Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mixing It Up Down Under

What is an Artist Book? - An Interview with Sara Bowen

This question was on my mind when I recently made a journey to see an exhibition of artist books at Barratt Galleries in Alstonville. I wondered how much I actually knew about artist books, even though I have made a couple myself! The question was all the more poignant as my travelling companion was Sara Bowen, printmaker, artist book maker and friend. I knew Sara’s entry for the Southern Cross Acquisitive Book Award did not physically resemble a book although it had many ‘book’ qualities. Happily that day we were able to celebrate the acquiring of her book for the university's collection, along with others’ more book-like forms.
Later I asked Sara if she would allow me to ask her this question and others about her art practice, inspiration and the meaning of the motifs and symbols in her work - her river and her bridges. Sara arrived before me and as I walked in and scanned the coffee shop for her, at first I failed to notice her. As a newish arrival to Australia and Coffs Harbour I hadn’t expected her to be the one joining in conversations with nearby tables. Ah, but I was to learn more about her networking skills as the morning progressed.

Sara arrived in Australia in 2006, having left family and friends in Bristol, UK. She told me she came around to art the long way after 15 years of working with small businesses, setting them up and running various ones herself. She is now concentrating full-time on her art; well as full-time as a mother, wife, PHD candidate and project manager for the building of the family home can be.

JA How does your small business background help your art practice?
SB It has taken away the fear of the non-art part of being an artist. I’ve done cold calling with a suitcase of samples, written my own press releases and marketing plans and, because I have confidence that I can do those things, I don’t worry about them. It doesn’t mean I’m super confident or that I’m not terrified, but it does mean that I don’t panic about it.

JA How did you get started in printmaking?
SB In an effort to avoid killing my stepchild I was encouraged to get out of the house! I’d done life drawing and painting and I thought “Oh, printmaking that sounds good.” The little cogs went around in my head and just that whole thing about working backwards came easily. Somehow it all made sense for me.

JA How did you get started making artist books?
SB I don’t think I was really conscious of the fact that I was making artists books. I think I just ended up assembling things. I had a very vague idea of what I might do and it will just sit there in the back of my mind for ages and then something will trigger me off and it will usually be something like a little piece of cardboard or a photograph and I’ll think “that looks nice.” Tidying up the studio is actually quite often where it comes from, because I come across things I’d forgotten about, like bits of wire or a rusty nail or something and I’ll start thinking what can I do with that? And it ends up being a little exploration. That’s what starts me down the path and what the end is I’m not at all quite sure until I get there.

JA What printmaking medium do you most often work in?
SA The technique I use most often is viscosity printing where you are able to layer colours on your plate instead of having separate plates for separate colours. I change the viscosity, the runniness or thickness of the ink, and the different viscosities repel each other and instead of making a brown sludge like you might think, the colours stay separate and one top of each other. I’m interested in it as a technique to get multiple colours on the plate. This gives me the subtle colours I’m after. I also use a lot of embossing in my printing.

JA Where do you get your inspiration?
SB I love moody landscapes, bleak places where I can search for beauty. I am primarily a landscape artist. My work has an emptiness. I have a reoccurring motif in my printmaking, a swirl of river. It comes from a grainy black-and-white photograph of The Great Juanbung Swamp, which is the area at the confluence of the Lachlan and Murrumbigee Rivers. It was taken by my father-in-law from a crop-spraying plane in 1960. It is mainly a metaphor for journey.

JA You have been working on bridges in your Artist Book works. Have they always been a motif? Is it because of the river?
SB No. It’s got nothing to do with the river. It’s quite odd, but it’s got everything to do with moving countries. I moved here in October 2006 and I had my PHD started at UWE which was great because it made me feel like I wasn’t leaving everything behind, there was still some kind of connection with my old life and the people I knew and my art. But then I just didn’t have any contact from anyone in my old life. The people I felt very strongly connected to in Bristol turned out to be no good whatsoever at keeping up contact. I spent a year blogging about art and moving over here, being very up front with people about how I was feeling and I didn’t get a sausage back, no emails, no phone calls, no cards, no birthday presents, nothing! I spent 2007 feeling very, very lonely and very isolated.

