Monday, November 29, 2010

Challenge the Character

I've got this phrase written twice in my notes, on separate pages. That means Peter Orner has said it more than once in class and it resonated with me. Why challenge a character? To see what s/he is made of, to see what kind of a human being s/he is. (For ease of reading I'm going with "she" now.) Is she timid? A bully? Reluctant? Aggressive? Feeling entitled? Generous? Her reaction shows who she is without labeling or describing her. The old "show, don't tell" mantra. It is much more interesting to read what a character does rather than a description of who the narrator says she is.

How do you challenge a character? Look at what the person is doing, then figure out a stumbling block for her. The stumbling block is most interesting when one character is challenged by another character. Examples: being approached for gas money in a parking lot, being asked for directions, getting on a crowded bus, being asked to deliver an unknown package. These examples lead to the idea that someone wants something from this character. Her response will give you a clue to her personality. She may ignore the favor, hand out spare change, let someone go first or push her way to a seat, wish to please or to avoid all conflict. Let the character speak for herself and see what happens.

A story from an artist's book I made in 2007 called T/ravel: Body.
 Your Good Deed
He asks for my help. He is balanced there, on the sidewalk, leaning on an aluminum frame. I look up from my purposeful walk into his face, lined, with eyes directly on me. Somehow he has gotten down long stone steps and needs something. I am startled by his request to a stranger, me. I feel my cheeks burning.
    “Go into the garage, Unplug the cord. Press the button. Lift the wire to steer it.” His voice is steady, grounded.
    One short pause seems too long. Should I do this? The cinder-block garage is five feet from me. The warped door is open. I can see the scooter in front. Who can hurt me, here? My heart is pounding. I worry about social interactions with strangers. Everything feels like a trap. Sometimes actions are like jumping into the pool. I jump: I go into the garage.
    I press the button on the scooter, but nothing happens.
    I'm failing already.
    Flailing, I suddenly remember to unplug the cord, then I press the power again. I lift the wire the way he said to steer it and begin to maneuver jerkily towards him.
    “I'm sure you are much better at this than I am,” I say lamely. He ignores my comment and thanks me for arranging the scooter close to him where he can get on it.
    “There, “ he says, seeing absolutely, positively right through me as if I were water. “You've done your first good deed of the day.”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shuffling Crumpled Paper

After dipping my toe in an excerpt to read for a creative writing class, I'm now fully swimming in 582 pages of the book, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. In one scene, the little boy Oskar wants to learn how to read but doesn't want anyone to know. A friend of his mother's tries to teach him, but he tears out the pages from the book and crumples them. "Sometimes I feel like giving up. But when I see how happy he is with the book, I let him tear it up and ruin it" (80-81). Meanwhile, Oskar hides the crumpled paper balls under his sweater, takes them home, spreads them out, and practices reading in private. The pages are not merely from one book. They are from one book by Rasputin and from a second one,  Elective Affinities by Goethe; Oskar sees each as a balance to the other. He soon mixes and shuffles the flattened pages of his "unbound book," and "…he read the new book with growing astonishment…" (81). The juxtaposition amazes him.

Juxtaposition. This is one of my favorite tools in the artist/writer toolbox. We naturally look for patterns and relationships between people and things. Put two things next to each other, preferably opposites, seemingly unrelated objects or words, and the viewer/reader starts trying to make the connections. Lisa Kokin has merged at least two different texts together in each of her altered books for decades, giving us an altered look at life. The title of Judith Tannenbaum's book, Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes immediately puts teeth and earthquakes side-by-side to shake up our imaginations. Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge writes about juxtapositions this way in her book poemcrazy, "Tape words on tickets or anything you want.…Pin or prop them up around your house. I've got smile leaning up against my lamp.…See where your words take you" (17-18).

If you'd rather play with colors than words, you can make effective collages by cutting out two complementary colors and working only with them. Take discarded magazines or catalogues and tear out shapes in varying shades of reds and greens for one collage, oranges and blues for another, and purples and yellows for a third. You may find that these juxtapositions, these new arrangements, will also drum up astonishing scenes. You may not even know, when you begin, where you want to go.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Playing with An Accordion

Blown and Fallen, 2007
I like making books with pages that breathe. Translucent paper, cutouts, and divided pages are a few of the ways I can add air to the book and make it more dimensional. Making two long slits in an eight-panel accordion creates pages with breath as well and produces a kind of mix-and-match book.This example features Velin Arches for the text paper and 4-ply museum board covered in book cloth for the covers.

