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Re: [bookartsconnection] recent thougths on book art

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  • Linda Snook
    Wow, Jill! Thanks so much for sharing that. Blessings, Linda
    Message 1 of 2 , May 31, 2006
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      Wow, Jill! Thanks so much for sharing that. Blessings, Linda

      Jill Littlewood wrote:
      > The student I have been mentoring through the process of making a book for her poems had to write an essay about working with me. Here are her questions. At the same time, an artist in New Jersey wanted me to say something about my images in "Death and Other Lives" because she is giving a paper to an art collectors group about the use of death and memory in artists' books.
      >
      > So here are my ramblings about art, life, and death. (Yahoo groups won't let attachments be sent so it has to be in the body of the email. Sorry.)
      >
      > Jill
      >
      > Essay questions from Shawna for Jill
      >
      > Training and schooling:
      >
      > My Bachelor of Fine Art degree is from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is considered one of the finest art schools in the country. I studied studio art there, because I had already taken lots of art history classes at the University of Chicago. Going to the Art Institute was good for me, because it was wonderful to be around so many artists. I never would have know what artists were like if I had stayed in academia. Artists are a funny lot; if you are one you feel like you are finding your tribe when you finally find a place that honors the way you think.
      >
      > Past Projects -see The Meaning and Making of "Death and Other Lives."
      >
      > Current Projects - see same.
      >
      > What is my philosophy of art and life?
      >
      > Make a good life and you can make good art. The conventional mythology that an artist is tortured and dysfunctional is silly - most working artists are just that, working. It takes work every day to make art. You have to make a lot of bad art to make good art - basically you have to make a lot of art.
      >
      > If you produce a lot the art will take care of itself. Don't worry about being creative or novel - good work is done in groundbreaking ways and in traditional ways. The most important things you can do are to make yourself a space to work in and create time to work. You have to protect both from encroachments.
      >
      > Once you have a space and some time, you have to decide how you like to work - do you want to work big or small? Wet or dry? Tight or loose? Do you want to sit at a desk and draw, or be outside in a haze of marble dust chipping away on a huge sculpture?
      >
      > I found that one thing I love is having my hands be wet. I make paper partly because I love the feel of the wet pulp. I like standing up, outside, with my hands in vats of abaca or cotton or hemp, pulling sheet after sheet of paper. When I paint I often use my hands instead of brushes (I protect them so my skin doesn't absorb the chemicals from the paints.) When I decorate papers I always start out with a brush, but before long I am slopping about with the paste on my hands. (I don't even have a dishwasher because I like the feeling of suds on my hands - and it is a great way to get all those paint bits out from my cuticles.) I didn't get into art thinking I like my hands wet, but over time I gravitated to those things that are kinesthetically satisfying. If I had another life to live, I might explore ceramics because that is also an art form where your hands are wet much of the time.
      >
      > I balance this with drawing and calligraphy, which is dry and is done sitting down inside. It helps to have several art forms so you can always be working on something.
      >
      > Finally, you have to discover and protect that which has meaning to you. It can be conventional, like flowers; or strange, like graphic novels. The only reason to do art is to hear yourself: you have an idea, a feeling, a need, and you amplify it - for yourself mostly. If you want to sell your work or get accolades, fine - go for it. But if you want to keep working as an artist all your life you have to learn to hear your own deepest thoughts, and express them whether anyone likes them or not. Chances are you can find other artists who like your work. More importantly, surround yourself at least part of the time with artists who understand your need to work. People who understand the process are much more valuable than people who like what you do. For one thing, your work may change, but the process of making it will stay the same if you have successfully made a life where working is a regular thing.
      >
      > What advice can I give to a young artist?
      >
      > I give everyone the same advice no matter what a person's age. Another myth of our culture is that art, music and languages are learned better when a person is young. Better than what? If you want to do something, do it. Conventional wisdom is, well, conventional. It takes courage to try things differently but courage is learned by practice. Anyone, everyone, has a place at the table of art (music, dance, theater, writing.) Talent is a vastly overrated quality, because talent without work is just a flash in time. We can each tap into the wellspring of art through our own effort. If you are doing what you love, you will love to keep doing it. Find that voice in yourself and mine it: it takes work to get out the gold but it is work that is so worth doing.
