A new guest blog series by TJ Goerlitz
In this series of posts on Book Arts I’d like to share with you the observations I’ve made over the last year and a half I’ve spent as a member of the artist’s cooperative at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. It’s been wonderful working among book artists whose expertise lie in paper making, printing and binding. In this first of three posts I’ll discuss what I’ve picked up in the last year regarding the use of quality materials and the application of skilled craftsmanship that goes into an artist’s book.
Being a self taught artist I have always prided myself on my resourcefulness at using whatever materials were at hand. I take mixed media for what it is – a mash up! I will make stuff out of just about anything as long as it appears to be clean and isn’t too badly beaten up. I am the weirdo at the book center strolling in with a giant wad of grocery bags rolled under my arm or a stack of roughly cut up cereal boxes that I painstakingly transform into printed ATCs.
I keep trying to differentiate between handmade journals, zines, photobooks, sketchbooks and artist books. At the core I’m a mail artist so I tend to identify with junk journals or travel sketchbooks made from things like faded maps. Needless to say it’s been a new world for me exploring artist books and what goes into them.
The number one thing I’ve noticed is how much book artists love paper! They have some kind of romance with it in the way other people do with wine and cheese. They refer to paper by its manufacturer names and they classify it by where it’s from. They buy it in huge sheets and cut it down, but not before bending it every which way and petting it a lot. At first I was shocked at the prices of some of these materials but over time I’ve come to understand them. The prevailing attitude seems to be that much like how we consider fuel for our bodies, they consider fuel for their projects. I’ve observed that what gets “put in” to a project is directly related to what “comes out” of it. As much as I resisted it in the beginning I now realize that when it’s time to make an art book, it’s time to hang up your thrifty pants and go for the good stuff.
Another thing I’ve learned is that many book artists are also paper makers. Some of them grow ingredients or use natural fibers from their life that they cook down and then beat into a pulp. Then they painstakingly pull portions of this pulp through cold vats of water to form sheets with the use of a deckle. They couch these flattened out portions from their deckle onto wet felts which are then squeezed out in a hydraulic press. It’s back breaking wear-your-galoshes kind of work.
I had no idea all the considerations that go into making paper— from the raw materials to the length of time in the beater to keeping the amount of pulp consistent in the vat when pulling sheets. These are the variables at play when it comes to the difference between fluffy soft paper to thin translucent paper.
The added intrigue with handmade paper is the meaning that can be behind it. I’ve seen paper made with hair and fingernail cuttings, from bed sheets, from garden clippings and from clothing. Suddenly discovering that an art book about grandmother’s recipes was actually made from paper that was created with fibers from her favorite apron gives it a whole new dimension. THAT is what makes an art book.
The last observation I’ll share with you in this post is about learning. Knowledge can be obtained many ways; trial and error, reading and researching, online courses, You-Tube videos, internships, or workshops and classes in your area. A pattern I am recognizing with book artists is that they have done a combination of formal learning as well as experimenting on their own. Book artists are extremely disciplined, continually creating work. I watch them share skills and take classes from one another. Even the most skilled of the skilled display a desire to continually grow and develop their work.
I have noticed that book artists seem to know that the first ten of something they make will yield questions and answers they hadn’t expected. There is an expectation for testing and play at the beginning of a new project. One of the big discoveries I’ve made around the book arts center is just how slow and deliberately they work. I have observed people work an entire day and appear to get absolutely nothing done. This is because skilled people are problem solvers. They adjust the press. They change their mind about the ink.
They carve their block a little more. They try a different weight thread or a variation on a stitch. They are actually having results, they are figuring out how NOT to do something. The next time they show up to their project they are one step closer to mastering it.
Book arts seem to be that sweet spot where you stop having frustration when things don’t work out right the first time. It’s the difference between “I’m gonna make something” and “something’s gonna happen here.”
Paper challenge! Here’s my task for you: go find a few pieces of recent junk mail, magazine fall-outs, and take-out menus and put them in a pile. Then go and dig out some wedding invitations, personalized stationery or promotional packets from fancy companies and put samples of that paper in another pile. Now really examine them. How do they feel? Cheap? Fancy? Cold? Warm? How does text and color look on them? Do you see any differences? Let’s start a movement for increasing our paper awareness!
Tip: Part of mastering skills is mastering your tools. Not everybody has access to giant cutting shears, sewing cradles or printing presses but we can figure out ways to make quality projects with everyday tools. Take folding for example: Line up blue painters tape on your self-healing mat exactly where you want your paper. Mark the scoring line with another piece of tape. Lay the paper down and line your ruler along your second set of markings. Score accordingly. Bingo! Now every paper you fold should be done exactly the same way, no measuring!
In printing, the art of lining up things accurately is called registration. If you do your work consistently instead of crazy willy-nilly you are developing good work habits. We will discuss registration in the third post when I share a cool product I’ve fallen in love with.
TJ Goerlitz is a mixed-media artist whose book art will be featured in the premier edition of Incite, Dreams Realized: The Best of Mixed Media to be published by North Light in September 2013. You can find out more about TJ by visiting her website, studiomailbox.com.
You might also enjoy the Book + Art eBook by Dorothy Simpson Krause.
MORE RESOURCES FOR MIXED MEDIA ARTISTS