I made my first handmade book in college. I took a great, year-long course at Brown taught by the artist Walter Feldman that was half of the year paper-making, half of the year book-making. We had the use of the John Hay Rare Books library, just next door to the art building, and we made books in editions of three or more. I concentrated in my art major on printmaking, and so this theme of multiples in my work begins here. Learning to repeat something that interests me, to see where it leads, began with that printmaking practice and the creation of multiples. I made paper with symbolic content to it, like fibers from my mother's nightgown, dried flowers from her room, and then experimented too with things like coffee grounds, tea staining, lots of sentimental ephemera. Most of the paper I made was white, and I still have a lot of it today.
Bookmaking in the course was formal, and I don't love the books I made in the class. They looked like most handmade books you see at a fancy store, elegant and formal. I did make a final piece which I still value: a sagey green book box, with two smaller booklets inside. One side had a floral handmade paper and photographs of my deceased grandmother, who died when my mothers was five years old. On the other side were delicate reproductions of her medical papers, describing her cancer, her visits, and her autopsy.
After college, I made and sketched in journals, and began making very experimental books out of things like bed sheet pages, with wool blanket covers, one book with blank pages whose covers were made from a journal whose pages had all been pasted together and were illegible, inspired by the way traditional book board is made.
I've always loved papers: collecting them into groupings by color, folding them, piercing them, dipping and staining them, and of course drawing on them. So many of these books explore and share paper. They are generally not for writing in, not for reading, not for using really at all. They are just little nuggets or facts in and of themselves, and I still value them immensely.
I enjoy the work of making a book, and I have a box that has book materials in it: the wax for waxing the book thread, stacks of papers and half finished projects, things that would work as book board, etc. My recent books have been to formalize the Death Book project, by making books from the papers of my dear friend Ron who died last March, and my grandmother who died in 2005. The two books are very different, in part reflecting the different scope of material I had for each. My grandmother's papers range all over the place, all her studies, her journal entries, letters and lists. Ron's papers almost all relate to courses he took and independent studies of Buddhist writings and practices.
These books exist in multiples of maybe one or two. I made one smaller one of my grandmother's materials, but it has yet to get a cover. I also have another book in progress, made from the pink tissue paper backings of a whole series of plastic gloves, an old way of packaging them. The plastic gloves are attached and they are quite something. I have also made books out of carbon paper, paper towel, junk mail, old insurance papers, books of unused tickets, and similar.
I have been to the North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End, where bookmaking as a craft is extremely exacting, alongside the craft of building violins, guitars and fine furniture. This is not my grade of book, and I'm relieved to say so. I don't know if I would have made any of these books if they had had to be perfect. I am glad they exist. It's funny to me that I then went out and made self and other published books - artist books of a different sort, and that these have become central to what I share in the world. These larger scale production books can be shared much more easily and affordably, handled by everyone, and reproduced easily and yet it's nice to share here the other end of the spectrum of book I have made.
I’m fascinated by the trash cans in artist’s studios. They often have a rare level of truly disgusting filth in them, and usually some rotting yogurt or something too. Why, you might ask, is there a higher level of disgusting to many an artist’s trash can than others household or office trash cans? My theory is that artist’s use everything that could be used, scrap paper, things we’ve pulled out of other people’s trash (Hey! this is a perfectly good piece of foam/tupperware container/colorful piece of string!), sawdust, iron filings…and too, many of us are really tired at the end of a day, and so taking out the trash is generally not something I do very often unless its stinking or nothing more can be added to it due to being overfull. That last part is an exaggeration and I do know some extremely fastidious artists. Also, many studios have mice, or other small vermin and so some artist’s do not have the luxury of leaving their trash lying around. Also, about the yogurt, many artist studios don’t have sinks, and so there can be a pain in the butt factor to properly rinsing something out, that, at the end of your work day you can’t be bothered with.
Anyway, it’s often a unique kind of messy, the inside of an artist’s trashcan. Take a peek on your next studio visit occasion, or look at your own trash a little closer. Look in the trash of many households or offices, and you will see the commonplace items like dental floss, q tips, unwanted notes and packaging.
When there is a lot of one thing: plastic bread tags, rubberbands, tiny dots of hole punch litter, and other discards, both kids and artist’s take notice.
There’s a kind of abundance to something collecting, and it becomes a kind of texture or pattern that can capture the creative imagination. Likely, I’m overlaying my own worldview onto other artists when that’s probably not the case for many. And probably, I’m more of a lazy slob than most. Some people may only allow into their studio the highest quality materials and someone else takes out their trash. Others might only work with plants, or single objects, but this is my theory about artist’s trashcans.
As for me, there’s always been a desire to reuse what I already have, to make a new discovery in an unlikely place, and to work with what’s already around. I do this with the Death Books and my other handmade artist’s books, I did this when I made Help me [ ], do the thing. from bits of other art projects, when I collage, make most kinds of sculptures like the Three Variables series and Offering Shelf.
