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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.

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

    There is a prevalence of infographics about artists' books. Infographics that display an inheritance from dematerialized/conceptual art; infographics that describe and demarcate the field of artists’ books; infographics that fulfill the need to communicate about a medium that is both spatial and time-based; infographics that function to teach bookbinding and letterpress printing (book arts). Why are there so many infographics about artists’ books? What do they tell us about or offer to the field of book arts?

    Is this unique to artists’ books? Are we in a field obsessed with defining itself? And what we might learn by surveying them?

    In order to answer some of the preliminary questions we looked at a set of example infographics and attempted to organize them according to "circles of meaning." Being that infographics are spatial, playful, and reductive, we agreed to start with mimicry in order to better understand how they function.

    In terms of data visualization, the relationship between the bookbinding worksheet and a manual for machinery is that both are pragmatic and a sort of meta-publication. Maybe this connection is related to design practices. Design practices stem (partly) from necessity (the need to organize and plot out on paper where to print, fold, bind when there are so many planes of existence in a book format), but also include the artistic impulse to visually manifest an abstract idea or emotion. It’s possible that these book arts infographics are a result of the artistic/design impulse to create a visual, as well as practical, guide for a field that has its foundations in an existing form or medium (the book). The inherent interdisciplinarity of artists’ books and its conception/metaphorization as a “field” or a zone of intersection lends itself to spatial representation, and, the ongoing concern with self-definition and self-examination continues to produce infographics in this vein.

    We evaluated the sample infographics and placed them into 3 large categories: Materiality/Process; Conceptual Organization/Subject Matter; Artist’s Intention/Audience.
    The resulting diagram brings up a few key ideas:

    1. artists' books are interdisciplinary, so it makes sense that the liminal spaces and boundaries will be important (even if they aren't represented)

    2. the point of a structuralist exercise might be to see the limits of discourse, i.e., what positions in the graphic ought to be populated and, if they aren't, what (social or material) factors are preventing them from being populated? 

    3. if the infographics are indeed reductive, how has that affected the field's self-conception?

    We propose using this Venn diagram to gauge infographics about book arts in the same way we would use those book arts infographics to gauge the bookishness of art or the artiness of books. Maybe this infographic becomes a way to talk about the types of critical theory and language used when discussing book arts and brings up larger ideas about the gaps. It will be interesting to see how people plot the various infographics on the structure we’ve created; we anticipate that some will be straightforward and others will be controversial. For example, Smith's conceptual books could be all about artist's intent and thus about artist/audience...but of course that is inherently contrasted to materiality and process, etc.

    In the spirit of book arts as an experiential art form, we would like to take this opportunity to ask the reader to participate in this exercise by deciding where each of the linked diagrams might fit. 

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

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director of Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

  • 15 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    James Joyce’s final book Finnegans Wake is simultaneously the most resistant and the most generous artwork that exists. 

    Resistant because although Joyce said that he could justify everything within it, this circular linguistic extravaganza remains labyrinthine, intransigent, and largely impenetrable to anyone approaching it (exactly, I think, how Joyce wanted it, overflowing as it is with riddles and inventions, and cross-historical and instantaneous perambulations). 

    Generous because it is continuously inviting us into its expansive, ubiquitous, and welcoming sui generis existence (this process, as Ovid and Giambattista Vico and Nature itself inform us, has to be continuous because that is the way the world effortlessly and insistently and without cease reprocesses and recreates and repossesses itself). (And what do artists do except reprocess, recreate, and repossess?) 

    I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake for about 45 years and still have a long way to go.

    Some years ago I decided to annotate the book for myself, and to draw upon (both drink from and decorate), and to disrupt it – sticking my inquisitive nose where it wanted to go, intertwining my meandering musings with its body, and jabbing it with marks and colours (and various found objects, including the whole range of bodily fluids and humours) as I saw fit and as I hoped would fit. 

    Yoking together my twinning interests in the illustrative and the intellectual, the verbal and the visual, the pallet and the palette, LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE, my current multi-year artwork, is a way for me to have some fun with the book that Joyce spent 17 years building.

    The tree outside my window is a simple place to start. Covid-bound as I am, it’s often the first and last thing I see. In the midst of my own idiosyncratic glossings – I integrate the research of various guidebooks (my knowledge of Persian, Rhaeto-Romanic, and Shelta is pretty shaky, to say nothing of my familiarity with the artificial language Volapük) and then embroider the text with my own specific amusements – I’ve painted and depicted various versions of this tree onto the pages. 

