Sparking the Explosion: Perspectives on the Artist’s Book Format by LSU Art Faculty

On October 24th, LSU Libraries Special Collections hosted “Afternoon in the Archives: Book Arts” in conjunction with the “Exploding the Codex: Book Arts in Special Collections” exhibition now open in Hill Memorial Library. The work of three of LSU’s Art and Design faculty, Leslie Koptcho, Paul Dean and Kelli Scott Kelley, were featured among the many works on display from the Rare Book Collection. It is unusual for viewers to be able to speak directly with artists and delve deeper into the inspiration for and process of making art, no matter what form the art takes.  As LSU is fortunate to have all three of these artists on campus, I took the opportunity to ask each one six questions about their work, their thoughts on the book format, and other books artists that inspire them.

*Paul Dean, Associate Professor – Art/Graphic Design

Six Stereocollages (seven, if you count the cover)

1. What is it about the book format that appeals to you as an artist?
Growing up I always appreciated books and literature. At one point I took a year off from America and travelled around the world reading books. I felt a connection to a larger humanity through my experiences and especially through the books I read. Books are very personal and intimate, but at the same time they are a connection to all of history and humanity.

2. What inspired you to create this piece?
I had recently published Stereobook, a book composed entirely of text and illustrations I had xeroxed off of old phonographic records.  I couldn’t stop working with my materials, though. I wanted to do even more with them, and so I made these six stereocollages.

3. What did you enjoy most about the process of constructing this piece?
Because I no longer felt the pressure I had put on myself to make Stereobook, I was relaxed as I made the collages and brought them together in this book. I worked whimsically and Six Stereocollages probably suggests the joy I felt as I discovered the original material better than Stereobook.

4. What limitations or constraints did you encounter/perceive?
I was limited by what I could print with a photocopier and then produce by hand. At that time there were no color photocopiers, but some copiers could print in blue or red instead of black. I threw in a little red because I thought it would better match the warm cardstock of the cover.

5. What other artists’ books have you created/plan to create?
The most ambitious artist’s book that I have made since Stereobook is entitled CMYK. It was a promotional piece for a printer.

6. Are there any artists’ books/book artists that inspire you?  If so, what is that you admire about their work?
Long ago I really admired Tom Phillips’ books and his process, especially his use of second-hand materials. And I’ve been greatly inspired by an art book that I own by Shinro Ohtake. It’s called Atlanta 1945+50, and it pushes collage and collage books far further than I thought they could go.

*Kelli Scott Kelley, Professor – Art/ Painting and Drawing

Accalia and the Swamp Monster

1. What is it about the book format that appeals to you as an artist?
I didn’t set out to make an artist’s book. The imagery in my paintings had been dreamlike, symbolic and metaphorical. Though narrative in nature, the pieces were not based on stories.

2. What inspired you to create this piece?
In 2009 I became interested exploring the idea of making a body of work based on a narrative text, and began writing a fantastical story based on my autobiography and dreams. By 2010 I had a draft of the story Accalia and the Swamp Monster, and started the process of making artworks inspired by the story. I started exhibiting some of the pieces that year, and found that viewers were interested in hearing and reading the story, so I started contemplating ways in which the story and artwork images could be paired. Eventually I worked with LSU Press to make Accalia and the Swamp Monster into a book bringing the artworks and narrative text together.

3. What did you enjoy most about the process of constructing this piece?
Unexpectedly I became enrapt in the process of writing the story. While writing, I visualized images, which later evolved into paintings. It was exciting to make my work in a new way, starting with a narrative text.

4. What limitations or constraints did you encounter/perceive?
Since I was working with a publisher, it was a collaborative process. Even though I didn’t work independently to design the book, I was consulted on every decision and was happy with the final product.

5. What other artist’s books have you created/plan to create?
I wrote another story “The Floating Cottage,” and created a large painting (of the same name) for a touring exhibit “Mythologies Louisianaises,” which opened at Arthur Roger Gallery in 2018. I also have a draft of a story that has grown from “Accalia and the Swamp Monster.” In this case I created a group of paintings which unexpectedly inspired the narrative text. This project is still underway.

6. Are there any artists’ books/book artists that inspire you? If so, what is that you admire about their work?
I am inspired by many narrative artists, from old masters such as Hieronymus Bosch to contemporary artists like Paula Rego. As far as artists’ books, Max Ernst’s strange and dark collage novels, especially A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, have been meaningful for me. I also love the surreal artworks and books by Leonora Carrington, such as her novel The Hearing Trumpet.

