On my desk are 50 sheets of card stock, light blue with a subtle white mottle; I’m also using strips of silver Mylar as a wrapping ribbon and larger squares as a base on which to print shimmery, slightly ghosted photos. I’ll enfold these images in grey envelopes that I’m making myself. Beside these are Elmer’s No-Wrinkle Rubber Cement, double-sided Scotch tape, an X-acto knife, an 18-inch metal ruler, a bonded lead No. 2 pencil and a gum eraser. I’ve just loaded a black ink cartridge into my Waterman fountain pen to handwrite a sparse memorial poem over 15 panels, each four inches by four inches, that I’ll then assemble into an accordion fold to create a circular read. It’s an artist’s book. I’m making 10 copies.
What exactly are artists’ books? The definition can slide. Perhaps, in the purest sense, they are books conceived and created, hands on, by artists. They are most often published in limited editions, sometimes signed and numbered. They are concerned with the materiality of the book. Unified in form and content, they are works of art. They can interrogate and stretch the format of the book, moving beyond the normal codex to include boxed sheets, scrolls, decks of cards, irregular shapes, sculptural forms, strange and delightful materials, and even installations, performances and, nowadays, digital works.
The term usually excludes trade publications that feature reproductions of an artist’s work, whether a catalogue or a coffee-table book. Fine printing, as, for example, by letterpress, or exquisite production values, may be part of the project, but these traits alone may not be enough to qualify a publication as an artist’s book. The accomplished American artist, bookmaker and scholar, Johanna Drucker, in her catalogue compendium Druckworks, says: “Most attempts to define an artist’s book which I have encountered are hopelessly flawed – they are either too vague … or too specific.” She says artists’ books “take every possible form, participate in every possible convention of book making, every possible ‘ism’ of mainstream arts and literature, every possible mode of production, every shape, every degree of ephemerality or archival durability.”
With my project, it’s not the definition that interests me. Rather, it’s the faint vanilla smell of the paper; the razor-slice of the blade; the smooth and pebbled textures as I trim and fold; the glue that sticks my fingers together; the crawl of ink that shapes the text; and, finally, the rubbery crumbs I brush away as I erase the penciled guide lines that keep my phrases straight. For the 30 or so hours it takes to create Vigil, the words, the book and I are one.
Steven Ross, "Vigil"
Steven Ross Smith’s artist’s book, Vigil, a memorial poem dedicated to his father, is part of Travelling Exhibition, a project organized by German artist Manuela Büchting.
I made this book early this year, but the practice of artists making books has a long history. Often cited as the premier antecedent is Songs of Innocence and Experience, which was handwritten, illustrated, coloured and bound by William Blake and his wife, Catherine, in 1789. A wave of artists’ books built in the early 20th century through the influence of art movements such as Russian and Italian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, and – according to Drucker’s scholarship – more recent developments such as Fluxus, Pop art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, the women’s art movement and postmodernism, as well as music and performance art.
Canadian publishers and artists have been active in the field since the 1960s. While book art has a strong tradition in the visual arts, equally vital is the cross-disciplinary contribution of literary artists, sometimes working with designers and visual artists. Or, often, individual writers simply extend a solo writing act into book making. This is a logical link, as the book is most often the primary product of a writer’s work. And small-format chapbooks – often handmade – have been a literary staple for years.
As the volume of artists’ books grew, specialized bookstores, usually run by artists, began to appear. In Toronto, Art Metropole, a non-profit focused on artist-made publications, was founded in 1974 by the art collective General Idea. It’s still active today. As well, major collections are housed at the libraries of both Emily Carr University in Vancouver, with about 1,200 artists’ books, and the Banff Centre, which holds 4,000 titles.
It was at the Banff Centre, where I worked as the director of literary arts from 2008 to 2014, that I met a young German book artist and curator, Manuela Büchting. She had become familiar with my poetry and my earlier book-making projects, and, in 2014, invited me to contribute to her project, Travelling Exhibition. It includes 30 artists, all working in the four-by-four format, under her imprint DeerPress.