    The roots and the trunk and the crotches and the branches: trees can take on an uplifting amount of words and weight. I jigsaw as I go, fitting a few letters or words here and there, crafting the edges just so, making room for the thing to breath, and then trying to prevent myself from following my natural horror vacui instincts.   

    So is my artwork an artist’s book? At the end of my project (if such a thing will or should exist) I’ll have one copy of 628 pages of words and colours. But some of the originals are already being dispersed, so the entirety of LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE may never be entire. If I think too much about that, I begin to tire. So I just keep marking the time.

    Who knows what an artist’s book is? Do I know? I’ve always been partial to Marcel Duchamp: “It’s an artist’s book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is.”

    Peter O’Brien’s most recent book, Dream Visions: The Art of Alanis Obomsawin, was published in October 2021 by Viggo Mortensen / Perceval Press. His next book, Love & Let Go, will appear in March 2022. He has been working on LOTS OF FUN WITH FINNEGANS WAKE for about six years. More on the project:

  • 01 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The new publication Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History opens with a self-confident and self-aggrandizing flourish. On its website and within its first two issues (mid-2020 and mid-2021) it gives us various introductions of itself. 

    “Journals,” it says, “work the minor miracle of being both item and series: the pearl, and the string of pearls. Here at Inscription we aim for the mobility of the seventeenth-century pamphlet, the intellectual rigour of the monograph, the walk-through-wonder of the art gallery, and that delighted dance between form and content.”

    The beginning of the new journal, Inscription

    Inscription looks us in the eyes, earnestly, and informs us that it is intoning the multimedia magazine Aspen (1965-71), and the Vorticist, two-issue magazine Blast (1914-15). It speaks to us with a learned lilt to tell us that it is “an exciting new publication featuring work by practitioners – book artists, printmakers and writers – alongside academic discussion. Its focus is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces, and the processes of mark-making in the widest possible sense: from hand-press printing to vapour trails in the sky; from engraved stones to digital text.”

    And once more, with academic feeling, Inscription tells us it is “both a journal of cutting-edge research and a playful and innovative multimedia artefact.”

    So how is it on the fulfillment side of this promising serial ledger?

    The issues are supersized and expensive – so much so that no physical copies were made available by the journal for review. I had to depend on my MacBook Air and my iPhone, which along with iPads will be how most people access the journal. Neither of my devices provided a compelling or even a pleasant reading / viewing experience. 

    The opening piece of the enterprise is “On Stone,” by Serena Smith, a poetical essay on lithography that wanders back and forth through time. At play here, says Smith, is “the virtuality of duration, its tangible inscription, and the substrate of lithography stone, in an operation that brings together worlds of geology, autobiography, technology, and writing.” Smith writes with informed sensitivity about the marks made by history and hands. She’s working, after all, with objects that have the “capacity to ignite latent memory.”

    In the first issue we also have an intriguing essay on epitaphs in 18th-century England by Rebecca Bullard, which documents the idiosyncratic metamorphoses that have come down to us on monuments, in manuscripts, and impressed onto paper. And there’s a searching and touching essay on skin / parchment / inscriptions by Kathryn James. 

    I found some of the offerings, in particular “The Work as Will: Roland Barthes Reading Group,” rather pedestrian. Not Barthes – he is seldom pedestrian, except when he wants to be – but these fleeting fragments of commentary didn’t add much to my reading or to the pages of the journal. 

    The first issue is printed dos-à-dos, and with each spread on a slightly different rotational axis than the previous one. The format did add to my reading experience, but only to its frustration. I’ve got perfectly serviceable electronic devices, but I have no desire to tilt my damn laptop at a different angle to read each different page. 

    I would suggest to the editors a bit less “look at us!” dos-à-dos cleverness, and a bit more of a musical “Do Si Do,” or at least more “do / see / do” going forward. 

    Inscription 2 was easier to read on a screen (no rotating text!) and had stronger graphic material, although this time we get a series of PDFs rather than a complete one (which causes its own ponderous sequential challenges). 

