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Notes from the front lines



This is a long posting, so you may want to skip it.  I won't be offended.

I consider myself a private person and it's very embarassing 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
CREATIVE BOOKBINDING and her contribution to 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
oriental 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 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 she
gave me a tour of the facilities.  The crown jewel was a monstrous
Heildelberg offset press that you needed special authorization and
supervision to use.  I was not imPRESSed because I knew I'd never own a press
like that after I left the school.  But I also saw a roomful of small offset
presses and I was told the room was open 24-hours a day for students to use.
 Now THAT excited me.

In the end, I was accepted, but 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 begining, 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 Twelth 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 are still 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).  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.

I'm still making books and occasionally I teach.  Next year I'll be one of
the teachers at the Paper and Book Intensive.  My workshop is called
"Thinking Editions: Multipy Your Art".  I hope you can come.

That's how I became a book artist.  Now here are some observations:

LEARNING.  It never stops.  I learn by doing, and doing, and doing some more.
 I subscribe to professional publications and I continue to take workshops.
 I try to spend one week out of the year either working with another artist
or collaborating on an editioned book.  I also teach, and there's nothing
like teaching for learning.

PERSONALITY.  When I started, I hoped that people would buy my books because
they were great books.  The fact is, that the more people know about you as a
person, the more likely they are to buy your books.  I suspect this is true
of all artists.  That's why we have openings and that's why we show up at
them.

DEALERS.  I do not sell my books through dealers though I'm honored to have
several as friends.  When I first started selling my books, most dealers
would not give me the time of day (Ted Cronin and the Hellers were
exceptions).  As a result I started building up my own list of buyers and now
I'm able to sell direct to the collectors interested in my work.  After one
of my books was included in the recent show at the Smithsonian I was
attending an opening for another show.  A very prominant dealer rushed up and
said she liked my book and that she had been trying for weeks to meet me.
  Actually, I had been introduced to her at least six times previously.

I think that a dealer who actively promotes your work and sends you regular
checks from sales is worth every cent they collect.  But, there are two
reasons that I no longer sell my books through dealers.  First, most dealers
want to pick and choose which of your books they will sell.  It's what I
would do if I were a dealer.  But, I figure that if I have to promote the
hard-to-sell books myself, I might as well be selling the easy ones too.
 Second, some dealers think that if they sell one of your books a year, they
are doing you a favor.  Depending on the price, I have to sell 10-20 books A
MONTH, I repeat: A MONTH, just to stay above the poverty line.

By not selling through dealers, I can offer my collectors the lowest possible
price.  I also like to know where my books go and who is buying them.  It's
been a wonderful treat to get to know the people who buy my books.  They are
more friends than patrons.  And, of course, I admire their taste in books.

SELLING BOOKS.  Without dealers there is only one way to sell books.  That is
to get it physically in the hands of a collector.  Books are designed to be
seen in motion and nothing comes close to getting the collector's interest
like their picking it up and enjoying it at their own pace.  But this doesn't
just happen.  I'm on the road a lot, attending conferences, workshops, and
openings.  Most important, I follow up leads.  If someone says I should show
my books to so-&-so, I do it.

NEWSLETTERS.  Once collectors learn about me and get to know my work it's a
little easier to sell my books without physically putting a new copy under
their nose.  I put out a newsletter every time I complete several books.  If
I were faster, the newsletter would come out more frequently.  I put out the
newsletter for two years before I made one sale from it. Now, most of my
books are sold through it.   I put a lot of energy and expense into it.  It
costs me $3-4/copy.  It is my one opportunity to tell my collectors why they
should buy my books.  I often include catalogs, postcards, mini-books,
balloons, pins, patterns, reviews and anything else I can dream up to get
their attention and hold their interest.

The list hovers at about 150 addresses.  After every issue I re-evaluate the
list, cutting a few names.  By the next issue I've added several more.  Over
time the quality has improved.  Eventually I'd like to see it at about 200
addresses.

DISCOUNTS.  I do not give discounts--not to anyone.  Well, not really.
 Here's how I reward frequent collectors:  When I bring out a new book I'm
terrified that it won't sell.  So I decide on a price and I deduct a certain
amount, usually around 20%, and offer it to my collectors at this reduced
price for a limited time.  At the end of this time period everyone pays the
regular price.  As the book sells and I have fewer and fewer copies left, the
price tends to rise even more.  So, the way to get a discount is to buy early
and the earlier you buy, the better the "discount".  I think this is a fair
system and it has worked out very well for me.

BOOK SHOWS.  I just returned from the Washington Book Arts Fair.  Susan
Goldman did a terrific job putting it together and Editions sold lots of
books.  We sold enough books under $50 to pay our expenses and enough books
over that amount to make us glad that we participated.  It was very nice of
Newt to close down the government and most of the other museums for our
event.  I don't think we can count on him doing that again for the next fair.
 When we get similar book shows that attract similar dealers and clientele in
New York City, Chicago, and several west coast cities, then more of us can
start making a living as professional, full-time book artists.

MINIATURE BOOKS.  I am frequently labeled a "miniature book artist".  I make
books in all sizes, but it is true, I make a lot of books under 3".  I do
this for three reasons.  First, it allows me to work faster.  I can try one
idea or technique and then move on to another one.  Second, I get more copies
to sell out of limited resources.  For the first four years of Editions,
almost every book was made from scrap material given to me by other artists.
 Now, I can afford to buy new materials, but I'm still pretty frugal.
 PARTING WISH is a carousel book and all of the parts fit on one 8 1/2" x 11"
sheet of paper (with very little waste).  Finally, there is the MINIATURE
BOOK SOCIETY.  They have about 500 members and they are enthusiastic
collectors.  They hold an annual conclave every year where book dealers can
set up tables (at the last conclave I attended, the table cost $35.  By
comparison, my booth in Washington cost $575).

There are miniature book collectors who have told me to send them any book I
do under 3" and they will pay for it.  I won't do it.  I don't think a ruler
is a very good way to measure the value of a book.  I still hold out hopes
that people will buy my books because they love them and not just because
they are small.  Of course, people do buy my books because of their size and
I gratefully deposit their checks.

By contrast, one collector who buys my books does not like little books AT
ALL.  On occasion he has bought my smaller books, but only if I make a
clamshell box the size of a larger book to hold it!  I'm glad to do it
because it shows that his affection for my book has transcended his distaste
for small books in general.

What we need is a BIG BOOK SOCIETY with 500 members, each willing to pay
$1,000 for a book.  I'd want to get THAT mailing list!

LIBRARIES AND LIBRARIANS.  Ha ha.  You don't really think I'm going to make
any comments here, do you?  Corner me at a cocktail party sometime and I'll
give you the good news--and the bad news.

ADVICE TO NEWCOMERS.  Welcome to the book arts.  Yes, you can make a living
as a book artist.  Given patience and a lot of hard work, I think it's even
possible to make a good living.  But don't commit to it unless you are
willing to suffer through some difficult times.  It's not as bad as it
sounds.  When you really love what you are doing, you can tolerate
difficulties and it doesn't seem so bad.

PARTING WORDS.  First, thanks for the Book Arts List!  As a book artist, I
have found it helpful, supportive and informative.  Finally, please don't get
upset by anything I've said.  If you find something offensive, give me the
benefit of the doubt, and assume that I did not word my thoughts correctly.
 I respect the work that everyone else is doing and I hope we can learn to be
a little less critical of other people's efforts.  Ed (Hutchins)


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