Monday, January 28, 2013

A Game of Artists' Dice

One of my favorite introductory classroom activities to kickstart a writing process or bookmaking project is to make artist's dice. We might do a short writing exercise first. Or talk about words that have been important in our lives. Or tell a story about a word that came up in conversation this week. We make lists of words. Each person picks six of his or her personal favorites and gets a wooden cube*. We use sandpaper or an emery board to sand off the corners and edges, then write or paint one word on each side. If the wood is absorbent and the pens bleed, we can paint the cube with gesso or watercolor ground. 

Now you are ready to roll.

Introduce yourself to a classmate. Roll together, and while doing so, make a list of the word pairs. Roll around the room. You now have titles for many, many books. At home, take a second cube, give it to a friend, family member, or significant other, and ask them to write their six words. Roll together. See how the conversation turns.

*I get the cubes in bags of three 1 1/4" (31.9 mm) in the store at Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts, but I don't see them online and this vendor looks cheaper.

For this post I got fancier than usual and painted the block with white and black gesso so it would look worn or, perhaps, happily played with.

Round off the corners and edges.

Paint white gesso on the entire block. 
Let dry.

Leave as is or, for a worn look, 
paint the edges with black gesso or acrylic paint.
Let dry.

Paint over the entire cube with white gesso again.
Let dry.

Sand randomly.
Use a Sakura Pigma Micron Pen to write one word
on each face. If you don't like something
you can always re-gesso it or sand it off.

I wrote to two close friends, one far, one near.
They sent me their words
 and I wrote and rolled theirs with mine.




Three words make a nice title, I think!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Story of Telltale Marks

I photograph telltale marks. I'm interested in indicators that someone or something was here before me. Marks can be actual lines or they can be objects. You can see examples in the photos on Sidewalk Story: a doll lying in the street, a broken chair at the curb, pink chalk on the pavement. I've only just realized why I do it; I see a potential story in what is no longer there.

Italo Calvino, in his book Invisible Cities described something similar, and perhaps that is how I absorbed the idea. He wrote about signs and symbols:
You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as a sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger's passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. (Cities and signs 1)
Each stationary sign heralds an action, a change, a movement. I haven't found any tigers, yet, but I am trying an abbreviated version of the following exercise as what I am calling a "content development" lesson in my Bookworks class. 
  1. Take a walk and locate a telltale mark that shows that someone or something  has been there. Draw it, photograph, or jot down a brief description to remember it.
  2. Make some lists, notes, sketches as you investigate the story. What is it? Who was involved? How did it happen? What was the conflict or interaction that led to the leaving of the mark? How does it relate to the emotions anyone might have? Look at both the specific situation and the universal human condition.
  3. Imagine how it would look as a film. What is the opening scene? What do you see first? Who or what moves into the frame? Describe an interaction or conflict that leads to the leaving of the mark. What has changed? What is the last thing you want the viewer to see, the vision that should remain and haunt us or make us laugh long after? OR connect the mark to many people in many different situations. How do they react differently? The same? OR look into the meaning of the object itself: in time, in cultures. Do research.
  4. Now watch the movie in your head and write it down or sketch it out, scene by scene. Consider including dialogue, diagrams, pictures, or a combination of any media.
  5. Read it aloud or flip through it for flow and clarity.
  6. Revise.
  7. Repeat steps 5 & 6 until you feel that nothing more can change, that you've said what you wanted to say.
  8. Divide the story into natural sections or breaks.
  9. Create a book with this many pages, adding patterned pages front and back that reflect the mark. Include a title or mark on the front and your name somewhere on it.
Trying making a sidebound book in a landscape format, with materials and colors that seem to suit the content.

The door is open. Look carefully. Look deeply. What do you see? What do you imagine?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Artists and Chronicle Books

Being invited to speak at Moe's Books last night as part of an event called "The State of the Book Arts" reminded me why I wanted to make books in the first place: I wanted to be published, have my work out there and available to everyone. And for cheap. 