Eventually I decided I needed to build bridges, metaphorical bridges that linked me with people, with ideas. I initiated a project with an artist back in the UK to exchange artist books and the project was to be about bridges. I spent ages fiddling around with different things and I came up with the idea of physically making a bridge. I read this lovely little poem by Walt Whitman called “A Noiseless Patient Spider”. It does mention the word ‘bridge’ in the poem once, but it’s about how spiders fling out a thread of gossamer and the wind catches it and they have no idea where they’re going to end up, an act of faith. It was such a meaningful way of looking at how I was feeling about my life. I think that’s been my way of working. Sometimes I just have to take courage that I don’t have and do something, even though I don’t know where I’m going to end up. The poem goes on and is effectively about building ones own bridge, what one needs in life is to do that. So it’s very reflective of my own experience and how I was feeling at the time.

It got me thinking about the form of the book and I’d already decided I was going to base this series of books on children's building blocks (you can build bridges with children's building blocks). I ended up with the carved plastic text, which was such a nightmare to do. Originally it wasn’t about the light shining through it with the shadow revealing the text, but about making the text a kind of gossamer. It just happened to work in that other way and gave it supplementary meaning.

There are a few other reasons why it ended up being very meaningful for me. One is that I’m terrified of spiders! I had hypnotherapy at Bristol zoo before I came to Australia so I could deal with the Australian creepy crawlies. I ended up holding a bird-eating tarantula in my hand. I am quite fascinated by them now although I still find them really repulsive. I also wrote a very bad poem about not being able to say anything meaningful to my father about leaving and going to live on the other side of the world and it was couched in terms of spiders.

That book has a much more open meaning available to it than most of what I do. Practically everything I do has a lot of personal meaning to it. I have a bit of a problem actually expressing the meaning to other people. In the end I’m very glad of people who do manage to work out what a work means, but its not why I’m giving them the object to look at. I’m very happy for them to give their own meaning.
I find my self really fascinated by artists who can write out very personal experiences in their art and the reason is because I can’t do it. I don’t know how one would begin. I tried it and doesn’t work for me.

JA What is an artist book?
SB MY definition of an artists’ book is hardly definitive and is highly subjective and probably very woolly from an intellectual perspective. I think an artists’ book is a book made by an artist, that requires the evocation of ‘book-ness’ in order to function as a complete work. There is the question of why make a thing defined as a ‘book’ rather than as a ‘sculpture’ or as a ‘print’? What’s so important about it being associated with being somehow a book? For me, there is something about a confounding of expectation (e.g. a book that is part of a child’s building block, for example, and in the same example, a slipcase – usually an afterthought – that has as much of a role in the complete piece as the book has itself; or perhaps where the text, written in shadows, is actually OUTSIDE the book rather than inside). There is also something about physicality: the ability to pick something up, however gingerly! and to view it as a piece of art from more than one direction – a quality that book arts share with sculpture, I guess. And perhaps there’s something about a thing having an outside and an inside: even my ‘bridge’ book comes concealed and had to be unwrapped and assembled in order to be ‘read’. There’s something there for me about text and covers too. Interestingly I find myself drawn to artists’ books with little or no text but find myself putting text in, sometimes obscurely, because that is part of my ‘model’ of what a book or book-object is. How conventional of me! But I like to subvert it too; although the shadow-writing aspect of my bridge book was an accidental aside rather than an intention from the start it makes me snigger quietly that there IS text and that there ARE covers for it, but that the text isn’t IN the book but written outside it!

JA How do you promote your work?
SB You never know who’s looking so it’s important to get it out there. Moving to a new country has given me the opportunity to make new networks. I like talking to people and putting them in touch with others. I work on the premise that people are happy to talk to you about themselves. They are also happy to be put in touch with new people that they can talk to about themselves. I don’t mean that in any negative way. My business experience is in creating structures that allow things to happen. I see networking as doing much the same.

JA Any advice for others who want to promote their work?
SB Just get out there and do it!

Jan Allsopp is a visual artist living in Coffs Harbour, Australia. Jan will be keeping us in touch with the art scene in coastal New South Wales as well sharing her exploits, as mid-career and mid-life, she decides to change art forms. View Jan's art, read her blog and browse her shop at

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