Don Taylor, "21 Travelling Exhibition"
Artist’s book by Toronto bookbinder Don Taylor, part of Travelling Exhibition, a project organized by Manuela Büchting
Büchting began making books and paper objects as a child. A bookwork is “always meant to contain the moment, to become a memory in the future,” she says. “There is something really beautiful about the material paper, sometimes very translucent, sometimes thick and irresistible.” Travelling Exhibition aims to connect German and Canadian artists, bridging two worlds, one with a long tradition and “one that feels open-minded and free to me,” says Büchting. Vigil is part of that project, along with contributions from Alberta’s Lisa Borin and Vancouver artist Leanne Johnson, who publishes as leannej, among others..
It’s challenging and ultimately random to cite just a few influential artists’ books. But notable ones certainly include the Moscow poet Aleksei Kruchenykh’s 1916 Universal War, which integrates hand-written text, expressive lithographs and collage elements. Another is by German artist Dieter Roth, who made about 50 copies of Literature Sausage between 1961 and 1970 by grinding up existing books and adding fat, gelatin, water and spices. He then stuffed the mixture into sausage skins. Definitely books, but reprocessed and unreadable.
There’s also the oft-noted Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations. Made by American artist Ed Ruscha in 1963, it features photographs of gas stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, and was distributed in those very gas stations. But perhaps the most famous is Yoko Ono’s 1964 conceptual book, Grapefruit, a bound edition of event scores that, as with musical scores, offers instructions for potential actions. She produced 500 copies that originally sold for $6 each.
While Canada is a newer contributor to the field, it has a strong output. One early entry was grOnk – not a book per se, but a hands-on literary magazine with an artists’ book sensibility, founded in 1967 by poet bpNichol and others. It focused, among other things, on concrete poetry, where meaning is transmitted through typography and other visual devices. grOnk published over 100 issues in a variety of formats and bindings, with images, drawings and typed or handwritten texts.
Vincent Trasov, "Mr. Peanut," circa 1970's
Vincent Trasov’s Mr. Peanut flip book was created more than 40 years ago.
In 1969, Toronto’s Coach House Books published the Mr. Peanut flip book by artist Vincent Trasov. Coach House also released Canadian poet Steve McCaffery’s monumental text explosion, Carnival, in 1973. Several years later, Toronto’s Underwhich Editions began publishing limited editions of handmade books, including artists such as Patricia Beatty, David Bolduc and Rosalind Goss, as well as poets Gerry Shikatani and Kristjana Gunnars.
More recently, JackPine Press of Saskatoon has published some 60 handmade, limited edition and, most often, collaborative books at the overlap of literary and visual art. Their books, which can sell out quickly, are often hand-stitched or off-size, and use special papers, ribbons, cutouts, unusual foldings and sometimes even string, nails, buttons or twigs.
Mari-Lou and Tammy Lu, "Transforium"
Writer Mari-Lou Rowley and visual artist Tammy Lu, both of Saskatoon, teamed up to produce Transforium, a 16-page artists’ book published by JackPine Press.
For instance, Transforium, by writer Mari-Lou Rowley and visual artist Tammy Lu, both of Saskatoon, requires people to unfold it, integrating hand and eye as they look and read, discovering the book’s architecture along the way.
Shanda Stefanson's "Picking Apart the Stitches"
Spoken word poet Shanda Stefanson's "Picking Apart the Stitches"
A new JackPine publication is spoken-word poet Shanda Stefanson’s Picking Apart the Stitches, in an edition of 75 copies. Its cover is made from an old stage curtain from Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre, and its title banner is machine embroidered. Inner text is printed on treeless paper.
Tara Bryan's, "Jack!"
Jack! is Newfoundland artist Tara Bryan’s jack-in-the box book. It features relief prints, nursery rhymes, sea shanties and other poems.