You will need these tools: pencil; bone folder; 24" metal ruler; knife and cutting mat; PVA on a paper plate; glue brush or piece of board to spread the glue; magazines or catalogues to use as waste paper while gluing; waxed paper; large heavy book for a weight.

Materials: one piece Velin Arches, cut to 25 1/2" or 26" x 7" (grain short); two pieces 4-ply museum board, 3 1/2" x 7 1/4"; one piece book cloth (or decorative paper), 8 1/2"" x 8 3/4" (grain short); one strip book cloth (or decorative paper), 1 1/2" x 7" (grain long)

Velin Arches is a paper that takes watercolors, acrylic inks, and gesso very well. Paint the paper before you proceed if you want an overall wash or background. (More info on painting paper.) 

1. For the accordion: Arrange the paper horizontally, unpainted side up (if applicable).
2. Fold in half so right and left edges are touching. Crease with the bone folder now (and after every fold hereafter). Open.
3. Fold the right and left edges in to touch the center fold. Looks like a cupboard. Keep folded like this.
4. Fold each top section back, aligning the edges with the existing folds. Turn over. Looks like a table.
5. Fold each whole top section in toward the center fold. Crease.
6. Unfold completely. You should now have an eight-panel accordion or fan fold with alternating valleys and mountains.

7. Cut the pages: Arrange the accordion on the cutting mat so that the first and last folds are valley folds.

 8. Measure and mark 2 1/4" from both top and bottom edges along these two valley folds.

9. Using the ruler horizontally, connect the bottom dots. Using the knife on the cutting mat, cut against the ruler, stopping at each dot. 
10. Repeat the aligning of the dots and the cutting of the slit for the top two dots. Set aside.


 11. Fold the book cloth in half with the grain. Measure and mark 1/4" on either side of the fold, top and bottom. Draw a line against the ruler, connecting the parallel marks.

12.  Apply glue to one half of the book cloth but not going all the way to the edge.
13. Press one piece of museum board onto the adhesive so that one edge is aligned with the line you drew in step 11 and the board is centered top to bottom. Repeat the gluing and centering for the second board.

14. Cut diagonals across the paper, leaving two boardwidths of space between the point of the board and the triangle you cut off. You can use two scrap boards and draw the line with pencil first.

15. Glue and fold down the flaps, one at a time, working with parallel flaps first. Use the bone folder to smooth into the groove. Make sure to push in slightly at the corners to make sure they are covered before you continue with the perpendicular flaps.

16. Remove the  project to a clean work surface. With waxed paper between the bone folder and the paper, rub down the glued paper.

17. Apply glue to the back of the strip of 1 1/2" x 7" book cloth. Place it to cover the gap between the boards. Use the bone folder to smooth the book cloth into the grooves.
18. Attach the accordion: Close the accordion and place a new piece of waste paper between the first two pages. You should see just the last panel. Apply glue on this panel. Press into place on the back cover with an even margin and aligned with inner spine edge of the board. Repeat the gluing and pressing into place for the front cover.

19. Place waxed paper in between the inside covers, wrap the book in waxed paper, and place under a heavy book to dry for several hours or overnight.
 20. Add more drawings, words with acrylic ink when completely dry. Consider putting nouns on all the top sections, verbs on the middle sections, and a prepositional phrase on the lower sections so you can mix and match the sentences.

Thanks for dropping by my studio!

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010

    Just Tell Me Why

    Sometimes, I'm curious. I want to know how a mechanism, recipe, or story works. I take a book apart and try to recreate it, all the while figuring out how I might teach it. But then there's the car. I don't want to think about learning how to fix it myself. I just want to get somewhere. And I'm never going to teach auto shop. So, the goals are different. In the first case I am curious about the process. In the second case, I don't care. Interest matters. I have to want to know.

    Making books and art is a quest, an expedition, an exploration of new territory. Curiosity can drive the project. In the essay "The Stalin in the Soul" from her excellent book The Language of the Night Ursula LeGuin wrote, "When you start screaming you have stopped asking questions." This sentence has caught me many times in the middle of frustrating projects. I've had to back up and figure out what was propelling me forward before and what needs to happen now to get me going again.

