Levi Sherman: It’s so empowering to have an instructor that holds themselves to the values they profess in the studio. Can you talk about a recent experiment or a time when you’ve broken through your own expectations as an artist or teacher?
Tia Blassingame: I typically build into my artists’ book project an aspect that pushes me to work with a technique in which I need to build mastery or for some reason I’ve avoided. It’s baked into each project, and not something that is necessary for the reader/viewer to know.
For example, in Harvest: Holding & Trading I used screen printing mainly because it had been a technique that I found underwhelming. The colors seemed too garish, the whole process messy. It just did not appeal to me. So with that project I pushed myself to gain control of the colors. In that project all colors have some amount of brown and largely represent the skin tones of captive Africans that were brought to Rhode Island over the course of the 18th century.
For my most recent project, Colored: A Handbook, I had taught paste paper making, which is always one of those techniques that half the class loves. Meaning half the class hates it. In the end, they have way too many sheets that simply end up in the trash. Rarely are they incorporated into their work aside from as endsheets or the cover of an odd blank book or two.
I know I had not brought the technique into my own artist’s book projects. So for this book I wanted to challenge myself to use it in a way that made sense for the writing and subject matter. I had previously encountered Madeleine Durham’s paste paper and used them in blank books. Last year I had an opportunity to take a workshop with her. This gave me a chance to experiment and see the many ways that I might be able to create patterns and texture that supported a book that looks at the centuries of Black presence — joy and pain — in the United States. Also I found the process surprisingly meditative. In the end, I expanded my incorporation of paste paper to another related artist’s book including African American: A Handbook. Furthermore I expanded this experimentation to combining paste paper and natural dyes. I’m looking forward to where that takes me beyond this set of artist’s books.
And now I have an example and different method of teaching paste paper — as in intimate collaboration with your content — to my students. In this case my art and teaching practice have been expanded.
LS: You manage to achieve the same soft, layered look of pressure printing with your paste paper and even screen printing. I think of it as something of a signature style, a way to identify your work at a glance. What is it in your process or content that draws you to that aesthetic?
TB: Yes, initially in the paste paper workshop I think my inclination toward a more muted realization was misunderstood, or confused with not understanding how to correctly perform the technique. Eventually that tendency and desire to achieve a more muted palette was recognized.
I typically prefer a more muted or subtle color scheme. Colors, their combinations have meaning. I do not use any colors arbitrarily in my artists’ book projects. At times I may explicitly call out their meaning in the colophon. Other times I feel like it is clear or that, if not, the colors still have the intended effect upon the reader/viewer.
Since I was a kid, I’ve been struck by how art teachers, my classmates, artists would refer to the color brown as ugly or unattractive, undesirable. I couldn’t help but look at my own hands and arms, and know they were wrong. In grad school, art school, those same flippant comments, dismissal of brown continued. I want to say it was without self-awareness, but I doubt it.
For me the stark whiteness of a page or sheet of paper is artificial and jarring. The color white, pure white, in the natural world is an anomaly. I know students often start and get stuck on using stark white paper. Even when there are alternatives of varied hues. In their case, they are using what they know, what is comfortable. Copier paper, notebook paper, textbook paper is typically stark white. So I have to push them out of their comfort zone to explore, and experience how colored, cream, natural papers print, take and shift ink colors.
For the muted colors that I use and the shades of brown ink that I may present, I prefer how muted papers draw them down…to a place that is comfortable for the eyes of the reader/viewer. And might make them linger for a bit on a page, an image, a word, concept. This is just another Book Arts technique that I employ to engage the reader/viewer in a relationship with the book, a conversation on race.
There are very few examples of my use of white paper. In a book like Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian (2015) or Mourning/Warning: Numbers & Repeaters (2018), the paper is slightly nicer than regular copier paper, but as bright a white. Making the browns that have been added to the nautical flags feel like they belong. The white gives some indication of a primer with only the essential information included. In Hers: A Primer of Sorts (2013), I used white rice paper only because I was broke and was committed to complete this artists’ book for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. I had already written the text, settled on the book layout, and planned the execution. When it came time to start the edition, I did not have the funds to complete it as I originally envisioned. So I reconsidered how to complete the edition. I happened to have a pad or two of rice paper. I had a decent printer, and it turned out the paper went through the printer. It printed beautifully. To tamp down the starkness of the white paper, I covered the pages with a veil of images of letterforms and lace fabrics. This was also helpful because I was using upcycled almanac covers that were slightly yellowed and age worn. The text is printed on the reverse of each page and becomes apparent when the text block is pulled away from the covers in this flutter book.
LS: Since you’ve spoken so eloquently about how color operates in your work, I wonder if you might do the same for book structure. The complexity, scale and interactivity of the binding seems carefully calibrated for each project.
TB: I am engaging the viewer/reader in a conversation about historical and contemporary racism by using printmaking and book arts techniques to seduce the reader through materials, color, tactility, pacing in order to slow the reader’s initial impulse to flee or avoid a discussion of race.
Each artist’s book project has different perimeters from how I push myself as I mentioned, but primarily the relationship that I am looking for the reader/viewer to have is with the book, how I want the reader/viewer to physically engage with that specific artist’s book. I consider how I can utilize typography, materiality, tactility, and so on to facilitate that relationship, control the reader/viewer.
Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013) employs color and sound and translucency to build an interaction with the reader/viewer that ebbs and flows. Influenced by the size and placement of text and image, the viewer will move close to the page. The rhythm and rustling of non-color field pages and relatively silent ones act as a metronome that can both guide the reader’s pace and create a haunting soundtrack as captive Africans are brought into view. Harvest is intended to be emotional and disorienting.
Black in Dictionary is meant to seduce through tactility, color, pattern, scale. It feels good in your hands, but also you want to hold it and not put it down or share it. The paper has bits of glitter embedded in it, but it is also buttery and appealing to touch. The imagery on the flags — photos of my skin and jewelry — is muted, misty — almost enjoyable to view despite the jarring text from a slang dictionary. What is it to hold close and almost covetously an artist’s book that highlights derogatory terms to describe African Americans? What is it to maintain this conversation on race because the decisions that I make in creating the work have stalled your impulse to flee or avoid the topic?
My work doesn’t have an easily identifiable signature look because each project demands several different things: some invisible that are for me and the process, others to ensure a specific physical engagement and building a relationship with the artist’s book. The signature is there for those willing to look below the surface and obvious.
LS: Do you find that artists’ books as a medium are particularly capable of that seduction and intimacy that allows you to challenge readers with a conversation about race?
TB: Absolutely. We all have some relationship with, feelings about, memories of books and reading. Good or bad. So there is a different response, emotions that a work using the book format can elicit. A different attention, connection that the viewer makes. Intellectual, emotional, physical response that you can draw from the viewer. That can be quite intense. Books or their absence, being read to or not growing up, being voracious reader or struggling, have an effect on everyone, but it also gives us strong memories and responses to the physical representation of a book…and can make us responsive to bookishness — those book characteristics: pacing, pages, covers, text and/or image, narrative, propelled by the reader, some space for their imagination to fill in the story, presence, intimate experience between the reader and the book or story or characters or author/artist.
LS: Are you currently working on any projects that have you excited?
I’m excited about a collective that I started last year: the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. The collective brings Book History and Print Culture scholars into conversation and collaboration with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) book artists, papermakers, curators, letterpress printers, papercutters, printmakers and more to build community and support systems. We are over thirty individuals connected and grounded by our shared passion for book arts and the unique potential of artists’ books as vehicles for social change and racial unity. Our current and future collaborations across media and disciplines will continue to morph as our group grows and our connections shift and deepen. This year we had events such as a conversation on Antiracist Bookworks through University of Maryland at College Park and BookLab, a series of panels hosted by the Bibliographical Society of America with the final one in January 2021. I’m already planning more collaborations for 2021 and beyond.
Tia Blassingame is an Assistant Professor of Book Arts at Scripps College and serves as the Director of Scripps College Press. A book artist and printmaker exploring the intersection of race, history, and perception, Blassingame often incorporates archival research and her own poetry in her artist’s book projects for nuanced discussions of racism in the United States. Her artist’s books are held in library and museum collections including Library of Congress, Stanford University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and State Library of Queensland. In 2019, she founded the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective to bring Book History and Print Culture scholars into collaboration with Book Arts artists of color.
I was especially excited to talk to Tia Blassingame because of her holistic, critical approach to the artists’ book field. She decenters the book object and focuses on the interconnected roles of artists, curators, collectors, librarians, teachers, students, and the institutions they move in. I believe this perspective is necessary for the field to mature and, importantly, to do so with racial and social equity.
The following interview took place via email beginning July 24, 2020. It has been edited for clarity.
Levi Sherman: How did you find your way to book arts? What was the first artists’ book you made?
Tia Blassingame: I come from a fairly bookish family, a family of educators. My mom taught elementary school. My dad was a historian and Yale professor of African American Studies and History; my brother an educator in Mathematics and LSAT testing. Libraries, overflowing bookshelves, stacks of books, the presence of Black writers, scholars, and artists were a constant part of my foundation years. Looking back it seems that Book Arts in some form was always around me whether as rare books, historical documents, the scholarship of Black art historians, children’s books, manuscripts.
I properly came to artist’s books after developing an interest in learning letterpress printing. I was located in New Haven and had searched for opportunities to learn or at least check out a letterpress print shop locally. I reached out to New Haven Arts Workshop, but they had just sold off their letterpress equipment. When I contacted Yale University about simply visiting the letterpress studios in their residential colleges, they told me that I was not considered “affiliated with Yale,” so I started looking farther afield. I ended up taking a weeklong letterpress workshop at the Center for Book Arts. I was working full-time at the time, so I think I used my leave to take the week off. From that class, I simply went down the rabbit hole.
The first artist’s book that I created? Well, even now friends of the family mention illustrated books that I created and gifted them as a kid. That involved illustration and storytelling. So self publishing at least seems to have been a lifelong interest.
The first proper artist’s book that I attempted was months prior to starting a Master’s degree in the Art of the Book at Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington, DC. I had been conducting research for several years about an early integrated school in New England. While I was an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and immediately after at MacDowell, I was letterpress printing and creating what I did not realize was an artist’s book, or even a book, as I didn’t have the vocabulary or bookmaking skills, but I was laying out the pages and considering the reader/viewer’s relationship with the piece, its pacing. But I was frustrated because I wasn’t able to bring it together. It is really just now that I am coming back to that work to edition it. I still have the letterpress prints and have since incorporated them into bound forms, but in some cases I have re-considered the forms or layouts.The Negro Students of Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire (2019) is the culmination of those letterpress pieces that were started at SFAI and MacDowell almost ten years before. In this case, the resulting Students book was Risograph printed at Endless Editions at Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York City. My ideas around the reader/viewer’s relationship with the book changed from when I was considering it in my lovely studio at MacDowell, but I’m excited about how the reader/viewer and this version of Students will develop a relationship and discuss race in terms of early New England integrated education.
LS:Has art always been the outlet for your historical and archival research? Or did your interest in history precede its emergence in your art practice?
TB: No, well at least not visual art. I always wrote verse or poetry tied to my research but it was more for me to roll over an aspect of the process or a fact or connection that energized me. Prior to shifting to visual art, I was writing essays and manuscripts on architectural history, architecture and perception that never quite captured the essence or energy that interested me. The last two times that I was an artist-in-residence at MacDowell, for example, I was conducting the field research upon which Students is partly based. The final time, I was writing a traditional essay and then turning it into pages, an outgrowth of experimentation that I had started in the preceding months as an artist-in-residence at Santa Fe Art Institute, where I had been making clumsy letterpress prints about Noyes Academy.
The love of research, libraries and looking to history and historical documents to make sense of, and seeing connections to the present, were instilled by my dad. The rare books and documents that littered our home, his study and his offices were a constant. The conversations in our home — I expect partly because everyone including my brother and mom, in addition to being voracious readers, could draw so easily from history, memory, personal experiences — were always tangled and enlivened, in part, by history, oral history, and books.
