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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 Dec 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When did text become content? Using the idea of transition in book art as a presented viewpoint, one way to examine this transition is by looking at both the vocabulary of bookmaking and the language/s used in the books themselves. If we choose one set of terms, text and content, we can consider one point in time when the vocabulary of bookmaking moved from discussing the historically correct text-and-illustration axis toward referring to the various aspects of the book – words, pictures, materials, form – as its content.

    This transition from text to content has its contemporary grounding in the 1970s, when the term artists’ books first came to prominence. (Stefan Klima places the first use of the term in 1973.) [1] The roots are formed in a complex web of events and movements that appropriately do not limit themselves to simpler categorizations. One avenue moves through the territory of conceptual art. This pathway led the art historian Lucy Lippard to consider the artist’s book the paradigmatic art dematerialized object, which she does partially by assigning literary value – that is, text – to books such as those of the wordless books of Los Angeles pop artist Ed Ruscha. Other aspects of Lippard’s definition – use of a serial scheme, time-motion involvement, and above all a denial of the expected identity of the form--help us to begin to formulate a definition for artists’ books, which is of course still elusive nearly forty years later. [2]

    Lippard along with others opened Printed Matter in NYC in 1976, which helped to solidify the place of the democratic multiple as cheap, portable and accessible, important for their “adaptability as instruments for extension to a far broader public.” [3]

    Lippard was also a pivotal voice in another movement of importance to a transitional art world, based in second-wave feminism. Her interest in the democratic stance of artists’ books (in her definition of them) is echoed in the philosophy of the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building. From there, in 1975, the graphic designer Sheila de Bretteville and her founding colleagues artist Judy Chicago and art historian Arlene Raven stressed the need to contextualize women’s design through the just-polished lens of feminist art historicism.

    The women’s work that de Bretteville promoted had much in common with Lippard’s de-materialized object, as reflected specifically in the 1975 catalogue, Women and the Printing Arts. [4] The emphasis in this work was “mass produced personal statements” with a focus on production methods, the use of multiples and a reciprocity at the maker-reader axis through the use of invited response to the work in question. The word creativity is in fact avoided in nearly all of the early descriptions of these multiples in favor of less signifying words and phrases such as ‘activity’ in the ‘printing arts.’

    The 1970s provide us with several avenues for tracking some new directions in bookmaking. In Rochester, NY, Visual Studies Workshop was already actively seeking new solutions to expression through the book, through books by its co-founder, Joan Lyons, and the work of many other artists.

    On the West Coast, the deep tradition of fine printing provided a pathway for using the abandoned technology of letterpress to cross over into territory that afforded more opportunity for a stronger integration of elements and a more conceptually-based framework from which to operate. This territory was informed in part by an active and visible alternative culture, with its appropriation of conventional forms such as the Art Nouveau poster and the comic book to speak to new and selective audiences. In San Francisco the prankster has been an endearing presence, and in the 1970s Holbrook Teter and Michael Meyers used traditional letterpress and relief printmaking techniques along with found images to turn their books into performance art. [5]

    Other publishers whose self-definition was vacillating between literary fine press printer and book artist were subverting the fine press format to create revisions to the codex form, while visual artists like Nat Dean were studying traditional fine binding in order to translate its principles into a new language of form and scale. And the conservators, particularly Gary Frost and the energetic teacher Hedi Kyle, were traveling the country peddling their explorations of form at weekend workshops. Based on the necessary exploration of materials and the need for non-intrusive binding models, these conservators were explaining in a fundamental new way, as Frost puts it, how to operate a book.

    As these books began to migrate from the library to the gallery, the problems associated with exhibiting 3-D, tactile, often small-scale forms in a white cube whose hallmarks were size, distance, and untouchability sent many artists seeking more sculptural forms for their work in order to make them accessible in that format. While that experiment continues, there is now little need to challenge the comprehensive meaning of content in contemporary artists’ bookmaking, nor to question the acceptance of new dialects in the language of the book.


    This essay was first delivered as a paper in 2003. It is offered here in the spirit of continued appreciation for the history and development of artists’ books.

     

    [1] Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A critical survey of the literature. NY: Granary Books, 1998.

    [2] See Lippard, Lucy, ed. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 . . . Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1973.

