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From the Traditional to the Transformative: Two Approaches to Visual Books

Compiled by Mary Stewart,
Associate Professor of Art, Syracuse University

What is a book?

Sculptor Heidi Lasher-Oakes, working with a dictionary, writes: book: a volume made up of pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers. From the Old English word bok, meaning written document or composition. A composition of what? A composition of information. So then, a book world be a composition of information in such a way that it can be read. But what is that, to read?

read: to comprehend the meaning of something written or printed. to utter aloud to ascertain the intent or mood of. to derive a special meaning from or ascribe a special significance to. to foretell or predict. to comprehend. to study. to learn by reading. to indicate or register to constrain a specific meaning. from Angelo-Saxon raedan, meaning to advise, explain, to read. So, a book seems to be a collection of information composed in such a way:

    -that it can be understood;

    -that the intent or mood of the creator or the special meaning of significance of the information can be discovered;

    -that is can be studied and contemplated, that it can communicate.

What is the connection to printmaking? Printmaking and book arts have been closely associated since the introduction of movable type. Current work with visual books combines traditional approaches to binding, page layout and sequencing with complex concepts and innovative structures. Indeed, contemporary books are often filmic, sculptural or interactive.

This article, designed as an introduction to visual books, is devoted to the work of book conservator Peter Verheyen, and printmaker Nancy Callahan, primarily using their own words. Each provides a unique perspective, based on a personal sense of purpose and rationale for working in this art form.

Peter Verheyen, Conservation Librarian at Syracuse University, speaks.

How did you become interested in books? I first become involved in bookbinding as a work-study student at Johns Hopkins, under the guidance of John Dean, who directed the Preservation Department. Since it was a large department, there were many opportunities to interact with others who were quite skilled. On a semester leave from college I went to Germany to intern in the conservation lab of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum; after finishing college, I embarked on a three-year formal apprenticeship in hand bookbinding in Germany. I also studied book restoration in Switzerland, and worked with some of the finest binders in this country following my return in 1988. What qualities do you value in books? My training and education are very traditional and it is this form of expression which says the most to me. During my apprenticeship I was pushed to work to the highest standards of precision. For me, a book must function and "look" a certain way. Does it open gracefully, are the joints clean, the sewing neat and tight, boards the right thickness for the book; was the material worked well? I seek proportion, a harmony of materials and design, which result in an attractive binding. I experiment structurally and aesthetically, but find myself drawn to simple abstractions which let the materials speak for themselves. Do you see bookarts as a unique field, or is aligned with other fields? Architecture seems most strongly related to bookarts. They actually have a lot in common. Both create vessels, have a very strong aesthetic based on materials, proportions and relationships; both rely heavily on structure. When I look at a book, I see many of the same elements: like a building, all have to work or the structure collapses! What is the relationship between books and computers? Computers offer ways of designing, setting type, and integrating images which were impossible for a an artist working alone. More importantly, they offer new ways to exchange information. I have seen tremendous discussions on matters technical and aesthetic on a bookarts list which I moderate; there are wonderful sites with images and tutorials on the Internet. In many ways, they have brought bookworkers together from around the world.

Name some of your favorite books. In my own work, I am pleased with my binding of Ladislav Hank's Opus Salvenlinus. The structure functions well and the design makes use of the natural quality of the material, in this case, a veiney calf vellum with underpainting. I especially admire the work of Igniatz Wiemeler, a German binder, whose work relies on the natural beauty of the material coupled with very restrained, elegant tooling, often including typographic elements related to the book. And Paul Bonet, a French binder active in the 1920's-30's, made great use of typographic elements, often combined with an Art Deco design, featuring vibrant gold tooling, leather onlays and cut-out boards and relief. How can one best learn about bookarts? A good source is The Guild of Book Workers, which publishes a comprehensive list of study opportunities. And, please visit my books arts homepage at Or send me e-mail at

Nancy Callahan, Assistant Professor of Art at SUNY Oneonta speaks next.

