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15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM • Susan Viguers

Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 15 Jun 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Why do so many people, when first exposed to the book arts, find themselves enthralled?

    I think a large part of it is in the physicality of using their hands in the processes they’ve just been exposed to.

    Many people now have never played in a sandbox or have forgotten the simple joys of playing in the dirt. But we all started our lives finding out about the world by using our hands to touch it, feel it, taste it, and having our fingers cut and burned.

    Here in the twenty-first century, as you know, our lives are increasingly filtered through disembodied electronic portals – screens that flatten our experience, distancing us from direct engagement with the physical world, antithetical to the deeper connections and texture we need to feel fully human. The book arts serve as a restorative, of physical action combining with intellectual activity and content. People new to book arts can be startled with a recognition of what they’ve been missing or have forgotten they had the capacity to do.

    Over the centuries writing has been an expression of societies and broader cultures. For example, Northern European mediaeval societies had variants of spiky architecture, spiky writing and spiky hierarchical thinking. It was a little less severe In Southern Europe.

    When I learned European calligraphy in the mid-1970s, I started from the beginning – wedges pressed into wet clay, using brushes and blunt reeds. Physical acts of making marks with my writing hand. I learned the seven or eight major writing styles from Trajan capitals to the Baroque copperplate of the mid-Eighteenth Century. In repeatedly tracing the “ductus” of alphabetic forms I absorbed their history and adaptations, learned context of the societies they were written in, and benefitted from their legacy. And I appreciated their formal malleability over time and culture.

    Tools for opposable thumbs 

    The physical actions of letterpress printing reinforce my sense of the allure of the book arts through the reconnection, and cooperation, of hand and brain. Each metal letter is a real thing to be put next to another letter. I told students in my private printing classes that in the print shop a nothing becomes a something: a word space is a real thing, with weight. Anaïs Nin writes well about the letterpress experience in Volume 3 of her Diary: 1939-1944: “You can touch the page you wrote.” “The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.” Building physical structures to hold text or image equally engage hand and brain. 

    60 and 72 American pica point Cloister Initials, from Frederic Goudy

    Frank Wilson, a neurologist, in his 1998 book “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture,” traces the evolution of the hand and its components and posits its influence on creating language – the hand points to or holds a thing that needs an identifying word. Our concepts about reality are largely drawn from a confirming touch. A substantial amount of the information the brain must work with comes through the sensing capacity of the hands.

    Wilson also argues that American education pushes children away from manual exploration to purely intellectual activity too early, stunting the hand/brain co-development process. I believe that this, at least in part, is the source of people’s joy, exhilaration, and relief that they have found where they belong when encountering the art of the (hand) book.

    Parenthetically, I think book arts programs could help other academic disciplines to reawaken the wonders of their fields by offering hands-on sessions, for example making a Jacob’s Ladder structure. Other disciplines don’t seem to pay much attention to their histories and processes like book arts does – whose skills and techniques are by nature historical. Philosophy classes would be enriched by directly experiencing the boundary of thought and touch. Wilson relates that mechanical engineering companies didn’t like to hire young engineers – they hadn’t played in a sandbox and had trouble conceptualizing the third dimension.

    36 Didot point Diethelm Antiqua, released by the Haas foundry around 1950. I had acquired a run of it as part of the Swiss/Canadian shop purchase I made in 2007. I may have been the only printer in the US who had it. I speculate it was Haas’ competitor to Palatino, released a little earlier by Stempel.

    Brian Allen is retired from 45 years working with letterforms, from calligraphic to phototypeset to letterpress to digital. Twenty of those years were spent in digital font production for startups, IBM, and Monotype. He enjoys the art, craft, and culture of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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

    Share Public Access to Creative Endeavors, or the SPACE coalition, was created to combat physical and cultural barriers within the art world for marginalized communities. We, Elaina Brown-Spence, Erica Honson, and Meera Mittal, formed the coalition while in the MFA Printmaking and Book Arts program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We wrote a quasi-manifesto addressing our values as artists and issues of accessibility within the art world. This document, which was later offset printed by Erica Honson and Amanda D’Amico in the Borowsky Center for Publication Arts and made into a zine, was the launching point for us to join the movement to expand inclusivity within the art world.

    We began specifically addressing book arts within our quasi-manifesto by asking, “Who gets to be in Special Collections, museums, libraries, universities, et cetera?” These establishments provide legitimacy, status, economic gain, and avenues for professional growth for the artists whose work they accept. The quantity and locations of exhibitions and collectors on an artist’s CV affects whether gatekeepers will afford that artist another opportunity. And each of those opportunities connects an artist to a network of people who may afford them further opportunities. Furthermore, an artist’s confidence in their ability to succeed professionally, and their sense of value within society, can directly impact their career. Part of that self-perception is built from the validation of being chosen by exhibition spaces — by seeing one’s identity, history, community, and voice as being worthy of public representation. 