    When you get stuck making a book,  try to figure out the questions. They might be structural, such as do you make one page fold-out or do you make all the pages wider? If you are just beginning to work on a new book and don't know what it's about yet, pay attention to your day. In an overheard conversation you might wonder why that clerk is so angry, or you might see a box of dolls on a curb, and imagine why the owner is letting them go. Questions beginning with "why" can change your direction, encourage you to go deeper, and to think beyond the obvious.

    Asking questions can restart your process. Try making a list at the end of every day of the things you were curious about. Then see if one would make a good book.

    And why not?

    Sunday, November 21, 2010

    A Flying Pigskin Library

    I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips. In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last.
     Theodore Roosevelt
    (1916, 13)

    I like to think that people are still readers at heart. The bookstores in the airports haven't vanished yet. Small towns still sell books alongside souvenir spoons, thimbles, and snow globes. The books, unless they also cater to the local residents, are a little lightweight at times, but at least they are there for the traveler who would have to pay extra to check a bag full of books.

    Vacation reading for Roosevelt, however, was a meaty affair, and he carried a special "Pigskin Library" with him to contain his appetite. In 1916, his book, A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open was published, in which he described his love of the outdoors and all of its sports on par with his love for reading. Wherever he ventured he carried with him "a light aluminum and oilcloth case" that contained that trip's choice of reading material, which weighed about sixty pounds. He explained why he chose pigskin for their bindings:
    Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washing. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle bag looks (1909, 23).
    A gory, yet romantic image, I think.

    I, of course, am fascinated by what the materials (the aluminum, the oilcloth, the "well-used saddle bag") felt like and what books he chose. He certainly didn't have just one book to satisfy him. For one trip he described the books he took as reflecting both his and his son Kermit's taste. Examples included: novels by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and James Fennimore Cooper; poetry by Browning, Emerson and Longfellow;  Dante's Inferno; the Bible with the Apocrypha; Shakespeare, Milton, and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. A familiar literary canon. But, he said, "I need hardly say, it also represents in no way all the books we most care for, but merely those which, for one reason or another, we thought we should like to take on this particular trip."

    I mused about the idea of having only one book in yesterday's post. But Roosevelt's pigskin library could accommodate five feet of books. It made me wonder if you were to make a time capsule "five-foot library" to reflect your tastes, that someone could look at and get a well-rounded picture of you--what would you put in it? You've got more choices this time. Everyone's, as Roosevelt says, would be different.
    As for a "five-foot library," scores can readily be devised, each of which at some given time, for some given man, under certain conditions, will be best. But to attempt to create such a library that shall be of universal value is foreordained to futility (1916, 8).
    Which brings us back to those airport bookstores, with those tiny little shelves. The airport bookstores, as we've seen, have a smaller selection of books that they believe will sell quickly and to the largest number of readers. Roosevelt is right that there cannot be a universal library. Our tastes are not all the same. What if we have forgotten a book we wanted to read, then can't find anything satisfactory in that limited selection?

    Well, someone figured this out. I concede that there is an answer, though not nearly as gory or as romantic as a pigskin library. And if one book isn't heavy enough, we can choose another. Our five-foot travel library, perhaps our five-hundred-foot travel library, can be housed in (depending upon whom you ask): the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, or the E-reader. In this case, I don't see them as a threat to paper books at all. They have a place, and that place is in the carry-on bag.

    Pigs really can fly, after all.

    Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails: an account of the African wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist. 1909.
    Roosevelt, Theodore. A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open. 1916.
    Theodore Roosevelt Association: Myths, Legends & Trivia: Life of Theodore Roosevelt. "The Pigskin Library Comes to Harvard."
    New York Times. "Roosevelt Tells of Jungle Hunts / October Scribner's Will Have His First Installment of 'African Game Trails.' /  Has a Library With Him / Sixty Rounds of Literature Part of His Impedimenta—A Ride on a Cow-Catcher." September 23, 1909.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010

    One Patti Smith

    The Bible. Lord of the Rings. Mao's Little Red Book. The Qu'ran. The Ramayana. The dictionary. Harry Potter. For reasons of literacy, government mandate, religious belief, practicality, or inspiration, certain books have been central to people's homes. What if you could keep only one book from your collection to read over and over? Which one would it be?

