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the incredible, wonderful, ingenious world of artists’ books

Late last year, amid all the wretchedness of pandemic and politics, I was searching for some kind of creative release in the new year. I planned for my upcoming year of reading, and that was a great exercise (which I have written about in a separate blog post). But I needed something more as I struggled to stay informed about yet also distanced from the huge mess unfolding across the country every day. I decided that I wanted to make something, and in the making, I wanted to learn how to slow down, how to focus, and how to exist somewhere beyond the grim realities confronting the nation each day.

Aside from “making” meals, the only things I’ve ever really made with my hands are 7th grade sewing projects, which usually went horribly wrong, and the “books” I’ve made in book arts classes as an adult, which were a lot more fun to work on. Book arts seemed like the perfect antidote, and I started looking online to see what might be available virtually.

The first book arts classes I ever took were at the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB), which I discovered when I lived in Oakland, CA, a number of years ago. I would get on the SFO/Millbrae BART line at Rockridge, and as the train hummed along above ground, winding its way through the West Oakland stops, I would thrill at the marvel that lay ahead, and the trip into one of my favorite cities.

When I arrived on the other side of the Bay, I’d get on a bus at 16th and Mission and take it along Potrero Hill and then under hwy 101, where I would get off and walk to De Haro St. (SFCB has since moved a block over to Rhode Island Street.) There I was introduced to letterpress, bookmaking, and bookbinding. These classes were wonderfully immersive—there was history, there was method and process, there was thought and decision-making, there were new tools to try out and master, and there were so many different materials to touch and manipulate and savor—paper, board, thread, wood, string, ink, metal type. I learned how to arrange type, block it, and ink rollers on a Vandercook press to print broadsheets and other ephemera. I learned how to fold paper into signatures and other structures and how to sew bindings. I was thrilled with my creations: I had crafted these objects with my own hands, and in that crafting, I had experienced the brilliant multidisciplinary and multidimensional nature of the process.

I have googled before to find book arts classes in Madison or even elsewhere in Wisconsin. One of the best resources for this kind of thing is, which runs a list of book arts programs around the country; I have been on their BOOK-ARTS-L listserve for a number of years now. One group listed for Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Center for Book and Paper Arts in Madison, no longer exists, which is very disappointing. The UW-Madison art department offers classes in book arts, but these are, of course, official, semester-long university classes and not open to the public.

So, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in Wisconsin at the moment teaching book arts to the general public. I did consider SFCB’s workshops, as a lot of them have gone online during covid, but I thought I would run into conflicts with the time difference. Then I found the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) in Minneapolis. On their website I learned that they have been holding workshops online, as well, during the pandemic, and I’m in the same time zone, so it seemed like it should work. I took a quick look at their class options, some of which were sold out, but I found one listed for January and February that was still open—Non-Linear Artist’s Books. The blurb read, “Explore artist’s books that defy front-to-back reading.” This sounded intriguing, and I immediately signed up.

The class would meet on Tuesday nights for six weeks for a total of 15 contact hours. Several weeks later I started gathering the supplies I would need—the bone folders, rulers, exacto knife, thread, needles, etc.—consulting the list they provided and hunting in a closet for the tools I had acquired when I took the classes at SFCB. I couldn’t find my cutting mat, so eventually I ordered one from Blick Art Materials (Alvin brand). To my surprise it came with a warning saying that the state of California has classified one of the materials in the mat as a carcinogen. I wrote to Blick and asked what the material was and if it had to be ingested or inhaled. I learned that the problem is with the phthalates, which make the cutting mats flexible and bendy. Most of the documented harm comes from ingesting these chemicals, and it turns out they are used widely in the food industry. So, while it would be unlikely that I would be ingesting my cutting mat, what about this other kind of exposure? This is a problem I need to research further.

The first class met on January 5th. The zoom screen displayed about twelve faces, including my own, all of us peering out from our respective squares. MCBA administrative staff welcomed us and talked about the zoom and Google Classroom environments that we would be using. Then we met our instructor, Yuka Petz. Some of the students were in Minnesota, and some were in different states. As we introduced ourselves, I learned that a number of these people were artists who were also working in book arts, and some were librarians like myself.

Yuka’s guidance deftly blended instruction with discovery—that first night she walked us through nine different one-sheet books. I managed to make each one and finish it just before she got us started on the next one, but I had to work quickly. On zoom she was able to highlight her workspace, and we could watch her perform the necessary steps before trying them on our own. I used white, 8 ½ x 11 paper that we keep on hand for our home printer. We folded and scored and folded some more to make these nine structures with their various features: one book had flaps, one had pockets, some were accordion folds, some we cut along particular lines so that they would open up into a maze of surfaces and alternating directions. We also learned about paper grain and how to test for where to fold—the aim is to fold with the grain and not against it. If you take any piece of paper and gently test in which direction it most easily bends, that’s the direction of the grain.