    makeSPACE, a quasi-manifesto, offset zine, 2022   

    The way artist books, specifically, are presented, read, and interacted within exhibitions often limits their accessibility. Most artist books are meant to be interacted with by human hands as an integral aspect of their content, materials, structure, and reader experience. But many exhibition locations are inaccessible physically and culturally to numerous communities. This is also due, in part, to the practice of preservation in the book arts field. In response to this, we wrote, “Artist books, regardless of content, are not accessible when acquired by Special Collections. This needs to change. Books in Special Collections remain unread; they lose their “bookness.” Books need to be held, read, touched. Preservation shouldn’t be at the cost of seeing and handling books in person…. Liberate the libraries.” One of the tasks of the Special Collections librarian is to create a certain experience for the reader. When a librarian immediately acts suspicious towards a visitor, interrogates them about why they want to look at the books, and hovers over them during reading, all in the name of preservation, that artist book was not truly read, and the reader may not wish to return to any Special Collections. So, there is a need for more and different spaces for artist books to be read, for artists to have multiple avenues of advancing their careers, supporting themselves economically, and sharing their work as it is intended to be shared. For community members consuming the art, having opportunities to interact with artist books in spaces which are welcoming and inclusive could create richer dialogues and greater cultural impact which are essential to the purpose of art itself.

    Our next action was curating an open-call exhibition, titled makeSPACE, held both in a gallery at the University of the Arts and virtually via Instagram. We sought to utilize the privileges of being students in a graduate program at a private arts university to create an exhibition opportunity for artists who may not have access to such establishments. Our open call for submissions encouraged artists with any identity, educational background, and level of artistic experience to submit their work. For one artist, makeSPACE was the first time they had work accepted to a gallery, and for another, it was the first time their pieces were accepted outside of a student show. The artist books in the show were displayed on open pedestals, with a sign that told viewers they could touch and handle the books (in our call for submissions, we stated that any artist books in the show must be available for handling). By opening this gallery to people outside of the university, we hoped to create chances for communities within and outside of the institution to connect, for people to experience artist books as they are meant to be experienced, and for marginalized artists to have opportunities to be seen and heard.

    makeSPACE exhibition, Gallery 224, 2022

    In joining the conversations on and movement towards accessibility in the arts, we wanted to acknowledge and speak with people who have been doing this work for some time, hear about their practices, and share space. To do so, we organized a panel discussion with Nasheli Ortiz-Gonzalez from Taller-Puertorriqueño and Yuka Petz. In tandem with the panel and the exhibition, we also hosted zine workshops at the Free Library of Philadelphia. All events were free and open to the public. It was important for us to meet people in their community at the library for the workshop and online via Zoom for the panel discussion to reach people wherever they may be.


    Elaina Brown-Spence, Meera Mittal, and Erica Honson make up the 2022 graduating class from the MFA Book Arts and Printmaking program at UArts in Philadelphia, PA. Together they formed the SPACE Coalition in 2021 working towards accessibility in the fields of book arts and printmaking and the art world at large.



  • 15 May 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In this article, I would like to unpack some of the reasons gatekeeping can perpetuate. I believe most of the reasoning is understandable and justifiable, but I want to encourage our community to think through ways we can open gates of all sizes.

    Students don’t have access to equipment, so they can’t learn this technique.

    Fair, but equipment access is a privilege and there can be economic barriers preventing access to that equipment for all makers, not just students. Additionally, there may be times when artists will not have access to equipment for other reasons, such as at many artist residencies. It can be difficult to teach certain techniques without equipment, but even just adding a quick mention to your students about the kinds of workarounds they could research may eliminate a mental barrier that would keep them from making books or prints again. 

    It is also important to be transparent about the costs and benefits of investing in quality equipment. Some workarounds/DIY equipment can be so frustrating, the maker abandons book arts when they could have invested 10 more dollars for a better brayer, awl, etc. and eliminated most of their struggle. Additionally, newer makers may not be aware of the grants and assistance available, so even just briefly mentioning that possibility can open gates.

    Book artists and printers love to talk shop – we are constantly discussing what down-and-dirty tricks work, what style press has which common problems, and what equipment is worth purchasing or skipping. This kind of “institutional” knowledge is almost impossible for students or new book artists to research in an effective way, so by freely giving that information to newer makers, the community opens space for innovation.

    This is too advanced to teach.

    I hear this mostly regarding workshops and, given time constraints, equipment constraints, and participant experience constraints, this is a valid concern. However, many advanced courses in book arts and printing are only offered through higher education programs. Enrolling in one of these programs can be a huge barrier if one does not have the time, finances, or learning style best suited for higher education. Additionally, academia can manipulate aspects of these advanced courses – adding pressure to boost enrollment which may change the curriculum, limiting student access to instructors who juggle terrible schedules as they try to live on adjunct pay, and forcing external standards for grading, etc.

    There are, of course, some advanced courses taught as workshops outside of academia, but I would like to encourage an expansion - not only in number but also in topic. I would love to see more courses (introductory and non-introductory) about critical theory, concept + content, professionalism, the role of words in book arts, implementing multimedia, problem solving, and innovations in technology for book artists.

    Students don’t need this information; they only need this information.