In the 1980s we had photocopy machines that helped us reproduce mass quantities of work, which was cheap, but it looked cheap, too. Although I continued (and continue) to send out stories and poems to magazines, it seemed faster to bypass a traditional publisher and produce the work myself. At that time, I became reacquainted with letterpress printing at California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts where I teach), and found that setting type by hand and printing it via letterpress looked so much better than photocopying. Through making my own books I could merge art and writing and crafting: all activities I loved. And I could do it for only the cost of the paper. This kind of work distinguished itself as well, since the handwork could not be mass produced.

The dot matrix printers we laughed at morphed into high-quality laserwriters. Technology became more sophisticated; publishers had access to new processes. 

Parisian Encounters; Aunt Sallie's Lament,
Souvenir of San Francisco

And Chronicle Books took notice of book art and in 1993 printed Aunt Sallie's Lament, a text by Margaret Kaufman that Claire Van Vliet had originally designed and made as an artist's book. (You can go see both versions in the Mills College Library special collections department.) Why start there? Claire Van Vliet brought book arts into bright public light; a printmaker, papermaker, and founder of Janus Press in 1955, she was awarded a MacArthur in 1989, the first and only bookmaker ever (and since then every book artist keeps asking, "Where's mine?"). 

Parisian Encounters

Chronicle Books continued the newfound excitement with book art and produced work from established book artists such as Charles Hobson (Parisian Encounters: Great Loves and Grand Passions, Leonardo Loves Baseball, Seeing Stars: Shining Star Light) and Dorothy Yule and her sister Susan Hunt Yule (Souvenirs of Great Cities: San Francisco, Souvenirs of Great Cities: New York, Souvenirs of Great Cities: London, Souvenirs of Great Cities: Paris). The books were printed in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds that a single book artist can comfortably make. They were marketed and distributed by someone else. Soon, every book artist had a prospective Chronicle project behind a shy smile, hoping for recognition.
Aunt Sallie's Lament

The commercially printed book is essentially a revision of the original. In a playwriting class, Brian Thorstenson used to ask, in reference to revisions, "What do you gain, what do you lose?" You gain a wider audience. You lose the tactile quality. Aunt Sallie's Lament suffered with the change of material. It is meant to evoke a quilt, which by nature is soft and textural: the original used a variety of handmade papers. The wonderful cutout design remained, however, and the repetition of the engaging poem becomes more of the focus in the Chronicle version. The words stand strong. Which leads to an interesting realization: my reason to make books in the first place was a desire to share literary content, my writing.

Top: Left Coast Press edition; Bottom: Chronicle Books

The initial buzz in the book art community may have waned, but Chronicle continues to publish visually interesting work. I finally have an idea that isn't a revision of a previous book exactly, but a re-envisioning of it. Like the Yules—who created new slipcases to replace the double spines they employed for the letterpress versions—I'm thinking now of the slick paper and the capacity for full color printing as advantages. And, like the blogs and Sidewalk Story, my print-on-demand book, I am designing directly for the new medium.

Left: Chronicle Books;  Right: Left Coast Press edition

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Great Expectations: Great Lines

After being compelled to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickins, it took me decades before I picked up another book by same author. Mr. Freisinger, my ninth grade English teacher, the almost endearing eccentric that he was, seemed a character straight out of the book himself with his passion for Mansard roofs and his swoons at the classic Coke bottle shape. It was all very entertaining, but I didn't connect either with him, his wild-eyed readings, or with Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities, like most of Dickens' work, is now in the public domain and you can download multiple e-books for free or try A Tale on Project Gutenberg first, if you like. Curious to see if the younger me was wrong, I read the beginning afresh. Still not for  me beyond "…we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…." I remember the giggles in the class at the time.

But last year I read Bleak House, and now I am in the middle of Great Expectations, and I enjoy both. The word choices are wonderful and humorous, the settings vivid, some of the dialogue unexpected. 
The whole beginning of the third chapter of Great Expectations sets a scene and mood of a damp and drippy morning, as if the character of Pip and his emotional state were being rendered in atmosphere and weather.
I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. 
The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind.
He is sure something will snatch him up and take him away to be locked up for his crime, but Dickens expressed this sentiment viscerally; we feel guilty, too. In the middle of chapter 4, a sense of humor pokes the reader as if Dickens were writing metafiction:
("You listen to this," said my sister to me, in a severe parenthesis.) 
I find this more than amusing. I could almost stop right there and be satisfied.

