a conversation with Wendy Vardaman 2/27/16
This interview series talks to Wisconsin and Midwest-based book and letterpress artists about their relation to the handmade, its appeal in our digitally centered culture, the significance in their print work of texture, textiles, and text, and their relation, positive or not, to tech.
I spoke to Ann Engelman from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, about her interest in and knowledge of regional book arts communities. Engelman has also been active in the Friends of Lorine Niedecker Society and founded Fort Atkinson’s Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival. She is the force behind the arresting poetry wall in Fort Atkinson, an impressive example of placemaking through word design. Fort Atkinson is a poetry destination because of Niedecker, and the poetry wall makes for one more reason to stop and to enjoy this small town.
Engelman says, “I have always, always loved books. My parents tell me my first words were, ‘Read da book.’ There is a quote from Eudora Welty that sums me up: ‘I can’t remember a time when I was not in love with them; with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with the smell and the weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.’”
She generously answered my questions about Southern Wisconsin’s communities of book artists and her own interest in artist books.
Tell me about your involvement with the poetry wall in Fort Atkinson.
“I suggested that specific downtown wall and got in touch with the owner who agreed.
My friend Cynthia had the idea. I suggested that specific downtown wall and got in touch with the owner. The wall was a mess.
I think Cynthia wrote a grant to the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation and I wrote a grant to the Wisconsin Arts Council.
The artist was given several quotes to think about and chose this one.
The artist chose the Grandmother’s Typewriter font and paint colors from a stash in his garage. Part of the charm is that it is ok if it weathers. It has been refreshed once. The owner commitment was for five years which is long past. At some point I suppose, if the building got sold it could be painted over. That would be ok too. . .there would be a lot of conversation. Then, we would just do another one.
It has become quite the iconic place for Graduation, Family and Wedding photos -in front of the “My Life” words.
It was one of my favorite projects. I love to watch people looking at it while waiting for the stop light.
What does “artist book” mean to you?
My definition of “artist book” is very broad. It does not need to open and close or be a rectangle. An artist that defines work as an artist book has chosen the art form. The interpretation is up to the artist. Usually “artist book” indicates a story or implies content (words, images or both) understandable or not. Artist books usually have colophons [a statement about the book and its publication] which are often as important as the work or indicates the inspiration behind its creation.
For me it is an opportunity to marry art, words, paper and beauty from many sources into a form I love.
How did you get interested in artist books? How long have you been making artist books?
I became vaguely aware of artist books 16 years ago. The journey to become a book artist was gradual. I was living in Chicago at the time and felt inclined to collect beauty. I began to create scrap books full of beautiful pictures and series of beautiful elements. We moved to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, in 2001, and I became interested in poet Lorine Niedecker. In 2003 I was at a Quaker retreat center that offered a very large art studio and a mentor who introduced me to several handmade book forms. I married my interest in books and poetry with a Lorine Niedecker series of artist books. That was my start. The next step, for me, was critical. I took a class with artist JoAnna Poehlman. Friend Sally and I went to see the Bay View Books Arts Gallery in Milwaukee. (Sadly no longer there.) We were so inspired that we came home and started our own artist book group, Art of the Book, which met for the next five years.
What do you do for work? How common is it for makers of artist books to sell their work and do you aspire to do that or not?
I am retired. My career was in Public Television. I have always taken art classes throughout my life.
I don’t know very many artists that define themselves as book artists. Some do sell their work, especially those that have been doing it for a long time. I have the luxury to create artist books for myself or friends. Currently I do not sell my work.
Tell me about some of your recent projects. How long does it take to make an artist book? Is there a typical process?
I recently joined the Artist Book group in Madison, the Bonefolders. (A basic folding or creasing tool used in making books.) They did a holiday exchange of artist books 2 by 2 inches. I was inspired by a vintage print “The Night Before Christmas” and created a “A Vintage Christmas Puzzle.” I created an accordion book structure with pockets placing the pieces in the pockets. The first pocket holds a clue to the puzzle.
I am currently working on a book with the theme “15.”
[Ed. note: “15” is complete and will be part of the Bone Folder’s Guild 15th anniversary show in December 2016 at the Overture Center, Madison. The book open is 15 inches square, and there are 15 pages. Watch a short video of “15,” below.]
My process generally falls into two camps. The first is an “Ah Ha” moment and the book comes together very quickly, an afternoon to a week. The second is an idea which is turned and turned and mentally engineered (sometimes months) then comes together in a week or two.
Are you primarily interested in images and/or words in these projects? Do you have preferred materials?
It depends on the project. I do both, alone and together. I enjoy making paste paper using wheat paste, paint and archival papers. It reminds me of glorified finger painting. I use various tools to manipulate the paint and colors.
What do you like most about artist books? Least?
I like best the wide variety of interpretations of an artist book. I enjoy discovering surprises that are sometimes included in the structures. I enjoy letting the content wash over me as it will.