Walking Bird Press is the imprint of Newfoundland artist Tara Bryan. With over 30 titles and broadsides since 1997, it takes book art to a high level. For instance, Down the Rabbit Hole is a tunnel book featuring text from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s made with string, textured paper, cardboard stock, centre-cut pages and a wooden handle. Lifting the handle releases a tunnel of spiraling text that recedes down the ‘hole.’ Meanwhile, another book, Jack! – as in the box – springs to life as you lift its lid. It features nursery rhymes and sea shanties along with linocuts and woodcuts, all on white paper folded like a concertina. Bryan’s other books embrace fabric, thread, painting, shipping tags and off-size pages, offering a gorgeous and inventive panoply.
Lest one think these books are simply some kind of narcissistic fringe activity, consider the annual Vancouver Art/Book Fair, which runs Oct. 17 and Oct. 18. Presented by the non-profit group, Project Space, and housed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, this festival of artists’ publishing will feature nearly 100 local, national and international publishers, as well as a diverse line-up of programs, performances and installations. Some 3,000 visitors are expected.
While artists’ books have their seeds in critique, resistance and anti-establishment modes, and in production practices that are personal and intimate, they have become potent enough to command institutional regard. The proliferation of publications and publishers has spawned specialist academic programs, notably the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago. As the largest book-and-paper teaching institution in the United States, it offers instruction and practice in letterpress, bookbinding, papermaking and artists’ books. In Canada, several institutions offer courses in book arts, including the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, NSCAD University in Halifax, and Toronto’s OCAD University.
David Clark Still
David Clark created 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (To Be Played with the Left Hand), a hyperlinked digital narrative.
While tactile and sensory qualities historically have been vital to artists’ books, some artists are shifting the form beyond paper, still as makers, but with digital tools. Over four years – 2004 to 2008 – David Clark, an associate professor at NSCAD University in Halifax, created 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (To Be Played with the Left Hand). It’s a hyperlinked digital narrative that plays out with words, images, music and voice, allowing visitors to create their own paths through on-screen constellations. The work is edifying, associative, humorous and full of visual puns.
Canadian artist J.R. Carpenter, now living in Britain, makes digital stories featuring maps, images and unfolding or scrolling verbal narratives. She invents and programs her own pieces, including the recent Once Upon a Tide, with its ever-changing sentences. Her pieces are often journey stories, both literal and digital multi-dimensional adventures.
The field continues to grow, with artists’ books becoming more complex and more inventive. Drucker, writing in The Century of Artists’ Books, notes the books “really are the quintessential 20th-century art form, one obviously fated to continue into the next century ... rare, affordable, unique or banal, books are a major staple of the art world – as yet uncanonized and marginal, but omnipresent.”
Is it these qualities that attract me? Perhaps they’re part of it. But mostly it’s the appeal of making that sends my mind drifting to my next foray into the possibilities and limitations of the book, and the irresistible allure of shaping word, image and paper with my imagination and my hands.
By Steven Ross Smith
Some publishers of artists’ books to check out:
´Wild Hawthorn Press and Moschatel Press, both of Scotland
´Something Else Press, the imprint of Fluxus artist Dick Higgins
´Calgary poet Derek Beaulieu’s No Press
´Siglio Press in Los Angeles
´Room 302 Books in Ottawa
´Chax Press in Texas
´Granary Books in New York
a few notable artists’ books:
´General Idea’s Generi©, a red-and-gold foldout micro-foil balloon inscribed with a brief cautionary text, was published in 1992.
´Diagrammatica, by Californian Jaye Fishel, is an accordion foldout with minimal binary texts rendered feminist and political, and printed over images of vaginas. An edition of 50 was published by Bull Horn Press, of San Francisco, in 2011.
´Vancouver writer Baco Ohama’s lovely 1997 memoir, Chirashi: Stories from the Garden, features pictures and texts about the artist’s efforts to learn Japanese. It has a spacious layout, pink tissue endpapers and a hand-sewn binding.
´52 Transactions is Victoria curator and educator Kathy Slade’s 2007 conceptual rendering of receipts for the books she borrowed over a year from the Vancouver Public Library.