      >
      > ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
      >
      > The Making and Meaning of "Death and Other Lives"
      >
      > Mothers act like little Smithsonian museums in their families. They collect, conserve, and curate evidence that tells the story they want to be remembered of family life. This can be done with furniture, silverware, linens, china, or clothes, but often the memory keepers are on paper. Photographs, report cards, birth/marriage/death certificates, awards, drawings, greeting cards, articles in the newspaper, graduation diplomas - every mother I know has a collection of these she keeps for her family. Every woman who is not a mother probably has a mother or grandmother who did this for her family. It is the woman's job - not her husband's - to archive all this stuff. Her husband keeps up the house, the cars, and the lawn mower. He doesn't bother tucking cards with birthday wishes into scrapbooks - that is unimportant in a man's world.
      >
      > The more organized women use commercial scrapbooks to keep their treasures. These can be dime store versions or they can cost hundreds of dollars to make. The time involved can be as brief as putting photos in sleeves or as laborious as spending weeks making each page. (A multi-billion dollar business has grown up around this urge, which is remarkable if only because the family is being memorialized like never before at the same time the pundits are predicting its demise.) At the other end of the spectrum are mothers who just throw the stuff they want to keep for posterity into boxes and bureau drawers all higgledy-piggledy. As you wade through this unedited mass of memorabilia, you are assaulted by images coming at you in random fashion.
      >
      > My grandmother did both. When she died we found a lifetime of correspondence stuffed into cubicles of roll-top desks, filling bureau drawers, crammed in shoeboxes in her closet. Since her husband was the impresario of the slide shows they gave after each trip abroad, those pieces of the memory stream were well catalogued. Everything else was just kept, unedited, in piles and bundles.
      >
      > The one remarkable exception was a book of black pages and a cardboard cover embossed with the word "Memories." Held together by a decorative string looped several times through the covers, it positively sprouted with evidence of her pleasure making this book. Tellingly, it documents her life before she was married.
      >
      > This memory journal has photos, of course - tiny brown tone photos of co-eds at Cornell, where she majored in Home Economics, as well as pictures of her in the boat she crewed on, young men in suits standing before houses that show the Greek letters of their fraternity, pictures of lakes and rafts and swimming holes, a few of a mob slithering in mud ("hazing of freshman" is what the caption says.) Her girl friends have the short bobbed haircuts and just-below-the-knee dresses of the 1920's. Everyone smiles at the camera - the solemnity of Victorian era portraits has given way to the new conventions of the snapshot.
      >
      > There is more in this lively journal: menus from The Sweet Shoppe, with the 5 cent sundae circled; dance cards on silk ribbons with every boy's name in ink of a slightly different color; engraved calling cards, crude drawings satirizing professors; enigmatic notes ("he's not telling"), graduation programs, and even a lipstick-laden cigarette butt taped to a faded napkin from Lucky's Bar.
      >
      >
      > This lavish display of my grandmother's interests is the only evidence I have of her as a self-directed individual. In every memory I have she is serving her family, and everything she did creatively from then on was for them: house decorating, food preparation, gift and greeting card selection, present wrapping, clothes shopping, table setting, holiday decor. My grandmother, Dorothy Cushman Littlewood, had a certain flair about the way she dressed, but though I have the jewelry she loved I cannot bring to life her style.
      >
      > Her Memory book has become a talisman for me, and it has shaped my life as an artist.
      >
      > As an undergraduate, I attended Benningon, the University of Chicago, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I learned much about the art world in these schools, but I never learned to value anything that came from the women in my family. I would never have thought to mine the work of my grandmother that I held so dear if I hadn't moved to Los Angeles in 1976 searching for the Feminist Art Studio created by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven and Miriam Shapiro. I missed its flowering but in its wake it left behind the Woman's Building and the Women's Studio Workshop. I took classes in printing from Susan King, book structures from Heidi Kyle, and saw books used as performance art by Susan Share. More importantly, I learned I could (and should) tap into my own life experiences as the basis of my art. I learned that the creative expressions of my grandmother's generation had been ignored, even denigrated, no matter how skillfully things were made (quilting, embroidery, needlework, weaving). Putting those ideas together I decided to make my own memory books, filling them with art as I made it - drawings, collages, letterpress experiments, and writings. These were the museum of my mind, and no future generation of girls could say I left nothing personal behind.