Also I can’t overstate my brother’s influence as a reader of science fiction, mystery by white and Black authors HG Wells and Ray Bradbury to Octavia Butler, comic books, Agatha Christie to Chester Himes, and beyond. Whose library growing up had been the Library of Congress as my family had lived in DC-Maryland before I was born and my brother had accompanied my dad to the LOC while he conducted research. Who as a young kid had read his entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and moved on. A set that endlessly entranced me with its images framed by text. My brother’s seamless movement between comics and literary works, and his serious regard of comics with his verbatim, but lively, retelling of a page or entire comic, or excited describing of a comic character — their powers, backstory, and incidents from various volumes — with the same seriousness and thoroughness that he would give to a Stephen King novel or Beckett definitely helped develop my interest in text and image, books as art, but also open to all types of content and treatment.
In many ways I see no disconnect between the arts and historical research. A well-turned sentence or a well-timed and intonated joke or story can be art and personal or oral history. Book Arts gives me a way to integrate the two.
LS: Elsewhere you talk about using period typefaces to evoke specific histories in your work. Is it fair to say that other artists perhaps ignore historical connotations of letterpress printing, or trade on a sense of nostalgia rather than contending with unpleasant aspects of the past? Can design and technology be separated from its context?
TB: With each project, in some way I am building a relationship between the book and the reader/viewer and orchestrating how they physically engage with that book. I look to the tools that I have at my disposal of which typography is just one. I am interested in that space where a typeface like Caslon is in popular use while bondsmen and bondswomen are doing the back-breaking work of building the foundations of our nation, providing the wealth and leisure time for a Thomas Jefferson or a George Washington.
When you think of printmaking or architecture, for example, they hold and carry forward certain traditions while embracing and exploiting technological advances. But for me I look at the context in terms of race and racism. As such, nothing — at least in the United States — can be divorced from them. That contextualization adds depth and it is in the tangles of those layers that we can reach a more nuanced and, to me, interesting discussion.
At times I break my aims of using typefaces tied to the era that I am presenting, but I do this with specific intentions in mind. For example, in Past Present: DC (2015) I span several decades and employ various typefaces in metal and wood type, from the Government Printing Office, as well as polymer. I included Archer typeface in Past PRESENT: DC because it has a certain persuasive and almost charming nature to it. In that case I use it to boldly and increasingly populate the pages of that book with bumper stickers and commentary from the news cycle that employed racial tropes present during the earlier periods covered in PAST Present: DC. Plus in the making there is some twisted enjoyment in using the same typeface of Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine to aid the reader in making connections between how candidate and later President Obama was depicted with how ordinary Black citizens have been portrayed in popular culture for centuries: as apes, animals, dangerous, lazy, stupid, etc.
In I AM and YOU ARE, there is minimal text. Mainly captions with an introduction in the former, or with extended colophon, the latter. Both are set in Scripps College Old Style and were printed at Scripps College Press. SC Old Style is a bit fussy, and there was definitely a feeling of claiming it to make space for and acknowledge the pain and experiences of Black women and girls in a way that those drawers of type had not. I expect in some way it was also for me to make space for myself and the work I am trying to do as an educator within that studio. Typesetting those succinct captions that call out, acknowledge and play with stereotypes, but also pain as well as expressing joy and pride. At the end of the day I am typesetting and using the power and the history of Goudy, Scripps Press, Scripps librarian Dorothy Drake, the typeface to say subtly and completely these Black girls and women matter as we know the Scripps students since the school’s inception matter.
LS: If race and racism inflect design, technology and aesthetics, what are we to make of art that doesn’t grapple with those dimensions of, say, typography or printing? And on a related note, how do you bring those questions into your teaching?
TB: I think the silence speaks for itself. If you have no interest in addressing race or racism, then you avoid the conversation, and happily remain in your bubble. Which I’ve found Book Arts folks to be very good at doing.
With all the white letterpress printers and Book Arts folks making prints and work about anti-racism or for Black Lives Matter protests this summer, I just wonder how much is performative, because none of their work ever addressed such before May 25th, 2020. And I wonder how many Black artists they are drowning out of the discussion. How many will still be interested in these issues on May 25, 2021 or 2025 or 2035? How many simply used their privilege to center themselves in the discussion and assuage some guilt instead of amplifying the work and voices of Black artists?
I expect in many ways my presence, my body, my Blackness, within the field, the studio, the classroom brings those questions forth. Course development is an exciting and at times imperfect space to explore issues, topics that the field typically does not. I’m honest with students in my seminar classes like Race & Identity in Book Arts that there is little to no relevant discourse or scholarship within the field, so we may have to make it ourselves. Or in my studio courses like this semester’s The Artist’s Book: Representing Blackness we are making our own path with the help of Black artists working in printmaking and the book form to study their work and strategies. We forge our own path, because these artists have been ignored and not received the scholarly analysis they deserve. There is no wealth of articles or books to form a foundation for the class. Instead we hear directly from the artists in studio visits, artist talks, a variation on students interviewing them (see scba.omeka.net), and ideally over the course of the semester the students simultaneously become researchers and artists in the conversation. Basically we’ve cut out the middleman for now until scholarship in the field catches up.
LS: I love this approach — what Book Arts lacks in history it makes up for with living artists. Can you talk about how your art and teaching practices inform one another?
TB: From teaching, I have a better appreciation of printmaking and book techniques as well as from students a greater flexibility and desire to experiment. It is interesting to me that the things that I try to instill in my students — flexibility, willingness to experiment and break through your own expectations to see and maybe shift what you are capable of doing — are all things that they help to reinforce in me and my teaching and studio practice. Through the teaching, I also get to explore the spaces and people ignored by the field, and then work to write them in.
Whenever I am conducting DIY investigations or independent research, attending talks/panels/conferences or taking workshops, I am always looking with an eye to expanding what I teach and how I teach. I am always looking through a pedagogical lens and from the view of a student. Attending even a poorly organized and taught class should make me a better teacher and stretch my knowledge base, skill set.
The artists that interest me are varied, but in my own research my focus is primarily on Black artists, who are typically not part of the conversation in the field. In my research I search for them with the goal of writing them back into the Book Arts field. I do something similar in my courses and in my role as Director of Scripps College Press.
The list of artists that I share with students in assignments, host as visiting artists is diverse. The push that many instructors experienced this year to decolonize their syllabi, I did not experience in the same way. Though I did re-interrogate my syllabi. With a course like Representing Blackness, it is more important to substantially foreground Black artists like multimedia artist and printmaker Daniel Minter of Indigo Arts Alliance or papercut artist Janelle Washington or printmaker and founding member of Black Women of PrintDelita Martin, but also to allow students to look at how they present themselves and their communities versus how their white counterparts represent Blackness. If we are discussing my Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013), then we should also examine artists’ books on slavery by book artists such as Maureen Cummins’ The Business is Sufferingor Fred Hagstrom’sLittle Book of Slavery (2012). If we are examining, Clarissa Sligh’s It Wasn’t Little Rock (2004), then we should be interrogating work by white artists about the civil rights era such as Clifton Meador’s Long Slow March (1996) or Jessica Peterson’s Unbound (2014) or Cause and Effect (2009). While I am more interested in what a Black artist says about their experience, culture, history, I think it is valuable to see how their approach or connection to the subject matter contributes or does not contribute to the artwork. Is there a care and respect that they bring to the work that a white artist cannot? Why are they making this work? I think it is an important conversation to have within my classes and with my research.
LS:Can you talk about accountability and motivation? Generative constraints like making Eulalia in one sitting, using collage to make drawing accessible, even the Keep Writing Project all seem like a way to encourage art-making.
HA: I’ve never had a regular job. I waited tables when I was younger, so I always had sort of a wacky schedule and could do what I wanted, which was great until I started getting more serious about making art. Then I realized that I needed to give myself some kind of structure, and it helped make sense of all the projects I wanted to work on. Like, I’m going to make this thing every month or I’m going to do this meetup every day or every week or whatever. It just helps me keep focused and motivated. It’s a way to organize all the ideas I have, and then, when I don’t feel like doing one thing, I always have another project to work on.
I don’t really get stuck. I can’t think of the last time I had anything like writer’s block. I think I have too many projects going on at any one point, so I just shift to another project. I sometimes have a hard time thinking of a good idea for the Keep Writing Project, but I keep a running list of ideas. I have definitely made some just to get them done, but then I usually get really excited about the next two or three. It’s important for me to have self-imposed structure because otherwise I wouldn’t necessarily have any structure at all.
LS: It sounds like zine fairs play that role, too? If you know that you’re tabling soon, it’s another deadline or an opportunity to get something over the finish line.
HA: I definitely go for that, and I definitely don’t do it most of the time. A couple projects did get finished in time for zine fairs, but Eulalia was supposed to have been finished in the fall for St. Louis Small Press Expo, and just got put on the table. I am constantly reprioritizing plans.
LS: It seems like you work collaboratively a lot, and that can be another form of motivation and accountability.
HA: There are two kinds of collaborations. I started doing individual collaborations a lot more during the pandemic, just signing up for things that sounded really fun. A couple were, like, somebody would just work on something for an hour and then mail it to you. I was like, great, I can work with that level of commitment right now. You’re giving me something to work with, or I can just send you whatever I worked on for an hour. So I don’t have to think about the end product. You don’t have to worry about where it fits in with anything else.
I’ve also started working quite a lot with my partner on collages, because the first couple months we were together, we were living in two different places. So we were sending things through the mail. We’re old friends, and we had worked together on zines years and years ago. So I gave him some collage I was working on. He went to art school and taught art for a while, and we just have really different ways of approaching it. But I thought it might work and I’m really excited about it. It encourages me to think about things differently.
I have also been doing a lot more meetups since before the pandemic. Meeting in groups to work on projects, but then making art together because we’re working together. And part of that is honestly because I’m not particularly extroverted. I’m really shy and getting older, and I keep moving every few years. So it’s a way to make friends, an excuse to talk to people I like, trying to be in some sort of group where we get to make work together.
LS: How much do you think about the community that you’re building in an art framework? You could frame it as Social Practice, that the meetup itself is the art. Does that resonate with you?
HA: Definitely. I’ve recently started the virtual Morning Coffee Collage meet-up. We meet twice a week and we just work. We aren’t making art together. We sit and we don’t talk; we just check in at the beginning, say our names, talk about what we’re going to work on, and then after an hour and a half, we talk about how it went. And that’s it. We leave our video screens on so there’s someone there the whole time when you’re working. I put my computer back, and sometimes the thing I’m doing that day is cleaning my studio (which is currently a camper). But there’s somebody there, so there’s some accountability. Also hearing what other people are working on and giving each other little encouragement helps.
The times when I need to clean or write letters or do something that isn’t collage, it’s still important for me to show up — not just because I’m the facilitator, but because I really appreciate that interaction twice a week. Those kinds of things have just been more important to me. It’s about showing up to make stuff and not about what I’m making. Even though I sometimes make work I like there, that’s kind of secondary.
LS:That’s interesting, the idea of leaving the video going. There is an aesthetic component there that could be really fascinating.
HA: I borrowed that from a friend who was leading a writing group that met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So I scheduled my meet-up for the off days. One thing they emphasized was leaving the video on and checking in at the beginning and end. I took the parts I liked and adapted it, knowing I had friends who didn’t want to talk that much on camera but would show up to work. And it’s been nice because a few of the people who come are people I’ve had in classes, and since I left New Orleans and haven’t been teaching.
I’m about to teach my first class since leaving. I really miss my classes. I missed my students, and so it’s nice to see some of those people regularly again and feel that same connection and community, even though we’re in different places now.
LS: My next question was going to be about teaching — how it connects to these ideas of accountability and collaboration. And more generally, how do you balance that with your practice. Is there a tension between the two or is it a virtuous circle?
HA: So far I have mostly taught my own classes out of my studio, so I have a lot of control over the timing and the schedule and how much work I put into it.
