Hello hello. What follows is an article from JAB 46. It is the last article I will ever contribute to the journal as the double issue of JAB 47/48 will be the last published, at least in its current iteration. Next month I'll head to Chicago to say goodbye to a very successful run of a significant field specific publication. Follow the link below to order your own copy of JAB. 46 has many artists' books included within the issue. But honestly, every issue has a lot to offer. The last two will be remarkable.
I've been proud to be an advisory board member for a decade or so. Enjoy.
In 2004 I was putting my MA to use as acting director for a ceramics department at a small college in suburban Kansas City. My family’s move there had been fast. Our priority was for a home that needed no work; we had a toddler in tow and a baby on the way. We lived there two years. During the national election cycle we felt isolated by the abundant pro-Bush yard signs in our neighborhood. Election night, as the results became clear, we agreed to get the hell out of Missouri.
One of our considerations for a move was to land in a blue state with an MFA program that I was excited about. As an undergrad I’d majored in both art and literature. I always had my eyes out for work that mixed writing with art. In particular publishing projects that combined the two. During a stint as a gallery director in Nebraska I’d attended my first artist book (AB) exhibition. The ideas in the show were compelling but I was underwhelmed by the execution. Forming an opinion put me on a slow path to attempting my own AB. Later, as I was starting my MA, a friend (Jamie Lou Thome, MFA ‘00) told me she intended to study book arts at a newly minted MFA program in Chicago. So by the time George W started his second term, I had applied to the Center for Book and Paper Arts (CBPA) at Columbia College Chicago.
INTERDISCIPLINARITY IS NOT AN ACTUAL WORD
Early in the summer of 2005 and as part of my application process Andrea Peterson, primary instructor of the papermaking program at the time, interviewed me by phone. We discussed my portfolio and experience. She explained a bit about the initial intentions at the founding of CBPA; the establishment of an exhibition space for book arts, educators who were working artists teaching those who might one day teach, and an AB publishing component. Two things have stuck with me from that conversation 1) the assertion there was an active artist book publishing venture called Epicenter and that my experience as a production printer might make me an asset therein. 2) Andrea explained CBPA was part of the Interdisciplinary Arts Department which included a Media program. She put a lot of weight behind this question: “How would you define interdisciplinary?” I gave some middle-of-the-road response, certain not to offend. Andrea shared how important the concept was and gave examples of recent thesis work that demonstrated an interdisciplinary approach. I was left uncertain exactly how the term was being applied, but also excited by the grab bag of approaches she described. We said our good byes. A couple weeks later I received a call from Suzanne Cohan-Lange the retiring Chair of InterArts and a founder of CBPA. She congratulated me and welcomed me to grad school. Later I was told the call was her last act related to the incoming MFA class.
In hindsight I understand that interdisciplinarity was a key academic argument CBPA hung its hat on in order to offer an MA initially and later an MFA. But it was more than that. It was a philosophy of creative cooperation in a supportive community. Making a book by hand is a long process with many stages and several craft areas that require understanding and proficiency if not mastery. To conceive, design, and produce a book - a working knowledge of these processes helps an artist maintain authorial control throughout; and to better understand the range of expressive possibilities at every stage of production. I suppose that a concentration in each stage of book production is a kind of interdisciplinary endeavor. Or maybe it is simply an expression of the normal way the academy tends to divide and subdivide every activity down to the most granular distinction possible. If that’s the case, CBPA’s act of interdisciplinary evangelism was mostly the recombining of things that need not have been separated in the first place. But, in my experience, it was not a cynical semantic sleight of hand meant to place academic credence where it wasn’t deserved. Instead, it was a well-intentioned attempt to define something ephemeral but wholesome. Perhaps creative openheartedness is the most generous phrase I can wrap around it like a hug or warm scarf against the Chicago wind.
After spending time in the program and attending several MFA exhibitions I began to understand that interdisciplinary was primarily defined as a book displayed as a projection or video. It was a natural outgrowth of InterArts’ interest in the stepsiblings of Media and Book Arts learning to play nice together. Conveniently, it was a good working strategy for addressing how one displays a small object, packed with content both visual and textural, within a modern gallery space. That plus a general interest in/panic about what the future of the haptic book might be in an increasingly digital world. No question, the use of digital technology in books is a rich area of academic research and a potentially powerful expressive tool.
In practice though, there was such encouragement to utilize technology that a book doing what books do best in an intimate and human-scale way often felt like an inadequate solution. Not the intention I’m sure, but a side effect of the evolving attempt to define the program as something more than a collection of Chicago-centric Book Arts craft studios; instead as a nationally significant AB program with an emphasis on conceptualization of the book as a powerful voice within the fine arts.
I also quickly discovered Epicenter was an aspirational concept more than an active publishing venture. After producing one beautiful object it seemed to be on pause while considering what should come next. Without it’s publishing leg, CBPA was a lopsided stool. Perhaps Epicenter was taking the same breath the entire program was holding the year my class arrived. Institutions are always fluid, and as I started my MFA, CBPA was defining itself anew in the absence of it’s longtime, much-loved, fierce champion and innovative den mother Suzanne Cohan-Lang and in the presence of its new director of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts in Book and Paper Clifton Meador.