    [3] Lippard, Lucy. “The Artist’s Book Goes Public.” Lyons, Joan, ed. Artists’ Books: A critical anthology and sourcebook. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, p. 48.

    [4] Women and the Printing Arts: a catalog is a set of 38 ring-bound 5x7” cards, each advertising a different book by women artists, most of whom were connected with the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building, Los Angeles. It was designed by Janet Bubar, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Penelope Suess and issued in 1977.

    [5] For information and work by Teter and Myers, partners in Zephyrus Image, see Alastair Johnston, Zephyrus Image: A bibliography, Berkeley: Poltroon Press, 2003, and Spirit Photography: A Fireside Book of Gurus, a facsimile produced by Cuneiform Press in 2012.

     

    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 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.com @stephaniewolffstudio


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

    Recently we had a post about a book that was made from a series of paintings, carefully lit and photographed, color corrected to get as close as possible to the originals, ending with a link where to buy the book. Along the way is the story of the Kickstarter campaign to raise production funds. Is this book art theory? Is it book art? 

    In a 2015 post, Elizabeth Kealy-Morris quotes Johanna Drucker, defining the artist’s book as: “… a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work and […] a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues.” [1]

    Is the book of paintings an art book rather than an artist book? Does it matter? A text was added to the book, but although many images of the paintings are shown, the text is not. If it is an important part of the book, integral to it as a work of art, the relationship between the text and paintings should be seen in the post, not just inferred. Does intent make a difference? 

    I happen to like the concept behind the paintings, but that’s not the point. I ask: is the economics of book art a suitable subject for a book art theory blog? We’ve had other posts about the economics of publishing, but is selling a specific book, whether art book or book art, something that the blog should do?

    We’ve completed seven years of twice monthly Book Art Theory blog posts, about 170 things to think about. The authors are mostly practitioners, varying in experience, including college students, recent graduates, unaffiliated artists, librarians, publishers, and senior faculty who have created and administered book art programs. 

    In 2016 we voted to revise the blog’s mission statement. You can read all about that, and the theories behind the Book Art Theory Blog. We aim to make it more inclusive, with diverse voices and representation from marginalized communities and individuals. Some book artists are misfits who got into this field as a refuge. I identify with this and have had students from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who were marginalized within their communities as strange. 

    It’s worth reading every post on this blog. Sometimes the essay prompts discussion as interesting as the original post, such as Critical Questions. Blog posts often present a personal experience of working, whether it’s making as meditation, studio as sanctuary, or haptic nostalgia.

    Among the topics addressed with insight and good links are social engagement, critique of bookworks, preciousness, experimentation, and legibilities,

    A theme that has been appearing more frequently is the politics of book art.  Several posts are on gatekeeping, inclusivity, and cultural appropriation within the field. Some take up a specific issue, like gun safety. Others deal with the general dynamics of book art as activism and the conceptual framework of publishing book art. 

    Peter Tanner took a chronological approach to this blog and came up with a different set of posts. Well worth your time to explore.

    There’s something to learn from each post, even those by novices who are thinking about topics that have been explored for decades but they approach naively. Sometimes that gives a fresh viewpoint. And if you have something to add on the subject, participate! It’s a conversation.

    [1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004) 2.

    Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.



  • 15 Oct 2022 5:38 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    This story is continued from the previous post

    For years I’ve split my time between a graphic design career and making paintings. My first design job was at a magazine, then I moved through a couple different agencies over the years before going freelance. This meant that I had the tools, knowledge, and experience to create a professional-quality book of my paintings. The biggest challenge in making a book wouldn’t be the design process, it would be the funding.

    In order to produce a first edition of books, I’d be pretty far in the hole before I had a single sale. Even a small run of small books could cost thousands of dollars. What I needed were pre-orders. If collectors could buy their copy ahead of time, I could run the edition once I had enough orders confirmed in advance.

    With the next Lent quickly approaching, I decided to use that season to collect pre-orders through the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. (Forty days is a little long for a crowdfund, but that number carried so much meaning for the project—I couldn’t resist making that connection.) I put together a marketing plan to launch my Kickstarter campaign complete with photo-realistic mock-ups of the book and a rough production schedule.


    See the crowdfunding campaign webpage and watch Brian’s overview video on Kickstarter.

