaw is an artist, writer, publisher, and curator. At VSW Tate is the Editor of Visual Studies Workshop Press where he works with artists and the community to conceive,  produce and distribute books. He is also the Director of Tower Fine Arts Gallery and Associate Professor at SUNY Brockport.

  • 15 Nov 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cancer & Love began as part of Visual Studies Workshop’s Project Space artist residency just as the COVID pandemic closed all non-essential organizations. Tate Shaw, Editor of VSW Press, offered to work with me long distance via email, phone, file uploads, and mailed dummies to publish my artist’s book as a VSW Press book. This began a creative collaboration that has resulted in a fitting and complex structure that appropriately contains the story of my cancer journey and the love story with my oncologist—both filled with terror and awe. 

    Cancer & Love, Kathy T. Hettinga, French-folded Mohawk Superfine, 7 x 7.75 in.

    The twenty-year narrative is shaped with selected text from seven journals, many photographs and digital microscope images from my pathology slides. The text grew, and the solution was to make six saddle-stitched booklets that fit within created envelopes. I am grateful that Tate recommended Jerremy Lorch, an editor sensitive to the needs of book artists. What follows is Jerremy’s reflection on his collaboration with me on the text of Cancer & Love.  

    “Artist books are singular and not served by a run-of-the-mill editing process, which threatens to strip away their nuanced interplay between image, text, and texture, between visual and verbal style, or between layers or choices of meaning. You can’t just bump them up against the Chicago Manual of Style and walk away with a “clean” text without potentially damaging them. The goal is still to help the author effectively convey ideas, but “effectively” here can be subjective. Clarity isn’t always the gold standard; it’s often as much about conveying feeling as it is about conveying meaning. You still need to consistently apply rules, but you are freer to establish a unique set of them for the book.

    “Cancer & Love arrived in my inbox as a collection of files. Word documents containing various pieces of text and PDFs that included pictures and showing the layout. Just as I would casually flip through a physical copy of an artist book to understand it as a book object before settling in to read/immerse myself in it, I began by scrolling through the main PDF file. Once I had an idea of the ways in which form, image, and text would come together to create this object and convey Kathy’s story, I started my work with the text, beginning a skeletal assembly of the ruleset. After my initial review, Kathy and I had several conversations to flesh out that ruleset. Our conversations centered around the desired transmission and reception of the work and then moved to the creation and adaptation of stylistic, grammatical, syntactical, and formal conventions and their effect on the tone of the book.

    Cancer & Love, Booklet 1, Kathy T. Hettinga, saddle-stitched, 5 x 7 in.

    “This work is a bit like creating the laws of physics for a new world—you get to decide together how things operate within the space and you can be flexible and liberal in your choices, opting for non-standard stylistic and formatting elements and conventions that can contribute to the tone, visual appearance, reception, and conveyed meaning of the book. 

    “One goal of the editing process is to eliminate unintentional distractions, like simple mistakes or inconsistencies. The main goal, however, is to help the author to connect to the reader and better transmit his or her desired meaning and feeling. When I returned the files to Kathy, they had the typical markups of simple corrections and straightforward changes, but the real value that I was able to contribute to the project was in the marginal notes. It was here that I described my reception of the piece as a reader and offered suggestions—to be acted upon or not—along with the reasoning behind them. Because this type of editing is more collaborative and less rigid than others, those suggestions often took the form of a description of a potential pitfall, followed by multiple options for its resolution, along with comments on how each option could affect the reader’s reception.

    “More than a year has passed since I returned those files to Kathy. It is a space of time for which I am grateful. It will allow me the distance to return to Cancer & Love in its finished form as something of a fresher recipient of Kathy’s story.”

    Kathy T. Hettinga is a book artist, designer, photographer and hospice chaplain. Awarded the Distinguished Professor of Art, her books are in collections from the Fogg Museum to UCLA. Residencies include: Yale Research Fellow, Luce Center for Arts and Religion, Pyramid Atlantic, WSW and VSW.

    Jerremy Lorch is an independent editor based in Rochester, New York. He has previously been a writing instructor at the University at Buffalo. He holds master’s degrees in English Literature from SUNY Brockport and the University at Buffalo. For more information please visit his Linkedin page:

  • 01 Nov 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The typical codex allows the reader a single, fixed point of view, while the accordion offers the reader, both literally and metaphorically, a panorama of viewpoints. I want to explore some other avenues through which to approach the accordion, namely the domestic sphere and the body. 


