How I got to be a book artist


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How I got to be a book artist

I consider myself a private person and it's very embarrassing to talk about myself. But there are things I have learned as a book artist that I would have liked to have known when I was starting out. So in the hopes that this is of interest to someone new to the book arts, I am going to tell you how I became a book artist and how the book arts became my life's work and my life's passion.

I began making books in the early sixties thanks to Pauline Johnson's book CREATIVE BOOKBINDING and her contribution to the handbook CRAFTS DESIGN. There are some drawbacks to teaching yourself. You have to wait ten years to learn the effect of rubber cement on books: it's not pretty! Looking back at my early books, I'm surprised how, even then, they were pretty unconventional, using stab bindings and origami and concertina folds. My oldest editioned book is from 1967. It's a 34-page mimeographed book with silk screened acetate cover and comb binding. In 1974 my father asked me to design his annual report. I made each section a separate flyer with a different kind of fold. All of the parts fit together in a portfolio.

I was always interested in art, but you know how parents are: they wanted me to have a career I "could fall back on." I earned a degree in public administration and by the 1980's I was a controller for a corporation in New York City. At night and on weekends, I started taking classes at the Center for Book Arts, mostly with Barbara Mauriello. In 1986 I was confident enough to decide to buy a house in the country and devote full time to making books. Alas, as anyone who has owned a house can appreciate, I spent the next three years keeping my job and fixing up the house. I still managed to produce several unique books and a few editioned books. Finally, in 1989, I realized that I had to decide between spending my life improving the house or making books. I chose books. I stopped working on the house, quit my job in New York City and opened Editions, a workshop for producing artist book multiples.

At this point I thought it would be a good idea to get a MFA in the book arts. I wanted to focus on the craft of making books, I wanted a sharper, finished edge to my work, and I thought the degree would help if I wanted to teach sometime in the future. There were not many programs from which to choose. I seriously considered the University of Alabama and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

I took the train down to Alabama and I liked what I saw of the program. I was impressed with the professor who met me, I noticed the dedication of the other students, I liked the narrow focus on traditional bookmaking, and the program had to be the best value around. The University of Alabama was not interested in me, however. At least not enough to follow up my visit with any encouragement. I also have to admit that, as a gay person, I had serious reservations about spending two years in Alabama. Around that time a chain of restaurants in the south (Cracker Barrel) started a well publicized campaign to get rid of any employee, regardless of how well they were doing their job, who they thought was gay. That ended my interest in Alabama.

On the way home I visited the University of the Arts. The print instructor who interviewed me expressed "concern" that I did not have an undergraduate degree in art. She did not hold out much hope for my being accepted. But I was. I got the impression they were more interested in my $10,000, then in making me a better book artist. It didn't matter however, because in order to go, I had to sell my house and I was not able to do that in time. Much later I met Mary Phelan, and if I had met her at the beginning, I probably would have ended up in their program.

I sold my house early the next year. But by then I decided on a different approach to developing my craft. I took an apartment in Hudson, NY. It was on the third floor of an otherwise vacant row house. I had no phone and no doorbell. I would put on good music and work undisturbed from early morning until late at night. One time a friend drove down from Albany. She climbed the fire escape and knocked on the bedroom window to get my attention. But I was too engrossed in making books. I never heard her efforts. After that I left a key near the back door for friends.

For over a year I used the money from selling my house to make editioned books. Making multiple copies of a book guarantees that you learn one technique by repetition before moving on to the next. In 1991 I completed ten editioned books including: WORLD PEACE (a round book that divides into quadrants with each quarter-circle book describing an obstacle to unification: Hunger, Poverty, Intolerance and Ignorance), GRANDMA'S CLOSET (a tunnel book providing a through-the-keyhole peek into grandma's treasure-laden closet), GIFTED (rubber stamped, overlapping concertina folds create 3-D scenes set in a hinged papier-mache gift box. It won a distinguished book award from the Miniature Book Society in 1992) and EMIL'S GARDEN (bas-relief papier-mache pages cast from molds of wood panels I had carved).

During most of this time I took the train to New York City on Thursdays and worked with Barbara Mauriello at the Center for Book Arts. I also continued taking classes and workshops. Over several years I've been able to learn from Hedi Kyle, Keith Smith, Scott McCarney, A G Smith and Julie Chen. By the end of 1991 the money from my house had run out. I remember that a copy of WHATTA PIE at the Park Row Gallery in Chatham sold for $250 on Christmas Eve. Jeff Risley drove to Hudson to bring me the money because he knew how much I needed it. It was the first money I had received in two months.

Early the next year I was able to complete a few more editioned books including DO SIT DOWN (practical advice for the perpetual worry-wort cascades from the seat of a miniature chair) and TOWANGO BASHI (my solution to never having a misspelled word: I made up the language). But, by the spring of 1992, I was several months behind in my rent and I was beyond destitute. I was flat-out, not-a-sign-of-hope-on-the-horizon busted.

I did not want to take a job that would distract me from the progress I was making with my books, so I decided to live out of my car for awhile. The concept was that I would go to another artist's house and collaborate on a book. The incentive for finishing the project was that I'd leave when we were done. The first stop was to be with Wilton Wiggins and Douglas Lee at the Twelfth Night Bindery in Santa Fe. But another opportunity opened up.

Two friends, Catherine Hopkins and Joan Alden, offered to let me stay in the attic of their house in Catskill. It sounds depressing, but it was the best room in the house. The room was large and had lots of light that poured in from windows in the two gables. My work table was in one and I could look down on Main Street. My bed was in the other, and from there I could see where the Catskill Creek flowed into the Hudson River. It was in this magical room that I finished TWISTED (by twisting the covers, the pages automatically advance), OLD RELIABLE SUPPORTS (colorful rubber stamped images with overlays and pop-up surprises, bound with crossed long and link stitches) and MOSAIC (as the pages turn, mosaic tiles move to cover one message and uncover a new one). I lived with Catherine and Joan for seven months and I'm happy to report that we ended the visit as friends!

A while back, when I was still living in Hudson, I met Steve Warren and in early 1993 we moved in together. I was doing a lot better with my books (I had even moved above the poverty line!). By the end of the year we managed to buy our house in Cairo (it's easy to find, in a sea of American flags, it has the only rainbow flag). In 1994 we exchanged vows before witnesses and two years later a new law allowed us to register as domestic partners. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you that it really helps having one member of the family with a regular income. It also helps that he is very supportive. As an example, Steve has put this web page together.

In 1996 I put in a year's work towards a master's degree at Purchase College. The book arts program at Purchase proved to be not as inspiring as I had hoped. Much more rewarding was planning and directing the first Book Arts Jamboree in 1998, and in 1999, being the co-director with Carolyn Chadwick. In 1998 I started Book Central, a mail order company supplying how-to books about the book arts to artists and educators. It was sold to the present owner in 2000. That was the year that Steve and I took off for Mexico. We traveled the country for nine months while Steve worked on his command of Spanish and I made books. We now live in Mt. Vernon, about a half-hour from Manhattan. I'm still making books, planning shows of artist books and teaching an occasional school class or community workshop. There isn't much more to life than being in love, enjoying your work and having a nice home. I am happy and satisfied.