    This may be a choice made for the sake of time or to limit confusion – it is often accidental gatekeeping. I do not think this kind of curation needs to be eliminated. However, it is important to make efforts to provide resources to students and new book artists so they may acquire the information themselves. This may be as simple as reminding them that there are multiple ways to accomplish something – while teaching a letterpress course, mention that some printers and artists print by hand – or by recommending resources the students can use to expand their knowledge. (Here is a resource guide I have been working on.)

    These students are too young or too old to learn this.

    It is more common to hear this argument when considering what topics to cover in children’s workshops. However, I am surprised at how often I have heard this in reference to undergraduate students or the age of workshop participants compared to graduate students. This argument is intentional gatekeeping and feels lazy to me. I genuinely believe anyone can learn anything and it is not the place of the instructor to hold knowledge back. Allowing age to act as a barrier shows an unwillingness to adapt one’s own teaching style. If individual instruction is needed, additional time can be built into your course. If physical limitations exist, there are tools to assist.


    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 02 May 2022 5:38 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    Generally, I have found the book arts community to be welcoming and happy to have conversations that seek to expand rather than limit ideas about book art. However, I also feel that gatekeeping, or limiting access to something, is still too commonplace within the tight-knit book arts world. Gatekeeping shows up in many ways: through elitism about education, stigma against certain processes or techniques, opinions about the validity of works based on the price tag or amount of time put into the piece, or discrimination against artists of specific demographics. It can be hard to navigate, especially for those new to book arts. In our digital age, and particularly with the pandemic spurring such an intense pivot to online and video-based learning, information has luckily been more equitably accessible than ever before. The switch to virtual learning opened the gates for people in locations where there are no book art centers, people who are agoraphobic, and people who find it difficult to fit in-person classes into their schedules. Often Zoom classes are recorded as well, which provides better access for people with severe anxiety, those who need to receive instruction at a different pace, or those who prefer to understand an entire process before they attempt it themselves. With live captioning technology, virtual learning also opened gates for anyone who needs or prefers captions when receiving auditory instruction. Additionally, many organizations implemented pay-what-you-can or sliding scale models to their services, classes, and memberships which opened the gates to those that found the financial investment of participating in aspects of the book arts community to be a hurdle.

    While there has been an excellent push toward equitable accessibility in the ways mentioned above, I feel there are further discussions that need to happen to open our community even wider as some of the paths toward greater accessibility are not as clear. Early in the switch to online teaching, I noticed conversations about the types of classes students could handle through virtual learning, an expected lack of quality due to the format, and concerns about recording intellectual property. These points are important to think about but are also areas where gatekeeping can seep back into actions. In my next article, I will breakdown some of my thoughts on these points, but I want to encourage open discussion about them as well as about other points that I may have overlooked.

    Some of these points are: - Students don’t have access to equipment, so they can’t learn this technique. - This is too advanced to teach as a workshop. - Students don’t need this information, they only need this information. - These students are too young or too old to learn this. - No one wants to be on Zoom for more than 2 hours, so I am limited in what I can teach. - It’s impossible to see anything in online classes/teaching - online is too difficult. - Teaching workarounds or methods for making without equipment is too difficult or pointless because the equipment is too important. - If I share my process as a video, I’ll be out of a job – anyone can share my video instead of taking my classes.

    The book arts community has so many published books depicting binding techniques but so few published books on printing techniques and an incredibly sparse amount of (quality) video tutorials available, so the explosion of accessible classes has been incredible. As that explosion stabilizes, our community has the opportunity to consciously decide how we are going to add to the culture. Putting in the work for equitable access to high-quality information and instruction is a promising way forward.

    There were plenty of growing pains in the last few years, but many organizations and institutions have made it clear that the additional access provided by virtual learning was in fact growth and not a temporary adjustment. It is exciting to see the number of virtual offerings that are continuing even as we have started to transition standard operations back to in-person and it is exciting to think of how much more access we can provide for people in the future through methods we haven’t explored deeply yet.

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 19 Apr 2022 4:21 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    For many book artists and book art educators, there is an increasing dialogue in making books in collaboration with and response to archives and Special Collections. To have artists working with those collections supports their vitality, assuring that such holdings are not just relics of the past, but instead active and continual contributions to current inquiry.

    The most successful responses to archives are when an artist forms an intersecting narrative between the archive and personal allegory. In her Sobre Adaptaciones y Engaños a Primer Vista (On Adaptions and Deceptions at First Site), the artist Viviana Carlos ( mines an archive for material and goes on to transcend this material by crafting a narrative about collective and personal memory and the human experience. 

    Sobre Adaptaciones had its origins when Viviana Carlos was hired by a private photography collection in Los Angeles to serve as its cataloguer. Carlos, a transplant to Los Angeles from Mexico, had become interested in the history of palm trees in Southern California, and the collection where she worked had numerous historical images of palm trees throughout the city. She learned that these iconic trees of Los Angeles were themselves transplants. The Spanish missionaries who colonialized California originally planted palm trees for decorative purposes and, in the case of date palms, for food. Going through the archive of images, seeing many of them repeatedly, Carlos began to see them as a personal metaphor for her own story of migration.