    An accordion is a length of paper with alternating equidistant folds that create parallel uniform-sized sections or pages, often with front and back covers or a protective sheath.

    Anne Boyer, in a review of the artist Hannah Wilke’s recent retrospective [1], addresses the centrality to her practice of what Wilke called her “one-fold gestural sculptures”[2], which were small vulva-like folded works that were made from a variety of materials. Boyer, in a particularly lucid response to Wilke’s folded works, inquires into the nature and definition of the ‘fold’ itself: 

    “Folding is the gestural equivalent of paradox, in that it takes what had neither inside nor out and, without transforming its substance, gives it both. Before a flat plane is folded, we know it as surface — superficial, exposed. Once a flat plane has become a fold, the same material becomes an intriguing half-secret — the fold alerts us to the once clandestine affordance of surface." [3]

    Boyer continues, examining the broader landscape in which Wilke’s folded works are located, and notes the following:

    “Important too to Wilke’s work is that the fold is a gesture linked to feminized labor, what was once understood as ‘women’s work’: doing laundry, diapering, preparing dough. The efficiency of the fold, done over and over, mimics the ongoingness of folding as care work, while it simultaneously creates mystery out of shallowness, dimensional form out of apparent flatness.” [4]

    In opening up the activity of folding through the concept of ‘feminized labor’ Boyer also broadens the larger terrain within which folding is located. It becomes clear that folding, as in folding newspapers, letters, dish cloths, napkins, clothes, and all the other myriad things we fold, is an activity deeply embedded, but largely unnoticed, within our everyday lives. 

    Brendan MurphyFolding Linens, oil on wood panel, 2019.

    Locating the domestic sphere as an active site of folding links it to another term for the accordion. Leporello is named after the character in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787), in which Don Giovanni's numerous seductions are exposed by his manservant Leporello, who produces an accordion style list that unfolds to reveal 2,064 names. Leporello’s choice of the accordion format was wise, as the accordion is eminently suitable for economically organizing large or small amounts of information for storage and retrieval. No doubt we have all made shopping lists and folded them to make them more manageable. 

    The term leporello, with its German and Italian origins, has more currency in Europe. In the United States, the preferred term remains accordion, with its own musical connection. The accordion’s innate ability to expand and contract, to fold and unfold, is derived from the opening and closing of the pleats of the bellows of an accordion, which can be likened to that of breathing for a singer.

    The accordion’s often unwieldy length presents the reader with both a physical and intellectual challenge. To hold, and then open, an accordion is to enter into a unique visual and literary relationship with a sculptural object. Closed, an accordion functions as a discrete book-like object and can be read page by page, like a codex. But once opened, it requires spreading one’s arms in a kind of open embrace to take in the measure of the body of the accordion. Add the breath-like expansion and contraction of its folds, and an encounter with an accordion is shaped by a unique physical intimacy. 

    In these intimate interactions, we must fold the accordion into our body to ensure its safety. And, like Hannah Wilke's folded vulvic works, our encounters with accordions make us aware of how our own bodies, with their sheath of endless folds, protect and nourish us. 

    1] Anne Boyer, “Living as Art,” Art in America, September/October, 2021, pp. 38–47. The exhibition was: “Hannah Wilke: Art for Life’s Sake,” Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Saint Louis, 2020–2021.

    2] Nina Renata Aron, “Hannah Wilke’s ‘labial’ artwork challenged both the patriarchy and feminists,”, accessed March 21, 2022. 

    3] Boyer, p. 40.

    4] Ibid, pp. 40–41.


    Stephen Perkins is an art historian, curator, and artist living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the curator of the home gallery Subspace.

  • 15 Oct 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    "It is my purpose to show that many of these famous lines, some written centuries ago, can today be given a new and original interpretation through the dramatic medium of modern photography. In other words, I am attempting to "re-sight" poetry through the lens.”[1]

    "I am sure there cannot be too close a relationship between the photographs and text, for it would be impossible to in any real sense illustrate the text. The question is, how loose can it be?”[2]

    “Photopoetry is more interesting and engaging when the photograph is not a literal illustration of the poem; likewise, if the poem is not a literal description of the photograph. Both poem and photograph should be able to stand alone in their own right.”[3]

    In the conversation here with Levi Sherman in Aug-Sep 2023 on book review platforms and criticism (themselves collaborative endeavors), I mentioned my interest in image/text and in particular combinations (often collaborations) of poetry and photography in book form. With the current display on view at the NGA Library in Washington DC on Poetry and the Book Arts [4] I thought I’d expand a bit more on looking at photopoetry books.