Least, is the difficulty of display. Many books have multiple pages, pages that overlap or have hidden pockets. They are best experienced in a tactile way not just viewed. In fact, just viewing one side often eliminates a large majority of an artist book. In an exhibit setting it is often difficult to balance the public’s experience with touching the books with the hope that the books will not become damaged in the process.
Do you ever work on artist books collaboratively? If so how does that work?
I enjoy collaborations but have not done one for several years. A group of artists, generally, determine a theme and structure or size. Each artist creates pages or elements for the book. Sometimes, so each collaborator can have a finished book, copies of pages are made, further embellishments are often added creating unique books out of the collaboration.
I have two favorite collaborations—the “2×2 Chunky Love Book” and the Paper Doll book.
In “Chunky Love Book,” eleven artists designed pages two inches square around the theme of love. Eleven copies were made of each page. (Copy machines are very good these days.) The artist retained their original. Sometimes artists created more than one original to trade. Each book went into a large spiral binding making it chunky.
In ” The Paper Doll Book,” seven artists came around a theme “Every woman should. . .” that included several precepts. “Every woman should know how to fall in love without losing herself.” “Every woman should have a set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill and a lacy black bra.”
Each artist took two of the statements and designed a fashion to be placed on the same paper doll form. Each artist created an accordion book which allowed the display to be more sculptural than book-ish.
What’s your background in art/design/writing/textiles if any? Have you tried letterpress or other types of printing?
I have experience with all of the above. I have taken art classes throughout my life and continue to do so. At one point I began a two-year degree program in Graphic Design but did not finish due to a move. Most important to me is my design experience. I am a part of Leslee Nelson’s Memory Cloth Circle that meets weekly. I embroider vintage fabrics, mostly hankies. At some point, those might become an artist’ book.
I had access to a letterpress printer in a semester class and also at the Hamilton Woodtype Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Letterpress is a favorite but access to a press is difficult. I have used relief printing and etching in my work.
What kinds of support/resources are available in Wisconsin and beyond for doing these projects and what advice would you have for someone just getting started? [eds. note: The Center for Printing Arts at Madison College offers semester long classes in letterpress as well as screenprinting.]
There are excellent, accessible and affordable books on the subject. The Kohler Art Library located at the Chazen has an excellent collection. Books may be seen by calling for an appointment. There are classes through the University of Wisconsin Extension – Continuing Education. Minnesota Center for Book Arts has classes. There are tutorials on YouTube.
To get started, begin to make copies of the book forms you especially like. Most books have instructions. Talk to someone who creates artist books. A book artist friend loaned me her collection of models. I spent the rest of the winter making my own models of book forms. I can now refer to those models as needed.
Being part of a group that regularly creates books is helpful but not always possible. Finding at least one other person who is interested creates a synergy for exploration.
Do you have any advice for building from one kind of project to another or learning about new techniques?
Finding other artists or wanna-be artists is helpful for creating momentum for various projects as well as finding or building project opportunities. There are often calls for art show submissions or themed projects looking for art. Or create your own project by partnering with a library, gallery or public display space.
New techniques are often learned when there is a need to create a unique book or communicate content in a different way or with a different medium. Classes are often a good way to start. If there is not a class offered, find a teacher who is willing to work with you or you and other artists.
Who are your favorite book artists and what/who inspires you?
JoAnna Poehlman, Hedi Kyle, and Susan Messer are my favorite book artists.
I am inspired by looking at other book artists work, poetry, my own papers, quotes about books and beauty in its many forms.
Some people are experimenting with what I’d consider a digital equivalent of an artist book, not an “e-book” or something you read, but more of an interactive experience that unfolds digitally, either as an app or a website. Can you imagine the projects translating to a digital format, or would that defeat the purpose or be beside the point for you?
This is a very exciting idea. “Unfolding digitally” would offer opportunities to share content in new ways. A digital artist book would be defined by the artist. I don’t have computer skills that many artists use, but the options are endless. Some of the early video games might be considered artists books. “Myst” comes to mind.
- Some digital projects could potentially start with paper and be scanned back into the digital book.
- An app might show you a blank piece of paper and allow you to choose a valley or mountain fold, paper color, image or text from the app library.
- Zines are a book form that has great possibility for an app. The complicated layout on a single sheet could be set up in advance by the app, and you would digitally embellish, then print, fold or cut.
- An app for designing your own paper.
Personally I would miss tactile textures and manipulations of paper, folds and forms, but suspect playing at a digital book would fold new ideas, for me, back into handmade books.
About Ann Engelman: I have been involved in the arts all my life. My mother was an artist in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a radical feminist and still is pushing her own artistic envelope. Creativity was encouraged. I began with textiles and was eventually drawn to artist books where many materials, texts and techniques were explored. I am returning to textiles.
My career has been in Pubic Television Programming in Washington D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin. Projects included the creation of portalwisconsin.org and Executive Producer of “Independent Eye” a series supporting independent filmmakers. I am a passionate supporter of Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, lorineniedecker.org. My pro bono work included founding an after school community arts center for children in a diverse neighborhood in Chicago. I consider myself a patron of the arts, especially local artists.