Thursday, April 28, 2011

No (Art) Apologies Necessary

Since I bought a button that says "Never apologize for your art," I've been thinking about why people use an apology as a preface. I don't always read the preface in a book, I don't always read the wall text in an art gallery or museum. Sometimes I just want the work to speak for itself. If context or comment will help me understand the work, clarifying what I'm seeing so I won't be confused, I'm grateful. But I'm not as interested in a preface or commentary when it is being used as an apology.

I've heard people apologize for the sexual or violent content of their work, as if suddenly their classroom is filled with upper class gentlefolk from the 19th century. If the work has a message and it's coming from a deep place, then the work is the work. No need to apologize.

The real versus imaginary apology comes up periodically. Someone will want you to know that their story actually happened, or that this is a real picture of their house. What if it isn't? Does the work stand on its own? Is it compelling even without knowing it is true? Why not test it? Say nothing, then evaluate the response. The response will probably be more authentic.

The most common apology seems to be the "I'm not a (fill in blank: writer, artist, etc.)" with the understanding that therefore if the work doesn't seem "good enough" then there's a reason. Has the person done his/her best? Worked hard? That's irrelevant. Does the work speak? Does it move the audience? People with decades of training and practice are likely to be able to express themselves well, but at times they can and do make mediocre pieces. Beginners without training and with little practice can and do have the ability to make articulate, moving works. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It's a case-by-case situation.

We may feel we must distance ourselves from our work in order to protect ourselves. (I know, I've done it.) When you have completed a piece or a draft or mock up of a piece you have to let it go.  Instead of speaking a preface, try listening carefully from that distance as if you, too, were looking from the outside in. You are not your work.

Once Said a Stoic: Epictetus, 2003

Monday, April 25, 2011

Materials & Hidden Meaning

In a sense, making a book is like playing a wind instrument. You have to think about tone, rhythm, timing, breath, and how what you are doing connects with other people and the work that has come before you. There's a variation of history and time within the music. When you choose materials, you are also choosing the kind of time that will contribute to the book. New materials suggest a fresh start, an original idea, the proverbial blank slate. But what about old ones in our era of reduce/reuse/recycle? When is new appropriate? When to use found materials?

When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object….Transparent things, through which the past shines.
Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things (1) 

By paying attention to our materials, we can control what kind of past shines through our books. We are often attracted to an object by its patina, the layers of history it contains. Just holding it up and saying "look how cool this is!" isn't enough. Those layers add a context and their "transparency" ties the object to a time and place and person, but they need a new purpose when used in art. We need to bring the object into the present moment, to make it relevant to our situation today.

Century, 2007

A few years ago, I visited Glass Beach for the first time and was fascinated by all the shards and objects available for my use. I particularly liked the little metal plate that was probably a manufacturer's label, and some of the sea glass. I built a box with compartments, painted paper with the colors of the patinated plate, and wrote a poem and made a book, Century, about coming from an old era into a new one. In that case, I wanted the history to shine through the objects, and for the present moment to cradle the book.

First Class, 2007

With First Class, I used discarded business envelopes for the book. For the cover I used a large envelope sent to me by someone now deceased, who used to send out details of her health issues to everyone she knew, even if they didn't know her very well. I painted the papers to look old, bringing them into the present, and framing them as universal memories of a faded correspondence.

I made Horizon from old maps that someone gave me. I had no personal attachment to them, but maps always seem to contain adventure, hopeful journeys, or nostalgia of past travels.

Horizon, 2007

"A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film."  
(Nabokov 2)
photos by Sibila Savage

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Defining Book Art: What's in a Name?

Even after nearly three decades of making books, I still get asked what I do. I also have to give it a name, and I have to describe it so people who don't make books will understand. It is still a puzzle to me why explaining and defining are such complicated activities.

Keith Smith writes in The Structure of the Visual Book, "Definitions are not ageless laws, but current understanding. They grow with usage through insight and error" (23). The following terms have not been codified, institutionalized, signed, sealed, and delivered by a large group of nodding people, but I do believe that these definitions are commonly used within the field today and may develop and continue to change. Johanna Drucker devotes the first chapter of The Century of Artists' Books to "The Artist's Book as Idea and Form." She writes, "…a single definition of the term 'an artist's book' continues to be highly elusive in spite of its general currency and the proliferation of work which goes by this name" (1). The forms of book art continue to evolve; I know that the potential for pushing the boundaries is what keeps me riveted to the book as an expressive medium. The book's dynamic nature makes that single definition impossible.