*Leslie Koptcho, Professor – Art/Printmaking

Falling Into

1. What is it about the book format that appeals to you as an artist?
The book format is appealing to me primarily because of its physicality. It offers a unique sensory experience, one where the reader can touch, turn, explore and feel. I’m also attracted to its collaborative nature—multiple voices co-existing within one work. The artist’s book is an amazing crucible for interdisciplinary inquiry, and sometimes, the perfect “package” for an artist’s idea—one that extends expressive, performative and/or informational functions.

2. What inspired you to create this piece?
I created Falling Into in collaboration with Ray Gonzalez and Rod Mills. At its inception, I had recently moved to San Antonio, TX, and was keen to learn more about the people and place I then called home. My original thought was to work with a woman poet from the area; I wrote Ray Gonzalez, a poet and then-director of the Guadeloupe Cultural Arts Center to ask for his suggestions. “How about me?” he replied; and that’s how the journey of Falling Into began. Almost immediately I realized I’d found a kindred voice; Ray, attuned to working with poetry and language; me, fully immersed in the visual. More importantly, our work at the time was intimately tied to family, and to the physical and spiritual body.

3. What did you enjoy most about the process of constructing this piece?
What I most enjoyed about the process was how the project evolved organically. The one requisite I insisted on was that neither Ray nor I would illustrate the other’s work; rather, we would respond to the other’s work, with the aim of co-creating our poems and images interdependently. To do this, we exchanged pamphlets: Ray wrote a poem and shared it with me; I drew an image and shared it with him; and so on until we came up with the framework of poems and images that would become Falling Into. From here, Mills and I created what we eventually referred to as the “wailing wall.” Here we pinned the ongoing drafts and sketches for the project, which allowed us to see the work as a whole while we fine-tuned the elements, positioning and repositioning pieces of visual imagery and text.

4. What limitations or constraints did you encounter/perceive?
The choice of intaglio printing was particularly difficult. Because I wanted the images to bleed the pages to make reading/viewing a more seamless experience, that made registering the color plates much more troublesome. We had to devise a unique system for all the colors to be in alignment. Another challenge was locating a commercial black paper for the end pages, which turned out to be impossible. In the end, we used intaglio to print three colors to make the same “black” to match the other prints in Falling Into.

5. What other artists’ books have you created/plan to create?
The main thrust of my art practice is printmaking, but I’m also enamored by paper—not only as a support, but as an active contributor to the content of the work. My students and I have been making paper out of locally sourced plant fibers and have made some interesting hand-formed sheets. I’m interested in creating several new books that bring together my research of plant fibers with my own imagery, which is focused on the natural world. My hope is the unique qualities of the paper, as well as the structure of the book, will add to the tactility and physicality I enjoy. Paper is like skin, and I am imagining this analogy will transfer to the artist books I have in mind.

Creating an artist’s book is creating an entire body of work within one single artwork. It requires a great deal of time and support.

6. Are there any artists’ books/book artists that inspire you?  If so, what is that you admire about their work?
Ever since my first visits to LSU Libraries Special Collections, the work of both Claire van Vliet and Julie Chen have been very inspirational. Both enlist impeccable letterpress craft. Claire’s work is noteworthy for the beautiful use of paper and pulp painting. With both artists, I am enthralled with the complexity of both the object, and the reading experience they create.

Handling the Flying Fish Press titles spurred me to invite Julie Chen to the LSU campus this semester. Her two days of talks and workshop were highly successful in motivating our students to appreciate and create more book art, a form which defies a single definition or interpretation. Julie’s work is about learning and decision making, qualities inherent in discovery and learning.

There is another book that comes to mind, and that is Black Sea Letter, which is a Ron King, Circle Press book by Claude Loubiéres and poet Kenneth White. The verse is printed in French and English, with hot wax creating transparent letterforms that contrast with the opacity of other parts of the pages.

There are so many exceptional examples of contemporary and historical works that classify as rare books. Many of the historical manuscripts, scientific texts, and botanicals also fuel my interest. LSU Libraries Special Collections is a gem in and of itself. It serves a critical and irreplaceable mission in support of my print, paper and book art classes.

Marty Miller is the Art & Design Librarian at LSU Libraries.

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