I am only on chapter 11 of 59 chapters, so I cannot tell you what lies in wait. I have great expectations for it (I had to say that) and am sure it will be chuckle-worthy. (But I had better read more than a chapter a night if I am to get through it in less than a year.) Dickens (like Jane Austen) is funny!

Coincidentally, I just got an email announcement (no, not from Dickens) from my friend Ira. Little did I realize that 2012 was the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth. Ira and Julia Levin made an entertaining video and wrote the song, "Raise Your Glass to Charles Dickens." Be prepared for some great rhyming lines and melody you'll hum in the shower. See and hear summaries of seven Dickens novels in under seven minutes! Dickens is in the air.

Addendum 1/20/13: Just heard about the book due out mid-February 2013 by Kevin Smokler, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School on NPR and thought it relevant. It takes a look at those books you might have read in high school and explores how you might benefit by looking at them again.

Monday, January 14, 2013

More Matjames: Comics and Assemblage

I'm revisiting  matjames metson this post as part of my interest in living artists.

A recent purchase in the comic department was issue #2 of the magazine, Slake that has a comic called "Survivor's Guild" by Matjames about the days after hurricane Katrina and how he survived in New Orleans. Those of us comfortable in our higher elevations and distant states could not really have imagined the disaster and pain that Katrina caused. The newspaper flattened the effects. Some of his friends committed suicide. Many drank heavily. They were in shock. Matjames captured the agony in a raw form and with humor, too. I feel like I got a lesson in empathy and was reminded to be grateful. As we have seen with the popular Maus I: A Survivor's Tale and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, comics about desperate times can be powerful teachers.

On a lighter note—shopping therapy—I finally got back to the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles and got my own Matjames piece. As I walked over there knowing I was on a mission to buy, I decided on a few criteria. It had to have a ruler frame. It had to have an object in it. I had to feel something when I looked at it. And I would pay $100 for it. I looked at six or seven, but this one eventually called to me.

It seems I also wanted a subject I could connect to or identify with. I'm not sure why, but I kept putting aside the ones with photos of men.

With her own built-in measuring system, you can see that she is 3 1/2" x 2" (89 mm x 51 mm), slightly larger than my palm. She is built from three thin layers of wood slats, then framed with the wooden ruler. A sweet photograph, I think, enhanced by the "France: all silk" label. It would be nice if the wooden edges were aligned, and the border, seamless, but they aren't. So it's a little askew, and so I'll get down. As a friend once said, "The air is a little thin up on that high horse, isn't it?" His mini boxes were the inspiration for my collage boxes.

Since I spent some time looking through his website and writing a (previous) post, I can't tell if I am comforted by the piece because of its own character, or because of Matjames' bio, or both. I guess it is a talisman for both. The woman at CAFAM who sold me the piece says he's a very nice guy. Nice how it shows.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ezra Jack Keats and Bookmaking

When I heard that an Ezra Jack Keats exhibit was opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, my first thought was: was he Jewish? It seems that I, along with many readers, had always assumed, since his characters were brown, that EJK was African American. Not so. He changed his name in 1947 from Jacob Ezra Katz to avoid the prevalent anti-Semitism and discrimination he encountered during World War II. "Jack" (as he was known as a child), grew up in Brooklyn, a son of Polish-Jewish parents, but when he was grown he chose to depict children of various backgrounds. Ultimately, neither race nor religion was the main focus of his work. His books speak to the human condition.