I generally think it’s really helpful and inspiring. I frequently have repeat students. It’s really fun. I’m a pretty flexible teacher, I mostly try to get people just to make stuff. I show them techniques but when somebody figures out a different way of doing something, that’s exciting to me. I don’t feel threatened as a teacher; I feel excited that somebody else has figured out a better way.
Going back to that experience of taking so long to figure out what a pamphlet stitch is — if somebody else is like, you could just do this — I love that, it’s great. I find it really helpful.
I think the promotional and the organizational parts get a little tiring, because I’m the only person promoting the classes and that stuff takes a lot of time. It’s really draining but it’s worth it. If this was my only job, it’d be great.
LS: On that more logistical, economic side of things, it seems like you’re pretty explicit in supporting grassroots organizations through sales and by boosting them on your website. Do you see overlap between the content of your art and the values of those organizations? Or are you just using your skillset to financially support them?
HA: I think a little bit more of the latter. I don’t think that my artwork is explicit, so I think if I didn’t say anything about those issues then people might not totally understand where I’m coming from politically, and what causes I might support.
I write about it a lot. I’ve been getting more and more vocal, but I’m not, say, making a bunch of really obvious anti-cop artwork. My work is usually more subtle.
But I think it is important to support these organizations. In the past couple months I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to send some of the money that I get for things I do to these people, and draw some attention to them. I have a monthly newsletter, and my June newsletter, instead of talking about my work, was just lists of organizations. Like, if you don’t understand what’s going on and you don’t have any idea how to talk about police brutality, here are really basic resources for you to read more about it. If you already know some of this, here are some other resources, ways to talk to different people. Or here are places if you just want to send money. So I just gave people a really long resource list and I got a lot of positive feedback about that, which was really nice. It’s been a struggle because it always feels like I want to be saying and doing more, but it doesn’t always seem authentic.
LS: You found a solution where you can educate people about local resources and smaller organizations they might not have heard of.
HA: Right. I mean, a lot of my postcards are positive affirmations and encouragement, but I also want to be able to talk about social unrest, and why it’s important to vote, and why a lot of people don’t want to vote and why that’s also a good point — all these different complicated issues — I feel like I can’t just do it on a postcard. So I try to bring up some small part of that. For example, a recent postcard had a quote from Ross Gay about caretaking, so I asked people how they are taking care of people around them. It’s a really indirect way of saying that what’s important is community and the people around you. So what are you doing to connect with your community? At this moment I don’t need to frame it as, like, how I feel about cops, but rather this is the thing that’s important, so let’s talk about that and draw people out.
LS: So where do you situate your practice in terms of, say, the Art World with a capital A compared to your local community? Who’s your audience? Where do you feel like your support comes from?
HA: The people who write to me or subscribe to the postcard project, and the people who buy zines generally, are sort of similar to me — a little introverted, interested in a lot of the same ideas ideas, interested in the personal side and the aesthetics of my work, but also in the underlying politics of it.
The people who take my classes are a little different. They tend to be a little older, which is super fun. It’s people who are just enough older that they feel like my mom, and they have time and want to make art. There are also groups of younger people, too. I feel like a lot of that audience is people who are interested in creative practice and might not know those words for it, but are interested in making stuff and learning about stuff and feeling inspired and supported and connected, even if they’re not sure how to do that.
LS: There are so many people that fall into that category, without the vocabulary, who might think they’re alone. How much do you focus on building community in your classes? Or does it happen organically?
HA: When I teach classes in person, it’s usually six to ten people. I have a couple of one-off classes, but I prefer to teach four-week series. So over four weeks we all introduce ourselves at the beginning. We do some sharing, we do some collaborative games. So even if everyone doesn’t talk to everyone during class at least people are aware of each other and chat and share.
I wasn’t sure how that was going to work online. There were a lot of reasons I hesitated to teach online, and I was thinking about what is important to me and my classes. And one thing is that interaction. So how do I bring those kinds of interactions into my virtual classes? The first online class went okay. I think the best feedback I received is that, even though students signed up mainly to learn a skill and maybe secondarily to interact with people, everyone told me they felt like they were a part of a group. For me, for an online class, that makes the class successful.
LS:On this idea of community and working with other people, when you publish other artists, how does that change your positionality? A lot of zine culture (and art in general) can be subversive, but publishing someone else’s work requires you to be an authority, or at least to advocate on their behalf.
HA: Hmm, I don’t print a lot of other people’s work but I sometimes ask for submissions. The original idea for Where You From was to have people write about their hometowns, and I didn’t edit what people wrote to me. I just told them, I want you to write about your hometown. What is your relationship to your hometown? And I asked, kind of half and half, people I knew who had stayed in or near their hometown or returned to their hometown and people who had left. Why was it better to stay or leave? Why it worked for you, or if it didn’t work for you, why? And then I’d ask for a drawing or photograph of their hometown. So it was interesting because I didn’t edit people’s things. I was mostly happy; there wasn’t anything I wished I didn’t print. I really wanted it to be, like, if you submit it, I’ll print it, because I want to hear the whole thing. Which was hard. I wrote an introduction, and I would write a piece in each one. But at that point, that was the first time I had asked for other people’s work in my zines.
There are a few people whose work I like a lot who I’ve offered to print but we haven’t figured out a way to do that yet.
LS: What are the barriers to making work that you’ve encountered when you’re teaching or talking to other artists, and what advice might you have to overcome them?
HA: So the things that students tell me are the hardest part are making time, and worrying about an end product. And thinking that you’re not talented enough or creative enough, or that what you’re saying isn’t new or just doesn’t feel important.
I think the best advice I can give is: practice. Make time and space, even if it’s just twenty minutes a day. Every day make something. Draw or write, set aside a special place, or go out, but do it every day.
For me as an artist, I also try a new technique over and over, like solving a problem as many ways as I can without thinking if it is the best solution. For example, I make these really silly collages when I’m working at my Morning Coffee Collage time, and I don’t necessarily care about them either way, except they’re fun. But then I realized that it was actually similar to what I do in my other work, so it’s just practicing.
LS: You mentioned that your studio is in a camper, and that you just moved. Since it seems like making space and time is so important, could you paint a picture of your workspace and how that’s a reflection of your practice?
HA: I have a print studio where my press is. It is in a shared community artspace so, because of COVID, I do most of my non-printing work in the camper. I moved to Portland in March with this small camping trailer that I towed behind my truck. The house where I am living with my partner and his kid is not big enough for all of us and my art studio. So I set up to work in this camper. The kitchen table became my desk. The benches hold my tools and my printer. I just set up a cork board for keeping track of projects. I have a little rolling cart full of all the supplies for collage and letter writing. I usually have piles of things next to me because I’m not that organized. The bed area and bunk store all my zine and postcard stock and some class supplies. My kitchen cabinets have mailing supplies instead of food in them. The fridge has sparkling water and chocolate that is hidden from — more from my husband — than the kid, so I have some secret snacks. I love having lots of decoration around me — photos and postcards and rocks and plants, I find it comforting rather than distracting.
I come out here and work — not every day — but it’s nice. It’s essentially like a crowded separate room, out of the house, which helps. It gets frustrating because it doesn’t feel very organized since I moved in March and then just got the rest of my stuff two weeks ago. So I still feel like I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s really nice to have a place that’s quiet.
LS: Are you working on anything exciting right now?
HA: Yeah, I wanted to write a zine about moving during the pandemic and then I kept waiting for the pandemic to be over to start it. Now I’ve realized that I don’t think there’s an over part. I think I should just write it if I want to write it. So that’s certainly in my head. I am wrapping up a lot of collage series I’d been working on, so I’m thinking about maybe some kind of online art show at some point.
I love teaching and I am glad the first class went well, so now I am slowly adapting a longer class series, like 4–6 weeks. And I have so many new postcard ideas for Keep Writing!
LS: Good luck with those classes! And thank you so much for your time.
Hope Amico is a collage artist, trained letterpress printer and former community bike shop volunteer, living and working in Portland, Oregon. She is the force behind Gutwrench Press — a letterpress shop, zine distro, and home of the Keep Writing Project, a postcard subscription she started in 2008.
I spoke with Hope via Zoom on October 19, 2020. The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Levi Sherman: What brought you to books and zines initially? And what has kept your interest?
Hope Amico: I did a lot of writing in high school. I knew a little about poetry chapbooks at that point, and then one of my high school friends brought me a zine. He started a zine, and I helped with it, and eventually I started my own. I went to school for printmaking so that I could make letterpress printed covers for my zines. I wanted to learn different ways of bookbinding and ways of making more interesting and more elaborate zines.
LS: So you already had zines in mind by the time you chose a college major and delved into printmaking?
HA: Yeah, I didn’t even go to school until I was in my thirties. I went to school because I found out I could get in-state tuition, and they had large-format printing presses and large-format papermaking materials. I already had done some papermaking and some letterpress printing and some bookbinding, so I went as an undergrad with a small portfolio of these miniature books I had been making in my studio.
LS: How would you say that experience changed your practice?
HA: I had the studio before I went to college, but not a lot of equipment. Then in school I met Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress. She was an adjunct, teaching a Book Arts class that included just two weeks of letterpress. At that point, she was running her business alone and she was like, “you should come be my assistant.” I became her sort of intern for a couple months. I worked there throughout school and again when I returned to Louisiana a few years later. I was really lucky in that I had access to her print equipment and to her as a teacher. She was very encouraging. Also in school I became dependent on having access to some kind of printing press. I started my Keep Writing letterpress project in school, November of my freshman year. By the time I graduated the project was well established so I needed to find a way to print every month.
LS:I guess it would be a good time to explain a little bit about that project — what inspired it initially, and how it exists now in a pandemic when more people are thinking about ways of connecting with one another remotely?
HA: It was 2008. I had a lot of pen pals and had just moved to Baton Rouge for school. I wasn’t on Facebook and I wanted to be able to keep in touch with my friends. I had this idea that maybe people would sign up for a sort of newsletter, and I wanted to have a project every month. I had all this equipment around me, and I wanted to challenge myself to make a new postcard every month.
I mailed the first card to a bunch of friends and went to the New Orleans book fair with a sign-up sheet. I was like, if you give me a dollar I’ll send you this thing for two months and then — I don’t know, I don’t know what I’ll do after that. And like sixty people signed up in the first couple months. People were surprisingly interested. I was really hesitant to ask for money from pen pals for doing something I kind of already did, but I wanted to consolidate my mailing list so that I could keep up while I was in school.
The first cards were photocopied or made with stamps before I could use the letterpress equipment at school. They were single cards, and some were collaborations. Around the third year I hit upon this idea of making it a folded postcard so that it tore in half, into two cards. There was a postcard I designed that could stand alone, and there was a question that was related to it, and people would mail back the second half. And that’s how it still works.
It’s always been a challenging project to explain briefly, but suddenly people seem to get it. I don’t sell in person right now, but I have an online shop. I sell fewer subscriptions, but more strangers are signing up online.
LS: Do you mind me asking how many subscribers you’re up to?
HA: It pretty much hovers around 150 with some fluctuations.
LS: I found out about your work when you sent me Eulalia #3. I alluded to it in my review, but I’m intrigued by this twenty-year gap between issues in the series. What does that say about how you think of seriality?
HA: With all of my zines I have a really specific idea of what I’m doing. I’ve had five multiple-issue zines and I’ve done a couple of one-offs, but I have really specific ideas — usually it’s thematic. I was around twenty when I made the first Eulalia. Even then, I didn’t really draw very much. I wrote a bunch, but of course, I didn’t know I would become a printmaker. I didn’t know much about printmaking; one of my first prints ever was on the original cover of Eulalia #1. But I had this idea: what if I only give myself this tiny box to fill with words or pictures? It means I don’t have to draw a lot. It means I don’t have to write a lot. I’m terrible at self-editing; I want to go on forever. So it contained a really small idea, and the focus of that issue was about an interaction with a specific person. So when I thought of redoing it twenty years later, I found the first one. I really liked this concept of giving myself these parameters.
I work in series now, and they’re really quick. I think it’s just about giving myself parameters to work within and I create an idea to work on, like a prompt almost.