    Fionna Banner, Full Stop

    Among the insightful pleasures for me in the second issue is the piece on organic and spontaneous library wormholes by Dianna Frid, Carla Nappi and Ian Truelove; the gushing, watery hole on the cover by Fionna Banner (who issued herself an ISBN in 2009 and registered herself as a publication: “a sort of self-portrait as a book,” as she says); and Christian Bök’s maelstrom soundscapes “The Oracle at the End of Time” and “Afterthoughts in the Void.” 

    I was prepared to make use of Inscription to get closer to Carolyn Thompson’s piece “The Beast in Me,” but I was unable to capture it from the Inscription website. I did eventually find the piece on Thompson’s own website, and its circular, tumultuous love is certainly worth a wider audience. 

    Some of the concerns I had with Inscription 1 are still evident in number 2. Co-editor Gill Partington introduces Erica Baum’s artwork “Piano Rolls” with the words “strange and compelling,” “subtle reconstruction that seems to elicit new possibilities of meaning,” and “an enigmatic kind of visual poetry.” I like Baum’s work, but do I need my hand held by Partington quite so firmly, quite so insistently, quite so helpfully? Please: let the work read and be and show itself. 

    Of passing interest to me was “Cigar Burn Apertures” by David Bellingham. I was intrigued that he describes at some length his art-making talents, but does not reference Antonin Artaud’s crazed, cigarette-burnt magic spells. 

    Carolyn Thompson, The Beast in Me (detail)

    One thing about Aspen: the contents of the gathered pieces complemented the forms in which they were presented. There was engagement and wit and newness and playfulness. I would be delighted for Inscription to meet or at least approach its own lofty ambitions. No thematic topic has yet been mentioned for issue number 3, which will begin to take shape in early 2022. Here’s a suggestion: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

    Peter O’Brien edited the journal Rubicon, which included interviews with Margaret Atwood and Mavis Gallant, poems by Eavan Boland, and artwork by Ann Hamilton. His books include Cleopatra at the Breakfast Table (about studying Latin with his daughter) and Dream Visions: The Art of Alanis Obomsawin, published in 2021 by Viggo Mortensen / Perceval Press. 

  • 15 Nov 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For several years I taught a graduate Book Art seminar at Mills College that met several times a semester. These classes grew out of a full-semester grad seminar, The Material Book, that I taught for many years. Students in that class asked that the work of the material book seminar be extended beyond one semester (the first semester of their two-year MFA in Book Art studies) in order to continue to discuss the issues that came up in their first fall of study. [You can read a bit more background in my Book Art Theory blog post “[Im]material specifics: Zooming through the pandemic,” March 1, 2021.]

    The main seminar focused on the theoretical, conceptual and historical study of the book as a material object. The three semesters of follow-up seminars continued those studies, but the nature of the projects for these seminars shifted from completed projects to rough outlines of ideas. These proof of concept projects generally were set as response to reading we were doing in the seminar, although other prompts (artist talks, a video, an article in the newspaper) could also apply. 

    Usually the prompts were simple:

    Read: Magali Rabasa, “Radical Politics and Organic Books in Latin America [1].

    Project: Make an organic book that takes into account the principles around the ways print books create community and a space for radical politics.

    Occasionally they were more detailed:

    Read: Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy and Book from the Ground [2].

    Xu Bing describes his iconic work, Book from the Sky, as ‘a paradox full of contradictions’ [p. 176]. He adds further contrasts: solemn yet absurd, external appearance vs. internal “essence.” Referring to the texts as characters denies the function of his pictorial forms; calling the work a book fails to recognize that it doesn’t qualify as one. There is an emergence of hyper-realism and abstraction, another point of possible tension.

    Using at least one of these areas of contrast as a point of departure, make a book that signals one of more of these sets of contradictions. Feel free to challenge Xu Bing’s ideas about his own work if you would like. And of course you can also work with his “doubts and sense of alarm about existing forms of writing.”

    The books that the prompts called for were meant to be not finished pieces, but drafts. I was always mindful of how much work the students were undertaking in the studios, and usually there was at least one student who was preparing for their thesis exhibition. What the students brought to the classes were rough to very rough mockups, with enough detail (perhaps one page spread filled in if the book were meant to be in page spreads) that we could grasp what they were trying to do and make comments on the concept. 

