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

What are some considerations as an artist book is planned? 

Lately I’ve been thinking about this topic, prompted in part by a comment from artist Sarah Nicholls. There are probably as many approaches as artists. I know I haven’t used the same one for each project. Sometimes an idea comes quickly, inspired by an observation or experience. Other times ideas emerge from deep research, reading, and thinking about a topic, and much experimentation. 

Regardless of how ideas come, here are some broad questions one might consider as the work evolves. 

1. What is my piece about?

If I can write this down, it’s helpful both for making the work, as well as presenting it. A succinct statement can be a touchstone as the work evolves, and it can evolve as well. 

2. Who is my audience? 

This was the question Sarah Nicholls mentioned to me, one that she keeps in mind. She paired that with: When is the work for (now and/or later)? I hadn’t thought in those terms exactly, but they are good questions. And they lead to follow-up ones. If I know who will read the book, where, how often, and why it would be read, it can affect decisions about materials, structure, final cost, distribution, access, and even content. For example, if a book is delicate or complicated to operate, certain collectors may have less interest. I can always choose to ignore the question of audience, if I just want to make the work I want to make. And sometimes it does find an audience.

3. How can I keep a high level of craft?

This is of importance to me. I generally want to produce all parts of my work myself. But sometimes there are stumbling blocks to this: access to equipment or lack of expertise in a technique. Hiring fabricators or collaborating with others can solve this problem, but it can increase a budget and add challenges to an efficient workflow. Some projects will be worth the added expense and complexity. When it is not, I can change the means of production to something I can do well. Limitations can sometimes inspire creative solutions, but it can be a frustration. 

An artist book of mine, largely completed in mid-2019, remains unfinished for such reasons. I imagined a wooden box that would both protect and activate the item, but finding the right woodworker was a challenge at the time. I reconsidered my concept to something I could build myself, but that solution wasn’t quite right. I still haven’t prioritized completion of the project, but finding a way to achieve my original concept is on my list of goals for 2023.

4. What are the economics of the project?

Detailed budgets are valuable and especially important if using fabricators or expensive materials. They are also helpful in determining a cost-effective edition size and in justifying (if only to myself) the price I ask for my work. This includes keeping track of the labor for the book’s production. There are real costs in making art, and it’s important to know them.

5. How can I complete the book?

Let’s face it, many of us have ideas that we explore and eventually discard. It can be a challenge to complete a project. Here are a few suggestions to keep on track:

• Care about the idea. If I don’t care about it, others probably won’t. And I’ll be less likely to finish the work. I’ve put projects aside or dropped ideas and moved on after working with them for a time. There’s no harm in that. Sometimes there’s not enough there.

• Write out a schedule to keep momentum. Or a set of instructions to complete a particular task. Anything seems possible when broken down into manageable steps. I find this especially useful when working on an edition or reacquainting myself with a technique, even if it’s just the order in which to proceed.

• Make the project big enough for budget and time efficiencies, but not too big or complicated that it becomes unmanageable or lasts longer than my interest in the topic. Maintain an effort-reward balance. 

• Have an accountability partner to help each other stay on track with projects. This has been useful for me in the past. More important I find is to have a first reader-viewer who helps me know how someone interacts and understands the book. These don’t need to be the same person. As an independent artist, it’s very valuable to have conversations about my projects with trusted art friends.

I once gave a very complete model to someone for feedback. Not only did I see her stumble slightly with the form, but she didn’t quite understand the text as it was until I added one more line of information. I was too close to the subject matter to realize these issues until I witnessed someone reading the book. Because I hadn’t finished the book yet, I could make adjustments. 

• Make the entire edition at once. My editions tend to be small, but I find it more efficient to set up in production mode and complete the edition in one span of time. And it feels great to have it completed.

What questions do you ask yourself? What are your considerations?

Stephanie Wolff works with paper, text, textile and the book form, often with content drawn from research in libraries and archives. Her artist books have been exhibited in the U.S. and Germany and are in many collections, public and private. She teaches book arts workshops both online and in person. @stephaniewolffstudio

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