LS:Well, that’s a good segue to my next question. Is there a tension between working with the book as a medium — where the ultimate form is somewhat predetermined — and your process-based, conceptual approach, where the making of the art might matter more than the final product?
HA: Ooh, definitely. The postcards are also a good example because the past hundred of them have had the same structure.
With zines, I kind of go back and forth between wildly experimenting with form and then realizing that I also sell at zine fests and like to keep them somewhat coherent so people know what they’re looking at. So, a zine that’s all over the place in size, form and structure has to balance what I want to do with practicality for the reader. Is it something I need to display easily, or am I just interested in trying something out?
LS:So the book form provides a way to pursue whatever experimentation, whatever media you want to work in, and still know the outcome will be relatable for an audience.
HA: Exactly. It provides me with a recognizable structure that I can alter and add to and experiment with.
LS: I’m wondering about how you approach collage as a medium, conceptually speaking.
HA: I started teaching a class two or three years ago called “I Can’t Draw,” thinking a lot about how I went to school for art but I’m not great at life drawing.
In my final semester of school I had the option of taking what they called Drawing Workshop. My teacher believed you that something was a drawing if you said it was a drawing. So I just loved that idea that whatever I presented in class was a drawing if I could defend it as a drawing, and that was fine with him. So it was in my last semester of school, and I was doing these huge handmade paper hot air balloons and working on my letterpress project, so I had all these scraps of handmade paper and I just started sewing them onto paper, essentially building 3D collages and trying paper cutting. I just decided for that class to keep trying lots of different things because my final project was nearly complete. I started experimenting with making large work because I didn’t make large work, and making drawings, and essentially making large collages — and it was great, I learned a lot. I don’t remember what anyone else in class said about my work; I just remember just being really excited.
I came back to that idea later when I wanted to start teaching. It’s so freeing to make work like that. Not worrying about making something that looks like a bird, just trying to assemble all these ideas and not getting caught up on the idea that I can’t draw bird, but finding an image of a bird or finding other ways to represent a bird or an emotion or an idea or a place through snippets of other people’s imagery.
LS: What’s the relationship to the materials that you’re working from? Do you keep a big stack of papers and scraps?
HA: I just finished moving my studio two weeks ago. I went back to New Orleans and got the rest of it, and there’s more than one box labeled “favorite collage materials,” which is funny because I don’t use a lot of images from books or magazines. I like patterns and textures, and I have lots of different ways of layering them. I also have bins of handmade paper from when I was making paper. I keep materials with the excuse that they are for my classes — images, alcohol markers, inks. My friend Thomas Little is an ink maker in North Carolina (he’s on Instagram as a.rural.pen). He sent me materials to make my own ink, and I did a lot of drawings with that. So I have a lot of materials that I want to work with, and start experimenting with them and then realize that I like some of the work that comes out of it.
LS: So where does that leave the original pieces that end up in the zine? As somebody who could otherwise make collages that stand alone, what becomes of the pieces that go into the books?
HA: The drawings and collages that have been used in zines were made, more or less, knowing what they were for. I keep those pieces as they are. I don’t do anything else with them. I think I’ve actually lost some of the originals from the last Eulalia in the move. I remember seeing some of them on the floor. I feel like they’re done. I don’t need them to be something else.
LS: It’s fascinating to me that the original can be a precious, auratic object that the zine merely reproduces, or just some scraps of preparatory material that are thrown away. I’m interested in how different artists approach that.
HA: I have the original drawings for Keep Loving Keep Fighting #9 somewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve used them in other collages. Or I might make copies of them or just add them to the ever growing scrap pile of things I give my students to work with. I have so much stuff, I can’t hold on to everything.
LS: Another medium-specific question I have is about sewing. What does it mean that you use sewing as a structural, functional thing in your bookbinding but also as a mark-making device within the drawings and collages on the pages? With Eulalia #3, I noticed that the thread is similar in the binding and in the collages, so there’s an interesting reading experience — it feels very integrated, but it also makes you aware that one is the real material in your hand and this other is a flat facsimile.
HA: I’ve used sewing in my work structurally but also as another way of drawing, as a different texture, as another way of making lines.
Eulalia #3 is my first collage zine, and I was so excited that, even though they’re digital color copies, you can still recognize the sewing. The stitches flatten somewhat, but they still look fairly close to the original collages.
I haven’t thought about it, but I’m glad that you pointed out that there’s sewing both in the collages and in the book structure. I used to sew all my zines because they got too thick to use the Kinko’s long-arm stapler. I sewed them because it was easier in some ways. Then I saw a copy of Dream Whip, and he just uses a rubber band. I was like, man, that’s so much easier. Most of mine are rubber band bound at this point.But with that structure, in particular for Eulalia, I like to match the thread to the rest of the concept. Not just filling the squares on each page, but also that each cover uses a lightly patterned paper, some kind of pale color, with printed text in that color, and using that color of thread so it’s all cohesive.
LS: I like that you use a simple three-hole pamphlet stitch, but by adopting the same material and technique in the functional part as the content, you’re asking the viewer to acknowledge that it’s handmade. It could have been a rubber band or a staple, but a different kind of labor went into it.
HA: That’s funny, because — well, I didn’t know what a pamphlet stitch was until school, or maybe right before I went to school. So I probably had ten years of bookbinding making up all sorts of three-hole stitch things that were not as efficient, and showing other people who were trying to help me bind books and doing all sorts of wild things that were so much harder. And then teaching the pamphlet stitch afterwards, it sort of blows people’s mind how simple it is and how effective. So coming from a place, not from Book Arts, but from people learning the basics, people are really impressed by that. So for me it seems really fancy even though it’s just a pamphlet stitch. It’s a little more effort, but it’s really nice. The bindings used to be so much messier, but they hold together now.
LS: Right, it was an opportunity for me to remind myself that what I assume is a default binding is actually a thoughtful, elegant solution. I enjoyed having to think about sewing as an integral part of the picture plane as well as the structure. You also work in sculptural handmade paper, so I’m wondering if you approach the book as a sculpture. Certainly the dos-a-dos structure, which can physically stand up, has more of a sculptural presence, but it seems like your focus is more on writing and image-making, sequence and pacing.
HA: I tried in the past to make my zines a little more uniform for the sake of coherence. Because the writing and the themes and the way I approach the writing in all the issues of Where You From have changed, the letterpress-printed covers are all really similar.
For Eulalia #3 I definitely wanted to make a dos-a-dos binding, but that was only part of the motivation for this. I had already made Part One, the Before side, and I hadn’t printed it. It was just sitting there and sitting there and then some other things happened, so I wanted to deal with the things that were going on and make a new set of work that related to the first, as a sort of foil, and I realized that that the dos-a-dos was the perfect form. I had wanted to try it, and then realized I had these experiences that would make that form work.
I’ve done really sculptural books, but I like making zines with more subtle artist book aspirations.
Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography from the University of Utah and a BA in English and Philosophy from the Boston College Honors Program. Marnie is an Associate Librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she serves as head of the Book Arts Program. She is the faculty mentor for book arts designations and teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books, and other courses for the Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the College Book Art Association and her work is held in collections nationally.
The following interview was conducted via email from April to October 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Levi Sherman: You studied English and Philosophy before getting your MFA. How does that background inform your art?
Marnie Powers-Torrey: Like many who find their way to book arts, I’m an in-betweener, a generalist. I took 18–21 credits a semester as an undergrad because I was interested in everything, except the football. I loved physics, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and working with raw materials. Boston College was a great liberal arts school with limited visual art (no printmaking). I was fortunate to study Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, Becket in Dublin, and the modernists and postmodernists in interdisciplinary, philosophy, fiction, and poetry courses. My honors thesis was a constructed space comprising drawings and ceramic pieces, in response to multiple translations of the Tao te Ching. In retrospect, I recognize that my formative years were towards the realization that words, marks, textures, colors, and composition all communicate equally well, and never as strongly as when united. When I took my first book class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I knew that I’d found the haptic, interactive experience that would keep me engaged for the rest of my life.
LS: You note that book arts seems to collect people from other disciplines. Why do you think we in-betweeners and generalists end up here?
MPT: New students frequently share that they’d felt as if they’d dwelled in the margins — until they found book arts. Terrible pun, but it seems that book artists often find we are on the same page. I’m a big fan of Dick Higgins’ concept of intermedia — a space between the knowns, in between ways of doing. When we venture down into these chasms, we are explorers mapping our own paths that tend to intersect with others’. The possibilities are endless.
LS: Since you mention ways of doing, can you talk about the relationship of process and product in your work? I’m especially curious about the differences between creating a single work and producing an edition.
MPT: I love to put ink on paper, but I’m also engaged with many other practices: collage, paper folding, papermaking, mark making, photography, sewing, knitting, etc. As production manager and master printer for the Red Butte Press, I really enjoy the required planning and attention to detail. I find that the repetition of printing and binding is both meditative and generative.
With my own letterpress work, I typically have a rough plan for the print day, but I tend to be very responsive on press, doing no digital design. At SMFA, I was working very freely with few concerns for craft and controlled technique. I was far more committed to process than product. After twenty years of being involved with fine press, I find equal satisfaction in unfettered making. When I work individually or collaboratively on one-of-a-kinds, I can work entirely intuitively and authentically, without concern for next steps. In either modality — heavily planned or more spontaneous — I think a lot while in a flow state, developing concept in conjunction with doing.
LS: That spontaneity is so foreign to me! Do things ever just not work? Or are you not even thinking in terms of success or failure when you’re in that flow state?
MPT: Right, I don’t have a goal in mind with unique works. My focus is on each action/change feeling/looking right. Shaping a visual composition parallels the construction of a sentence. As I place marks/words/shapes/colors/textures in relation to one another, the entirety begins to make sense. Typically when I write, I don’t follow an outline, but let one sentence transition to the next. I place visual elements in the same way, creating a syntactical relationship that connotes meaning for me, and I hope, articulates significance to the viewer. As I commit more time to a one-off, my desire for things to work does heighten, but ultimately, I’m in it for the satisfaction that comes from making. I also find joy in planned production, working toward a defined end point. Either way, the next step is a matter of responding creatively to the previous step.
LS: Do you take a similarly intuitive approach to collecting found objects? Or do you have some idea how they might make their way into your art?
MPT: I guess I don’t necessarily see these methodologies — spontaneous or strategic — as mutually exclusive. Streetcombing is a practice of chance coupled with curation. When I walk with family and friends, they may pick up an object for assessment that ends up in the trash bag. My decision, as it were, is based on concerns that are both practical (can I accommodate this debris in my basement studio that also serves as the family’s laundry room, hockey locker, RC car garage, and tool room?) and aesthetic/functional (does this object have visual value as a rare/unique object and/or can it be printed?). The pinnacle of aesthetic, functional, and practical value is a small rubber object with an interesting pattern that sits on a single plane — a readymade stamp. Also, whether I love circles because they represent and are metaphors for so many things or because they are so commonly found, I can’t say. But I do love the circle, and its enduring relationship to the square.
LS: Books seem inherently related to collecting. Is there a connection between that kind of collecting and streetcombing?
MPT: Though I hadn’t thought of it this way before, yes I do see this connection: a book is a gathering of pages, an accumulation of ideas, a curated and crafted collection in and of itself. Books are a place to stick things that you find (out) — to share and archive. Books provide a means of documentation, sequencing, self-expression, communication, cataloging, indexing, etc. No wonder that humankind is so inextricably drawn to and engaged with these collectable objects.
LS: Since you mention both sharing and archiving, I wonder about the role of the reader in your work? Who is your audience, and how do they inspire, inform or activate the art?
MPT: This question circles back to process. Though concerned with (my) work’s ability to communicate, I don’t actively think about audience when working alone. I do consider how things might be interpreted, but rely on an internal barometer. At the Red Butte Press, we think a lot about whose hands the book will find and how form, content, and design will be received and impact the reading experience. Often, I work collaboratively, which similarly demands effective communication and an externalization of process, resulting in more circumspect evaluation. In the current publishing and economic climate, it’s difficult to forecast audience. We can hope that private collections will continue to acquire expensively-produced editions and one-offs, and recognize that the democratic (equitable) multiple is most effective for wide distribution.