    Of course sometimes the results were not at all what I expected. One of the prompts was based on Kurt Johannessen’s Shine [3]. Johannessen is a Norwegian artist whose work is highly conceptual and often interacts with the nature of light. I consider Shine one of his most intriguing books. In it are fourteen photographic portraits printed in a glossy white ink on a white background so that the pages appear empty at first glance. You read the portraits by changing the way the light hits the pages.  The portraits are not identified, but they appear to be possibly friends or family members. What I see are portraits that are almost ethereal, as if I were somehow glimpsing into their disembodied selves. What the students saw were fourteen white portraits of fourteen white people. It was impossible for them to separate the lack of diversity in the portraits from the conceptual backbone of the book, which led to some scintillating discussion.

    Time after time, the students came up with striking concepts that were eminently workable as fully realized books. Since there was no time for them to realize these works, the projects became placeholders for future investigation. Many students expressed excitement in the idea that they would have at least one conceptual framework to develop into a finished work once they graduated. The projects became a bridge into the future, a material presence that offered life, and art, after grad school, with some initial critique already thrown in.

    [1] In The Book Club of California Quarterly, vol. LXXXV, no. 4, Fall 2020.

    [2] In Marshall Weber, ed., Freedom of the Presses: Artists’ books in the twenty-first century. Booklyn, 2018.

    [3] Kurt Johannessen, Shine. Zeth Forlag, 2006.

    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College. Her research interests focus on the history of women and printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. In 2022 her exhibition, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, will open at San Francisco Center for the Book. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

  • 31 Oct 2021 9:51 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    When I walked into the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University recently, an installation immediately caught my eye. Ranged along three sides of a large balcony above me were bookcases filled with what looked to be thousands of books bound in bright cloth. As it turns out, there were 6000 books in the exhibition, all wrapped (not bound) in Dutch wax-print fabric. On the spines of some but not all of the books were gold-stamped names in large capital letters, some recognizable (Cameron Diaz, Steve Jobs, Teju Cole, Tiger Woods), some not. The order of the books appeared to be random. I say books, but in fact since they were wrapped we have only the artist Yinka Shonibare’s word about that. The label for this work stated that the names are “first- and second-generation immigrants or their descendants, or those who moved in the Great Migration . . . .”

    The label had a complex explanation about the use of Dutch fabric with its Indonesian batik designs, but no explanation for the books, nor does the website ( even mention the books beyond stating that the covered objects are, in fact, ‘hardback books.’ This must be a critical piece of information for the artist; what should we as viewers make of this? In the absence of seeing what the actual titles are of these books, a hardback book represents more authority than a paperback: We imagine what is printed in it has more value than its paper counterpart. Since we can can’t touch the books, we can only imagine—but we do—their heft and their permanence. What they have to say is clearly irrelevant since we have no access to that information even if we could pick up the objects.

    The artist thought it important to use books as the medium for this particular message, but if I were critiquing this project I would ask, as I have countless times over the decades of my teaching, why the books are there. Sure, stories are told in books, but books as objects also tell their own stories, and if you want to create work that is grounded in the book form, you had better have a clear conceptual pathway toward that making. Otherwise they are merely vehicles, the way, for example, the concept behind Tom Phillips’ iconic altered book project A Humument has circuitously led to legions of books being hacked into fantastic shapes as if they were hunks of soap, or to failed experiments (or ‘artwork’ as Wikipedia labels it) like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

    In my graduate seminars at Mills College we worked mostly with the codex. Alan Loney, whose The Books to Come (Cuneiform Press, 2012) was a staple of those courses, writes that book = codex + text. While I don’t limit the use of the word book to the codex, I do stress that, in its millennium or so of existence, the codex has not exhausted its possibilities. To explore those possibilities we might begin by reading about the page through the eyes of Bonnie Mak (How the Page Matters, University of Toronto Press, 2012). Mak’s examination of the non-verbal elements of the page and their expressive function is a strong jumping-off point, an initial way to understand the page as both a technological device and a holder of the ‘cultural residue’ of authors, scribes, sellers, owners and readers. Pairing Mak’s exploration of the page with Dick Higgins’ brief essay on the book as a ‘container of provocation’ (Dick Higgins, A Book, 1982) provides a broad basis for conceptualizing the book through the lenses of technology (the hide and reveal of page turning), history and art. Close reading of iconic examples of the codex like Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover, Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-six Gasoline Stations and Sol Lewitt’s Four Basic Kinds of Lines and Colour allows students to follow some pathways that artists have taken to explore the form.

