Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Portrait of Tia Blassingame setting metal type from a job case, working on the book, "I AM".
Typesetting for the artists’ book, I AM. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" depicts a screen-printed leaf and text in white on a brown page.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Close-up of a spread from "Colored: A Handbook" with prose poetry on the recto. The pages are washed brown using paste paper techniques.
“Chapter Eight: He can’t talk about it with me,” from Colored: A Handbook. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" which shows text knocked out of a brown leaf printed on tan paper. The text is a 1758 listing for a slave.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Digital mock-up of a spread from "Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian".  Each page pairs text and semaphore. "Oscar Grant" on the verso and "Abner Louima" on the recto.
G and L pages from Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian. Images courtesy of the artist.

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?

Image of "Black in Dictionary" showing the flag book open with text on one side and imagery on the other.
Black in Dictionary. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 1 of 2

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.

Black and white portrait of Tia Blassingame examining prints in the studio, wearing a "Ladies of Letterpress" apron.
Tia Blassingame. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Two copies of the single-sheet artists' book "Students" side by side; front view and back view.
The Negro Students of Noyes Academy, Canaan, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of International Print Center New York (IPCNY).

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.

Center spread of "Past PRESENT: DC". Historical maps are overlaid with racial slurs, stereotypes and political insults.
Detail of Past PRESENT: DC. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

Final page of "I AM", which includes a portrait of the artist and a text caption: "Not credible."
I AM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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 Print Delita 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 CumminsThe Business is Suffering or Fred Hagstrom’s Little 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.


Interview with Hope Amico — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Portrait of Hope Amico wearing a "don't hurry" lapel pin.
Hope Amico. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

The Ghosts of Suicide. Paper collage with thread. Image includes a vintage photo of a group of senior women riding bicycles together.
The Ghosts of Suicide. Hope Amico with Adam Charles Ross. From the series We Live for This, 2019. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Rubber stamps, ink pads and Christmas cards made from the stamps.
Demonstration for the online class, Hand Carved Stamps for Holiday Cards. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Letterpress-printed Christmas card with festive red and green borders. Text reads: All I Want for Christmas is the End of White Supremacy.
All I Want for Christmas is the End of White Supremacy. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Hope Amico converses with viewers about her work in a gallery.
Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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. 

Where You From numbers 1-4,  "stories about leaving" and "stories about returning".
Where You From? Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Vintage camper-turned-art studio with paper cutter, collage supplies, journal and coffee mug.
Hope’s camper studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Interview with Hope Amico — Part 1 of 2

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.

Hope Amico sits smiling in front of a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress in a moving truck.
Hope Amico. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. The card includes a poem titled "life will devastate us" and a prompt about taking chances for love.
Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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. 

Close-up of Keep Writing Number 124 with overprinted wood type of various fonts.
Keep Writing Number 124, August 2019. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Eulalia #3, a two-sided zine using the dos-a-dos structure and pamphlet stitch binding
Eulalia #3, 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Beauty's Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Surrealist image including baby birds stacked like nesting dolls in an auditorium.
Beauty’s Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

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.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: The space inside of us is so much larger than we know.
Eulalia #3, 2020.

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.

Interview with Marnie Powers-Torrey

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. 

Chapter XXIV open to the title page with the book's enclosure open in the background.
Chapter XXIV. 2013. Craig Dworkin; David Wolske, Designer; Marnie Powers-Torrey, Production Manager and Master Printer. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey

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.

Front and back cover of "Cities & Justice" displayed standing up with the spine facing the viewer.
Cities & Justice: A Visual Translation with Subtitles of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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. 

Open view of the accordion book "META-FOUR" which contains found natural objects in box-like sections.
META-FOUR. 2016. Beth Krensky and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

Installation view of "Archive of Now" with an array of printed boxes containing driftwood and other found natural objects.
Archive of Now. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

Array of the 4 books in "Roadside Attractions" open to display various inside spreads with geometric imagery printed from found objects.
Roadside Attractions vol. 1–4. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

Close-up of a sewing machine stitching pieces of letterpress-printed paper.
Tobacco leaves in process: walnut-stained cotton and tobacco paper with letterpress printed narrative being stitched to form an eight-foot leaf. 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

Inside spread of the book MAMA-SELF, standing up and open. Rough red shapes overlap below text that reads "ours / MAMA / MOTHER"
MAMASELF. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

"Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt" - boxed assemblage with print, animal skull, driftwood and bird nest.
Process image of Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

Two sheets of cotton and tobacco paper drying.
Cotton and tobacco paper in production (dry down). 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

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.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers

One Hundred Excellent Flowers
Clifton Meador
2019

8.5 × 11 × .375 in.
64 pages
Binding: Screw post with cover wrap
Offset lithography
Edition of 200

Front cover of "One Hundred Excellent Flowers" shows screw post binding and blue paper wrap

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.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "Often, correct and good things were first regarded"

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.