By communicating authentically and thoughtfully, my intention is that we (the book and I) will connect with viewers and create a mutual understanding, though both author and readers maintain distinct perceptions. For example, as I work on individual boxes for the ongoing project Archive of Now, I am interested in preserving and elevating natural objects. I contemplate these relics and then preserve them in custom-built reliquaries which are embellished with prints from mass-produced objects. I (type)write what I see in the object that is absent in the man-made. At each venue where the boxes were shown, a broad range of people have engaged meaningfully with the work, and through this inquiry and response, the installation as a whole is activated. Viewers often comment on the remarkable yet inexplicable fit of the text with the objects and are interested in my writing process.
LS: On that note, tell me about your writing process, and whether it differs from installations to bookworks.
MPT: Typically, I respond to the visual with words, though at times I do begin with a particular text. I don’t know if I’m writing as much as finding words that aid visual communication. I think of writing as a focused practice, whereas what I’m doing is producing sequential imagery that sometimes needs textual support. It’s important that the viewer be able to do some of the work and draw independent conclusions. The gaps between image and text, where the reader engineers the connections, provide space for deep engagement. I see all my work as book work, so no, I don’t think my ideation and conceptualization are divided based on structure.
LS: I’m interested in that continuity; that you see it all as book work. Where does that leave the relationship between, for example, Archive of Now and Roadside Attractions? The core ideas seem similar, so what advantages do you gain by approaching them through installation and book, respectively?
MPT: There are some advantages to hanging art on the wall — it becomes more visible and invites collective engagement. It’s easier to find spaces to exhibit wall pieces, and wall hangings built for display. I do regret sacrificing the haptic experience with wall work, but having multiple modes of distribution increases opportunities. Also, I inherently identify as a book artist, and my definition of book is very broad. I’ve never been interested in divisions between media, technologies, and text structures.
As we’ve already talked about, my process is responsive, and with these two series, I’m responding to objects — considering what I can do with them, how they can best tell their story, how I can use them as tools and materials. These questions lead me to decisions around technique and structure. Access to tools and technologies along with available time and space — really my daily routines — also factor heavily into my making. As a working mom who is also a maker, I need to be able to fit my practice into available time slots, and my “equipment” at home is very minimal. Thus, I prefer to have creative work in process both at the Book Arts Studio and at my home studio.
Lastly, I’d add that when I investigate an idea, it’s primarily experiential. My research is daily life, including the massive amounts of media I consume everyday — and the daily details inform my work directly. Frequently, I get into a groove with a certain tool and material set, and the possibilities are just too numerous to limit to one methodology. Work that is currently in process is another example of my working on parallel tracks. I was invited by Cindy Marsh to work on a project with a couple working titles (Tobacco Hands, Habits of Mutuality), and together we are constructing a large fiber installation that each of us will also likely publish as a one-of-a-kind book.
LS: Does that balance of family and work change the content or style of the art, or just the process? Do you have any advice for other artists struggling to juggle those demands?
MPT: Yes to changes in content, style, and process in response to domestic responsibilities, as my ideas and practice are formed directly from daily life. I don’t necessarily feel that my work is autobiographical, but even when working collaboratively, the marks I make derive from my present awareness. Motherhood is the single most riveting experience I’ve ever had/am constantly having. Everything I have experienced after conception — a maturation on steroids, perhaps, or maybe an internal earthquake — is seen through a different lens. When my kids were younger, I needed to express this directly in MAMASELF, a nine-year visual journey I documented in conjunction with subsequent births, feedings, arguments, formative nothings, and celebrations. Now that my kids are teenagers, I feel like it’s more about sharing this life with them, and I see my family, colleagues, and friends as collaborators in all that I do. For me, compartmentalizations just don’t stick. I function much better in the gray.
LS: Can I hold you to the second part of my question — do you have any advice for other artists struggling to balance it all?
MPT: Obliquely, that’s my advice. More to the point: make what you need to say with the tools at hand in the time that you find. Ensure that making fits into your regular practices.
LS: Thanks for humoring me. Can you speak particularly to the relationship of teaching and art-making? How does your approach to art inform your pedagogy? And vice versa?
MPT: Art is drawn from life, regardless of approach and intention. I find it more efficient to direct my resources toward adjacent if not overlapping activities — as a colleague of mine, Crane Giamo would say, “feeding two birds with one scone.” Living feeds making feeds teaching feeds making feeds living feeds teaching…I think of myself as more of a facilitator than teacher. Modeling practices, techniques, ideation, etc. allows me to be authentic. However, I rarely use my creative work as exemplar for students, aside from when talking about process/production. By introducing students to my methods and approaches, exposing them to diverse work, and at times making next to or with them, I hope to give them agency to apply skills and ideas in ways that best serve their vision.
LS: You mentioned an ongoing project with Cindy Marsh — what works-in-progress have you feeling the most excited right now?
MPT: During the beginning of the pandemic, I was finishing up the organization of a festschrift in honor of Bill Stewart, researching and making masks, teaching myself to knit, and working on binding past editions. I felt like I had been given the gift of space and time with the lack of a commute. Then life suddenly became too busy again, and I’ve been prioritizing making through correspondence works with others — the gentle tug of supportive expectation helps me justify to myself the import of creative work, I guess, when there is so much to do. I’m working on a hanging piece (a box) that responds to a discarded, editioned artist’s proof by Wayne Kimball which will be part of a collective exhibition of artists working with the same print.
I can’t wait to return to the Tobacco Hands project (another working title Habits of Mutuality). Cindy has recently finished building the first hand whose leaves I produced and has printed additional leaves for a second hand. For the third hand, I have pulled excerpts from oral histories collected by Cindy and me from a family rooted in Tennessee tobacco farming. I have loads of tobacco and cotton paper and reclaimed runners, doilies, and tablecloths from Tennessee thrift stores. I just need to find some time and space in my basement studio turned teaching recording studio.
LS: Do you think this pandemic and the challenges this year has brought will change the way you approach art in the future? Have your beliefs about the role(s) of art changed?
MPT: Yes, I think so, even over the course of our conversation here. More definitively than ever before, I see art as clearly essential. Yes, I find visual art useful in expressing and disseminating ideas, but it has also become an increasingly important survival tool. Making toward a mutual understanding builds meaning, is discursive, and opens a space in between positions. Visual language is often less explicit than text, and in many ways can afford to remain less decisive and open to interpretation. As a methodology of coping, of knowing, and of being, art is absolutely essential for both the individual and the community. We need it in our lives.
LS: Given the ongoing reckoning around equity and representation in the arts, how are you approaching representation in the collection?
KG: We know network-based approaches often reinforce existing disparities, so it’s important to me to take that into personal account when I consider our curatorial impulses, and to continually question my own frame of reference. By encouraging artists who are unknown to us to show us their work, we want to challenge the ways in which our own privileged worldviews might leave us removed from the concerns of underrepresented artists.
TH: We have thought about it and continue to. Part of the reason that we had such a great breadth of response is that we didn’t ask specifically for work from particular genres or media. Our artists aren’t all printmakers or all young; there are poets and writers in there, which also strengthens our approach. I also like the idea of artists coming to our attention that we don’t know, and wouldn’t have otherwise, through the project.
KG: Yes, the breadth of genres that function within this form gives us more latitude to practice curatorial discretion. We want to prioritize a balanced collection across disciplines that currently overrepresent white artists.
LS:Did you pre-plan the genres that organize the website, or did you come up with categories once you began receiving the books?
TH: We had an idea of standard categories for both genre and media that artists could choose from when submitting their works. We did do some editorial work in making suggestions to artists about assignments we felt were more appropriate.
One thing I like about the project is that it’s stealthy. The format is simple and self-contained, and it still gives me a thrill, even though I’ve been making books for a long time.
That’s all we needed to do this work. It wasn’t about artists’ books. It’s about the power of the medium, not about the medium itself. That’s why I’m less affiliated with writing that discusses what artists’ books are; whatever you’re feeling when you’re doing it is more interesting to me than some of the discussions about it. But I think it is really stealthy that QPL is introducing a bunch of people to book arts.
KG: There’s a double-edged sword for a book artist, where in order to make a living from your work, you often have to sell that work at a price that undermines the ethos of producing an artists’ book. I think most artists working this way have reservations about the fact that their books are sold to institutions for three and four figures. It seems like they would really ideally like their work to circulate, but the economic circumstances are limiting. One thing I like about our project is that it promotes a consideration of artists’ books from a perspective that prioritizes distribution.
Looking forward, I love the idea of inviting artists whose work is usually inaccessible and coveted, as a way of creating an opportunity to collect among those who don’t usually get to own art. When you print something out from this collection, you have ownership of that work. You’re really getting to handle somebody’s work, and it requires you to be complete.
LS:As you move forward and add new books, are there any gaps in the collection that you have identified and hope to fill? Or are you still exploring and seeing where it goes?
TH: I would love to invite someone who does children’s books. If someone who already does them was interested in the format, it would be really quite a sweet gift.
KG: I’d love to see research enter the collection—non-fiction that is well-sourced and considered, but available in a way that’s more easily understood. And I think we can use more poetry.
KG: H.R. Buechler’s book, Granular Luminosity, is one that responds to the form foremost as an image field, although it can also be understood as a codex.
TH: Pati Scobey considered that with her book, o. It’s beautiful as an image, and she’s inviting people to color it, but she put a lot of work into making sure the drawing would resolve itself in a pagination format. More of that would be cool.
LS: It’s very difficult to succinctly evoke the spirit of an artists’ book — are you two writing the descriptions on your site or are they provided by the artists?
TH: We asked the artists for a blurb and gave an example to help, because we needed something succinct. In a few cases, we edited or wrote them.
KG: We built the site as artists were working on their books, and shared its password so contributors could see it evolving in real time. As part of this, we had dummy content in place, like books with invented names by famous artists. One placeholder was reportedly by van Gogh, so the blurb said something like, “A tortured artist and his easel in France.” That was another way of demonstrating the spirit we wanted to capture.
I tend to give dry, straightforward answers in those instances. I loved that some artists used the opportunity to say something that was true, but maybe in a way that was more oblique or emotionally resonant.
KG: We knew it was a privilege to work on this project. In making the effort to attract an audience, there was an opportunity to use that attention to underscore more urgent needs. QPL depends on access to digital communication, which highlighted how important it felt to advocate for digital equity—especially because so many students are without internet access right now, and require it to use tools that are crucial to their education and sense of well-being. EveryoneOn brought all of those pieces together.
LS: If you want to brag about how much money you raised so far, feel free to report on the fundraising.
KG: The project launched four days ago, and we have raised $535.* Moving forward, as we potentially see users returning to the site over time, we hope our audience will be suggestible to making donations they may not have yet.
[*QPL had raised $1,000 for EveryoneOn by August 5th.]
LS:That’s incredible! Especially for a new project. Congratulations.
KG: We were both surprised by the metrics. We had visitors from 22 different countries on the first day of the project. It was fun to see the Forbes article get picked up by Latest Nigerian News and Samachar in India. It’s so exciting to imagine people in different countries all making the same book at the same time.
LS: Opportunities to have a book in an exhibition or collection on another continent would normally be rare. This is a great way for physical copies of books to proliferate further than they could otherwise.
KG: Yes, and that would certainly be another gap in the collection: international works and works that aren’t in English.
TH: That’s one reason I regret that not every artist put their name on their book. I wish that it wasn’t quite so anonymous—It’s something to think about as we go on.
KG: The possibility that you could come upon a book and not know how to find out more about it is disappointing. When the first works started to roll in, Tracy also mentioned that we might have put an imprint on the books.
TH: That’s partly why I’m interested in this cataloging question from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Those standard questions in cataloging are hard to deviate from, which makes it challenging when certain things don’t fit. Will Amelia put down QPL as the publisher? That’s a question. The city of origin is another standard notation in a catalog record. Another approach was shared by Lyn Korenic, the director of the Kohler Art Library, who told me she would catalog the URL for their artists book collection.