Describe your education/training as a book artist? My training has been both formal and informal. One reason I feel so comfortable working in this field is I have been training for it all my life. My mother was always sewing for the family and I picked up this skill at a very young age. I started drawing on a regular basis when I was five, and I spent hours cutting, gluing and building dimensional forms. The first books I made were constructed when I was in the fourth grade. Then, as an undergraduate student I fell in love with screen printing. My work in print brought me to the field of artists' books twelve years ago. While constructing a three dimensional screen print I was struggling with some technical problems. I wanted to protect the surface of the print during viewing but I did not want it to be stuck under a Plexiglas bonnet isolated from the viewer. And there were storage problems. How could my print fold down flat for shipping and storage, then open up for viewing? I took my first traditional book binding class in hopes of finding the answer. And I did. The answer was I needed to study paper engineering. So I did. Along this journey I thought more about the potential of the book as an art form. Books have the inherent ability to contain multiple layers of sequential and narrative information. You have the ability to reinforce your concept through the selective use of image, text, type, paper, page, structure, and binding. Each element informs the others. By the time I completed my first dimensional pop-up print/book a year later, I was hooked on books as an artistic form. . When I decided to return to school to earn my MFA, I sought out a program that would expand my knowledge of artists' books. That turned out to be Syracuse University where I worked with Don Cortese in the book arts program he had developed in the printmaking department. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have studied different phases of book arts with Keith Smith, Barbara Mauriello, Ruth Lingen, Daniel Kelm, Carol Barton, Shanna Linn, Hedi Kyle, and computer graphics with William Hubschmitt. I am very alert to the innovations in the field of typography, graphic design, computer and print technology. Everything I see and learn seems to feed back into my own work in the field. Do you see book arts as a unique field, or is it aligned with other fields? It is an eclectic field that continually draws energy from a myriad of fine and applied art disciplines. When I teach workshops around the country, I always ask each student to tell me about their background. Early on most of the participants were painters and printmakers. Now I find there are also sculptors, photographers, graphic designers, fiber artists, computer operators, teachers of all kinds and most recently, writers. Each person, grounded in a different discipline, adds their own spin. This synergy is what makes the field of artists' books so dynamic and propels the constant flux. The alluring quality for the individual is you can easily find a comfortable niche for yourself in this field while simultaneously influencing and expanding its perimeters. What is the best approach for printmakers who want to learn book arts? There are very few colleges in the US. where you can receive an advanced degree in book arts: The University of Iowa and University of Alabama are most notable. But you see, that's the beauty of it all! In the absence of a single system, individuals in the US. interested in any aspect of book arts are more likely to learn from many masters: you have the opportunity to pick, choose, and travel. Consequently you become exposed to any number of different influences. I think this is all very healthy and has contributed to the growth of book arts in this country. Some of the best resources are the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY., The For Book Arts and Dieu Donne Papermill in New York City, Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY., Oregon College of Arts and Crafts in Portland, Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina (including the Paper and Book Intensive), Pyramid Atlantic in Maryland, Chicago for Book and Paper Art, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, Minnesota for Book Arts in Minneapolis, and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And, visit Printed Matter in New York City to see mass-produced visual books and go to Granary Books for small edition treasures. What books most influenced you as you learned about this medium? There are three books I study repeatedly. Two are by Keith Smith, Structure of the Visual Book and Text In the Book Format. I still have much to learn from Keith. He had it all sorted out a long time ago; the rest of us are still playing catch-up! The third book is more of a surprise. It is actually a brochure commissioned by a paper company to promote their products. It makes all the right moves. It skillfully combines, visual textures, shapes, colors and motifs. A playful pacing is created by the shape, size and placement of each interactive page. An unexpected visual delight reveals itself on each surface through innovative use of text, image and layout. Skillfully conceived and executed, it exemplifies how powerful all elements of a book can be in communicating a strong, cohesive concept. Having studied these three related books repeatedly over an extended period of time, I am beginning to understanding the many subtle layers of information that can be communicated in one book.

What is the relationship between the computer and the book? I don't see books being replaced by the computer. I recently spent six months in front of a computer screen working on a project. As much as I enjoyed manipulating electronic information on a monitor, I realized I have a basic need to make and hold physical objects in my hands. I see book artists as the saviors of books. Not only have they preserved traditional book techniques and saved equipment from being destroyed, they have made society stop and look at books with a fresh perspective. As a consequence, commercially published books and magazines are becoming more experimental and visually exciting. In many ways, I think books have become more precious because of the proliferation of electronic information. Computer technology has in turn influenced traditional books as well as artist books. When you turn on your computer and retrieve information, you have the flexibility to go in any direction you wish: a non-linear progression is being utilized. Everyone who works their way through the options on the screen will take a slightly different path, therefore arriving at conclusions from different directions. Book artists, commercial book designers and even writers are now challenged to present information utilizing non-linear sequencing of information. To what extent are your books traditional? transformative? innovative? I don't consider my books to be that unusual, but that's probably because I have a broad definition of "book." Most observers would probably say I represent the "lunatic fringe." I admit many of my books might be more accurately described as "sculptural book objects." And some of my books are only books because they are meant to be read in a sequence and they are narrative in nature. For example I made a "book" called Wallpaper. It is a series of twenty-one drawings/prints each 22"X30" installed in the gallery in a row with a small gap between them. It takes up 13 yards of wall space so the viewer has to physically move from one "page" to the next in order to "read" the visual narrative. Some of my other books teeter on a fine line between being books and toys. So what is my definition of book? A container of information that is referential to traditional books in some physical or conceptual way.

I will conclude with a final question for each speaker:

What do you see as the future of bookarts?

Peter Verheyen speaks: I think that the form will continue its evolution and devolution as books continue to grow in popularity among artists. Multi/mixed media will play an ever-greater role, as interactive CD-Rom or Internet based materials, such as hypertext links and animation, add new possibilities. The definition of the book will be stretched to the limit--and in some cases, the audience may become limited to artists. The traditional book as we know it in the form of fine/design bindings may become a footnote, at least on this continent, where getting a traditional apprenticeship will become more difficult and those able to teach the traditional skills die out. Alternative structures will certainly influence traditional binders; and I hope traditional binders will also continue to influence book artists. We still need to maintain and nourish the idea of the traditional book form--there is value in the precision, sensitivity to materials and understanding of structure necessary for good binding. For the idea of the book to survive, we will need to retain some of these qualities, otherwise all book arts may be relegated to the fringes of the art world.

Nancy Callahan speaks: Artists have designed, illustrated and illuminated books for centuries, yet the idea of artists' books--those conceived and produced totally by an artist-- is relatively new. Although there has been a fairly strong book movement in this country for the past twenty-five years, many people are not familiar with the terms artists' book or visual book. Yet there have been several major book art exhibitions around the country in the past few years which have helped to educate the public. And, art collectors are beginning to show a healthy interest in visual books. Several production grants are available for book publication, and there are some indications that artists' books can be effectively mass-marketed: the Griffin and Sabine series is but one example. Steve Clay of Granary Books in New York continues to orchestrate some unique projects, often producing beautiful books which are partly machine printed and partly hand worked by artists

 link to Bonefolder Extras & link to Bonefolder


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