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.

Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.