LS: I’m interested in whether the Quarantine Public Library is a meta project, a publication in and of itself. Born-digital artists’ books are overlooked, and haven’t always fared well in an institutional setting. I wonder if it will be collected digitally in addition to the hard copies.
KG: There are so many projects that are born physically and then cataloged digitally—it’s odd to think about this project working in the opposite direction. It’s a point of frustration for me, and a sort of an inescapable problem for web designers in general, that this thing that you make will eventually no longer be supported. (There have been times that I wanted to see a digital artist’s book, but could only see thumbnail images of it in Johanna Drucker’s book.) We are coming up against that same question now as we think about how to future-proof the website. What type of developmental considerations have to be taken into account?
TH: It’s interesting as a preservation question because the project is ephemeral, in the sense that it came out of this really specific time and the response to it. That underscores it so much. But in the long term, the idea of a digital place that supports books that can be downloaded and assembled—that is a preservation question. I have training in preservation, so I’m always interested in that.
LS: Especially with a website. For example, you were describing the fictional placeholder books you had added to the website, which maybe affected the outcome of the contributions — will that be documented? Are you preserving what goes on behind the scenes?
TH: We do have some screenshots because, as I said, I want to see this again. There were some really beautiful mockups of early pages, but I don’t know if we have them all.
KG: There are some. The challenge of digital preservation is that it has so far relied upon static media to capture these forms, but building a website is much more fluid than what that can account for. It’s difficult to document in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible.
LS: Do you want the Quarantine Public Library to persist for as long as possible? How far into the future do you plan to add to it or support it?
TH: It depends on our time and abilities to keep doing the project the way we have, and figuring out at each stage how to do the next steps. We are committed to growing through the end of the year. I’ve been thinking about listservs that have been really important to me, on book arts and letterpress history; sometimes they have to shop around for an institutional home. They seem so old fashioned, but they’re hella permanent compared to other things. I really don’t know the answer to the question, but I would be interested in thinking about an institutional home. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know.
KG: I’d say it depends not just on how we feel, but on what the response is and continues to be.
LS:Is there anything that you want to ask one another while we’re all on Zoom together?
TH: I look forward to talking with Katie in the coming weeks about some of the things that came up here, especially the preservation questions. We’ve had a pretty close view for a while. We aren’t exhausted by it by any means; it’s still very stimulating and exciting, but I don’t feel right now that I have had enough time to zoom out. I am excited to consider what will emerge from that. I think of the project and the work we’ve done as being for us, with benefits for other people. And I feel perfectly happy about that. If it is a model for people to think, Things are all fucked up, and I don’t know what to do, and I feel despair, and they see QPL and think, That’s really cool. I could do something like that — that would make me very happy.
The following interview took place via Zoom on July 20. It has been edited for clarity.
The Quarantine Public Library is a collection of artist-made books, which can be downloaded, printed and assembled for free. The project launched in July 2020 under the stewardship of co-founders Katie Garth and Tracy Honn. Though not explicitly about the pandemic, the Quarantine Public Library is very much a product of this time, so I was eager to speak with Katie and Tracy during these early days of the project.
Katie Garth is an artist in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Katie has a background in graphic design and book arts, and enjoys teaching, writing, and presenting on topics related to contemporary print practice.
Tracy Honn is a printing history educator, curator, and printer living in Madison Wisconsin. She is senior artist emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directed the Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing. She serves on Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s executive board of directors.
Levi Sherman: How did the idea for the Quarantine Public Library come to you? Was there a kernel of it before the pandemic?
Tracy Honn: There was a kernel. I had told Katie I’d always thought it would be cool to have an exhibit of artists’ books using that format, and that they should be downloadable, but just in casual conversation.
Katie Garth: I heard Tracy’s idea and thought, “why not?” We could do it now—we had the time.
TH: It would never have happened if Katie hadn’t said, “let’s do it.” Although I had the spark, Katie really has the abilities to do this. We shared sensibilities in terms of the library — the way the ideas got developed and the things we care about — but I feel like Katie had a better sense, much earlier than I did, of how it could function and really be a library. Once we decided on a name, a lot of the work came from gut. Don’t you think?
KG: I think it was gut. And there was a sense of urgency, even if, after a certain point, it was relatively self-sustained.
TH: We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, so the artists had a very quick turnaround.
KG: Many told us that having one specific thing to focus on, and a deadline by which to be held accountable, was helpful because of how much feels really vague and abstract right now. They said, “I haven’t been able to make anything lately, but I can do a one-page book.”
TH: Many of us were feeling like we couldn’t really make art—what’s the point? With so many large questions, it’s hard just trying to focus. This was a very precise goal that had a certain positive “whoo!” feeling about it.
KG: I also got that feeling from working on the project itself; it gave me a sense of purpose. The point of the website was for an audience to enjoy it, but by the time it launched, that felt like dessert, because the work had already been meaningful.
LS: Can you talk about the process of working on a collaborative project in the middle of a lockdown?
TH: So often, you’re side-by-side at the press, or working things out in person. But we both like to email and text, and actually, I think it worked brilliantly. From home, you can be more responsive.
KG: The lockdown was not much of a limiting factor, because we’ve maintained our friendship over a distance for a long time. I can’t think of how we might have approached the process differently.
LS:How have your backgrounds in art and design prepared you for this project?
TH: I’ve done a lot of collaboration, and earlier in my career I was really interested in it as a subject. I’m always fascinated by collaboration, especially in Book Arts. I just worked on a book art show that’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW–Madison right now, and one section is all about collaboration.
KG: It was incredible to have to articulate my thoughts to someone else. There were several moments where I certainly would have made a mistake if I were working alone, but because I was talking things out with Tracy, I only fell on my face in front of her.
I learned a lot from Tracy about taking communication seriously, and about the benefits of writing a really good prompt for your group. She showed me a lot about the ethics of situating yourself clearly and being responsive to the artists in organizing a project like this.
TH: Because I don’t have the technical skills that Katie has, I felt like she was having to do more work, but it really worked out very well. It’s very blended. There is a lot you can point to and know that it’s Katie’s work, and I think it’s important to know that—but I’ve always liked that when people work together, it’s not so important who did what, but that you share a sense of ownership. That doubles your success.
Because Katie has a background working with clients in a design setting, there is a good way in which she’s not too attached to something. She cares about it— we both feel really passionate about the project—but it didn’t feel like, “Oh, you don’t like the thing I did here.”
It makes it more fun, really. The stakes weren’t really ever high, except for us, because we cared about it. That’s a cool thing; nobody was telling us what to do.
KG: It’s funny to hear you say you felt like I was doing the work. This just didn’t feel like work at all for me. There was real joy in the fact that we were only accountable to each other, even though—or maybe because—that is the most important kind of accountability to me. It was both motivating and freeing.
LS: What’s something that you’ve learned so far?
KG: I was surprised by how many happy returns there were. My web design background taught me the difficulty of influencing user behavior. The idea that we could design a website where people would not only click the button, but then print out a design and fold it into a book, and then read it, and then take a picture of it and share it with us—that was a tall order. But when it started happening, it felt so rewarding. I had never experienced that level of interaction within a digital project before.
When we were discussing technical underpinnings of our prompt, Tracy asked, “what if someone is printing this on a press?” I asked, “do you really think people are going to be hand-setting type for this?” And sure enough, Walter Tisdale sent us a photo of his book, To Thine Own Self Be True, alongside the wood type he used to make it.
TH: One of the things that I really got from this was being introduced to artists I didn’t know. Also, I don’t work digitally—I like the tools a lot, but since I retired from the university, I have access to fewer of them—so it was kind of fun to get back into that just a tiny bit.
It did make me aware that some artists (my peers probably) were less technically inclined. It’s fun to have those groups together. Someday we’ll have a party. I’m looking forward to having all those people meet each other.
KG: Yes, and as someone who is more comfortable with digital interfaces, I really enjoyed working with the artists who weren’t as familiar with those tools. It was important that everybody could be brought along.
LS:If someone could see behind the scenes of the project, what would they be surprised by?
TH: Our secret power might be that I worked in libraries for most of my career, so I know a lot of librarians. Katie knows librarians. We’re both printmakers, and we know printmakers. Katie said—how did you put it?
KG: Librarians love to share, and printmakers love to distribute.
TH: There is a power in calling it a library. It could have been framed as an online exhibit of artists’ books, but affiliating with an institution that’s powerful in a democratic way felt really beautiful.
LS: Yes, I’m interested in that choice to make it a library, especially during this pandemic. The library remains a trusted community institution at a time when art institutions are coming under fire for racial inequity and massive layoffs. What is special about libraries, and how does that relate to the art world?
KG: I think about libraries as ideally bringing things that might otherwise be out of reach into a more inviting space. One reason why this project felt important now was because there has been a collective loss of public space. We wanted to make one small but welcoming place that gave our audience permission to explore, and to have access to our community.
TH: It really did come out of that experience of feeling a loss. We tried to make it transparent for users that it was for people. It is a gift. The thing about libraries is that circulation is a really powerful idea. These books don’t exist in any editions; they’re not for sale.
I just learned from a colleague, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, who works at the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology that she is going to print out every one of the books and catalog them. I’m interested in how that will work—they will be in a library as well as being part of this idea of a library.
KG: There’s something potent about these editions as endless. Among its many duplicates, your book won’t have a unique number—but it’s special because it’s the one that you made.
TH: Yes. And that also invites the possibility of the audience becoming inspired to make a book of their own design.
LS: How can artists get involved? Are you still looking for contributions?
TH: We curated by selecting the artists up front, and trusted that people would know what to do if they stayed within the format that we described. We didn’t edit content and we didn’t solicit specific content, although we did add content ourselves.
KG: We will continue to add books by invitation, but we are interested in seeing work we aren’t yet familiar with. If an artist wants to make sure that we have seen their work and will take it into consideration, they can email us at email@example.com. Another way to get involved is to make your own book using the pagination template on our tutorial page. Whether or not it is part of the collection, we want to see it.
TH: I have this fantasy of someone sending us a picture showing that they made all the books—the whole library! That’s what I’m waiting to see.
2.5 × 3.75 in. folded Single 8.5 × 11 in. sheet Binding: Parallel brochure fold Risograph Edition of 35
The phrase, “The 14 Negro Students of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire” gives the diminutive cover of this single-sheet publication a punch that the official title, Students, holds back. The wording implies the existence of other students, and indeed the subject of Students is the tragic fate of a racially integrated school in 19th century New Hampshire, and the lasting impact it had on its alumni. Artist Tia Blassingame brings archival research alive with the students’ own poetry, presenting the richness of their experiences even as she highlights the gaps in the record.
The book most closely resembles a brochure, the toned paper parallel folded into horizontal quarters and then folded in half to create a vertical spine. It primarily operates as a flat sheet with two clearly separate sides. On one side, excerpts from two poems lay atop an American flag, all printed in blue. The other side is black and red, and weaves a short history among the names of students, which visually dominate the composition. The synthesis of primary texts and archival research into a narrative history is not in itself remarkable. However, Blassingame is exceptional in her use of the artists’ book as a medium to foreground certain details and leave others unsaid, overturning the usual politics of representation. Students centers the Black perspective, and offers a corrective to the way historical narratives about anti-Black violence are often presented. Blassingame lets the students themselves speak – before and after the destruction of their school – which is itself notably absent.
The relative simplicity of the book’s structure demands a careful look at each design decision. Of these, the reader will likely first see that the book seems to open backwards. If the “spine” is on the left, then the colophon is showing. Flipping the book over to read the cover moves the spine to the right, which makes opening the book feel somewhat awkward, but crucially allows the title and colophon to be oriented the same direction as the rest of the text on the same side of the sheet. This compromise indicates that the open sheet is the book’s primary visual unit, rather than the page or opening. Whether front or back, the colophon is a fitting cover, since it contextualizes the book’s text: “In 1835 the schoolhouse of Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan New Hampshire, was physically removed by a mob…and its black students were run out of town.” If the book’s fold evokes a brochure, it does so with a bitter irony, advertising and mourning the promise of an education that was too enlightened for its time.