    Of course students also did hands-on work to consider the conceptual nature of books. In the next blog post I will describe some of the proof of concept projects that students undertook in the seminars. Had the Shonebare work been available to us, we could have explored that installation through study and practice, perhaps by wrapping and amassing books to test and question the theory behind Shonibare’s approach to his work.

    * When you think about it, that category includes nearly everyone in the U.S. Who, after all, would be left, outside of the indigenous peoples of the land (who are not addressed here)?

    Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College. Her research interests focus on the history of women and printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. In 2022 her exhibition, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, will open at San Francisco Center for the Book. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

  • 15 Oct 2021 1:57 PM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    Exploring where Book Art fits in the broader art world and pushing the boundaries and definitions of Book Art is exactly what we’re here to do. That work is made easier because artist books lend themselves to expanding definitions and context anyway. Book Art situates itself along certain in-betweens – it can’t be placed in the same category as flatworks like much of painting, drawing, and printmaking, but it also isn’t exactly in the same category as more dimensional art like sculpture, ceramics, or even installations. Artist books often borrow visual language from typical 2D and 3D art forms, but a key element that works its way into discussions about books is the element of time. 

    Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan.

    I would argue that a majority of artist books invite time into the equation as a viewer: flips through pages, picks up the book to turn it around and inspect it, unrolls or unfolds or moves the book in other ways. This dimension of time through interaction is not necessarily absent from more two-dimensional art works, but it is not expected of those mediums. Three-dimensional art forms are more likely to encourage an interaction, triggering the additional dimension of time for the work, but even sculptures don’t carry that expectation in their core in the way that books do.

    Mock-up made by Beth Sheehan.

    Time’s role in books becomes more evident when trying to accurately document artist books. To fully capture an artist book, multiple photographs are needed at minimum. I would even argue that a recording of the book being handled is infinitely more preferable, and even then, the recording can hardly compete with interacting with the book yourself.

    Artist’s book by Beth Sheehan, alternate view.

    But this addition of time in Book Art doesn’t place it completely in a time-based artwork category either. Artworks that are typically called Time-Based art are more along the lines of videos, sound art, or performance art. This article by the Guggenheim explains that in addition to dimensions that the artwork may have such as height or width, these works all have the added dimension of a duration. Unlike the works discussed in that article, Book Art again fits just outside of the category because while time is a dimension of most books, duration is not.

    Book Art’s relationship with time feels like its defining factor for me. Each book will ask each viewer for a different amount of time each instance that the viewer interacts with it. It feels to me like the book’s gravity is fluctuating and time is dilating in response, like Einstein’s theory of general relativity (then proven through this cool experiment). The more gravity the book has affecting the viewer, the slower time flows for that viewer when handling the book.

    “Outside of Time” bookish installation by Beth Sheehan.

    This is why artist books don’t have a set duration. The amount of time a viewer spends depends on the amount of pull the book’s gravity has on them. Then, I’m left contemplating ways to increase the gravity of my books and wondering which artist books that I’ve encountered had the most gravity, pulling me in and bending my time.

    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 Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 01 Oct 2021 3:42 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

    To me, repetition is indivisible from book arts. So often, bookbinders are creating multiples of the same book object through editions or within a series. Even in cases where we decide to create a single book, bookmaking still incorporates so much repetition – poking holes for sewing, gluing page after page, making fold after fold.

    In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is punished for his hubris and the punishment befitting him was an eternity of repetition. He was doomed to roll a boulder almost all the way up a hill, just for it to inevitably roll back to the bottom causing him to repeat the process over and over, forever.

    This myth begs the question, is repetition a punishment? And if so, are book artists gluttons for punishment? My answer to this question changes based on where in the bookmaking process I am.

    Image of Beth in a moment of frustration with a book project; a cheeky nod to Ai WeiWei’s Study of Perspective.

    Enjoying the punishment of art making, sacrificing for your artistic practice, and becoming the cliché of the “tortured artist” seems right along the lines of what someone would expect from a maker whose preferred medium is something as labor-intensive as the production of artist books. In fact, the myth of the Tortured Artist is so prevalent for all types of creatives that there have even been scientific studies conducted to research connections between creativity and mood disorders or mental illness. It is far easier to not make art than it is to make art, so deciding to create is a choice that requires a lot of buy-in from the artist. 

    Artist book edition by Beth Sheehan titled Beloved.