    "Summer 1982. To be read constantly," I wrote in my copy of Babel by Patti Smith (G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY: 1978). For about ten years I kept this one book by my bed and read a little every night. When I finished, I started over. Patti Smith was the first of what would become my three muses (the other two were Laurie Anderson and Gertrude Stein). I was gripped by Smith's use of language and wordplay, vivid imagery, sly humor, sexuality, rhythm/cadence, and her delight in the sounds of words in addition to their meanings. The fact that she crossed boundaries and art forms excited me as well. One of her inspirations was Rimbaud, so I began to read him as well. Revisiting Babel today, I can still pull out quotes that intrigue me, that are examples of what initially drew me in.

    Wordplay. From: "grant" (24)…he has plunged into a state of atrophy. a trophy. a stationary prize.

    Imagery. From "neoboy" (34)…memory is just hips that swing / like a clock

    Sensory. From "munich" (59)…in my pocket was a helmet of pink felt. i brushed it and hung it on a branch.

    Word sounds. From "judith revisited (fragments) / the ladies room is ravaged" (90)…human? no mam. go away from them. mistress in gelatin. atom.

    Writer/artist connection. From "doctor love" (49)…sometimes i slip away (like this moment) and take open my red portfolio w/the soft burlap ribbons. i like to run my hand across the skin of each drawing.

    I found this book around the time a college friend introduced me to Patti Smith's albums, which was a few years after Smith had stopped touring and gone to raise a family. Her poetry was passionate and driven, and I was angry I had missed her live performances by so few years. Who knew that all I had to do was wait? I finally got to see her at a comeback concert in San Francisco in the early 1990s. She seemed at ease in front of an audience. A man yelled, "Take me home with you!" Patti replied that what she did at home wasn't very interesting, like cleaning toilets. To which the man replied, "I'll clean your toilets, Patti!" Throughout the evening people continued to shout out to her as if they were all old friends, and she treated them all as if they were.

    So, I was very happy that on November 17, 2010, Patti Smith won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a memoir of her life and friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. And I was pleased that I could hear her read an excerpt of it right away. (If you are interested in reading more,  check out these articles.)

    One voice. One book.

    I made this homage to Patti Smith in 1983, when I had just begun bookmaking. It was made from four collages that I photocopied onto cardstock (front and back), cut out and shaped, then stapled into a pamphlet. Most of the images were from her books and albums, a few were my own, such as my hands in the fingerless gloves on the back cover.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Ghost Silhouettes: Gesso and Graphite

    I recently discovered that Hans Christian Andersen carried a small scissors around with him and cut out a silhouette while he told a story. When he was done cutting the story was over, and he held up the art for a final surprise.

    This project takes the silhouette in a ghostly direction, using gesso and graphite coupled with stencils. Try creating a series of sequenced images as a starting point for a handmade book. Begin with some photos. At an event, stand in one place and try taking eight pictures, perhaps over several minutes. You'll notice how the people (or animals) move together and apart, changing positions. How close or far apart they stand tells you a little about their relationships. Print out 4x6 photos in black and white on any kind of paper. 

    For this exploration you will need: frosted Mylar (.003 or .005 mil); X-Acto knife and cutting mat; pencil; flat-bottomed stencil brush; white acrylic gesso; Ebony pencil or soft, dark pencil; dark paper or pages
    1. Take small pieces of frosted Mylar that are approximately the same size as the photo and draw or trace the outline of one person in the center of the Mylar. Use one piece of Mylar per person, per pose.
    2. Place each sheet of Mylar on a self-healing cutting mat or piece of cardboard. 
    3. With an X-Acto knife, cut out each silhouette.
    4. Using a flat-bottomed brush dipped in white gesso, paint with a stamping motion to make the white image onto a darker paper.
    5. Repeat for all images, arranging the people in different configurations for different pages.
    6. Let dry.
    7. With a very soft, dark pencil, such as an Ebony, gently shade the shadows (refer back to the photos as needed), giving depth to the final image(s).
    From the artist's book, Anchovies & Gossip

    Gesso works well on book pages because it dries rough and not sticky like acylic paint. The roughness also adds tooth to the paper which holds the graphite to the page. Because of this combination the drawings are less likely to smudge.

    For general and more detailed information about stenciling, including multicolored images, please see my book Painted Paper.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Content? I Love Content!

