Bookmaking unbound: Book Arts at Mills

What is a book? And what isn’t? The creations of Mills book art graduates offer surprising answers to these questions.

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In a new exhibition, Mills graduates wield an array of tools and techniques to explore the possibilities of what a book can be

Structurally, Donkeyskin (Kat Howard, MFA ’13) closely resembles a traditional bound book, but it departs from tradition in nearly every other way. What should be invisible is made visible, and vice versa: threads used in binding spill out from every nook and cranny, while the text is but a ghostly embossment on the page—a fitting rendering for a fairy tale that has been inverted to give voice to a silent character. (Nina Eve Zeininger)

By Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04

In an age of virtual text, the physical nature of the printed book might seem quaint or nostalgic—it could almost be considered novel. But for graduates of the groundbreaking MFA program in Book Art and Creative Writing at Mills, a book is so much more than simply words on a page.

Degrees of Innovation, an exhibition featuring work by all 22 of the program’s graduates since its inception in 2009, brings together a stunning variety of interpretations of the book format, from digitally printed wall scrolls and accordion-bound collections of poems to sound-and-video installations and a stack of handmade pillows.

The casual viewer might be perplexed at how a stack of pillows qualifies as art, let alone a book. Situated next to a more traditionally typeset series of poems, Peace of Work Pillow Party by Perla Yasmeen Meléndez, MFA ’15, invites the viewer to reconsider the very idea of the book itself. And yet the hand-sewn, naturally dyed pillows do tell a story—of the materials used to create them and the process of manual construction, elements that, in the modern era, are no longer an essential component of the book as mass-produced object.

This is one of the fascinating things about books as an art form: their very physicality suggests to the viewer the entire history of bookmaking. The computer—the technology that many consider the next step in literary access, the successor of the printing press—has in many ways been the gravedigger to the printed book’s noble history. As a means of spreading knowledge, books no longer even have to be real-world objects.

Book artists of today, though, see the advent of digital media not as an instrument of the book’s downfall but as another tool in the creator’s arsenal. The artists in this show are inventing the future of the book, using structures, materials, and content that range throughout the artistic spectrum. Familiar techniques such as hand binding, cutouts, popups, and letterpress printing share space with embroidered hand-woven tapestries and 3D-printed sculptural objects—items that make the viewer question the very nature of what a book is, and what it is not.

Unpacking, by Isabel Duffy, MFA ’15, is a cleverly fashioned box that unfolds, panel by panel, into a loose narrative. Using classic book art techniques such as letterpress and linoleum-cut images with an innovative and interactive structure, this piece challenges the viewer’s idea of a book as flat, linear, and static.

Book art at Mills, like music and dance, has long been an iconoclastic, avant garde pursuit. From the early 1930s, when the world had limited opportunities for professional women, Rosalind Keep’s Eucalyptus Press taught young women the elements of typesetting, printing, and publishing.

Though Eucalyptus Press went on hiatus when Keep passed away in 1958, by the early 1970s, books had emerged as an experimental art form, and several small presses in the Bay Area provided a forum for women authors. Lynda Claassen, special collections librarian at Mills, knew it was the perfect time to revive the press and bindery. Professor Kathleen Walkup, who now holds the Lovelace Family Endowed Chair of Book Art, joined the program in 1978 and oversaw the growth of book art at Mills from elective courses to the founding of America’s first degree-granting graduate program in book art in 1983—culminating, in 2009, with the first MFA to combine book art and creative writing.

 “What book art faculty look for is work that reflects an understanding of the basic tenets of the time-based medium of book art: theme, sequence, narrative, and solid craft practice,” says Walkup.” The works in the thesis exhibition may not always include books, but the work always reflects the idea of the book as a conceptual framework and a time-based medium.” In other words, unlike the single frozen moment of a painting or photograph, a book invites you to linger, turning the pages from one to the next. It takes time to read a book.

Traditionally, a book is also narrative, containing sequential content; but with an artist’s book, content is not limited to the printed matter on its pages. The very form of the book itself is often an expression of what it contains—as with Heather Peters’ The Bruises, which evokes the idea of a bandaged wound when one “unwraps” it in order to read it.

When a book is elevated to the plane of art, as in this exhibit, the artists are not only sustaining a time-honored craft, they are writing a brand-new story for a new age. Professor of Book Art Julie Chen, who curated the show, says, “The innovation springing from this interdisciplinary approach has expanded the definition of the book far beyond what anyone could have predicted.”

The Curse of the Malevolent Book Spirit (Keri Miki-Lani Schroeder, MFA ’16) is “a haunted book, about a haunted book.” Pop-up monsters that bring us back to the books of our childhood are combined with a Ouija-board planchette incorporating a black light that reveals hidden messages written in UV-reactive ink.