    As the concept for the book developed, Carlos found herself struggling with questions. As first, she didn’t know how it would evolve, but knew that the central idea was transplantation. At first, she asked herself, with no ownership of these images - did she have a right to use these them? As a cataloguer, she had the skills and knowledge to research the Doctrine of Fair Use and Creative Commons, so she was certain that there would be no copyright violations. Yet these images were part of a history that she did not feel she belonged to as an immigrant.  In addition, she was plagued with a deeper question - did she have a right to tell her story? She felt conflicted because her story of migration – one of legal documentation – was not as difficult as that of others. 

    With these questions in mind, Carlos made the intuitive leap to tell her story through metaphor rather than literally. Sobre Adaptaciones is made of images of palm trees sourced from the collection in which she worked that were in the public domain. 

    The text, in Spanish and English, provides a series of facts about palm trees. 

    As the book unfolds, these facts become an elusive description of the human condition.  Through this, Carlos creates a narrative that transforms the historical basis of the archive to become a personal mythology. 

    To keep archives and special collections thriving, we as educators must ask ourselves how to develop ways for students to connect these collections to their own identities. We must find ways for students to see these collections not only as relics of the past, but to help them find metaphor and meaning that are relevant to their experiences. Carlos credits her time studying with instructor and documentary photographer Celeste Alba Iris of Miradas al Foto Libro ( as forming the conceptual basis for thinking of an archive as materials and personal symbolism.

    By encouraging students to mine archives, we must ask them to go beyond appropriation. This is not just because appropriation is currently debated, depending on who is asked, as trendy or as inappropriate, but because the art of the book demands a deeper, more nuanced and layered approach. Yet the question remains, how do we do this? One method is to introduce works like Sobre Adaptaciones to our students, allowing them to see examples of diverse voices responding to collections and archives as models for artist books. 


    Michelle Wilson is an interdisciplinary thinker, whose work involves papermaking, printmaking, book arts, installation, and social practice. She holds an MFA in Book Arts/Printmaking from the University of the Arts. She exhibits widely and is one-half of the collaborative duo the Rhinoceros Project. She teaches printmaking, papermaking, artist books, and seminars at San Jose State and Stanford.


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

    If we take books like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Yves Peintures (1954) as examples, rock music emerged as a genre roughly around the same time artist books cohered as a medium for modern art. Since the ‘50s and ‘60s, rock has fractured into many sub-genres, while also maintaining a coherent identity that distinguishes it from other major genres, like country or pop. So the term “artist book” or “artist publishing” might be about as useful a term as “popular music.” Occasionally, we need to talk about all of popular music, but it’s more common to write about specific groupings of musicians, fans, producers, songwriters, etc. We need the umbrella term "artist book," but whenever we want to write about artist books, market artist books, buy artist books, plan an artist book fair, etc. we should consider the advantages of classifying books in terms of audience. This doesn't mean the categories have to be rigid or limit artistic expression — consider that musical artists make legendary work both by blurring/transcending genre (Lil Nas X) or embodying genre (Chris Stapleton). 

    In his history of popular music in seven genres, the critic Kelefa Sanneh argues that “the idea of transcending genre suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging, as if the greatest musicians were somehow less important to their musical communities, rather than more. (Did Marvin Gaye transcend R&B? Did Beyoncé?) … It is strange, anyway, to praise genre mixing without also praising the continued existence of the genres that make such mixing possible” (xi). [1] Just as musical artists work within and against existing genres, artist books participate in existing literary and visual art genres. There may also be genres that are unique to artist books, but it is these shared ones that provide inroads for larger and more diverse audiences.

    The link between classification and audience is key, and thus existing classification projects reveal a great deal about the intended audience. In “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index,” Mary Anne Dyer and Yuki Hibben of Virginia Commonwealth University discuss their effort to develop a “local genre headings index to be used in the online catalog to provide enhanced access to the libraries’ collection of artists’ books.” However, “the list of genres was composed of terms representing book art facets of structures, binding techniques, mediums, and formats.” [2] Calling ‘accordion fold’ a genre is like calling ‘guitar’ a genre, and most rock fans want to discover new rock artists, not a country artist who happens to play guitar. Genres should open up the field, not just help people who already make artist books.

    The inherent interdisciplinarity of artist books poses challenges, but also opportunities for connections, which genre can facilitate. For example, India’s partner uses artist books to teach public history. He has a collection of artist publications featuring facsimiles of primary sources, with and without commentary. Content type and subject matter are what is salient, not the binding or material. Book-as-primary-sources might not be a genre (yet), but it demonstrates that a collecting parameter can be narrow and still expand the use of artist books beyond practitioners. 

    We’re interested in the possibilities of genre for every player in the publishing communications circuit. We are readers, looking for more of what we like, more easily. We are makers, hoping to reach the audience for our niche publications more easily. We are critics, scholars, and thinkers, writing with specificity about segments of an ever-expanding field. We are publishers, placing publications and their creators into meaningful dialogues and debates. We are educators, teaching about artist books but also using artist books to teach other topics. We are collectors, changing the meaning of our library with each book we add. We are information workers, cataloging and describing works to make them accessible. We are curators, soliciting proposals and offering opportunities, who need to articulate what we can accept, fund, care for, and make meaningful. 

