WHERE DO BOOK AND PRINT ARTISTS BELONG? // River Kerstetter

01 Sep 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

As a child, the library was one of my favorite places. I would spend hours lost in fantasy novels, art history books, comic books, and science magazines. I still get the same feeling of adventure and wonder when I enter a library or open a new book. Books are an invitation to belong.

By 2017, I am a graduate student in an interdisciplinary book arts program. I am exploring what print media can do; how words and images work, how pages and bindings themselves can tell stories. I am fascinated and inspired by the endless ways that my peers and mentors reinvent the book. I experiment with letterpress, offset lithography, and screen printing, artist books, zines, comics, and video.

The program feels like a home for me and my peers, but even as we are finding our voices, the walls start coming down around us. The college decides book arts aren’t relevant (i.e., lucrative), and as we try to finish our degrees, walls are literally torn down, architects interrupt our work to measure floors, presses are sold, and our hard-working mentors are laid off. The community I have with my cohort never goes away, but academia no longer feels like a place I belong.

Now in 2022, I’m not sure where I belong — in the city, the book and print communities, or in my career. Creating our own paths as artists is powerful, but when artists must make ends meet by piecing together gigs, only the very lucky or very privileged can make it. Only artists with family money can risk going months without work. For those of us who are not so privileged, pursuing art can have serious consequences for our wellbeing. Even knowing the risks, we choose this path because we need art in our lives. It is unjust that the game of professional art is easy for some and life-or-death for so many others.

When artists like me have limited access to institutional resources and struggle to survive as independent artists, it impairs our creativity and the entire field. As an artist preoccupied with survival, my work takes much longer to incubate and develop. Without a community studio, I work at home, where I must acquire my own tools instead of sharing abundant communal ones. Freelance work, which I enjoy, at times takes me from projects that align with my core practice. Hustling for limited opportunities creates competition, which can discourage artists from collaborating or lifting one another up. Together these obstacles make our work much harder, and steer us away from the rich collaboration, dialogue, and innovation that we all seek.

The field of book arts also loses something when artists are not welcomed or supported. When classist, racist and sexist systems marginalize working-class, BIPOC, and women and trans artists, the arts lose diversity of thought and perspective. If all artists were supported by their communities, our discourse, debate, research, and innovation would improve.

In Chicago, many brilliant people are building better support systems. Sixty Inches from Center and Chuquimarca support scholars and artists and foster important conversations about who belongs in the art world. The Chicago Arts Census collects data to improve working conditions for us all. And while Chicago has a few community print studios, I haven’t always felt welcome in these spaces as an Indigenous artist, a working-class artist, or a queer trans woman. It can be exhausting just to be the only brown person, or trans person, in a room. Even with the efforts above, we need more spaces of our own.

When I imagine an art world where we belong, I see community studios that aren’t exclusive or prohibitively expensive to join. I see universal healthcare and guaranteed income. I see grassroots groups pooling resources, knowledge, and networks for their collective benefit. I see society-wide, WPA-style art programs, without the nationalism.

Book and print arts could soar. Freed from minimum wage, meager contracts, or racist institutions, we could all create better art. We could take greater conceptual and practical risks, and we could do the job that artists have always had: tell stories that comfort the marginalized and challenge the powerful.


River Kerstetter is a queer transfeminine artist of Onʌyota'a:ka and European descent based in Chicago. She explores memory, identity, and history through printmaking and design. River is a co-founder of the Center for Native Futures in Chicago, and co-hosts TIES, a reading series for Indigenous queer, trans, and Two-Spirit writers.


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