Inside spread with image of supermarket shelves. Text reads: "Let them bloom for people to look 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.

Inside spread with close-up of junk food on shelves. Text reads: "Fill the aisles with bags of pernicious slop"

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.

ERRATA

ERRATA
Nuno Moreira and David Soares
2020

5.5 × 8 in.
52 pages
Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine
Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase.
Edition of 50

ERRATA slipcase with foil-stamped title

ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.

As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.

Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.

Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”

The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.

ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.

ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.

Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered

Marilyn R. Rosenberg
2019
Post-Asemic Press

6 × 9 in.
102 pages
Binding: Perfect
Digital offset
Open edition

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a work of asemic writing, meaning the text communicates through aesthetics rather than semantics. Asemic writing is to poetry as scat is to jazz. It’s up to the reader to make meaning from the marks, which is true of any text to some degree. As the title suggests, Rosenberg embraces this indeterminacy throughout the book’s content and structure, although she does include a helpful statement in the back matter. As an object, the book is unremarkable – a perfect-bound codex with decent quality printing. A nice drape in the pages keeps most of the content out of the gutter. Yet the reader can almost feel the texture in the original pages from which this book was scanned and printed. Perhaps surprisingly, this black and white paperback makes for a wonderful and democratic access point to an artist whose one-of-a-kind artists’ books and two-dimensional works revel in color and texture.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and a fish on the recto

There is a visual similarity between Rosenberg’s asemic mark-making and abstract expressionism, but it is clear that the pages of this book are filled with writings, not drawings. Even the loosest compositions with wild, gestural marks are scaled to the hand, not the arm. Such pages are balanced by others sporting orderly grids of ideograms, which have the appearance of a real, but untranslated writing system. Perhaps these are the Apollonian and Dionysian poles that influenced abstract expressionism, but False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inhabits the entire spectrum between them. This impressive variety is unified by the book’s grayscale production as well as the written-ness of the marks, many of which are visibly the result of calligraphy pens and brushes.

The book format is a powerful vehicle for unifying disparate content, and False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered also incorporates found materials, collaged onto the pages. The edition is produced from scans of a single sketchbook, although it is more than a facsimile of an original. The digitization process is transformative. Everything is flattened – positive and negative, addition and subtraction. What look like hole-punched portals into the following page are actually onlays from some other hole-punched paper. The edges of the scanned original recede into a dark margin, an absence that signifies like presence on the page, mirroring Rosenberg’s dark marks on the light paper. Washers and key rings are no more dimensional than the fore-edge of the scanned original, whose pages form vertical margins on the outside of many spreads, marking the reader’s progress through a book they aren’t actually reading.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing on the verso, and stenciled text and hole punched paper on the recto

Of the three-dimensional objects included in the book, only the fish – a recurring motif – are mentioned in Rosenberg’s statement, which says they represent “groups, family or specific personalities.” Other objects seem to point to the material presence of language, like what appear to be bracelet charms stamped with letters and symbols. Likewise the stenciled word “yes” is a jarring injection of semantic content, although it remains open to interpretation. Rosenberg does contextualize the work as conversation, which helps ground the reader without foreclosing possibilities. She writes that the verso and recto are engaged in a cross-gutter dialogue, but the book offers a multiplicity of sequences and structural relationships.

In addition to the cross-spread dialogue, there is also the sequence of one page to the next. The hole-punched portals mentioned above are just one example of Rosenberg’s thoughtful engagement with the way a page reveals and conceals. These potent relationships are doubled since the book can be read from either direction, enabled by facsimile covers that separate the front and back matter from the core content of the book. Circular reading is a hallmark of Rosenberg’s books, and neither direction seems more or less important thanks to the non-representational content. Other, latent sequences are present, but not fully accessible to the reader: the sequence of the hard copy original, and the order in which Rosenberg filled it. Thus False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a book with four sequences, plus whatever order the reader chooses. The compositions are largely self-contained, making random access almost as rewarding as reading cover to cover.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and bracelet charms on the verso