    Yet questions remain: Does genre exist without marketing and middlemen? Are genres only characteristic of mainstream sectors of the culture industry? Is genre really a question of type or just taste? Will naming genres stultify the field? Or will leaving them unspoken serve only those whose work fits into our existing, implicit taxonomy?   

    [1] Sanneh, Kelefa. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021.

    [2] Dyer, Mary Anne, and Yuki Hibben. “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 31, no. 1 (2012): 57–66.

    India Johnson makes books and non-books. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Center for the Book. She also attended fine bookbinding school at LLOTJA Conservatori Arts del Llibre. Based in Iowa City, India exhibits her work locally, nationally, and internationally.

    Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.

  • 15 Mar 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    A constant consideration in the analysis of the book as art object is its relationship to the body: i.e., the direct physical reaction of the viewer/reader, and book artist, to the book object’s materials. This is compounded by the fact that it is frequently impossible to articulate and share the physicality of this experience with others that have not had corporeal encounters with book art objects. The difficulty of describing and articulating this experience could conceivably be the reason why there are so many differing opinions regarding what constitutes a definition of the artist book. To wit, Simone Murray in her book about contemporary print culture (2021) describes the difficulty of the definition of the book in the following way:

    “[A]ll definitions should keep sight of the fact that the nature and role of the book are constantly in flux, and any attempt at definition needs to counterbalance analytical precision with sufficient capaciousness to respond to current (and future) developments.” [1]

    In summary, the definition of the book, and to a greater extent the definitions of the artist book, book art object, letterpress book, zine, chapbook, etc., are in a state of “flux,” meaning not just change, but also a flowing and commingling. Due to this state of fluctuation and intermingling of bookish traits, definitions require both detailed investigation of the subject and matter that constitute a sufficiently vast understanding of the book in its manifold variations. [2]

    Beyond recurring questions of definition, such as whether book work is art or craft or how publishing is a political act and can be a form of activism, there are questions regarding the essence of the book as a medium for communication. What is interesting is how the “flux” of the book makes it simultaneously capacious and particular enough to engage with a diversity of forms that other mediums cannot. The format of the book provides a versatile material construct that can either question or acquiesce to norms and expectations of what a book is as a means to question and engage with the viewer/reader. Unlike other mediums, the body of the book engages directly with the body of the viewer/reader as they hold and touch the book object; turn the pages; hear the pages, papers and binding move; smell the glue; and travel conceptually through the art object to understand and absorb its captivating ideas and position. Gillian Silverman puts it this way:

    “In seeing, there is recognition, but in touch, there is the primal experience of contact-the fingers press against that which is foreign and in the process the boundaries between self and other are obscured. All touched objects function briefly as prosthetics, extending the body in new directions, creating, through the erasure of distance, a formal unity.” [3]

    Touching, the haptic experience, has traditionally been mistrusted while sight has been considered the reigning perceptive mode because of its clinical and functional distance from the subject. Nevertheless, as Rosalind Krauss points out, sight is also a mediated and curated form of discernment. Krauss points out that seeing and recognition has been conditioned and formatted by the frames situated around perception.  Historically speaking the visual picturesque was crafted by landscapers, paintings were framed and focused on particular kinds of subject matter. Even photography, that most venerable supplement to vision “acts as a kind of prosthesis, enlarging the capacity of the [eye]” [4] at the expense of the tactile.

    Thus, visual cognitive perception continues to be privileged and distanced from proprioception. This conflict is one that has existed for millennia, though the modern version was formulated by René Descartes (1596–1650) and is known today as the mind-body problem. The question presented by this dichotomy is the apparent disconnection between how the natural or material world includes the presence of an immaterial mind.

    The book art object, or artist book, represents perhaps the most gloriously fecund arena within which to address and redress the mind-body problem. The artist book “is particularly useful in destabilizing the boundary between optics and haptics or art and the everyday. Perhaps this explains why so many artists interested in such intersections have chosen the book as their medium.” [5]

    The artist book’s destabilizing capabilities foment questions and create alternative paradigms that directly challenge and question the mind-body problem. They build curious and quizzical bridges that break down boundaries and establish new connections between mind and body. They present works that address and cross pollinate material objects as embodiments of immaterial thoughts. 

    They interrogate the relationship between the human body, as a living material that contains immaterial thoughts. They present a supplemental haptic experience that transgresses the mind-body split to transgress and present, through the body of the book, to the body of the viewer/reader the visual, literal, allegorical and metaphorical immaterial thoughts of a mind made flesh in the material world by the book artist. Thus, the body of the artist’s book is a supplement to the mind that can be touched, and to touch something is always also to be touched.

    The mind-body problem is an issue for the book artist as they are holding and molding, literally, visually and materially, ideas and their perception within the material construct of the book. The immaterial mind is in their hands and as they touch it, it touches them back.

    De libris cogito, ergo sum. (I think of books, therefore I am.)

    [1] Murray, Simone. Introduction to Contemporary Print Culture: Books As Media. 2021. Print. p. 2.