    This is part of an ongoing project to explore the global history of photopoetry publications beginning with the earliest example (as far as I know in 1850) and continuing to the present.  While not a widely recognized category and difficult to search for in library or bookseller catalogs, there is a rich history of making such books and there are currently about 1000 volumes in my collection. These range from unique or deluxe editions to trade publications and zine and chapbook projects. My goals are to collect a wide range of such material, think about how to categorize and assess such work, and hopefully to broaden awareness and interest in the genre.  

    The quotes presented at the top of this post are representative of how I approach looking at photopoetic work - asking not only are the individual works (poems and photographs) interesting in themselves but whether they elicit, encourage, and especially reward revisiting and reinterpreting each other and avoid simple captioning or illustration. This goes along with looking at how the collaboration/combination comes about (e.g., an active partnership, an editor making pairings, one artist doing both) and the arrangement of image and text (e.g. facing pages, different sections). In some cases, the physical book design also plays a key role.[5] These types of questions have also arisen in conversations with the artists and publishers involved with the making of photopoetry books and with other readers and audiences similarly thinking about what makes such books successful, which helps to refine my own understanding of the medium. My intent is to continue to understand how these collaborations work rather than to try to propose a canon.

    For me, these two examples show all of these dimensions including physical designs working together successfully. Both rely on multi-directional unfolding which allow and encourage both multiple entry points and multiple paths through the work and which take advantage of the form of the book to influence the reader’s experience.

    Cover of Flemming Arnholm & Klaus Rifbjerg (untitled - Fotografier og digte fra New York)


    Cover of Iollann O Murchu (One Story Leads to Another)

    The first is an untitled Danish book, published by Forlaget Rhodos in 1969, with photographs by Flemming Arnholm made during work in NY along with poems by Klaus Rifbjerg and design by Michael Malling. The images are street photographs made in NYC in 1968 capturing different aspects and reflecting the pace of city life in the late 1960s while the poems, mostly written years earlier, convey a similar sense of energy while describing various elements of American culture and place unrelated to the images. While it is possible to completely unfold the work (as shown in the illustration), a gradual unfolding and folding of the pages and rotating of the book is more likely. The latter is further encouraged by the different orientations of the images and text and perhaps mimics trying to process all the stimuli experienced routinely while walking through New York.


    Details of the Arnholm/Rifbjerg book

    The second book is One Story Leads to Another (Tarraingíonn Scéal Scéal Eile) self-published in 2022 by Iollann O Murchu with images, text, and design (along with Graham Dow), all hand produced by the artist. The work brings together Irish landscape, mythology, and folklore and if the NY book is working to unsettle the reader this book is much quieter.  As with the NY book, there is no single path through the book but rather collections of images and text that the reader can meander through. Once unfolded, there are 3 separate sections the reader can choose to engage with to experience the atmosphere created by the photographs and text. These elements produce a cumulative effect rather than any narrative or linear one, an effect which might be lost in a conventionally bound book.


    Details of the O Murchu book

     In addition to following up on last month’s conversation, I hope I’ve prompted you to notice and to think more about projects combining poetry and photography and how such books do or don’t work. I’d welcome more discussion and thoughts about this topic - as well as more suggested examples. I’ve also started to investigate critical models for visual poetry - but that is both more elusive and a topic for another post.

    [1] Constance Phillips, Photopoems (Covici Friede, 1936)  This book by Phillips also is the first use of the term photopoem.

    [2] Paul Strand, Time in New England (Oxford University Press, 1950).

    [3] Norman McBeath, Robert Crawford, “Photopoetry: A Manifesto” in Chinese Makars (Easel Press, 2016).

    [4] “In the Library: Poetry and the Book Arts”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

    [5] David Solo, “Photopoetry and the Artists’ Book” in Artist’s Book Yearbook 2022/23 (University of the West of England, 2022), 106-113.


    David Solo is a co-founder and co-editor of Book Art Review (BAR), a criticism initiative founded at Center for Book Arts in 2020 and serves on the boards of the Grolier Club, 10x10 Photobooks and the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation.  He is a collector and researcher based in Brooklyn focused on artists’ books and photobooks.

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