Indeed the book speaks more to the act of creation than plot or narrative. The occasional glimpses of the background behind the scanned book reinforce this, revealing the stray marks of an artist’s work area rather than the expected clean white backdrop. Rosenberg represents, or rather presents, myriad relations between the author and the blank page, from confident flow to crossed out self-doubt. This emphasis on creation doesn’t diminish the reader though, since reading asemic writing is itself a generative act, the making of meaning. Perhaps it is this decentering of the author that most distinguishes Rosenberg’s approach from abstract expressionism. She blurs the line between reception and production just as she does writing and drawing. Likewise the book complicates the signal-noise binary, extending authorship not only to the reader, but to the chance operations of the scanning process. A handful of bright white marks remind the reader that book’s pages are toned from its printing, not its paper, emphasizing the transformative role of the digitization and one-color printing.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered certainly sounds like a title for the post-truth era, but asemic writing is not a total absence of meaning – the meaning is just located beyond the semantic order. This book asks the reader to consider other possibilities and perspectives. It demands sensitivity and empathy, but offers truths to the reader who is willing to work for them. This touches on a larger debate within asemic writing, where a complete absence of meaning (asemia) is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, Rosenberg posits multiple, perhaps infinite, meanings, and invites the reader to change those meanings from one reading to the next. Through its thoughtful consideration of the book form, False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered brings these debates into dialogue with artists’ book discourse. It is an impressive work in this exciting zone of intersection, but by no means does it exhaust the possibilities it points to.

Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey
2018
https://faculty.utah.edu/u0047935-Marnie_Powers-Torrey/hm/index.hml

2.875 × 6.5 in. closed
“Interlocking loops” accordion structure
Risograph

"Everything Has a Language" Cover

The paper engineering of Marnie Powers-Torrey’s Everything Has a Language is deceptively simple: it is a soft cover accordion with four panels. Both sides of the accordion are printed with bold, primary color imagery and coated in wax.* Riffing on Hedi Kyle’s “interlocking loops” structure, horizontal slits divide the accordion into a grid, organizing spaces for the mysterious geometric illustrations that comprise the book’s main content. The only written content is the title. This fact, and the title itself, suggest that the reader would do well to approach the layered, processual images as language.

"Everything Has a Language" open flat, front

I say the simplicity is deceptive because the combination of cuts and folds enable a number of configurations. The interlocking loops structure shifts between accordion, pop-up and flag book to great effect, sustaining the reader’s attention for far longer than its slim proportions might suggest. The accordion fold is doubled, allowing the reader to cut the width of each panel to half that of the cover. Folded this way, the horizontal slits can be popped out as a simple box pop up. Already the reader begins to see the combinatorial possibilities of the book, the relationships that can be drawn between the images by way of peaks and valleys. The reader can then pinch these pop ups together to form a flag book, which again reconfigures relationships among the imagery.

"Everything Has a Language" open with folds, front

Whereas other accordion books and flag books can simply be closed when the reader is done, Everything Has a Language folds together in such a way that it requires the reader to press it back to its original state before the book can be closed and slipped back into its belly band. This creates a ritualistic, almost indulgent, experience in which the reader sets the book up before engaging with the content and then winds down afterwards. Anyone who has lived by themselves but nevertheless made their bed in the morning will understand the quiet pleasure of this book’s structure. The feeling of ritual is enhanced by the book’s sculptural quality. Everything Has a Language creates a physical space for the reader to contemplate the relationship between the title and the imagery, and between various pairs and groups of images as the folded grid is manipulated.

The book’s materials also help push the book beyond a typical reading experience. By waxing the paper, Powers-Torrey defamiliarizes the substrate’s appearance, weight, texture, smell and sound. The wax accentuates the creases of every fold, making visible the material impact of reading on the book. The tactile affect is even more pronounced. The book feels almost organic, somehow more alive than paper. This boosts the juicy, over-inked quality of the imagery, which doesn’t quite look dry enough to handle.

"Everything Has a Language" front, open as a flag book

The images can, of course, be handled, but they are difficult to grasp. They complicate the reader’s sense of time and space; they are tightly resolved even as they reveal the step by step process by which they were created. Each image, framed on its own flag, is built from circles and squares. The reference to sacred geometry is offset by the squishy, imperfect line quality, which nudges them into the realm of something scientific, whether cosmic or microscopic. They are rendered in the primary colors and black, adding to the primordial, archetypal sensibility. Print-savvy readers may see the palette as CMYK and come away with the same feeling that there is some foundational process at work.

The great achievement of this book is that such lofty speculations arise from what is, in fact, documentation of various found objects. Powers-Torrey’s process of mono-printing and stamping directly from inked objects gives an interesting and complex ontological status to both the objects and the resulting images. The images are narrative, built layer by layer from different forms, yet each mark is an index, the physical trace of an object. Thus the objects are also subjects, the way that photography is always also about light.

Understood as documentation, Powers-Torrey’s work finds a provocative place in the tradition of artists’ books. Ed Ruscha’s twenty-six filling stations, which seem to be straightforward documents, fudge the road trip they purport to chronicle. Similarly the walking artist Hamish Fulton appears to document a walk in his book 10 Views of Brockman’s Mount, a naturally formed hill near Hythe, Kent, England, though a close read reveals the images to have been taken on different days. Ruscha and Fulton play with the way the codex form can assert chronology on its contents, but the complex structure Powers-Torrey uses in Everything Has a Language resists this effect and flattens the contents. Narrative possibilities remain open and the reader must do more of the work.