Each week that followed we focused on a particular type of structure: we made flexagons, pamphlet books, French door books with non-adhesive bindings, flag books, and volvelles. Flexagons are fun creatures; you fold the paper back and forth in such a way that when finished you can reveal hidden surfaces when the items are “flexed” this way and that. They remind me of the little folded papers we made as kids, where we wrote something silly on each surface, and as we folded and then flexed the structure in and out, we generated strings of nonsense. Flexagons were created quite by accident apparently in 1939 by a British mathematician, Arthur H. Stone, when he was a student at Princeton and tried to remedy the fact that the standard size American paper didn’t fit well in his binders. Pamphlet books are small items with just one or two signatures and a simple stitched binding. French door books have covers that look like French double doors that open and close to reveal the interior pages of the book; I was fascinated with the non-adhesive binding we used on these, which is achieved by a clever overlay of papers that tuck into each other. My favorite was the flag book, which has multiple surfaces that jump out and are all revealed when the book is fully opened; they are quite easy to make. Volvelles are wheel charts and date back to the Middle Ages when they were used to calculate the position of the sun and moon; they are thought to be some of the earliest examples of an “analog computer,” on paper.

Another favorite structure is the "dos-a-dos," a pamphlet book whose oppositional parts form a mirror image of each other.

I had some trouble initially finding paper for each class. I didn’t have much paper at home that I thought would be suitable, so I ordered some from Talas, but I naively selected some really big sizes that I wasn’t able to cut down. I resorted to scrounging for paper around the house, which was actually quite fun, and I ended up using pages from two different 2020 calendars. One was a National Parks vintage poster calendar, and the gorgeous, colorful images were on heavier stock, which I used for covers the week we made the pamphlet books. I used lighter paper on some of the other books, which was from a desk-sized calendar, and it felt rather good to cut up the days and months of a horrible year.

Yuka also made time at the beginning of each class to view what classmates had made in the past week based on the structures we were learning. I shared something early on, a card I made for my husband’s birthday based on a one-sheet structure we learned the first night, which has pockets. My husband has started brewing his own beer, and I created spaces for him to record which beers he likes and which he doesn’t like; he writes his reviews on strips of index cards and stores these tabs in their corresponding pocket for future reference.

During each class Yuka also directed us to many online resources for viewing and learning more about artists currently producing artists’ books. I have been trying to find the words to express the incredible volume of output by people working in this area, and there simply is no way to capture the sheer number of talented and thoughtful artists creating artists’ books today. There’s just so much amazing work out there! So, I can’t even begin to do this justice by providing a few links to websites, but here are some anyway that we looked at in class:

1. The Cynthia Sear’s collection of artists’ books, founder of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Here is a recent video about two works in the collection that explore issues of social justice.

2. Hedi Kyle, attributed with creating the first flag book.

3. Julie Chen and Flying Fish Press.

There are numerous outstanding collections of artists’ books around the country, largely held in art libraries and rare books and special collections libraries. The one I’m most familiar with is the one held by the UW-Madison Kohler Art Library, with over 1,000 items, now thoughtfully curated by the director of the library, Lyn Korenic. This collection dates to the early 1970s and includes work from more than 150 artists. I was lucky enough to see and handle some of these books when I was in grad school for library studies. I took the art librarianship class, taught by Lyn and another librarian at the Kohler, and one of our assignments was a project built around this collection—as a group, our class mounted an exhibit. We made decisions around a theme, and then worked on selection, arrangement, labeling, and publicity. We named our exhibit “Mobile Devices: Conveying Movement in Text, Image, and Material.”

There are other options for encountering artists’ books that don’t require knowing which libraries might have holdings. Each year there are numerous book fairs held across the country where the artists themselves set up their work for visitors to view. When I was still in the Bay Area, I went to a book fair held in Richmond at the Craneway Pavilion, sponsored by the CODEX Foundation. I went twice, and all I can say is—WOW. Exquisite, graceful works alongside ingenious inventions—it was a dazzling array, and even after two visits, I had barely taken in the incredible scope on display. Very inspiring, as well, and I went home with the goal of doing some creating on my own.

How-to books abound, and Yuka recommended several standouts to get us started:

1. The Art of the Fold: How to Make Innovative Books and Paper Structures, by Hedi Kyle and Ulla Warchol (Laurence King Publishing, 2018). Yuka studied under Hedi Kyle and suggested we familiarize ourselves with her incredible work.

