Saturday, June 11, 2011

Guest Blogger Amy Greenan, In Search of Content

Amy Greenan is a fine artist, graphic designer, teacher, and also a bookbinder and she was a fellow participant at PBI this year. Amy agreed to tell me more about one of the PBI classes that I didn't take (since one person can only take 3 out of 10 classes). This is her account of the class, "In Search of Content" with Susan Skarsgard.

You can see some of Amy's work on her website ( and learn more about her activities on her blog (

Two of the classes I had the pleasure of taking were with Rhonda – Book Doctor 101 and Fragments of Bookbinding Structure (otherwise known as Extreme Bookbinding!), which she’s already written about. So, Rhonda has asked me to tell you about my experience in a class that she didn’t take, which largely dealt with creating content for the artist’s book and the creative process in general. Of the three workshops I signed up for, this one was the most “arty” for sure.

In the over ten years I’ve been making books, my focus has mainly been on playing with structure and design, and so producing mostly blank books for other people to fill in. As an artist whose main medium has been paint on canvas, making books for me has been something to relax in and not feel pressure to make something particularly meaningful. I must admit, though, that was getting stale – I’ve been spinning my wheels for way too long, and for someone who also ended up becoming the bookbinding person about town over the years and teaching it quite a lot, I really wanted to up the ante and get more serious about it. I wanted the work I was making in that form to be as interesting and meaningful as I hope my paintings are.

The Paper and Book Intensive was truly transformative in that way – I found what I was looking for in the sense that I did have a lot of focus on more serious things like book conservation and historical bindings, but I also found myself really inspired during and outside the workshops. The people – don’t even get me started on how great every person attending PBI is. Being amongst a large group of “your own” is truly life-affirming – I am not exaggerating on this point. The one workshop that really opened my eyes and my imagination up to the possibilities of communicating big (and more personal) ideas visually and via the written word (hm, going back to my zine days!) was with Susan Skarsgard, an amazing woman of many talents, least of which is designing logos for cars (Saturn was hers!), but also beautiful and illustrative calligraphy, and an challenging but effective teaching style – a little drill sergeant mixed in the first couple days to draw us out of our respective modus operandi for sure.

In the first two mornings we had together, we created content, almost unknowingly. Using the old exquisite corpse trick, we as a group of 12 wrote 12 different poems, each with its own surprising tone and message. A similar method was used to create visuals, “merely” mark-making exercises where Susan’s real boot camp tone came out at its best. Moving around the tables almost constantly and working with varied media and colors, with less than 30 seconds to connect with the paper in front of us at a time, we truly got a workout, creatively and physically. We were urged to make different marks every time, usually with a prompt, for example “Make a dotted line across the page!” “Draw four squares!”, “Draw a slow line using your tool in an unexpected way,” etc. We also worked on creating the essence of letterforms one mark, one person at a time, and then tried working with India ink only (and then washed away our efforts with a hose outside the studio!). A couple hours of concentrated effort resulted in a series of large pages for each of us to claim and further work with for our individual projects.

Then came the challenge of putting all these disparate parts together into a book structure. Susan showed us one she devised that was Frankensteined out of the “Instant Book” that involves only some simple folding and cutting and creating a section out of just one sheet of paper. This I was familiar with, but then she proceeded to put a few together using some sewing similar to a Two Sewn as One binding, except there was an extra sheet in there somehow. Very clever! She then demonstrated a wrapped soft cover using some Bristol board and Canson Mi-Tientes (one of my favorite papers!). In the end, these simple and familiar techniques yielded a beautiful, sturdy structure that presented many possibilities. We now had imagery to respond to, add words to, develop further visually. Sometimes pages, by fate alone, appeared to be perfect compositions without any additional workings. Others suggested the need for something, anything. Everyone had a slightly different approach, of course. Hedi Kyle, the luminary of our bunch, reveled in cutting out windows in some of her pages and using pochoir (stenciling) to create deceptively simple and stunning abstract imagery. I should have taken note of her approach – taking care to work into every page a bit at a time so that she was able to have what appeared to be a complete work in a very short time. But hey, it’s Hedi Kyle! Would you expect any less?

My particular book ended up being one of those that wasn’t so felicitous. I decided to work into all the spreads, but only got so far as the third one before class was over. That was fine, it gave me something to take home with me. I found myself inspired by the natural surroundings we lavished in at Ox-Bow, and I used a pine cone and an acorn top as visual talismans. My poem (though not really just mine, but everyone’s) worked perfectly with the images I was producing, so I let myself be inspired by Susan’s lovely calligraphy and explored not only the words and how they danced with the images, but also the letterforms themselves as individual images. This naturally appealed to the graphic designer in me.

All in all, this class was immensely satisfying. Susan was a delightful study in contrasts – one moment extolling the virtue of slowly folding the paper, and really feeling its pliability, taking time to really know it; the next barking out orders like the most efficient line cook. I tell you, sometimes, it’s really nice to have someone tell you what to do and how to do it. When you can give yourself over to that and let the process take over, it can result in the most amazing things.


jackie said...

Thanks for the write up it sounds to have been fascinating.

Velma Bolyard said...

i miss pbi, and so wish i could have been in this class!