    [2] Addressing this point Michalis Pichler proposes that: “we are no longer only talking about books anymore—more capacious than book, the term publication is better because it can encompass digital files, hybrid media, and forms we have yet to imagine. . . . Publishing or publications as an umbrella term would include any form of circulating information, including books, zines, loose-leaf collections, flyers, e-books, blog posts, social media and hybrids, as long as they are (or are meant to be) viewed or read by multiple audiences.” Though there is something important to the question of definition there, he is trying to take the easy way out. Pichler, Michalis. “Artist's Book as a Term Is Problematic.” 3am Magazine, 9 Dec. 2019,

    [3] Silverman, Gillian. “Touch.” Matthew Rubery and Leah Price. Further Reading. 2020. Print. p. 193.

    [4] Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October, vol. 19, 1981, p. 32.

    [5] Silverman, p. 196.

    Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art.  He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking.  His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

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

    The College Book Art Association’s Book Art Theory blog has presented engaging and absorbing topics over the previous six plus years of its online activity.  Its posts reflect trends and theories that are shaping the discourse that surrounds the artist book in all of its manifestations.  Here is a curated selection of some of the ideas and trends perceptible in the CBAA Book Art Theory blog.

    2015: The first post, on the 30th of September, 2015, was titled “Does Text-To-Be-Read Belong in the Artist’s Book?" This post discusses an issue that is still a theoretical concern for book art: the visual languages of format, image, and text. Other posts in this nascent period appeal for a more diverse history of book arts and the practice of “Book Thinking."

    2016: Amidst the offerings of this first full year of the blog is an article that raises the fascinating proposition present in a material reading of the artist book This year also includes what could be the most cited entry from the blog, titled “ The Artist Book and the Sailor Suit.”Though the title sounds glib, this post deals with the question of “to apostrophize or not to apostrophize” when discussing artist books.  This year also consists of posts regarding subjects like: “Erasures: Absence and Presence,” “What Does Theory Want?,” and “Book Art and Social Practice.”

    2017: Many of the entries this year address the concerns of book artists in their capacity as educators and studio artists.  Among these posts are those that question the unmonitored and silent distribution of digital materials in the internet age and also tackle how artist books as artifacts are simultaneously accessible and inaccessible.

    2018: The thought-provoking topics raised during this year include how to live with art, the question of craft versus art, and the task of “paying attention.”

    2019: This year authors broached subjects as diverse as the paradigms that define the artist book, spaces and places for writing, physically embodying poetics as part of the practice of book creation, along with problematic and interesting possibilities that arise from inverting the new art of the book into a vision of an older book art.

    2020: This was a year of questions.  It might be conceivable to recall our ignorance and uncertainty regarding a viral pandemic in addition to how to schedule and hold online meetings.  At the threshold of this change the question of whether or not a new theory of the artist book could be generated was introduced, experiences beyond language were considered in relation to artist books, and the revelatory aptitude of memes became even more relevant as extended hours were spent online.  Introspective questions surfaced on the blog, involving subjects such as papers romance with the book, word tornados, space time relationships presented by bookworks, and whether or not as artists “[We’re] Doing It All Wrong.”

    2021: Nevertheless, book artists continued forward, assisting each other, and developing new practices for online instruction.  The listening book was proposed as a curious opportunity for further investigation.  Soon thereafter attention was given to the artist book’s ability to extend literature and include non-literary sources.  The examination of the significance of both size and scale was demonstrated to be very relevant to book art.  Finally, “Printing Through the Pandemic” disclosed in what way collaborative print work was possible, why it was and is important, and how it is absolutely necessary in addition to being therapeutic.

    2022 This year has begun by questioning the place and relationship of the narratives that are crafted around the book arts, and the importance of “book arts environments” to bridge gaps between institutions and communities, as well as what are often seen as disparate academic disciplines.

    Some themes that have become apparent through this analysis are: definitions and identities; histories of the medium(s) as histories of the field; relationships between text and image, as well as text versus image; haptic and intellectual hybrid experiences; techniques (including paper production, printing methods, binding methods) and materials (are you a Codex or a Printed Matter person); mutual support and strategies during a time of crisis; the book arts market place; assembling histories and diversified reading lists artist books as activism; and of course many other diverse questions of a theoretical inclination.[*]

    This is what the Book Art Theory blog has unveiled to one reader. What has it revealed to you?

    [*] If this brief summary has left out mention of your specific blog entry, it is simply because there was not enough room to do justice to each of the excellent blog entries that are available. Still, at least you know that your words have not gone into the void. You have at least one fan that appreciates your work, your voice and your skill. Thank you for participating in the blog. It is what it is because of you and your efforts.

    Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

  • 15 Feb 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The next few paragraphs will be dedicated to highlighting a small sampling of book arts environments within three universities or college libraries. In order to better understand the role the book arts play in each of these communities of higher education, I arranged conversations with the directors of each program.