    Punishment is much easier to endure with the right motivation, though. Unlike Sisyphus’ boulder rolling, bookmaking is not futile. All the potential struggle and punishment that book artists put themselves through results in something of value – the artist book. This positive outcome then changes the narrative of the effort required. Instead of seeming useless, the work put into producing an edition of artist books becomes a devotion. 

    The value of the end product may provide enough motivation to cause an artist to shift from a state of statis to creation, but it still doesn’t condone repetition. The cost-value does not grow proportionate to the number of books produced, so where is the justification for the added punishment of creating more of the same book?

    Beth’s stack of boxes in progress at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

    Maybe repetition that results in a positive outcome becomes mediation. There have been several scientific studies about the benefits of repetition, including one in 2015 that looked at the act of repeating mantras and the effects that this has on one’s emotions and cognition. The results of that study state, “We demonstrate that the repetitive speech was sufficient to induce a widespread reduction in [blood oxygenated level-dependent] signal compared to resting baseline.” Repeating the mantra had a physiological effect on the participants, calming them down. I wonder if a study about the effects of physical repetition through bookbinding would find a similar result.

    I have heard countless book artists express the feeling that the production side of making their work becomes meditative. There is something so nice about doing tasks that keep our hands busy, but allow our minds to wander. Getting into the rhythm of editioning can be a moment of respite and catharsis in and of itself, ending in the added satisfaction of creating something.

    Edition of books, freshly cased-in by Beth at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

    In lieu of all my speculating, I should instead pose the question to the book arts community. What value do you find in the repetition of book arts?

    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 Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 15 Sep 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The repetition of printing offers consistency—each pass affirms progress through the stack of blank printer’s sheets, and the racked prints exude productivity. In early March 2020, under orders to evacuate the print shop, Emily Tipps and I hurriedly printed the title page and portfolio for the Festschrift for Bill, which I took home to build and disseminate. The project kept my mind and hands committed to progress. Two months later, still isolated from the presses and the people who use them, I shipped the completed portfolio to participants, receiving messages of warm appreciation in return. Connecting with the book arts community in response to the passing of Bill Stuart of  Vamp and Tramp Booksellers was a powerful healing and celebratory opportunity before the pandemic hit, and the impact was exponentially greater once the global grief began to settle in. 

    Feeling debilitated and disconnected, I responded to an open call on social media for Fluffle: a second Tiny Bunny Print Exchange, organized by Lisa Hasegawa and Yuka Petz. The invitation to indulge in furry cuteness also offered the ease of creating on a small scale (20 prints measuring 3”x 4.5”) in any media (not to be more than 40% digitally produced). I completed my edition with what I had at hand—a drawing from a stock image, “printed” pochoir with a carbon paper trace monoprint. The randomly selected prints received in return were a comforting reminder that real people were out there, alive and making. 

    Prints from top left to bottom right by Aimee Rosner, Taylor Cox, Lisa Hasegawa, Ryan Lindburg, Mary Jane Parker, Kiernan Dunn, Kerri Cushman, Rochelle Gandour-Rood, Monica Wiesblott, Yuka Petz, Jessica Peterson, Gabby Cooksey, Jodi Genest, Sara White, Yuri Loudon, Kenny Harrison, Kat Brown, Bill Moody

    In February 2020, Tony Guadagnolo invited me and 63 other SP20 owners to produce a 1920s jazz-themed print as a member of the 20 for 20 SP20 Print Collective. The Collective was formed as the pandemic took root, and the project was actuated “separately together” over the course of the year, with flexible deadlines in response to COVID-19 fallout. Tony kept in touch by emailing early jazz trivia questions and mailing collective T-shirts and printers’ manicules to participants. The following February, I joyfully received the smartly designed portfolio of 20 diverse prints. Simultaneously, I recognized that the critical value was in the collective productivity—being part of a larger whole whose individual members worked in parallel spaces in response to a common call with a shared timeline.  

    Designed by Tony Guadagnolo

    Work by Peter Bushell and Kerri Cushman

    Dan Mayer, the College Book Art Association Southwest Regional Leader, organized a member exchange with the theme of Environment in March 2020. The theme was sufficiently open to consider global or more localized concerns that seemed amplified by the period of intense news-watching and ceiling-staring. I felt connected with other makers in my region, all thinking about place, and repurposed feelings of angst and hopelessness to fuel ideation and printing. 