How did he begin? Photographs from Life magazine in the 1940s were the inspiration for the character of Peter in The Snowy Day. Keats had clipped them and kept them pinned around his studio until they finally came to life in his drawings. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation quotes him:
"Then began an experience that turned my life around," he wrote, "working on a book with a black kid as a hero. None of the manuscripts I'd been illustrating featured any black kids—except for token kids in the background."
Although he won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, the book still brought controversy. The exhibit features not only the beautiful original artwork made from painted papers and drawings that were also collaged and stamped from carved erasers, but letters to editors both for and against his depiction. The writers who identified themselves as Black were pleased to see characters doing normal things, living in the world naturally. Others felt that the characters should have been identified as Negro.

His background was difficult, his family, very poor. The exhibit was quite moving. Yet, despite hardships, Ezra Jack Keats devoted himself to his art with love and care. It was wonderful to see how much he influenced people. One section showed his interest in Japan and haiku and letters from Japanese mothers telling him how much their sons enjoyed his books and enjoyed his visit. One little boy was inspired by a little sketch of dogs rollerskating that he begged his mother for some skates. Other children saw the first boy and they also wanted skates. Soon, so many children were skating that mothers were worried about safety and petitioned the mayor for a skating rink. Ezra Jack Keats was invited to the dedication of a skating rink in Japan, and he went. All because of his art.

I came home and took out my copy of Whistle For Willie, a book I know by heart, one I had read hundreds of times to the kids. My favorite page includes a wall with Keats' version of graffiti. Another book, Jennie's Hat was the one that I remember most from my childhood, and I've just got my original copy back. The collages of her decorated hat have always delighted me. Among his books in the museum store, I found a lovely illustrated biography, best suited to upper elementary school students, that contains stories from EJK's childhood, accompanied by artwork from his picture books that corresponds to his life. All of his books have great art, great heart and very gentle plots.

Upon finding the EJK foundation website, I discovered another surprise: every year, in conjunction with the New York public schools, for the last 25 years, they have had a bookmaking contest for children in grades K-12. According to the rules, all books must be original work and all must be handmade. Children may not use binders or commercially made blank books. I scanned the names of the selection committee but found no book artists there. One web page has links to bookmaking projects for kids, including a book made from index cards and a cereal box. You can see some of the selected work in the bookmaking catalogue. EJK won the senior class medal for excellence in art at his high school graduation; in homage to Keats and to foster pride in their work, each child whose book is selected is awarded a medal. EJK's work continues to inspire.

The EJK exhibit is on view until February 24, 2013 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The original art should not be missed!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

If It's Out, I'll Eat It: Accessibility

The future is often portrayed in films as sleek and clean, with no stuff visible. In the streamlined house of The Jetsons (animated cartoon from the 1960s), you see rounded chairs and a giant screen as the only furnishings. In one scene, the kids have small records, in another, you see a couple of books standing on an end table. I like, at least, that the creators of the show still saw books in the future. The spaceship in the film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy  looks sterile as well. The movie, Blade Runner is an exception: the world is full of gritty streets, abandoned buildings, and discarded stuff. Futuristic books such as Neuromancer by William Gibson also have plenty of interesting stuff. As makers, stuff is our food. Maybe all the stuff is in closets and drawers and we just can't see it. But when we can't see the stuff in our own lives, how does it affect us?

Our future of the sleek and hidden is already here. Our electronics generate music, connections, opportunities, and mixed feelings. The impact of hidden stuff is surprising. We have to scroll through lists or forget what we own. E-readers hide the books away. MP3s hide the music. Phones and tablets hide the games and puzzles. We love that these are now so portable. But I started imagining a future like the Jetsons' where we might enter a friend's house and see nothing of her inside. When she gets up to offer us tea we don't get to browse the bookshelf or the CD rack. Maybe we already know everything from a social network page. Okay, a change. Good? Bad? Different.

Recently, when my wanderer was home, I noticed how stuff reactivated old activities. She started the crossword puzzle; I saw it out and did some, too. Her dad opened a 1000 piece puzzle and we all worked on it. Whenever one of us walked by the stuff, s/he was reminded of it and took interest in it. I already know that I do that with a bag of cookies, but leaving stuff out can also lead to something positive. 