    The Book Arts Studio, University of Richmond, Boatwright Memorial Library, directed by Jen Thomas. [1]

    UR students worked with Jen in the Book Arts Studio to develop creative writing strategies utilizing alternative book structures, which they taught to their partners at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

    The University of Richmond’s Book Arts Studio is a dynamic space that engages with students and faculty in course instructional sessions in addition to community engaged projects and initiatives, the latter being a truly remarkable aspect of Thomas’s work as director. The community engaged projects that Thomas organizes bring together not only students within UR but also the surrounding community, including local high school students. One such collaboration, titled The Spirit of Armstrong, pulled together 11 University of Richmond students with 21 high school students from Armstrong High School, a historically black high school, to document the voices of students and the community in which they live and learn through the creation of an editioned artist book. The creation of the edition resulting from the collaboration allowed students to explore personal narratives through the shared act of creation that is necessary when producing collaborative book works.

    Members of an HIV support group worked closely with students in an American Studies Seminar to create book pages chronicling their journeys living with HIV. The books were bound with a Japanese stab binding and hung in an exhibition in The Valentine, a local history museum.

    Other community collaborations have been arranged with the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center working alongside UR students in the First Year Seminar: Storytelling and Social Change to capture story and feeling as embedded within student created accordion books. Another of Thomas’s orchestrated projects worth mentioning is that which brought HIV community members and Richmond students together in order to tell stories of living with HIV through the creation of four collaborative cascading books.

    The Library Book Arts Workshop, Dartmouth College, Baker Library, directed by Sarah Smith [2]

    Students from a Spanish class learned to set type—touching their Spanish words—and printed a group broadside.

    Sarah Smith’s work at Dartmouth College’s Library Book Arts Workshop focuses more heavily on the institutional community through course support and offering book arts workshops (open to both the college and local communities). In discussing the Library Book Arts Workshop with Smith, what stood out to me the most was the collaborations Smith puts together with faculty spanning multiple areas of study within the Dartmouth community. One of Smith’s stated goals is to work with as many areas and courses across Dartmouth’s campus as possible. There are many courses that engage through interdisciplinary collaborative work in the Library Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth; 7 course instructional sessions/projects are planned for the winter of 2022. A few of those collaborations have involved environmental studies, Latin, English, and Native American Studies courses.

    A student (Tia Yazzie, ’19, Navajo) from Native American Studies course, Pen & Ink Witchcraft holds up the postcard she just printed using the studio’s Cherokee syllabary type. The text is from Cherokee artist and poet Jeff Marley and it says, “Your words are not fleeting”.

    One of these courses, ENGL 52.18, Netflix and the Victorian Serial Novel, provided an interesting opportunity for students to engage through the Library Book Arts Workshop during the lockdowns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were able to explore the topic of seriality and its historic and contemporary implications on readership/viewership through the creation, production, and dissemination of serial pamphlets, created in collaboration with Smith and the Library Book Arts Workshop. The course HIST 96.08 Seminar: Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Native American History Through Treaties collaborated with the Library Book Arts Workshop to engage students through the tactile experience of printing Cherokee type, drawing meaningful and tangible connections to historic injustices through letterpress printing and written communication.

    The Book Arts Lab, Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, directed by Katherine Ruffin [3]

    Students made paper in the Papermaking/Screen Print Studio at Wellesley College.

    Differing slightly from the previous two book arts programs, the Book Arts Lab at Wellesley College hosts for-credit courses within the visual art and writing departments taught by BAL director Katherine Ruffin, typically 1 full class per term. These for-credit courses include ARTS 112 Introduction to Book Studies, ARTS 109 Two Dimensional Design, ARTS 222 Print Methods: Typography/Book Arts, and WRIT/ARTS 115 Word & Image Studio. Additionally, these courses are offered in conjunction with BAL instructional sessions for other academic courses. Much like the course support/instructional sessions offered by Smith at Dartmouth and Thomas at Richmond, in developing and facilitating instructional sessions Ruffin acts in a similar fashion to a librarian subject specialist, coordinating with faculty to build rich and meaningful content in support of course curricula. Ruffin and collaborating faculty use the BAL and library resources as jumping-off points for bringing disparate disciplines to form deep and meaningful enduring understandings through book arts driven content exploration. Each semester Ruffin will coordinate 10-15 instructional sessions per semester.

    A faculty workshop being hosted in the Book Arts Lab.

    The juxtaposition of book arts studio environments to library stacks, special collections, and archival material (not to mention maker spaces) has the potential to build and support information literacy, promote learning, and provide entry points to information in ways that may not have been previously supported by traditional library settings. Ruffin points out that the BAL’s proximity to special collections, archives, and other library resources creates unique creative synergies that encompass both historical and contemporary research.

    An additional facet of Wellesley’s BAL worth mentioning is that it is also home to Annis Press, a literary and fine art press originally began in the late 1940s under the imprint of Red Bud Press. While not overly active, Annis Press on occasion will produce work with students, faculty, and visiting writers and artists such as Kiki Smith, Toxicology, 2009. [4]


     [1] Clark, Kyle, and Jen Thomas. Book arts in college and university libraries. December 16, 2021. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.

    [2] Clark, Kyle, and Sarah Smith. Book arts in college and university libraries. January 5, 2022. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.

     [3] Clark, Kyle, and Katherine Ruffin. Book arts in college and university libraries. January 7, 2022. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.