    Designed by Daniel Mayer

    Print by Karen Zimmermann

    Prints by Aaron Cohick and Amy Thompson

    In November 2020, I received an invitation to participate in the Hope is an Action Print Exchange, organized by Jessica Snow, Kseniya Thomas, and Jenny Wilkson. The genius of the call was in encouraging participants to take action by hoping, something accessible to all, with individual and combined effort. I was struck by the inherent potential of collective problem-solving and the power of connection across geographic as well as political and/or cultural divides. During a period when the world seemed suspended in time, involvement in the project gave structure and meaning to my creative output. 

    Stefanie Dykes sent a spontaneous call to print-action in early January 2021 for the Ethic of Love Portfolio, inspired by bell hooks’s essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” I was propelled by the two-month deadline, the powerful essay, and the knowledge that other printers were making and loving in unison with me. By April, all 25 artists had received a full set of prints, each in a 10” x 5” priority mailer with a window that gave the enclosed exhibition the opportunity to travel and spread the love. 

    See participant list for artists' names

    With the pandemic still raging, I’m grateful to be working on prints for Communities: West 5, organized by Sukha Worob and Andrew Rice, and Habitat, an effort by Mark Ritchie to “bring together” artists and writers to produce collaborative broadsides. The shared goals and deadlines help me prioritize the making—collectively, we are producing timely, innovative work that serves to connect us with one another and our audiences, despite our being distanced.

    Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography (University of Utah) and a BA in English/Philosophy (Boston College). Marnie teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books and other courses for the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is master printer and production manager for the Red Butte Press.

  • 01 Sep 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    On August 18, 2019 a group of scientists gathered at the top of Ok volcano in Iceland. They weren’t there for a research project, but rather a memorial. And they weren’t alone. Among the scientists were mourners who came to remember the now “deceased” glacier Okjökull. Also in attendance: Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir; the Environment Minister, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson; and the former Irish President, Mary Robison. During the ceremony, a plaque was laid carrying a message to the future. 

    Although the “funeral” took place in 2019, Okjökull glacier was declared dead five years earlier. Oddur Sigurdsson, a glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, had been taking photographs of Iceland’s glaciers for some fifty years. As early as 2003, he noticed that on Okjökull the snow was melting before it could fully accumulate. This meant that the glacier was no longer thick enough to stay alive. It was not moving. It was “dead ice.” His theory was confirmed when he visited the glacier in 2014 and found that Okjökull had shrunk to less than 40 meters thick, or the pressure limit which allows the glacier mass to move. Despite enlisting an Icelandic broadcaster to officially report the death of Okjökull, it did not result in much media attention. 

    Several years later, anthropologists from Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, arrived at Okjökull’s remains to embark on what they called the “Un-glacier Tour”—a guided hike to the top of Ok volcano that was “meant to be a reckoning with glacial demise as well as a celebration of glacial life.” The Un-Glacier Tour and a documentary film titled Not Ok described the events of the glacier’s death: melting down from 5.8 square miles to just 0.386 square miles, or 6.6% of its original mass. Inspired by their experience, Howe and Boyer decided to create an official memorial. 

    A bronze plaque cast by Icelandic metal worker Gretar Mar Porvaldsson was laid at Ok volcano. An inscription was written in Icelandic by author and poet Andri Snaer Magnason, along with a translation into English. It read:

    A letter to the future

    Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.

    In the next 200 years all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path.

    This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. 

    Only you know if we did it.

    The text concludes with “415ppm CO2,” the ratio of greenhouse gases on Earth recorded in May 2019.

    When this unique “funeral” for Okjökull was held in August 2019, an artist collective had come together for an unrelated meeting in Reykjavik. Melanie Mowinski and Joseph Ostraff were part of that artist collective and the ceremony at Ok volcano made a deep impact. It inspired them to create another memorial for yet another glacier—Vatnajökull. Vatnajökull is Iceland’s largest glacier, covering approximately eight percent of the country, with an area of more than 3,000 square miles, or about 7,900 km2. Vatnajökull National Park, which encompasses all of Vatnajökull and the extensive surrounding areas, had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site just one month before the funeral for Okjökull. Perhaps this was a preliminary attempt to protect it from the inevitable; Vatnajökull was not yet dead, but as experts have predicted, it likely will be within the next two hundred years. 