    I contacted a videographer and an editor and began to plan a project overview video explaining what I made, what I learned, and how excited I was to turn it into a book. I set tiered offerings that could be added on to a book pre-order including postcard and poster sized art prints, and I promised to autograph them.

    In the first 24 hours, I received enough pre-orders to get the project 40% funded. Later that week it passed 50%. After 40 days of waiting, thanks to family, friends, and strangers, the project was fully funded. With the initial hurdle overcome, I had a new challenge: real orders to fulfill.


    First, I set up a photoshoot in soft natural light and captured detailed, high-resolution images of each painting. I found that lighting the surface of each work at a slight angle helped the canvas texture and the metallic gold accents stand out well. Then I painstakingly touched up each image and color-corrected it to look as accurate as possible to the original paintings.


    Laying out the book was fairly intuitive. I kept the pages sparse with a clean white background and simple, classic typefaces. I wanted to print the paintings at actual size: 4 inches square. This would lend a sense of realism, allowing the viewer to clearly see the canvas texture and brush marks. The 40 paintings have been laid out across nearly twice as many pages. This left enough room to intersperse short phrases of poetic prayer that Victoria wrote. (Learn more about Victoria and her involvement in this project in Part 1 of this post.) I also included introductory pages and a few closing statements that tie in with Good Friday and Easter at the end of Lent. Instead of typical page numbers, I decided to number each painting. This would allow a viewer to keep track of the passing of Lent with a daily painting.

    For the cover, I planned a contrasting dark dust jacket that featured metallic gold accents from one of the paintings.

    Adapting this collection of paintings into an artist book is the perfect form to naturally pace a viewer slowly through the collection, allowing them to consider each painting one at a time and interact with the work at actual size—it’s the next best thing to seeing the full collection in person. As of this writing, I’ll be getting a proof copy from the printer any day now, and I’m eager to preview it.

    Successfully launching my first crowdfund was stressful and thrilling. I’m thankful to see the support for this project, and I’m honored for the opportunity to create my first artist book from a collection that has been so meaningful for me creatively and spiritually.

    Solemn Season is still in production with expected delivery dates in early December. Around that time, a limited number of signed, first-edition copies will be available at http://www.BrianCBehm.com.


    Brian Behm is an artist working at the intersection of abstract and sacred art. His home studio is in the woods near Durham, North Carolina, and his work can be found online on Instagram or at his website where he sells work directly to collectors and accepts commissions.


    This post was moderated by Kathy Hettinga.


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


    It was quite by happenstance that I stumbled upon the concept of placing my paintings in a book. In fact, the idea wasn’t even my own; my spouse, Victoria, suggested it. The idea hit me with a bright burst of energy. A limited, signed first edition would be the perfect vehicle to share my most recent series of small paintings.

    About a year prior—at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic—Victoria and I quarantined with our kids at her parents’ farmette in rural Pennsylvania. After a few months, we got news that Victoria was accepted to Duke University to study theology, so we all decided to move together (my in-laws in tow), to central North Carolina. There, in a disrupted routine, without a proper studio available, I wondered what would be next for me artistically.


    Many of my recent abstract and landscape paintings explore the horizon line as a metaphor of the meeting place of the divine and the human. I develop an atmosphere on either side of that thin line with deep brown, subtle grays, and muted blues. Often, I punctuate the soft environments with stark black or white, or rich 18 karat gold. It becomes a conversation between foreground and sky—something like a prayer. I’ve enjoyed leaning into painting as a means to explore spiritual connections and church traditions.

    Most church traditions, however, are fairly new to me. I was raised in a big American church—the kind of church that had a multiple-thousand-seat auditorium instead of a sanctuary—so when the season of Lent came around, it intrigued me. In reading and talking with Victoria, I came to understand Lent as something powerful and poignant for exactly the time we were going through. There was the pandemic, of course, which upended everything, and I was in a season of lament, uncertainty, and self-examination. Similarly, Lent, as I came to learn, is a somber period of waiting and reflection, a time to remember that the world is not as it should be, nor as it will stay. With that knowledge, I wanted to see what it would look like to participate in the tradition for the first time. I decided to create 40 four-inch paintings over the 40 days of Lent.