     [4] Smith, Kiki. Toxicology (letterpress and relief printing), Annis Press, 2009, Whitney Museum of American Art,

    Kyle Anthony Clark is an artist and educator living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kyle works at the University of Michigan Library’s conservation laboratory and as an instructor in the Book Arts Studio. Kyle maintains an independent practice and teaches courses and workshops on artists books, bookbinding, letterpress, and papermaking.

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

    Clive Phillpot, former head of the library at the Museum of Modern Art, loosely defines artists’ books as: “distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together…. What really characterizes artists’ books is that they reflect and emerge from the preoccupations and sensibilities of artists, as makers and as citizens”[1].

    Kyle Clark teaching students the fundamentals of letterpress and pressure printing at the University of Michigan Library’s Book Arts Studio. Photo by Alan J. Piñon, director of Communication & Marketing at the University of Michigan Library.

    “[A]t the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together”[1], libraries have and continue to be defined as centers for learning and growth that extend beyond the covers of the Book, or traditional information media. To many, the integration of creative tools within library resources encourages creative freedom and more engaged forms of learning and growth. Book arts studio environments, encompassing a variety of book arts related tools and resources (i.e. letterpress printing, print media, bookbinding, hand papermaking, calligraphy, etc.), have emerged in several college and university library settings within the United States as places that facilitate creative research opportunities and engaged forms of learning. These book arts studio environments provide students and researchers with an opportunity to make critical connections through artistic and scholarly processes while also allowing these library patrons to produce creative work (artists’ books, prints, book art objects, etc.) as both research process and product through varied arts-based inquiry and research methodologies.[2] In a college or university library setting (or a public library setting) this mode of creative engagement lends itself well to providing opportunities for collaboration across disciplines, academic departments, and external communities.

    Among the American colleges and universities with library embedded book arts studio environments are institutions such as Wellesley College, Dartmouth College, University of Richmond, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Oberlin College, University of Utah, Colorado College, and several others. Each of the college and university libraries that host book arts studio, workshop, or laboratory spaces have a common grounding in their relationship to libraries as hubs for information, research, scholarship, and creative output. It is relevant to note that a few of the above-mentioned library-based book arts environments incorporate small press models for artist book and fine press publishing (i.e., those at Colorado College and the University of Utah).[3] The small press model within library settings, separate from academic departments, creates an environment where free expression can take place, transcending academic and artistic disciplines.

    In an effort to better understand the place of the book arts in current college and university libraries, I was fortunate to have been able to have conversations with the directors at three of the above-mentioned book arts environments: Katherine Ruffin, director of the Book Arts Lab at Wellesley College; Jen Thomas, director of the Book Arts Studio at the University of Richmond; and Sarah Smith, director of the Library Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth College. Each of these programs is unique, serving their home institution through a combination of book arts programming. Such types of programs include: course instruction/instructional support, non-academic workshops in the book arts, and in some instances providing open studio times for students and library patrons to work on class or independent book arts projects. One of the main commonalities of note within the library-based book arts programs of Dartmouth College, Wellesley College, and the University of Richmond is their collaboration with faculty (from a wide range of disciplines) in order to provide instructional sessions through their respective book arts environments. This type of engagement allows students to explore topics and themes from their coursework through the lens of book arts production, including through the production of artists’ books, prints, zines, and related book arts objects. Sometimes elements of book history or the study of the book as material objects are incorporated into these instructional sessions, as was described by Katherine Ruffin of Wellesley College.[4] In other instances, the book arts serve as a tool or methodology for critically examining complex areas of study. The latter was described by Jen Thomas at the University of Richmond in which a group of students from the University and local HIV community members explore and record narratives through the creation of artists’ books.[5]

    For the next Book Art Theory blog post I’ve written short vignettes highlighting the library-based book arts programs at Dartmouth College, Wellesley College, and the University of Richmond based on conversations with the directors of those three programs. Within these brief overviews, I have attempted to bring attention to aspects that are unique to each program while describing creative projects and/or the programming central to their operation within academic libraries and higher education.


    [1] Lauf, Cornelia, and Clive Phillpot. Artist-Author: Contemporary Artists' Books. 31. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1998.

    [2] Rolling, James Haywood. “A Paradigm Analysis of Arts-Based Research and Implications for Education.” Studies in Art Education. Routledge, n.d. doi:10.1080/00393541.2010.11518795. If you are unfamiliar with arts-based research methodologies, this is a nice place to start. As an artist practitioner-educator, I find an enormous amount of value in the work that has been written on arts-based research and its implications for creative scholarly communication.

    [3] “The Press at CC.” Colorado College, April 1, 2021.  “Red Butte Press.” Red Butte Press - Marriott Library - the University of Utah, January 4, 2020.

    [4] Clark, Kyle, and Ruffin, Katherine. Book arts in college and university libraries. January 7, 2022. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.

    [5] Clark, Kyle, and Thomas, Jen. Book arts in college and university libraries. December 16, 2021. Personal interview conducted over Zoom.


    Kyle Anthony Clark is an artist and educator living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kyle works at the University of Michigan Library’s conservation laboratory and as an instructor in the Book Arts Studio. Kyle maintains an independent practice and teaches courses and workshops on artists’ books, bookbinding, letterpress, and papermaking.

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