    Melanie Mowinski (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and Joseph Ostraff (Brigham Young University) worked together to create “an announcement for a funeral 200 years in the future.” Using material collected in downtown Reykjavik in August 2019, they created a series of collage posters to announce the inevitable death and funeral of Vatnajökull. 

    Twelve sets of posters—two-hundred posters per set, one poster for each year leading up to 2219—were distributed to institutions in the United States and internationally to participate in the performative act of announcing the death of Vatnajökull each year until the actual death of Vatnajökull, or until there is a reversal in the current climatic trend. The Rare Books department at the J. Willard Marriott Library is honored to be the steward of this set, encouraging the creation of conversation and activities about the evolution of environmental health. 

    A version of this post appeared on the Book of the Week blog, hosted by Rare Books at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah. 

    Lyuba Basin is the Rare Books Curator at the J. Willard Marriott Library, at the University of Utah. Prior to completing an MA in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Lyuba was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in English in Argentina. Lyuba is interested in the materiality of the book and its relationship to historical, political, and cultural contexts.

  • 15 Aug 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The tension between size and scale has energized debates in the field of sculpture, but artists’ books have not benefited from a similar examination. Worse, artists’ books have inherited a tangled mess of definitions and conventions from both art and books. In fact, I would argue that artists’ books are so laden with references that size is never just size; it is always scale. The unique ways that size and scale operate in artists’ books has yet to be fully formulated, and this absence limits scholarship and criticism in the field. I cannot provide that new formula here, but I do hope to identify some considerations for artists’ books and demonstrate the limitations of approaches borrowed from other categories of art and books.

    While scale is fluid and subjective, size is a literal, measurable attribute. Yet artists’ books complicate even size. For example, unlike most art, a book’s dimensions are variable. A codex doubles in width when opened, and other structures undergo even more dramatic transformations as they are read. Additionally, books are three-dimensional but also time-based. A long book might be a small one, and vice versa. Some terms borrowed from bibliography – like folio, quarto, octavo – are too loose for contemporary books since they are a matter of format, not size. Other terms are too rigid. For example, distinctions based purely on dimensions, such as the Miniature Book Society’s, ignore the fact that not everything small is a miniature and not all miniatures are small. In other words, miniature is a matter of scale, not size.

    So, if the book world cannot offer what we need, what about the art world? The sculptor Robert Morris said, “the awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s own body size, and the object. Space between the subject and object is implied in such a comparison.” [1] This relational understanding is key for artists’ books since the embodied connection between the subject and object is even stronger in reading than viewing. Morris was reacting against a Modernist conception of sculpture as autonomous, of scaleless objects that existed in relation to themselves rather than their context. Yet even compared to site-specific sculpture, artists’ books are far more determined by their context since they exist in relation to a relatively narrow historical tradition. The difference in size (and scale) between the world’s smallest and largest books pales in comparison to the oeuvre of many sculptors.

    Of course, a difference in scale need not entail a difference in size. Consider two 2 × 3-inch books, one set in 12-point type, the other in 4-point type. Though either would qualify for the Miniature Book Society, I would argue that the book with 12-point type is not necessarily a miniature. Type size is an interesting case since it relates to the subject (the reader) in terms of legibility and to other objects (typographic conventions), but scale often relates to specific objects rather than generalized conventions. For example, Richard Long’s A Walk Past Standing Stones playfully miniaturizes stone stelae in a structure that lets them stand upright like their full-size counterparts. The book is small, but its conventional typography makes it clear that while the stelae are miniature, the book isn’t.

    Whether subject or object, the relationships above are all external – the book and something outside the book. What makes books so complex, however, is that they also enact relationships within themselves, including relations of scale. Artists are drawn to the book form for its ability to juxtapose elements and create tension between a part and the whole it belongs to. This relationality further places books in the realm of scale rather than size, amplified against the backdrop of external references, whether they are inherent like human hands, a matter of convention like trade paperbacks, or particular like the standing stones of Penwith Peninsula. 

    Scale may seem too simple to warrant theoretical or critical attention, but it is especially important in a medium where size is so predetermined. A critic who calls a book intimate just because it is small is not unlike a realtor who calls a studio apartment “cozy.” To move beyond euphemisms and fully understand the intersubjective relationship between a book and its reader, we must attend the inter-objective relationships within and beyond the book.

    [1] Robert Morris, “Objecthood and Reductivism,” in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art In Theory: 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford 1992, p. 831.

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

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