    On February 17th, Ash Wednesday, I began the daily ritual of creating a single, introspective painting in contemporary, minimalist marks. I worked in a restrained style with contrasting elements juxtaposed purposefully: light and dark, precious and common, hopeful and somber, holy and base. Metallic gold accents reference the use of gold in holy sites around the world and in centuries of art on crosses, halos, and statues. I also used gold to mark each Sunday in Lent with a blank, all-gold canvas. On those days, I didn’t paint. This lined up with the weekly sabbath rest, which is typically taken as a break from the observation of Lent.

    As I created the pieces, I posted them on my Instagram account and enjoyed discussing the pieces with viewers in the comments. When the series was complete, I considered how to present the work. Ultimately, the series worked best when presented in a modified grid that matched the calendar layout of the days of Lent. It begins at the top of the 4th column, a Wednesday, and rows are filled out sequentially, with every Sunday being noted by a blank, all-gold canvas as the first painting in each row of 7 days.


    Solemn Season, Brian Behm, 2021, Acrylic and 18k Gold on Canvas.

    In the end, I sold the piece as a set to a collector in Tennessee who was eager to show it off in a revolving series of churches. Afterward, though, I felt there was more that could be done with the piece. I could make postcards out of them. Or a large poster that showed all of them. Maybe I could sell prints? But I was skeptical there would be interest in those things. I discussed this foggy thought with Victoria, who, by then, was neck-deep in a masters program at Duke and was about half way to receiving her degree.

    “Why don’t you make a book?” she offered. As I thought about it, I got chills.

    That’s ingenious! A book!

    The sequential nature of the project fits nicely into the pacing of pages. The book would need to be small, intimate, something you can easily hold in your lap. And I thought it should include some writing. With all of her involvement in my processing, not to mention her continuing theological studies, Victoria was the perfect candidate. I asked her to write a longform poetic prayer that I could intersperse between the prints of the paintings. The plan was set. This will be great.

    But how do I make a book? .  .   .  to be continued.

     

    Brian Behm is an artist working at the intersection of abstract and sacred art. His home studio is in the woods near Durham, North Carolina, and he can be found online on Instagram or at his website where he sells work directly to collectors and accepts commissions.


    This post was moderated by Kathy Hettinga.

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

    “Out of a playful movement of elements whose interrelations are not immediately apparent, patterns arise which an observant and critical intellect can only evaluate afterwards. The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.” Carl Jung

    “The best way to have a great idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Linus Pauling

    Mock-ups and sketches are fundamental to my artistic practice, and I would posit that they are fundamental to most creative endeavors. Yet so often we focus on the finished product giving little regard to the many mock-ups that occurred before the finished piece. This act of creating multiple iterations offers valuable lessons and developments in emotional growth and skill building. Though students often desire to skip this process in an effort to save time, and established artists may cut corners confident in their experience, both rob themselves of the unexpected discoveries that occur when you experiment with size and materials. 

    The creation of mock-ups is a way of thinking through the hands, an act of play, an application of design thinking. Play has often been defined as being a spontaneous activity that is joyful, having the absence of consequences and the removal of constraint. [1] The mock-up is the act of play applied to design thinking.

    Nielsen Norman Group

    There is no way to replicate the freedom of association that can occur when the mind is allowed to be “absent of consequence and constraint,"[2] at least for a little while.

    I am reminded of a story relayed in Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It is said that a ceramics professor divided his class at the beginning of the semester into two groups. One group would be graded based on quantity and the other on quality. The students in the quantity group would be graded on the number of pots they produced and the quality group was to be graded on producing one “perfect” pot. When the day came to inspect the work, it was clear that the quantity students had produced the higher quality work because they learned from the experience of every pot they built while the students responsible for producing a single pot had mostly spent their time theorizing their designs and did not have the physical understanding of the medium to execute the work. Creating mock-ups removes the pressure of perfectionism and allows you to focus on creating intimate knowledge of the material. Ironically, it is the understanding of the medium through “play” that enables a higher level of execution in future constructions. 

    Respecting the value of mocking-up ideas is one of the most powerful tools for both artists and scholars. We would all do well to remember the value of mock-ups both as a way to build experiential knowledge and as potential reference tools. They don’t have to be pretty or perfect; they just need to help you decipher pros and cons of each option conceived and tested. Studying mock-ups/prototypes also assists scholarly speculation in tracing the progress and development of book forms, techniques, and artistic voices. It is my hope that more book artists and especially those who are also educators will strongly promote and share the prototyping side of their creative practices.