In any case, here is a list of terms and a stab at how I use them…

  • Book Art. Artwork inspired by qualities or concerns of a book such as, but not limited to: sequence, opening, text/image, flow, rhythm, shape or form, movement, interactivity, memory, layering, breathing, revealing/concealing, relationship of materials and structure to content.
  • Artist's Book. Same as above. With the apostrophe where it is, I use it for one artist, one book.
  • Book Arts. Any of the crafts and arts used in the making of books, usually linked to: papermaking, printmaking, letterpress, calligraphy, paper marbling, paste papers, and the like.
  • Artists' Books. Many artists, many books.
  • Artist Book. This is starting to be a more common term when talking about artist's books and artists' books because everyone would like that apostrophe to go away.
  • Livre d'Artiste. Book designed to hold images, most commonly prints, by a famous artist, or illustrations by the same. For starters, think Picasso, Matisse. They are usually deluxe, meticulously produced editions using the finest papers, the finest printing, etc.. Not usually crafted by the artists themselves.
  • Handmade Book. Some people prefer this term to artist's book, however, it has come to be an all-encompassing term for books that are made by hand and by anyone, including blank books.
  • Fine Press Book. Fine letterpress printing made up the bulk of the earliest European-style book art: it employed fine papers, a good design, and excellent printing, not unlike a livre d'artiste, but the content was and is often generated by the maker or in collaboration. It can be combined with other terms, such as fine press livre d'artiste, or fine press artist's book.
  • Livers d'Artistes. A satiric artist's book by Marie Dern.
And then, when I am asked "what is this crazy thing called making books?" I say, "I'm an artist who uses books as my expressive medium." I say, "I'm a bookbinder, writer, printer, and artist and I get to do all of these things in the books that I make." I say, "I make books with pictures for adults (but not adult-books)." I say, "Making books is the bridge between my writing and my art." I sigh and say, "look at my website."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Breathing Books

The traditional book has stopping places, opaque pages like walls. The content must inspire curiosity so the reader will continue turning those pages, opening the doors and looking through the rooms. Many architects like the idea of the open floor plan with no doors, so that the flow from room to room is seamless, letting you wander. Some book artists, myself included, like the idea of a book that breathes, with one page letting you see a little of the next so that you are always moving forward until the end.

Keith Smith addresses this movement, writing about translucency in The Structure of the Visual Book (47) and discussing such concepts as "preview" and "afterimage." A nice example of preview using cutouts is In the Light of Passing by Peter Sramek (1994, page 25). A few slots are cut in the pages which show a preview word or word fragments before the viewer turns the page and sees the complete text. The afterimage is the back of a printed translucent page like in the example he gives: Repro Memento by Kevin Osborn (1980), which contains images of the Washington Monument's reflecting pool that are printed on translucent vellum. The back of the page, the afterimage, is a reflection of the front. Since vellum is translucent, similar to the transparency of water, Osborn links form and content in this way as well, giving strength to the book's concept.

Dieter Roth also seemed to be interested in this potential breathing quality of books. He experimented with holes in the pages, first in his artist's book Children's Book (1954-57), then later in another called Holes (1961). Roth was interested in the shifting nature of layered, colored acetate, and combined the die cutting and the translucency in Picture Book (1957). Another example, Bok 3b, was a book made of 250 comic book pages with diecut holes; it was then produced in an edition of 50 signed and numbered copies (1961). While the first of these types of books was created for a child, clearly something about the look or the process compelled Roth to keep investigating the form.

Hedi Kyle is most famously known for her flag accordion structure, which addresses aspiration in a more three-dimensional way. The accordion as a musical instrument must have air in order to make sound, and her accordion books use that air to set up movement with multiple flying pages. Kyle's Mica Flags book is a particularly luminescent example, giving the viewer a feeling of breathing in light.

In the new release from Lark Crafts, Masters: Book Arts, I noticed this fluidity from page to page in a sampling of the works. Claire Van Vliet's Aunt Sallie's Lament by Margaret Kaufman (1988) has differently shaped pages that layer and stack to look like a completed quilt by the end. Brian Dettmer alters books by deeply cutting through them and finding the imagery buried within, leaving windows throughout. In the book Pennyviews (1995) by Yoko Ono, Harry Reese and Sandra Liddell Reese intersperse black pages that have a penny-sized circle cutout with brown paper on which are printed Ono's drawings: the circles give a partial glimpse of the next page. Sarah Bryant uses cutouts in some books and translucent papers (2007-2009) in others. Béatrice Coron's books all breathe as she meticulously cuts shapes into every page to make the images. Many of the books by Susan King address the quality of light and breathing, from the flag structure of Women and Cars (1983) to the translucent pages of I Spent the Summer in Paris: A View of Life in Paris, France, and Paris, Kentucky (1984). Karen Hanmer's Random Passions (2008) beautifully layers line drawings on translucent paper to give a sense of movement as the couple passionately interacts. Macy Chadwick's Cell Memory (2002) lets the viewer inside the cell as the view changes and the translucent pages turn.