    Now that bookmaking has become more popular, I've gotten requests to teach workshops on Content. Students have made so many structures out of nice materials that they'd like to add content to these books.

    I actually work the other way around. I start with something I want to say—an idea or story or image I want to share—then I try to figure out the best form it should take. Thoughts about a friendship might work best as folded notes in pockets. A story that takes place inside of a building might be enhanced by an architecural, shaped accordion or it might contain pop-up rooms. The life cycle of a plant could be shown in a revolving square or cross flexagon that has no beginning or end. Each of these ideas focuses on a single event, place, or object, then gets linked to a structure.

    Granted, I've made many blank books that I've wanted to fill, too. Occasionally I make a complete book by tailoring what I want to say to fit the binding and materials and colors that already exist. I study one of these books, pay close attention to it, and see what it suggests to me, like my own Rorschach test. So I can start from the inside out (what I want to say) or from the outside in (what I want to make).

    Hey, it's National Novel Writing Month! For content, try writing a one-paragraph novel. Include a place, several interesting characters, a character's want, need or desire, a change over time, either physically or psychologically. Then give it a physical home in a book form.

    I have had a copy of this content-related comic from hanging on my bulletin board for months. When I read it for the first time, instead of the word "blog" I read "book."

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Stakes of A Story

    Creating the structure for a book is similar to creating the structure for a story. I stumbled over the idea for step-by-step stories while I was trying to figure out what my writing professors meant by the question, "What are the stakes of the story?"

    The stakes equal potential risk and loss. Tension is raised. The end of the story releases the tension.

    Risk. Loss. These are troubles, aggravations (tsuris). In our house we discovered the existence of the Law of the Conservation of Tsuris, just as there is a law of the Conservation of Energy (physics). The total amount of aggravation in a person remains constant and is conserved over time. Aggravation can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one state to another. So that means that misplacing your glasses can be just as aggravating as having a toothache. The feeling just moves around, settling on something new without regard to importance. Stakes don't even count with this law. Judgment is absent.

    Here is my specially devised Stake-O-Meter with kinds of tsuris and high-stake rankings.

    Step-By-Step Story. A step-by-step structure can generate a story using the ideas of tsuris and stakes. Line one: Start with any sentence. Line two: Write down what can go wrong with this scenario, emotionally or physically. Line three: Solve the problem, but in solving it, create a new problem or conflict. Continue adding conflict, solving it, and creating another until the story seems satisfactory and complete. While life ends with death, a story doesn't have to…
    1. I wanted a sandwich.
    2. I was out of bread.
    3. I went to the store and bought a loaf. 
    4. The bread was moldy.
    5. The clerk wouldn't take it back.
    6. I offered it to a homeless guy outside. 
    7. He said he preferred bagels.
    8. I went back to the store, shelved the bread, and took bagels instead.
    9. The manager caught me.
    10. She didn't believe my explanation, but said it was so strange she would let me go if I promised never to return to the store.
    11. I apologized to the homeless guy for not having bagels to give him.
    12. He gave me a dollar.
    Try it! Send me your best Step-By-Step Story! I'll choose one or more to post from what I receive.

      Sunday, November 14, 2010

      Why A Book?

      Why not a duck or a pineapple? A book can be made as waterproof as a duck or as juicy as a pineapple, but it will always be easier to store than either one, unless you are pickling books in jars or setting them on fire. But those aren't the books I'm talking about here. I'm talking about turning pages. I'm talking about reading. I'm talking about story. You don't think you tell stories? What do you talk about? What do you dream? What conversations do you overhear? There are so many stories swirling around that you might not even notice them. Pay close attention to your day and you will find at least one story in it. This story can be the beginning of a book. Write it down, draw sequential pictures, take photos--however you like to work. Look over the story and see how it will naturally divide into sections. Then pick a book structure that helps you tell that story and make it. You could write your story on the back of a duck or on a pineapple, but I think making a book out of paper will be easier.

      So, welcome to my blog. It corresponds to the publication of my latest instructional book, Making Handmade Books (Lark Crafts, 2011), which you can actually pre-order right now.  I'll be musing about structures, words & images, writing explorations, printmaking, letterpress printing, the creative process, teaching, etc. I'll also answer any questions that might come up in conjunction with this book, or with the previous ones.