    [1] Gareth Loudon, Gina Deininger, Paul Wilgeroth, “The Importance of Play and Creativity in the Design Curriculum,” International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education, Artesis University College, Antwerp, Belgium, September 6-7, 2012.The Importance of Play and Creativity in the Design Curriculum

    [2] Ibid.


    Jerushia Graham is Museum Coordinator for Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking. She served as the North American Hand Papermakers’ inaugural VP of Exhibitions/Curatorial. The Georgia Committee for the National Museum of Women in the Art has recognized her artwork. Graham earned her Book Arts/Printmaking MFA from the University of the Arts. https://jerushiagraham.wixsite.com/jerushiagraham

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

    As a child, the library was one of my favorite places. I would spend hours lost in fantasy novels, art history books, comic books, and science magazines. I still get the same feeling of adventure and wonder when I enter a library or open a new book. Books are an invitation to belong.

    By 2017, I am a graduate student in an interdisciplinary book arts program. I am exploring what print media can do; how words and images work, how pages and bindings themselves can tell stories. I am fascinated and inspired by the endless ways that my peers and mentors reinvent the book. I experiment with letterpress, offset lithography, and screen printing, artist books, zines, comics, and video.

    The program feels like a home for me and my peers, but even as we are finding our voices, the walls start coming down around us. The college decides book arts aren’t relevant (i.e., lucrative), and as we try to finish our degrees, walls are literally torn down, architects interrupt our work to measure floors, presses are sold, and our hard-working mentors are laid off. The community I have with my cohort never goes away, but academia no longer feels like a place I belong.

    Now in 2022, I’m not sure where I belong — in the city, the book and print communities, or in my career. Creating our own paths as artists is powerful, but when artists must make ends meet by piecing together gigs, only the very lucky or very privileged can make it. Only artists with family money can risk going months without work. For those of us who are not so privileged, pursuing art can have serious consequences for our wellbeing. Even knowing the risks, we choose this path because we need art in our lives. It is unjust that the game of professional art is easy for some and life-or-death for so many others.

    When artists like me have limited access to institutional resources and struggle to survive as independent artists, it impairs our creativity and the entire field. As an artist preoccupied with survival, my work takes much longer to incubate and develop. Without a community studio, I work at home, where I must acquire my own tools instead of sharing abundant communal ones. Freelance work, which I enjoy, at times takes me from projects that align with my core practice. Hustling for limited opportunities creates competition, which can discourage artists from collaborating or lifting one another up. Together these obstacles make our work much harder, and steer us away from the rich collaboration, dialogue, and innovation that we all seek.

    The field of book arts also loses something when artists are not welcomed or supported. When classist, racist and sexist systems marginalize working-class, BIPOC, and women and trans artists, the arts lose diversity of thought and perspective. If all artists were supported by their communities, our discourse, debate, research, and innovation would improve.

    In Chicago, many brilliant people are building better support systems. Sixty Inches from Center and Chuquimarca support scholars and artists and foster important conversations about who belongs in the art world. The Chicago Arts Census collects data to improve working conditions for us all. And while Chicago has a few community print studios, I haven’t always felt welcome in these spaces as an Indigenous artist, a working-class artist, or a queer trans woman. It can be exhausting just to be the only brown person, or trans person, in a room. Even with the efforts above, we need more spaces of our own.

    When I imagine an art world where we belong, I see community studios that aren’t exclusive or prohibitively expensive to join. I see universal healthcare and guaranteed income. I see grassroots groups pooling resources, knowledge, and networks for their collective benefit. I see society-wide, WPA-style art programs, without the nationalism.

    Book and print arts could soar. Freed from minimum wage, meager contracts, or racist institutions, we could all create better art. We could take greater conceptual and practical risks, and we could do the job that artists have always had: tell stories that comfort the marginalized and challenge the powerful.


    River Kerstetter is a queer transfeminine artist of Onʌyota'a:ka and European descent based in Chicago. She explores memory, identity, and history through printmaking and design. River is a co-founder of the Center for Native Futures in Chicago, and co-hosts TIES, a reading series for Indigenous queer, trans, and Two-Spirit writers.


  • 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.

    This post was moderated by Kathy Walkup.


  • 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.

    This post was moderated by Kathy Walkup


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