I like thinking of books as living, breathing pieces of art. Diecut pages and holes invite curiosity and discovery, translucent pages suggest mystery and memory. By inviting us to investigate them from various angles, these books continue to live.

Ocean Tucked In, 2008

Addendum, November 14, 2012: In 2008, German artist Edith Kollath created an installation of antiquarian books with motors and microcontrollers called thinking i'd last forever that look like they are breathing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Signs from England (2)

My wanderer has been finding more book-related signs for me. A nice mosaic. Heavy, I would imagine.

South Bank Book Market

According to their website, Southbank Mosaics "actively promotes equal opportunities and cross-cultural, inter-generational mosaic art work." They are infusing related neighborhoods with literary mosaics, such as work by William Blake in his old neighborhood. As it turns out, the Project Blake mosaics are in a tunnel with yellow boxes nearby that contain recordings of the poems, if only you will press the button to hear them. (More about that project here. They also have a blog.)

William Blake merged writing and art—although his work was with engravings, not mosaics. Among other things, during his life (1757-1827) he had visions, taught Catherine, his illiterate wife to read, and instructed his younger brother Robert in drawing, painting, and engraving. Catherine later helped him print his illustrated texts. "Blake believed that his poetry could be read and understood by common people, but he was determined not to sacrifice his vision in order to become popular." (The source for the quote and more info about Blake here.)

It seems fitting that Southbank Mosaics had the vision to bring Blake's writing and art into a public space where common people can see it and share a collective experience.
Collaborative projects like these build communities, both within the creative group and within the connecting neighborhood.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What Writers & Artists Read

The Strand Book Store in New York has begun a sort of literary biography of writers and artists they like. Their website incorporates book recommendations from famous authors and artists under the heading Curated Collections. As of this post, Art Spiegelman and Maira Kalman list approximately 50 favorites, with John Waters, Nora Ephron, Gary Shteyngart, Jennifer Egan, and Chuck Palahniuk next up and ready at the bookcase with happy pointing fingers.

Why should I be interested in a well-known person's choices? Since I am already a fan of Maira Kalman's books I suppose I am interested in what inspires her, what she thinks about, and what potentially sparks her creative process.

I started feeling validated as I compared notes with Art and Maira and recognized books on their lists. Spiegelman includes a book by Saul Steinberg; I love Steinberg. I'm interested in reading most of the books that Kalman suggests if I haven't already. Her tastes are varied: plays, children's books, classics, photography books and more.

When I think about the mixed bag of books I've read voluntarily and finished in the past six months, I wonder if any of these will settle into the groove of favorites. I find I am still carrying around characters, plots, images, sounds, and phrases from these books and wonder how long that will last. As it turns out, about half of these were recommended by friends or teachers, and the fact that I finished them tells me that the recommendations were useful to me.

For recommendations of books that merge art and writing, see a blog called Book By Its Cover. Julia Rothman, an illustrator and pattern designer, collects books and posts reviews falling into the categories of Children's, Comics, Design, Fine Art, Handmade, Other (this category spans from a photography book about apples to an illustrated dictionary), Sketchbooks, The Exquisite Book, and Interviews. It's worth looking through all the categories since some books fit more than one classification.

Books are fine creative inspirations. Strange how you can carry a book around in your head when you are in the middle of it, and how it lingers there even after you've finished. The book can be a daylong obsession or a weeks-long, partial vacation as you experience another world and a new set of circumstances. It can haunt you in the middle of the night and filter into your dreams. If you choose to respond to it, you might find your work heading in a new direction, perhaps ready to inspire another person and to continue the sequence of creative events.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Cloth Book

You can make a substantial cloth book without sewing or gluing by using the Slot & Tab binding.

Cut twenty equal rectangles out of cloth. Place the cloth in a horizontal format. Apply a vertical line of gesso down the center of each.