2. Creating Handmade Books, Alisa Golden (Sterling, 2000).

3. How to Make Books, Esther K. Smith (Purgatory Pie Press and Random House, 2007).

One week I asked Yuka about the history of artists’ books and when they began to emerge as a genre, and she pointed me to Johanna Drucker’s seminal, critical analysis of artists’ books: The Century of Artist’s Books (Granary Books, 2004). I’m curious about the origin of this genre, but I’m also simply trying to work out what an artist’s book is and if there is a way to characterize a genre in which each work is so unique that no two are alike.

I have just started Drucker’s book, and in the first chapter she sets out some useful guideposts. She states that an artists’ book “…is a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work.” [2] She goes on to compare artists’ books with livres d’artistes, which are generally books about an artist’s work. Even though at face value these two terms mean exactly the same thing, there is in fact a world of difference between the two. Drucker says that an artist’s book instead,

"…interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities. This is perhaps one of the most important distinguishing criteria of the two forms, since artists’ books are almost always self-conscious about the structure and meaning of the book as a form." [4]

Holland Cotter, one of the chief art critics for the New York Times, wrote the introduction to her book. His comments provide further insight. He states,

"The books documented in The Century of Artists’ Books transform the condition of bookness, and complicate it. They change its status from secondary to primary, from instrumental to originative, from common to rare, without renouncing other identities. Many of the artists’ books in Johanna Drucker’s ground-breaking work are hand-made and unique, or produced in small, precious editions. Others qualify for inclusion, no matter what their press run, simply by constructively dismantling an array of definitional/oppositional terms: form, content; specific, common; original, copy." [xi]

His list of opposites, I think, get at the very crux of what artists’ books are and what they are not.

As February closes, I’ve been lucky to attend two free, virtual book arts conferences, which have helped me further “interrogate” this genre. The first one was held by Book Paper Thread, an organization run by three book artists who offer online workshops throughout the year. The second conference was put on by the Center for Books Arts in New York City, an organization founded in 1974 that offers classes, lectures, performances, exhibits, and more, in collaboration with Printed Matter's Virtual Art Book Fair.

One of my favorite presentations in the Book Paper Thread conference was by Beth Shoemaker, the rare book librarian at Rose Library, Emory University, who talked about their extensive collection of artists’ books and how she acquires and catalogs these items. You can view her talk here. In the Center for Book Arts conference, I have attended one session so far, a panel on the criticism of artists’ books, with Johanna Drucker as one of the participants. Her comments were instructive and offered even more direction in understanding what artists’ books are. She noted that a writer, in creating their work, is not usually concerned with the materiality of the finished product. And she’s right—a writer produces their manuscript, which then goes to a publisher for the remainder of the publishing process, and it’s usually there that decisions about font and format, and ink, paper, cover art, and binding are all made. But for an artist making an artist’s book, the material is very intentional—it is in fact the medium onto which they cast their project.

Here’s my takeaway from my recent dive into this genre: I’m really pleased that amid such extraordinary talent and skill and precision, and amid a discipline that continues to establish its artistry and rigor, there is room for a novice like me. I will definitely be taking more classes with MCBA, and I’m interested in learning more about their certificate programs, which several of the students in Yuka’s class are pursuing.

And I do have some ideas I’d like to work on this year, now that I’ve jumped back into the fray:

1. A book that serves as a “syllabus” for the class I just took.

2. A book to showcase the 52-week photo challenge I’m doing on Facebook, along with the blurbs that I include with each.

3. One of the most entertaining sites that Yuka showed us is the “cut-up machine”—you type in text and it jumbles it up for you as a way to see the configuration of words from a surprisingly different angle. They attribute this idea to William S. Burroughs and the Dadaists. I am particularly taken with the non-linear possibilities here. I played around with the text from a Jane Austen book I had sitting nearby, Lady Susan. I typed in:

"You may well wonder how I contrive to pass my time here—and for the first week, it was most insufferably dull. Now, however, we begin to mend; our party is enlarged by Mrs Vernon’s brother, a handsome young man, who promises me some amusement." [52]

And this is what the cut-up machine produced from these lines:

pass dull begin is it wonder me mend young You was may handsome some brother and to however most Vernon’s first to how here I Mrs for my who promises contrive Now time we enlarged amusement insufferably by our the a man well party week

So, to close, here is my own definition of artists’ books, in the making:

When we think of a “book,” we think of a codex—a structure with a front and back cover and gathered sheets in between that we turn and view in a linear fashion. What appeals, I believe, about artists’ books—both for the creator and the reader—is the way in which artists’ books both recognize and challenge this convention: they pay homage to the traditional book structure and then subvert it, fully conscious of the leap and celebratory about the novel form that has emerged.


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