      >
      > To pursue what I thought would become a career as a book artist, I got my own press and named it "Nightflight Press". I studied Chinese and Western calligraphy, and went almost daily to life drawing classes. Eventually I decided all this needed a focus, and I thought I would like to publish a book my husband had written called The Death Cantos. J was a resident at County Hospital in Los Angeles, reputed to be the largest hospital in the Western Hemisphere. People died there daily and the chaos and craziness of the emergency room took its toll on everyone. We were new to Los Angeles and had few friends, so when he came home from a 48-hour shift he would tell me about the sad and terrifying world he worked in. It made me feel crazy and scared on the many days he was gone, and I finally asked him to write the stories down instead of telling them to me. He did - one a day for weeks. In the end he had what I thought of as a priceless treasure for a future archeologist to excavate. I knew that the only way such a book would last into the future would be if it was printed on good paper. So I added papermaking to the list of things I was learning, and I used his book as an organizing principle for me to work on. A ten-year project is what I designed, enough time for me to get good at all the parts of making this book: printing, typography, calligraphy, papermaking, bookbinding, and illustration.
      >
      > My idea for the illustrations came from a love of bones and a love of scientific illustration. The emotional overload of the stories needed to be offset by the coolness of scientific illustration, and bones were the perfect subjects for a book about death. I drew a few bones I had lying around, took them to the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits (which housed the largest collection of fossil bones in the world) and asked if I could see a curator. Luckily for me, the curator they sent out went for my scheme: I volunteered to draw bones one day a week for him if he would give me back the drawings after using them for his publications. We started, and I drew for several years in a fishbowl where the public watched as I turned sketches into fully shaded, highly detailed renderings. Meanwhile, I was working part time as a student intern at the L.A. County Graphics Department doing calligraphy for the scrolls they presented. Eventually the bones won and I was working on a grant from National Geographic for five years doing bone drawings at the L.A. Museum of Natural History.
      >
      > Turning 34 and finishing this grant, I decided I couldn't wait any longer to start a family. Life trumped Death and The Death Cantos fell into the shadows as the raucous life of raising three children and home schooling them took over. Suddenly I was making art in tiny bits of time, and I fully understood why patchwork quilts are the ultimate mom art: if you have 10 minutes you can sew the side of a patch; if your toddler falls down in minute seven you can put the work down and pick it back up when the crisis is over. You have to fit anything you do for yourself in between laundry, cooking, reading out loud, scrubbing kids in showers, shopping, playing tickle monster, and just hanging out looking for faces in clouds. A quilt will eventually become a memory blanket - since I don't sew I made things with bits of paper to hold these moments of time: cards, collages, pages for albums. The importance of recording the fleeting life of childhood became clear, and I began to save all the family memorabilia I could. I saved the locks of hair from my children's first haircuts, their finger paintings, the birthday cards from their grandparents. I kept copies of articles where they were mentioned in the local newspaper, questions they asked ("Mom, do clowns eat?" "What does 'haywire' mean?" "Why is air clear?") and their philosophical musings ("Can you be in two places at once?" "Will I ever die now?" "Are you old?"). I have drawings of their footprints, handprints and records of their height as they grew. Later, when they decided to try school, I kept their papers and school photographs.
      >
      > It is the usual smorgasbord moms keep, and, like my grandmother, I didn't organize most of it except to put it in boxes. But for each child I eventually made a memory book about a special time. For Laura, it was a six-week trip to France I took her on when she was six-years old. For Jordan, it is a photo album of the plays he was in. For Eliot it is a travel journey of our trip to Italy along with other families of homeschoolers. In all these books I am trying to weave two strains of bookmaking together: the memorializing of family life and the constructions of artists' books. I want my art to reflect my life and I want to bring art to what has been a conventional display of family propriety - the scrapbook.
      >
      > As my children grew and became more independent, I sought out artists in Santa Barbara. I joined one group of book artists that was making a millennium book. Called "Threshold", it took four years instead of one and morphed into a book about time. The scale was one reason I stayed with it: it was to be a book sculpture on turnstiles, eventually becoming 32' long and 8' high. I loved the look but not the process, and I moved on to working with actors and dancers for a performance piece called "The Red Dress". For this I collaborated on a series of collaged panels that hung in a fluctuating wall 43' long and 10' high. I finally decided I loved working big but felt hamstrung working on other people's ideas. I did a two person show in which I made an accordion book out of panels that were 8' X 4' - the whole book was 48' long by 8' high, and it was like a giant scrap book writ large - each panel was covered with decades my drawings and calligraphy collaged by color.