Thinking about how we are susceptible to suggestion, I was reminded of one of my favorite topics: accessibility. Whether it is for those with special needs, children in elementary school or for artmakers, for example, having stuff available—having tools available—and visible are important to learning and making. If you can't get at it, you can't do it.

If you are ever have trouble tackling a project, start by putting the pieces where you can see them. I store my supplies in see-through bins so I can glance down a stack and know immediately what is inside. It's like a list, but better; it's visual. Better if I can keep the project out on a table so I can handle the pieces and get the information from my fingertips. I find I am actively reminded to work on the project when I can see it or feel it, and I can constantly keep it cooking inside my head that way, too.

By turning on a device and scrolling through lists we have to made choices constantly. Having physical objects, books, newspapers with crossword puzzles, and puzzles with solid, tangible pieces accessible means we don't have to continually decide what to look for. We are reminded of the activity every time we see the stuff. The barriers are gone. Our hands reach out. We can just begin. And keep going. The future is right in front of us.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Always the Same: Rules of Bookmaking

We are pattern-seekers. The calendar rolls over for the new year, but we notice that some things don't change. Gravity, for one. Step sock-footed into a puddle and your foot gets wet, for another. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, I read this phrase:
As an infant…[we]…learned that some visual features (mother's face, and father's) don't change. They are invariant patterns.… (92)
So, it seems, we start out as visual learners. The book includes a chapter on dyslexia and how some people learn differently, particularly how they may use the more visual, right sides of their brains to help solve usually left-side-oriented tasks like reading.
From the start…children search for invariant features when they try to learn something new. (92)
If this is a basic human function, perhaps adults look for these patterns when learning something new as well. I began to wonder if "invariant patterns" might be useful in teaching bookmaking. If, from the beginning, students learn what is fixed, it is possible they could create their own work more easily. Certain outcomes are always the same. Perhaps we can create "book faces" that become familiar and that students can continue to recognize.

What, then, might these invariant patterns, or rules, be? What might these "book faces" look like? Here are some features regarding The Properties of Paper, Adhesives, Thread, Materials, Structures, and Function.

  • Folding and tearing paper with the grain is easier (and makes a better and cleaner fold) than folding or tearing against the grain.
  • Most tapes will become brittle, lose their adhesive properties, and leave a residue on paper over time. Only self-adhesive linen tape is archival, holds its tack, and does not yellow.
  • Glue stick doesn't stick indefinitely.
  • PVA dries quickly and is not repositionable.
  • Homemade wheat paste will only last 1-2 weeks if it is kept in the refrigerator (on the longer side if you add a little PVA to it).
  • Photographic paper is best mounted with rub-on adhesive or put in corners, slits, or pocket frames. PVA will warp. Spray mount will lose its tack.
  • Aleene's tacky glue will hold nonporous items (like metal or plastic) on paper or board.
  • A sewn book will eventually come apart if the thread used stretches or breaks easily.
  • Acrylic paint will make book pages stick together. Acrylic inks, if not allowed to pool, won't.
  • Thin papers and cloth must be backed with a strong paper (such as mulberry paper) so the boards and glue don't show through.
  • For clean holes, you must wait until the covering material dries before you drill into boards. Drilling into damp boards will leave ragged holes.
  • Pages do not open completely with a side binding.
  • Pages do open completely with a Coptic binding.
  • Accordion-folded books are best for display.
  • Making a smaller book is faster and less expensive than making a larger one.
  • For a book with signatures, holes are always poked along the fold.
  • If a book will have multiple signatures, chances are you will need to know the kettle stitch.
  • For a hardcover book to open and hinge properly, the measurement between the spine board and each of the cover boards should be 3 board thicknesses (the thickness of 3 of the cover boards, whatever you use) 
  • If you put one word on each page your reader will have to work to remember what came before.
This unchanging list of features is only the beginning. Teaching, as usual, is a work in progress. And the students' learning styles always vary. It will be interesting to see if highlighting the rules as a group will help students learn in the classroom. Or, perhaps a set of activities can be developed so that they can teach each other. Perhaps knowing what is fixed can release new creative energy.

(Related post: "Active Learning: Students Are Not Sponges").