I have taught hundreds of people how to make books. Folded, stitched, and even stuck books have been made under my guidance in school rooms, art college studios, village halls, hospital rehab. suites, commercial company meeting rooms, and at dining room tables, at the very least. Every time I teach a bookbinding workshop there is a sense of wonderment from the participants, a proud moment when they hold the completed book for the first time, and realise what they have made. It’s a good feeling being the facilitator of that experience. Books are one of those objects that carries so much potential; an object that can contain private thoughts, or public rule, but is portable and very cheap to make using very few tools. We bond with books.
I was first taught about Book Art by Les Bicknell of ‘bookness’ fame. He made a studio full of Norfolk kids studying textiles question our preconceived ideas of what a book can be, and I was unique in that group – I saw a future of work that I wanted to make. On my degree course I was taught more practical bookbinding skills, and eventually wrote a 12000 word dissertation on the subject, researching in key collections at the V&A and Manchester Met. as well as interviewing some leading figures of the genre. Books for me at that time fulfilled learning requirements on my design degree while becoming vessels to explore my ‘fine art’ ideas, and this eventually led me to study for the MA in Book Art at Camberwell College of Arts, London. I spent the year investigating a ‘sense of place’ of south London, driven to create a more personal map of my London in contrast to the A-Z map, exploring cinematic flip books, and architecturally inspired structures.
There are tools and skills that are beneficial to know; I was taught by the old boys at London College of Printing, as it was then, how to stitch with curved needles, cover the boards, and press the blocks. More useful to me though was the challenging of how we ‘read’ the book form, how one can be directed by the designer to progress through both visual and structural narratives across pages and along folds. I’ve explored these ideas in many of my limited editions of books I made and exhibited between 1998 and 2008. I’m very proud of this body of work, and I know many people appreciated the pieces. I have work in the Tate collection, the British Library, Manchester Met. to name a few, as well as overseas in collection in America, France and Ireland and within the small world of artists books I became known for the structural book forms I created. Many of my books were inspired by journeys and places I experienced, or events and mindsets I found myself in. A broken elbow falling off a bicycle really did inspire ‘Bloom’ which I describe as the ‘measure of my healing’, as I challenged myself each week to cope with the physical tasks required of printing the book. I have always taken on and enjoyed the challenge of transforming a two-dimensional sheet of paper in to a three-dimensional book structure appropriate for its narrative.
Sadly not many people make a living selling artists books. It frustrated me that I could sell a print for £80 but once I had folded and stitched it in to a complex structure I couldn’t sell it for £20. So strong is our association with art, that if it can be framed and put on a wall it had greater value. I also got fed up with the ‘I can see how she’s made it’ statements as visitors to shows photographed my work without the courtesy to ask, as if I was a learning resource centre, having paid for the pleasure myself. I see now an increase in awareness of book art and hope things have changed in these regards.
I have continued to use the practical and conceptual skills in my public art commissions, with large-scale visual narratives explored as if pages held in my hand. The sequence of toilet doors in a central Colchester public convenience was just that, a story of passing time. My current design practice benefits from my bookbinding skills and visual communication knowledge, as well as my book art thinking in the design of my marketing material, and sample books. I also continue to produce hand printed and stitched notebooks featuring my patterns – Parterre is the latest.
As I pack up my box of tricks ready to teach another fifty students the basics of books let’s hope some of that joy and creative potential is passed on to the next generation, for whatever context they want to think about books in.
If you haven’t seen the new IKEA video about the book book, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOXQo7nURs0