Detailed instructions for making the structure out of paper are shown on the following pages:
Making Handmade Books, 55-56
Unique Handmade Books, as Pocket Triangle and Diamond Book, 48-51
Creating Handmade Books, 37-39

This is how the book appeared before it became Handle with Gloves: Twelve Readings in the post, "Eva Hesse: Visual & Visceral."

The original Slot & Tab binding was designed by Michael Budiansky.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Eva Hesse: Visual & Visceral

An exhibit of small, compelling works called "Eva Hesse: Studiowork" is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum until April 10, 2011. I knew I would like them on some level, but I found the works strangely moving when viewed in person. Hesse managed to form the simple materials of cloth, latex, metal screening, papier mache, found objects, and rubber tubing into mysterious organic-looking objects that feel more important than they seem at first. Her choice of flesh colors—pinks and browns—add to the feeling that these pieces are part of a body, not in any morbid or grotesque way, but as extensions of human beings in general.

The works are, for the most part, nonrepresentational. What they are, I can't say. My literary brain wanted each piece to be accompanied by a small text, to flesh them out, to put them in context. Context=with text.  Context: con (together) text (to weave). But then the left brain calmed down, and I realized we are not meant to have an intellectual connection, we are meant to have a visceral one. In the accompanying booklet Briony Fer, the co-curator for the show, writes, "Hesse's work is full of allusions to the body without being a conventional depiction of the body." Fer's words reinforce the idea that the works are not literal in any way.

When I think of books, I instinctively want words inside. But after seeing this exhibit, I now wonder what kinds of colors and images can produce meaning on a level just under the surface, maybe resonating somewhere in the body. In Oakland, at Mills College Library in the Special Collections department you can visit and request to see a book by Brighton Press called The Blue Vein which has a similar quality. The pages are hand dyed in blues, browns, and greens by Merilyn Britt, with etchings by Michele Burgess, and the book contains a minimum of text, a few lines on a page of a poem by Sandra Alcosser. The variegated dyes and the rich etchings are satisfying on that deep level. You can see pictures and read a description of it here. (But much better to see it and hold it yourself if you get a chance.)

I am always pleased when I leave an exhibit energized, my fingers itching to make something. I finally spent time in my own studio this past weekend and was surprised at what I made there after pulling out canvas, muslin, acrylic inks, linen thread, and heavy gel medium. Eva Hesse's  small works gave me two challenges: to make silent books using texture and materials to speak, and to make books that are an extension of the body.

Handle with Gloves: Twelve Readings, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011

Between the First & Last Lines

Open any book of short stories, pick one,  and read the first and last lines. In most cases, the first line sets up the desire, conflict, or dilemma and the last one contains a kind of resolution or change. The first line also often includes the setting or shows us a direction. Think of the first line as the place and point of attack, the last line as the emotional landing point.

Here are two samples that may be found in the anthology The Art of the Short Story:

First line: "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."
Last line: "Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron."
From "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen. pp. 741, 746.
In Olsen's story, the evocative first-line word is "tormented" and the emotional landing point is the phrase "she is more than this dress…[she is not] helpless before the iron." The title assures us where we are.

First line: "The hermit invariably shuddered when he looked out of his window."
Last line: "He touched her tray with the tip of his finger as a token of acceptance, and went down the street without a word."
From "The House Opposite" by R.K. Narayan. pp. 1198, 1200.
In one interpretation of Narayan's story, the active word in the first line is "shuddered," (additionally, "hermit") in the last line the resolving word is "acceptance." The title, "The House Opposite" clues us in to where the conflict lies: probably someone who lives in that house.

I think each example suggests a world between the lines, particularly when viewed with the title. Thinking about the space between the three points—first line, last line, and title—creates a movement within the world.

Try writing a random first line. Take a look at it and see where the conflict might lie. Then try writing a last line that resolves the tension. Or start with a title, then work on the lines. You might also choose two words, one for the beginning, one for the end, then create a title linking them together.

A box project might work well for this: put a title on the front cover/top lid, put the first line on the top inner tray. Put the last line on the bottom inner tray. What can you put inside the box that adds to this world or changes it? Conversely, start with the objects, then create a title and first/last lines.

Jury Box, 2010
Jury Box uses a related concept. The title is on the cover. On one side is the word "prosecution" and the other side says "defense." Each of the twelve felted corks are numbered as if they were the jurors meant to be manipulated between the sides.

A sentence or two can tell a story. A few words can open up a world.

Photo: Sibila Savage
Note: the story included in the one-of-a-kind Jury Box is due to be published under the title, "Compassion" in the forthcoming Generations Literary Magazine, Spring 2011, "Influences" issue #2.