Back when I lived in the North East, I used to visit New York, and in New York, my friend David X Levine, in his mid town tiny studio, where I would flip through his lovely collection of black books containing his drawings. We did several trades, and I have a lovely collection of his drawings as a result.
I liked his system, and I learned a lot from his system of barter as well. Bartering is one of the true abundances of being an artist. If someone likes my work, which is certainly not a given but has often been the case, we can often trade services for artwork and it's a win win all around. If there's a mutual fan club going on with a fellow artist, we are often abundant in works to trade. Sometimes, people do not want to barter, and this is always important to fully accept before you even propose it.
When it is a Yes for you both, how to barter is not always clear. And for any kind of studio event, how to share your work on paper with people where it is unframed and keep it in good condition is a real concern.
From David I learned that the black books with plastic sleeves allows someone to really go through your work, and select their favorites, while keeping the works safe from oils and spills. I have grouped work by year or by series in these books. I love to know what work people love because I learn about them, about the work, and it gives me some good information for a time when they might get a gift from me. The worst thing is receiving a gift of artwork that you don't like! What a waste for everybody. So I like to be able to mark pages with sticky notes to help me remember who likes what (this sounds so organized, but then I throw out the notes and it all goes to shit, but I try).
Barter is also a delicate matter because you don't want to trade just anything, and if someone can just pick anything, it would be a disaster if you weren't ready to part with that particular piece, or it was of greater value to you than what you were getting in return. David's system was to have the person pick their five favorites out of whatever selection you were open to bartering for. Then you remove two that you'd rather keep from their selection of five. They then remove one of the three remaining as their least favorite of those three. Which leaves two. Usually, by this point, one of the pieces is crying out as the one: Pick me!! The one that is meant for this person. At this point, in other words, the work selects itself, or one of you makes the move. This way, we've learned a lot, played a little selection game, and gradually, come up with the win win barter choice. Everyone goes away smiling.
So the black books is a way to facilitate this exchange while keeping your work nice and clean. You can also use cellophane protection sleeves, or just a good pair of clean gloves.
One word of caution about the black books: if you buy them used, or reuse them, be sure that they didn't have charcoal or pastel works in them prior, because then you get that crap on your pristine works.
Recently, I decided to reconsider everything by emptying these books, the work in them has gotten a little mixed up and some of it needs to be considered afresh, and inventoried. So now the work is organized and these books stand ready to refill.
What's your system, barter story, question or thought? Please share in the comments, it's much more fun with your contributions.
I've been trying to put my finger on something since my return from the Colorado River last week. It was a short trip. Hard even to recall and yet it's left an imprint that moves like a sun spot - always on the periphery of what's going on, but here still, adjusting everything in a way I can't yet place.
While there on the river, one thing presented after the next: floating, climbing, eating, chatting, hauling, organizing, snacking, getting ready for and floating out of the next or last rapid, covering up, cooling down in the water, caring for eyes in the dry hot wind, playing werewolf in the dark with eight people whose names I mastered just as I bid them goodbye. And the whole time trying actually to arrive.
We stopped at many bright and sacred oases, hidden waterfalls and water pools, places where ancient Puebloans left the mark of concentric circles or stored their grain way up high. Each of us rested on a warm rock in the shade, watched the glowing walls change as we floated up to, by and past their silence and specific set of magnificent scars.
I was rarely alone - normally I am alone more than half of the day. There I sat only a handful of times in solitude. The time I sketched canyon walls in the ninety degree blue white moonlit dark, too bright to sleep in. The times, each of them, when I was easily an early bird, rising before others to stand at river edge, or look out from the privacy of the 'adventure toilet', or to follow the hide and seek of a dawn bird call. The last time was in Deer Creek Canyon, sitting, awed by the height we'd climbed up over the waterfall, to the oasis behind and above it: cottonwood trees, carved pools, the sense of a thin flat plane of water appearing to flow uphill, the surprise of a place you didn't expect, and the overwhelming presence of grief love: when one's home in another has gone beyond one's physical reach, accepting the time had come for them or you to leap the ledge.
There and finally in Flagstaff when I shut the door to the hotel bathroom, were the moments I registered being alone, outside of the itinerary, the patter of family, short term plans and passerby, the flowing by of scenery unlike the familiar touchstones of my home address and agenda.
The main takeaway: This all slips by. It can't be held. It's vaster than can be comprehended or discovered, it's sometimes floating, sometimes shocking with cold or challenging with a heart-pounding climb. You can't stop it and yet it is saturated with tenderness, an intimacy that you already and ever are, that soft sand suggests and the small circle of a blowing weed traces in it. Just this is yours for just right now.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.