On the front (the side shared by the title and colophon), red images show a floor plan and elevation of the George Kimball House, where Blassingame explains some of the Noyes Academy students boarded. The house occupies only the top quarter of the sheet, behind the title and colophon. Its pitched roofs peek out above the fold, exuding a sort of quintessential domesticity that sits uneasily with the book’s events. Beneath the colophon and title, the six remaining folded panels organize the rest of the composition. This comprises three threads of text. A narrative account of Blassingame’s research and retelling, and the names of the students are printed in black. The remaining text is set in larger, uppercase letters and printed in red as if stamped across the page: BORN ENSLAVED or BORN FREE. Thus, the students appear to be organized into each of the six panels, three for those born free and three for those born enslaved. Blassingame’s account zigzags left to right and top to bottom, filling out the space between the students’ names (eight of which remain unknown).
The reverse side functions more like a broadside than a book, but the folded panels still guide the layout. A monochrome American flag fills the page, bleeding off all four edges. The absent red in the blue flag reads like the fugitive red in a faded shop window advertising – signaling its false facade in black and blue. The stars and stripes are further tarnished since Student’s toned paper removes any actual white from the palette. Obscured as it is by the text, a reader might first miss the flag’s four even rows of six stars – “Old Glory” as she was from 1822–1836. Atop the stars is printed a four-line poem titled “On Freedom,” written in 1828 by a twelve-year-old Thomas S. Sidney, who figures elsewhere in Blassingame’s text. Beneath it, and larger, is an eight-line excerpt from “Call to Rebellion” by another Noyes Academy alumnus, the prominent abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. The transcendent optimism of Sidney’s verse is nowhere to be found in this latter work, written in 1843. Garnet documents the racist threats of violence he has endured in his poetic call for insurrection. Together the two poems bookend the hopeful era of integrated education and its antebellum aftermath.
Yet, between these bookends the “book” is nowhere to be found. The critical incident, the school’s untimely end in 1835, is mentioned only in the colophon. It haunts the book like a paratextual ghost. Blassingame makes the absence poignantly present, just as she does by repeating “Unknown” for each of the eight unidentified students on the front side of the book. This attention to the archival gaps and silences characterizes Blassingame’s approach. She begins her narrative by stating, “The names of eight of the fourteen students of African descent continue to evade this author.” This is not a disclaimer, but rather a key point; it speaks to the marginalization of Black students in 1835 and in all the intervening years. Blassingame’s own positionality as a Black researcher is central to Students, as is evident in the narrative’s self-reflection. She shares not just her findings, but also how she came upon them, and what she was unable to find.
The gap between the present and an unknowable past manifests also in the book’s imagery. The rendering of the George Kimball House is pixelated, an effect Blassingame accentuates with the Risograph’s halftone. This digital signifier foregrounds the layers of mediation between the reader and the events in question. The image is, at the very least, a print of a scan of a drawing of a building. Blassingame highlights the anachronism on the side with her own contemporary first person narrative, whereas the reverse is more cohesive. The typeface pre-dates digital design, and the screened-back imagery creates a worn, historical appearance. In fact, the faded flag shares a soft subtlety with the pressure-print letterpress technique that Blassingame employs expertly in other projects.
Blassingame’s self-conscious, historiographic approach to archival materials would be productive under any circumstances, but it is especially important when dealing with race. The artist must confront the historical record and ask who is seen, who is heard and for whom were the records kept? Blassingame amplifies stories of Black people pursuing love, justice and freedom in spite of adversity, instead of focusing on the destructive actions of Canaan’s white population. The only violence represented is that of the archives. Black pain is not up for consumption, only white complicity. Black lives are not reduced to a single event, even when that event is central to the story being told. Blassingame’s relegation of white violence to the colophon and her centering of Black voices is a strategy – an ethic – that more artists would be wise to adopt.
The following interview took place via email from May to July of 2020. It has been edited for clarity.
Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist who makes pictures with language, books with pictures, prints with type, and animations with words. She combines image, visual narrative, and time in prints, books, and ephemera that are often research-based. Sarah is interested in urbanization, local history, climate change, the history of science and technology, alternative economies, found language, and the history of publishing. She has written a collection of self-help aphorisms, published a series of informational pamphlets and printed a field guide to extinct birds. Her most recent book is Solastalgia, a book about islands, both real and imagined, that are in the process of disappearing. Sarah’s limited edition artist books are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.
Levi Sherman:Artists should always consider their audience, but the fact that your publications are informational emphasizes that relationship. Who are you hoping to reach, and what change would you like to create by informing and entertaining them? I’m thinking especially of your Brainwashing From Phone Towers pamphlet series.
Sarah Nicholls: Audience should be the first thing you think about when planning a publication. It’s important to know both who you are trying to speak to and what you’d like to tell them. It helps to clarify things for myself. I have a list of people in mind when I write a pamphlet: people that I think will be interested in the content, people I’m excited to speak with, people I haven’t seen in a while but who I would like to keep in touch with. Also people who are interested in supporting the series in general, who have become part of my community. Some people I specifically send one issue to, because I think that person would be particularly interested in the subject matter. Some are close friends who get all of the pamphlets I make. Some of these people are people already interested in artist books or printmaking. Some of these people have nothing to do with the book world, some of them have nothing to do even with art in general. By coming up with this list of people, I try to expand the audience for an artist’s publication, and by focusing the work on subject matter outside the world of art I can bring in lots of different potential audiences.
Since I’m speaking to lots of different kinds of people, I make a point of writing in a very clear, explanatory kind of way; the audience shapes the writing style. I want people to understand what I’m trying to tell them, without having to jump through hoops, or wade through jargon, or know secret handshakes.
Most of the more recent ones that I have made have focused on different aspects of the particular urban environment that I live in, in New York City, including local history, the built environment, the natural environment, and how all three combine to form a particular kind of place, which is under threat due to climate change, among other things. But many of the people who receive these pamphlets do not live here, and many will never visit the particular parts of the city that I am interested in. What I would like them to do, really, is to take the same kind of approach to their own surroundings: to ask themselves, what kinds of plants and animals live here? How did they get here? What is in the process of changing around me, and why? Who are my neighbors and where have they come from? What is at risk of disappearing?
LS:That sounds like an excellent segue into the role of research in your practice. How do you go about answering those questions?
SN: Research is a large part of my process; I usually start with a general theme for the year so that the research process isn’t all over the place and so I can build knowledge around a subject over time. Last year was weeds; this year is mapmaking. Sometimes the theme is relatively loose, sometimes more specific, but I find it helpful to structure my time and plan in advance.
I start by spending time in the neighborhood I am interested in. I mostly travel by bike, so I ride around, walk around, over a period of time and take lots of photos. The images in the pamphlets are usually based on photos that I’ve taken. I read about the history of a place, and try to see how it fits into a larger picture of the city. There’s a good reference collection at the Brooklyn Public Library on Brooklyn history that I’ve used a lot. There’s also a good collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This year I’m spending a lot of time looking at the digitized collection of historical maps of the city that NYPL has in their map division. I read everything I can about the current problems in a specific community, and try to identify the people and organizations that are working on them. Last year when I was thinking about weeds and spontaneous urban plants a lot, I read about that: where weeds come from, how they spread, how they are used and defined. Then I try to synthesize it all.
LS: How much of that synthesis happens in the studio? Is everything planned out before you start setting type or carving linoleum?
SN: Yes, after research comes the design stage; I draw a bunch of pictures, usually based on photos I have taken, and come up with the visual elements I want to use. I write a series of drafts of the text, starting with an outline that covers all of the things I think I want to include, then filling out that outline, then editing it down, editing it again. I make a mock up, then another mock up; the format of the final piece can change depending on the content. I know what I want to do before I start carving lino or setting type. As I set the type the text usually goes through a final editing stage; I don’t really know how it sounds until I start setting it. So setting it in metal usually helps me finalize the text and I think of it as part of the writing process.
LS: The pamphlets employ a surprising variety of sizes and structures, which change the reading experience through revealing, concealing, turning and expanding. Is variety a goal in and of itself, or does the structure simply arise from the content?
SN: Both. Surprise is part of the goal; I like sending something out as a surprise, that takes a surprising form, and I think that the variety helps with that. I also try to match structure and content. I’ve been doing these publications for years now and it also helps keep it interesting for me.
LS: On the topic of serendipity, how did you come up with your subscription model where a friend receives a surprise copy? Do you have any anecdotes or feedback that speak to the sort of relationship that creates?
SN: When I first started making pamphlets in 2010 I just gave them to friends; I liked the surprise element of it, that I could send something to people as a gift. When you pull a print, you don’t really know what it will look like in advance, and that surprise is exciting. For the reader, when they receive a pamphlet in the mail, it mirrors that surprise.
When I started using the subscription model, I was worried I would lose some of the elements of the project that I loved: the surprise, the gift. But I also wanted to be able to circulate them more widely than I had been, and make the project more self-sustaining. So I gave subscribers the option to add a friend to the list for a year, in addition to themselves, which not only kept the surprise gift aspect but also meant that they circulated outside the group of people I already know. This means I get to be surprised, by who reads them, by where they end up, by having people come up to me at events and say, “My friend signed me up for this!”, by getting letters and zines in the mail from people who’ve gotten pamphlets and enjoyed them. I’ve especially enjoyed being at book fairs and having people come up and introduce themselves as readers who have gotten them through a friend. It’s one of the best aspects of it. This year, before everything blew up, I have been planning a series of events in conjunction with the series, and one of them was going to be a bird walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a NYC naturalist I met through the series, Bradley Klein, who became a subscriber himself after he was added to the list by a friend. There are people who subscribe every year, and have been receiving them for several years now, who I maintain a correspondence with. One of my goals was to build a community and I think it’s been successful at that beyond what I imagined.
LS:Tell me more about the community you want to build. What does it look like? Who participates? How does it differ from other communities within and beyond the art world?
SN: It’s a community that can shift and grow, that includes people who might not be interested in the art world, people who don’t feel comfortable in art institutions, people who would not come to an art event or talk or a gallery exhibition, though it also includes art audiences. I like to meet these audiences where they are at.
Since the pamphlets are nonfiction, information based publications, and since they are about specific places and the communities that live there, part of what I also want to do is build a community that thinks critically about the policies that build their environment. Who can afford to live in their neighborhood and who can’t? Is there pollution in their neighborhood and why was it allowed to be left there? Who is safe in their community? Who has access to green space and who doesn’t? By sharing information I would like to help people build more equitable communities, and ones that are more resilient to the challenges to come. This is particularly important in a time of climate crisis, because the communities who are most at risk are the ones with the fewest resources.
I would like it to be wide and diverse, but also engaged; I think it’s important for me that people read these things and think about them, and that a shift happens in how they think about the place where they live. Engagement isn’t always something that happens with artist books made in larger editions, even if they are intended to be widely distributed. There’s this point at the end of the New York Art Book Fair every year when people try to get rid of their copies of publications so they don’t have to cart them home, where it just seems like way too much paper that no one will bother to look at in a day or two. Sometimes books made in a large edition are purchased by someone, they take a photo for Instagram or whatever of their book fair haul, and then maybe the book never gets read, it just sits on a shelf. Ideally I want to have a relationship with my readers, where I can tell them a story one-on-one, in that reading voice inside their head, and they enjoy it enough that they send me something in response.
That happens often enough that I feel like the project is generally doing what I want it to do.
LS:One reason I started Artists’ Book Reviews is to get the books out of the tote bag and off the Instagram feed and actually read them. What kind of reception and support have you found in the art world? How important is institutional funding for a long-term, research-based project like this?
SN: I’m glad that artist books are finding readers outside the tote bag!