      >
      > In the fall of 2005, with my second child off to college, I knew I needed a big project to work on. I had acquired papermaking equipment and was active in the Friends of Dard Hunter, a national papermaking group. Now was the time to teach myself papermaking and pulp painting by doing a lot of it. I thought about the collaged panels for "The Red Dress" project and how satisfying it was to see people interact with my images. They read the pages like pages of a book, but they were standing in front of a wall of pages and their involvement was public, not private. Where some people were quiet and studious in their attention, others were boisterous. They called their friends and family over, and got strangers to appreciate what they were looking at. This led to a game of appreciation, as each person showed the others what they liked and everyone talked and laughed and had a good time. I'd shown a lot of artists' books on tables and shelves, and I'd never had my work received like this. I thought I'd try it again.
      >
      > One of the reasons for working large is so you will be seen. It is the visual equivalent of shouting. And just as shouting doesn't make what you are saying any more profound, enlarging work doesn't make it better. But it does show an intention to be noticed, and it counteracts a basic premise of my grandmother's life: pay no attention to me. The corollaries are that it doesn't matter what I think or what I care about. Hanging out with moms for years, I could see this was part of our conditioning: we valued our care-giving skills much more than anything we created for ourselves. Our invisibility, and my grandmother's, made me angry at her and at my own timidity. I had been making books for years and yet only a few people had ever seen them. I decided it was time to dare to do bigger things.
      >
      > The subject matter came after weeks of thinking and noticing what I got animated about when I talked to other artists. A news item made me furious for days. It was about how a Minnesota town confronted its racist past when postcards surfaced depicting the town elders, as young men, hamming for the camera around the dangling legs of a lynched black man. I designed a piece about lynching: you walk through 5,000 black silk strips hanging from a grid, ending up at a wall of information about the lynchings in America in the last 150 years. The project never got past the talking/sketching stage but it helped me realize I wanted to do a piece about death. And I wanted to do a book you walked through. Here I could bring all my feelings about racism and inequity, which had so colored my childhood in Chicago. I could take my memories of my grandfather dying, and the horror of hearing my brother had died in an accident. I could think out loud about what I feared.
      >
      > And what I loved: one year, I had driven seven hours to San Francisco for a show of funerary urns. In the fall I helped do altars for Dia de los Muertos. Many of my books had figures of Death, of dying, of graves. Weaving my disparate interests about death seemed daunting, but that is the magic of scrapbooks: they encompass whatever you put in them. Grammy's Memory book, the scrapbooks for my kids, the journals Dan Eldon left behind - they all took material as it came and put it together. The job of the artist is to freeze-frame the torrent of ephemera and shape it. I thought I would do this on my next work.
      >
      > And so I began. The project I envisioned took so many leaps of faith it was almost paralyzing: I'd never made paper on the scale I envisioned, nor had I pulp-painted very much. I designed a hinging system to hang paper panels with hollow stainless steel rods - they were hard to find and cost $500 altogether. I was ordering hemp and abaca to make 250 panels 18" X 24" and I had to guestimate how much to order, plus how much pigment and what kinds. In the end, I had spent $2,000 before I had any idea if these plans would really work.
      >
      >
      > Winter of 2006 I began the project. Dividing 250 panels into 120 days I came up with a rhythm whereby I made two panels a day, an image on each side, which meant four images a day. Besides painting on the wet pulp, I pulled out drawings and paintings I'd made in the past and embedded them. I went to life drawing and printmaking classes and made images I could use for the collaged pages. I used Victorian photos, old keys, lace and torn silk as evocations of time gone by. I read endless books written by anthropologists about funeral rituals around the world. I studied mummies and hieroglyphics. I researched angels and devils, reincarnation theories, time travel, Adam and Eve, serpents, goddesses of the old world, tomb sculptures. I went through every rubbing I had ever made from a gravestone and selected those that worked best. By May I had made 200 panels and I took a break.
      >
      > It is now a year later and I haven't made any new panels. I have been working on the partially finished ones and on my calligraphy for the writing I intend to do on them. Soon I will be back in my studio for the final round of panel making. Then I will show the piece.
      >
      > To arrange that, I traveled to Chillicothe, Ohio, this spring. In October of this year the Friends of Dard Hunter will have their 25th annual meeting and I have rented a space to show "Death and Other Lives." So now I have to finish it. It is no accident that the last one-woman show I had was at the Woman's Building when I was pregnant with my first child. Now, as my last is going off to college, I will once again hang a one-person show. This piece is about death, but I know death is also a beginning. It can lead to other lives.
      >
      > Jill Littlewood, May 5, 2006
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