STUDENT DEFINED EXPERIENCE
Instructors and facilities are important in an MFA program. But the single most important and largely unknowable variable is the dynamics of the students you share the experience with. In that regard I was unusually fortunate. A graduate degree in book arts is unique. The students usually have a wide range of undergraduate experiences. Often there is a mix of print makers, graphic designers, photographers, and people from various craft areas like ceramics and fibers. One might also find a poet, maybe a sculptor, an art historian with a creative bent, and rarely even a scientist or a librarian. This leads to a certain amount of re-invention of the book arts wheel in the first year of the program. As they say, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and certainly there is a great deal of recapitulation required to push into richer creative soil. This circumstance requires students with humor and humility, ambition and skill, and most of all curiosity and an interest in the success of others.
At CBPA the studios were overwhelmingly wonderful. The papermaking studio was vast. The bindery had everything one needed to produce an edition of sewn flat back blank books or an elaborately embellished leather-bound tome, and the letterpress studio was the most amazing gathering of presses and type I had ever seen. Stepping into these studios was liberating and intoxicating for someone who was anxious to redefine their creative practice.
The instructors were knowledgeable and passionate. By the end of my first year I realized my past visual work and my past publishing efforts were not only related but part of the same body of work. With Audrey Niffenegger I explored the relationship between written and visual narrative in the context of book structure. Clifton Meador helped me dig into work and concepts from the canon of ABs. Doro Boehme at the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was an amazing resource and provided the most remarkable art historical classroom experience I’ve ever had. Melissa Jay Craig’s total commitment to an interdisciplinary and subversive art practice defined what the CBPA spirit was and demonstrated the term teaching artist in a powerful way. Jenny Magnus taught me to keep breathing, to write for the voice, and the healing power of foul language. Brad Freeman was hired as the Studio Coordinator and his presence was an immediate asset, in part because he jumpstarted Epicenter by continuing his production of JAB (the Journal of Artists' Books) at CBPA. As a longtime practitioner in the field of artists’ books Brad carried the history in his bones. Mostly his total commitment to the breadth of iterations of the art form was evident to any student who made the effort to engage him. In discussions with Brad I came to understand my love of esoteric and experimental literature had a close relationship to the history of the artist book. In short, during my time at CBPA I was ready to hear and put to good use exactly what the instructors and the situation offered.
I would have been incapable of finding my way to thesis without the synergy and community, the critiques, perspectives, and innovative examples of the remarkable group of students I entered the program with. There was an indefinable alchemy in the swirl of influences brought together in that time, in that place, and among those people for which I will be forever grateful.
THE TEN-YEAR RULE
I’ve heard it argued that one can observe an artist’s mature work by taking stock of the production ten years after graduate school. The working theory being that one can milk, stretch, and ride the basic thrust of one’s thesis for many years. But when that has run its course, one must make artwork independent of the demands of a degree program. Of course, this assumes most artists have an academic history and even suggests a graduate degree is required to become a mature artist. If you can set that aside, it is as good a touchstone as any.
My MFA class graduated (primarily) in 2008. During my MFA studies I chose to focus on producing books driven by original narratives, sequential text was the engine intended to drive the viewer from one page spread to the next. I noticed something: original writing is present in many ABs but a life as a writer is rarely discussed as an outcome of an MFA in book arts. That seemed wrong to me. It was a missed opportunity. I idealistically set out, as I so often do, to forge a new path as a novelist after leaving CBPA; partially as a way to prove it could be done.
Those who choose to participate define a professional field. Taking that as a self-imposed mandate, I waded into the field of artist books in any way I could. Making my own work and having it placed in collections through my book dealers (bless them) was my initial effort. I also wrote articles, reviews, and interviews for JAB. With my classmate Stephen DeSantis I planned and organized the first comprehensive alumni exhibition for CBPA, and organized an artist book reading at the Joan Flasch in conjunction with the Southern Graphics Council annual conference. I presented papers at both the College Book Arts Association and the College Art Association national conferences. I was a visiting artist at Columbia College Chicago and at SAIC. But most ambitiously, I wrote a novel, found a literary agent, and a publisher. I wrote a second and third novel. Recently, I have begun my fourth novel, a studio is actively seeking funding to produce an independent movie from the adaptation of my first book, a TV series is being considered from a pilot I co-wrote based on my second novel, and a senior editor at major publisher is waiting for my newest manuscript.
More than ten years out from the Center for Book and Paper Arts and I’m comfortable thinking of myself as a novelist. Or more specifically as an artist who writes. In the first semester of my MFA, after a good class critique, Audrey Niffenegger said, “You know your own creative process.” A simple statement that in context gave me permission to make what I want to make. It was not a prescription to adhere to a plan. It was an endorsement that lack of a plan was a fine way to live in the arts because it is through the process of doing that work manifests, and it is through the living that life is defined.
In the end, my MFA experience at CBPA was flawed, stressful, painful, and messy. It was exactly what I needed. It was not perfect. But what is?
Monday, February 24, 2020
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