I think that I developed a way of working specifically so that I wouldn’t have to rely on institutional support. I can publish these pamphlets and distribute them without much in the way of infrastructure and the subscriptions cover the direct costs of production, so it’s a self-sustaining project. However, as time goes on, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I’ve been given support and an audience within a larger art world. This is partly because I’ve expanded the project to include events and neighborhood walks, which are open to the general public, and partly because I think that nonprofits and local grantmakers are particularly excited to support projects that can reach audiences outside the context of a traditional gallery art world. Institutional support is important in widening the reach of these projects; though the pamphlets can be made without support, I think that it’s important that the people they circulate among changes over time, and that the subject matter changes, to keep it fresh. One other thing about institutional funding is that I have less pressure to make the pamphlets a commodity, which means I have more freedom to distribute them at will to any audience I choose, and still have the project be self-sustaining. Engaging with different versions of the art world are important both in terms of developing an audience, as well as helping me to grow and develop in my own work.
It also tends to snowball a bit I think? I think opportunities lead to more opportunities, and I think that I’ve been doing them for some time now, and it’s built up some momentum at this point. I have received new funding this year from the Brooklyn Arts Council. And I have been given an exciting studio residency this year through BRIC, a Brooklyn arts and media institution that should start, fingers crossed, sometime this summer, depending on how the timeline goes for opening up. So I’m very lucky. And both are directly tied to the pamphlet series, and I am very grateful for the support I’ve gotten this year especially.
I also think that times change, and tastemakers change. I remember very clearly that when I started working with books that there was a definite stigma attached to craft techniques like letterpress, and that the artists working at the Center for Book Arts operated in a completely separate, somehow lesser, version of the art world from the rest of the visual arts. I remember having arguments with my supervisor at the Center for Book Arts over the use of the word craft — he would insist on talking around the word on all official materials, we had to say “traditional artistic practices” instead of craft, because he didn’t want people to think we had craft cooties. There’s a significant gendered aspect to that. I don’t know how long this moment will go on, but being able to use serious craft techniques within a contemporary art context, and be welcomed, is something I am overjoyed to be able to do.
LS: For better or worse, I think we’re also at a particular moment in terms of expertise and authority. I consider your pamphlets as a positive result of that trend, along with citizen science, guerilla botany, oral history, etc. I can’t help but think of the very first photobook, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Are we in another era of the amateur?
SN: This is an enormous subject.
When I teach letterpress, one of the things I try to communicate to students is the way this technology created a new kind of authority. I think I started printing as a way of being able to hijack that voice of authority, to use it for my own ends. It also brought knowledge and information and an audience to all kinds of new people, which made it possible for new kinds of writing, of political thought, of the development of science, in terrible ways and amazing ways. I think that pamphlets have been used to both create new fields of expertise, and to destabilize authority since the 17th century. I think that all science began as citizen science, as groups of amateurs experimenting on their own as a hobby. Citizen science was the only kind of science there was, and only later on became a profession. All expertise begins as an experiment.
I think that the new technology of print brought in an era of the amateur, just as the internet and social media has ushered in our current era of the amateur. There are enormous liabilities to this, as well as opportunities. I think that the overwhelming nature of current events is hard to process, and so when I print pamphlets now, I try to slow things down into something that is digestible, which is possible in this older technology. I communicate through pamphlets because I came of age in the 90’s (what my students might call the late nineteen hundreds) and have nostalgic feelings about DIY zine culture, about one person writing about their personal experience that they can share with a sympathetic community through the mail, but I am old now and have all these printing and binding skills. My 90’s experiments in zines have become expertise. I still think that people should make their own culture, outside of institutions.
One of the things that leaps out at me about 17th century European pamphlets is how many of them are about the end of the world. This wasn’t just superstition; people lived through plague and the Thirty Years War and all these new forms of thought and technology and religion and then the sudden realization that the world was much larger than they had imagined. The world that they knew did actually end, and apocalypse was a useful metaphor to describe this. We’re not only living through a new era of the amateur, we’re living through a new era of apocalyptic imaginings. Our movies and stories are full of zombies, CGI skyscrapers sinking under the ocean, and dystopia. I find this comforting, both because everything eventually comes to an end, but also because after that comes a new beginning.
LS: That’s a fascinating history! I hadn’t made the connection between those early printed pamphlets and your engagement with our own apocalyptic climate crisis.
This raises the question of timing and duration. Are your pamphlets a warning? A record? A blueprint? Where do you envision them in thirty years, or 300?
SN: I think they do serve as both a warning and a record; I hope that I am able to raise awareness of the immediate need for systemic change, but I don’t think I am even close to being expert enough to draw a blueprint of exactly what that means. I hope to point people in a direction, and to raise enough concern to motivate action.
I also want to document the particular version of the city that exists today. Things here in NYC change drastically in a matter of years; the city that existed when I was in high school is long gone. The version that was here when I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 is also gone, when I visit that neighborhood now it’s almost unrecognizable. If you lived here even ten years ago, and then left, the city that you knew is no longer here. So I know that the version I live in now will be gone soon too, and I want to document what is here now while I can.
This is how the city functions even before you take climate change into consideration. Neighborhoods will start to shrink in the coming decades, losing physical space to the water, and the city will become smaller for the first time in hundreds of years. The infrastructure we will build to try to shore things up will be a huge change to our coastlines; hard infrastructure like seawalls and barriers will change how waterways look and act. I can’t even imagine what the city will look like in thirty years.
And of course right now drastic shifts are happening, faster than I can even write about them, in how we are using our public space: in the streets, in our ways of relating to each other in public, in our transportation system. Overnight subway service is gone and might not come back, which means that city that never sleeps trope is no longer a thing. We’re using public streets to do all kinds of new things, at the same time that tons of traffic is coming back because people are afraid of the subway. I strongly believe that we’re at a turning point, and I look forward to finding out what the new version of the city that emerges from this moment of crisis will be like. I think we have badly needed a reset, so we’ll see what comes next.
I have no idea how many copies of these things will be around in thirty years. They will probably circulate in ways I can’t foresee, which is interesting to think about. I treat them as ephemeral, sending them out widely, but I want them to be a record. So hopefully some of them survive, and I hope in surprising places. 300 years is more dicey. Will we have libraries? Mail service? Will we have cities? Will we be on this planet? Who knows. Have you read New York 2140, the Kim Stanley Robinson book? It’s glorious; it’s a recognizable version of the New York City of the future, half drowned and transformed but still familiar. I found it comforting. I wouldn’t mind living there.
LS:Alas New York 2140 is languishing unread on my bookshelf, but I think we can all use a comforting view of the future right now.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work during this moment of crisis.
8.5 × 11 × .375 in. 64 pages Binding: Screw post with cover wrap Offset lithography Edition of 200
Referencing the writings of Mao Tse-tung, One Hundred Excellent Flowers pairs a text of acerbic aphorisms with photographs of supermarket shelves, vending machines – and, yes, flowers – to critique contemporary consumer capitalism. Beneath the deceptively austere cover, the reader is confronted by a cacophony of color separations, made all the more powerful by the book’s relatively large format. The creative and metaphorical use of pre-press and print processes are a signature of Meador’s work, and One Hundred Excellent Flowers uses fluorescent ink instead of true CMYK. His expressive use of offset as a medium enables a key aesthetic argument – a pop art sensibility that recalls the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when global powers seem intent on rekindling the Cold War.
The book’s minimal cover is noteworthy given the visual excess inside. It is a dark blue paper wrapper with a cut circle to reveal the printed title on the first bound page. Three smaller circles along the spine reveal a screw post binding reminiscent of Kevin Osborn’s Real Lush. Although the books share bold colors and richly overprinted imagery, perhaps One Hundred Excellent Flowers is better compared to Fortunato Depero’s “bolted book,” Depero Futurista, with its combination of art, advertising and manifestos. The photographs inside show flowers, but also junk food and candy with visible brand names and price tags.
But Italian Futurism (and Fascism) are not the politics at play. Rather, the colophon refers to a particular episode in the history of Chinese communism, when Chairman Mao encouraged dissenting opinions only to later crush the dissenters. He is quoted, “Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Meador’s own writing throughout the book adopts this style, editorializing in a sardonic combination of elevated and prosaic language. The narrative voice prevents the pointed commentary from seeming didactic.
The text begins with the original quotation above, and the first half of the book reflects on the role of dissent in a society. The text sticks to the original Maoist metaphors of flowers and snakes – ideas and dissidents – but the imagery opens other interpretations. After a few pages, junk food intersperses the Warhol-esque flowers, juxtaposing consumer capitalism with the communist system with which the text began. Then a reprise signals a new section: “Let a hundred brands blossom. / Let a hundred corporations contend.” In the second half of the book, the text addresses the system that the images have hinted at.
The imagery produces meaning through form as much as content. The compositions of the photographs disorient the reader with extreme close-ups and dizzying, diagonal points of view. However, the images barely operate as photographs thanks to Meador’s pre-press interventions. Ben-Day dots the size of dimes collide with checkerboards and crosshatching – an inexhaustible variety of half-tone patterns, part Lichtenstein, part glitch art. One Hundred Excellent Flowers intensifies the visual strategies of pop art to make them relevant in today’s manifestation of the consumer capitalist media environment that informed Lichtenstein and Warhol. The compositions are also calibrated for the sequential medium of the book, different even than the serial approach of Warhol’s offset-printed Flowers. The half-tones defy their design; they fail to coalesce into smooth images. Instead they call attention to fabrication, artifice. The misaligned patterns render the four process colors hyper-visible, but elsewhere create muddy fields of richly overprinted blacks. These images unravel at the fore-edge margin on the recto, leaving white space for the text to occupy.
The text, placed in the small field of negative space, feels precarious. The images dominate visually, but the stark contrast of black text on white paper (plus the consistent positioning) ensure the reader’s attention returns to the text with each turn of the page. The even pacing of the text gives the book a steady rhythm and brings out the abstract potential of the imagery. The ragged fore-edge contrasts with the orderly margins that run along the top and bottom of each page and even gutter crosses, which facilitate full-spread images remarkably well considering the screw post binding. The margins are no afterthought; the fore-edge is the center of the folded sheet, and thus could have been printed on. Meador plays with this by fore-edge printing a flower, but doesn’t take the idea further. Nevertheless the folded sheet adds to the book’s heft and, more importantly, prevents the copious overprinting from showing through from one page to the next. The feel of the folded sheet, draw attention to the act of reading, already heightened by the text’s position in the fore-edge margin where the reader’s thumbs reside.
Just as the binding and composition engage and implicate the reader, the book’s content is scaffolded to hook the reader and then pull them into deeper waters. “How could sugary breakfast cereals ever be bad?” gives way to “Feed the people disgusting swill and call it a feast / until no one can tell the difference between poison and antidote.” From media to politicians, it’s not hard to see how Meador’s critique extends beyond food. In fact, it is not Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that One Hundred Excellent Flowers channels, but another book of aphorisms – The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. The two books, published within a few years of one another, form a dialectic that unlocks Meador’s project.
The central question is what (as noted in the colophon) Chairman Mao called “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” For Debord, the spectacle is a means of deferring contradictions without resolving them, always offering something new as an alternative and distraction. Hence the ceaseless proliferation of “fragrant falsehoods” as Meador calls them. He renders the paralyzing freedom of endless choice in the grocery aisles and vending machines, hawking their wares with cheap prices and lurid colors. The various spectacles push and pull, intersect and overlap, but like the book’s half-tone patterns, never resolve into a seamless image. Following Debord, One Hundred Excellent Flowers suggests that freedom can be found no more in the poisonous decadence of US capitalism than the brutal repression of Chinese communism.
One Hundred Excellent Flowers is a model for thoughtful, historically-grounded political discourse at a time when hyperbolic soundbites are more fashionable. Meador elucidates contemporary social and economic problems by drawing on the visual and textual aesthetics of the 1960s – another era of conflict between China and the United States – at a time when counterculture movements once again push for structural change and challenge capitalist ideology around the world. Even with its pop art colors and strident writing, the book seems contemplative in the context of cable news commentary and social media. The medium lends itself to an individual experience without posturing, defensive or performative. Meador seizes that opportunity to weave together geopolitics and art history with familiar access points that help the reader place themselves in a system that is once again facing global resistance.