"Everything Has a Language" open flat, back

It is this work that is central to the book. Everything may have a language, but Powers-Torrey does not say whether the languages are mutually intelligible. A typical book contains text intended for the reader, but Everything Has a Language presents other possibilities. Perhaps the objects are communicating amongst themselves, and the reader is the catalyst that puts them in dialogue with one another by manipulating different sets of flags. The book’s structure facilitates this approach that is paradoxically more engaged in the haptic sense, but more passive, meditative in terms of interpreting meaning.

Everything Has a Language carries on the tradition of artists’ books as documentation and collection, but pushes the boundaries of intelligibility. It also seems to tap into newer currents in the broader art world, such as the influence of Object Oriented Ontology or other Post-humanisms.

Powers-Torrey lets objects speak for themselves, perhaps even among themselves. It is up to the human reader to make their own meaning, and both the artist and reader leave their mark on the book as they do this. The balance of this deeply personal, embodied meaning-making with the sense that the book’s images recede infinitely beyond translation is a productive and enjoyable tension.

*There are two editions of this book, one with wax-coated pages and the other without.

Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography
Woody Leslie
H.F. Henderson
2019
Ugly Duckling Presse
uglyducklingpresse.org

5 × 7 in.
128 pages
Binding: Smyth-sewn
Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap

Understanding Molecular Typography Cover

Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers.

I struggled over how to review this book, and made the determination to identify it as a work of fiction (satire, specifically) and review it as such. I hesitate to out the work as fictional because much of Understanding Molecular Typography’s impact comes from its convincing appearance as a work of nonfiction. Ultimately, I decided that the book’s subtlety and humor can withstand a review. Furthermore, I had already reviewed an earlier edition of the book for Abecedarian Gallery and spoiled the surprise. Portions of this post have been adapted from that review.

Understanding Molecular Typography looks like a work of popular science, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. This new edition from Ugly Duckling Presse purports to be a reprint with a new introduction by the artist Woody Leslie. In reality, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-narrative fiction created by Leslie himself. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start, and Leslie’s new introduction playfully adds layers of misdirection. He describes coming across the book during his time as a graduate student, and discusses the work’s historical vicissitudes as well as its influence on his own practice.

Understanding Molecular Typography Inside Spread

Before addressing the work as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s to the 1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of molecular typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard nonfiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Details in the bibliography, for example, lend a less dry humor that helps clue the reader into the work’s fictionality. In contrast, a straight-faced absurdity operates in the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) and the extraordinary profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

Understanding Molecular Typography Bibliography

Beyond the text itself, Leslie has a keen sense of that para-textual apparatuses that lend books authority. Though librarians will be pleased to see this new edition has a legitimate ISBN, the collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse provided other opportunities to play with para-text. The back cover features a blurb from none other than Johanna Drucker. In character as a scholar, she praises the astonishing achievements of H.F. Henderson. Her comparison to Zdanevich is part of the fiction, but nevertheless situates Leslie’s work within a history of artistic explorations of language.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

Leslie does directly discuss his interest in letterforms and language in the introduction, but even here one must read between the lines. In the book’s first edition, little details about the artist tethered the book to reality. Now, the dynamic has flipped and Understanding Molecular Typography fictionalizes its creator. Leslie’s autofictional account of discovering Henderson and dedicating himself to the study of molecular typography deftly satirizes academia and the professionalization of art. The esotericism is an absurd addition to the tradition of mythologized artist personae. Joseph Beuys has his plane crash, and Leslie his library.

In freeing Leslie from necessary truths like colophons and contact information, Ugly Duckling Presse plays the perfect co-conspirator. Reprinting an obscure or underappreciated work is certainly in their wheelhouse. Furthermore, they list the book under “art, nonfiction” in their catalog and provide a deadpan description of Henderson’s book. The smyth-sewn paperback with a foil-stamped cover retains the general appearance of the first edition, and does a good job of selling the deception. The book is slightly larger, and the layout is roomier and more readable than the original. Underneath the paper cover, the book is covered in a lovely pattern of molecular typographic diagrams. Understanding Molecular Typography is a well-designed book. Most importantly, it looks perfectly ordinary.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co-opted the trappings of academic publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Nevertheless, the book is humorous and unpretentious throughout. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader. The great irony of the book, which so irreverently lampoons science, art, academia, and publishing, is that it is such an excellent example of art as a form of interdisciplinary scholarship.