Armchair BEA: Interview with Kate Barber, Book Artist

A musician friend of mine (Hi, Patrick!) came through town a few weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to get to know his wife a bit better. Kate just finished up a degree in something I think most (if not all) of us book lovers will find absolutely fascinating: Book Arts.

Visit Kate Barber’s website to see stunning examples of her work. You can also visit her blog, Between the Pages, which is chock full of photos and descriptions of some of the processes involved in creating books.

Today we are free to choose our own topic for Armchair BEA, so I asked Kate if I could interview her with all many of the questions I had swimming about in my head. She graciously accepted. As you read her responses below, I think you’ll agree that her thoughtfulness and passion really shines through. I hope you all enjoy learning more about book arts as much as I did!

1. When you told me your MFA is in Book Arts I immediately thought of book covers, but was otherwise clueless. I was fascinated when you shared how much more it actually is. Can you explain what kinds of things you learn while working on this degree?

Yours is a common response. The term Book Arts is both vague and specific at the same time, and for the average person, it doesn’t inherently mean anything particular. Because of this, it has been really important for me to become comfortable talking about and explaining my work in an effort to make it approachable and relevant.

The Master of Fine Arts program at The University of Alabama, from where I recently graduated, centers on the exploration of all aspects of the book as both an object and a historical artifact. Our coursework explores hand paper making, traditional and historical book binding, letterpress printing, and historic lecture courses. The program’s focus on the traditional crafts of book making provides a solid foundation for conceptual development within a contemporary context.

In the first year of the program, students explore all aspects of the book, and then in the second year, students can opt to focus on one area of the book or continue working on the whole book. I was interested in both printing and binding, and so I continued in both areas. My upper level binding studies included rebinding old books, mending damaged paper, sewing on cords, working with leather, and ultimately, creating a portfolio of traditional full leather bindings. My upper level print courses allowed me to challenge myself on the Vandercook presses in the studio and focus my conceptual interests. Completed in the third year, the degree terminates in a creative thesis project and exhibition. The range of thesis work produced is vast, from fine press poetry and broadsides series to artist books and research-based investigations. I think this range really speaks to why our studies can be so difficult to explain, because what students coming out of our program produce is never easy to nail down as just one thing.

2. What was your undergraduate degree in? Is there one particular major students need to have to get an MFA in Book Arts, or do people come from a variety of backgrounds?

My undergraduate degree is in Art History and Museum Studies from Florida State University. After that, I moved to Chicago, where I worked in the publications department at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here where my interest in design and book making solidified. I started taking design and typography classes at the School of the Art Institute, which led to me completing the Post-Baccalaureate certificate program in Visual Communication. During this program, I took two semesters of letterpress printing, and it was here that my fate was sealed. I started looking at MFA Book Arts programs and haven’t looked back since.

The beauty of this field is that background is less important than passion. There is a big range in backgrounds among the students, and this makes it an exciting environment. The University has a MFA in Creative Writing program, and so we have some students who take one class as an elective and get hooked. During my time, we had two women start the program that way. Because we are part of the School of Library and Information Studies, there are several students who concurrently take library and book arts classes. Other backgrounds include printmaking, English, and History.

3. What is your specialization? What do you love best about what you do?

Because I studied on all aspects of the book during my time in the program, that’s a difficult question. I feel just as comfortable in the bindery, as I do in the papermill and type shop. But if I had to pick one of these areas, I think it would be bookbinding, and that’s a little funny to say, because I came into the program thinking I’d be all printing.

The thing that I love best about what I do is the process, and how through making, time slows down, which brings a clarity and focus to my work and environment. It provides me with the space to contemplate the work, both materially and conceptually. So much of my projects are about the thinking and planning. My first year in the program I wrestled with trusting myself and coming to peace with this time. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy the decision making, working through the mock-ups, and writing the outlines. Before you know it, the project is over so it’s important to revel in it.

Because bookbinding is a historic practice, you are able to connect with history through making. Aside from making, I love sharing what I do. Making something as concrete as a book is empowering, and I hope to continue sharing and learning within a community setting.

4. Novels such as The Word Exchange have explored the idea of “the death of print.” Do you see book arts as a viable long-term degree choice? How does the e-book industry affect traditional book making, and is that as negative an impact as is often purported?

The first question is really important for anyone considering studies in this field. I think that its viability is inextricably tied to remaining open and flexible. But this isn’t unique to this field; being flexible is important across all markets today. Everything moves at such a fast pace today that its crucial to grow and shift as required in order to stay relevant. And if I am open in how I interpret my degree, then it will remain viable for me. There are plenty of graduates from the program who end up in non-book arts fields, and I don’t see this as a failure. MFA programs are not career focused, rather they change the way you look at the world.

The e-book industry is doing really great things. I have an e-reader, and while I read on it from time to time, I will always prefer paper. For me, there is a strong difference in how I process reading from a screen and reading from paper. But I know also know people who read better from an e-reader. I believe that we will arrive at a balance between the two because I can’t imagine a world with just one or the other.

The print industry is undergoing big changes right now, but I don’t feel like there is a correlation between what I do and those changes. As traditional paperbacks move more and more to e-book format, I think that the value of books as objects will increase. So, this shift could end up helping those who do work like me.

5. Are book artists employed in traditional big-name publishing houses? Do people work on the physical aspects of the books we buy in the stores (i.e., binding, etc.) or are mass/trade/hardcovers all machine-made? Do special editions tend to be more handmade?

This is something that comes up a lot. It can be difficult to imagine how this degree and work like this fits into what we see at the bookstore. I know some graduates have gone into book design. I actually did a year-long design internship at the University Press here at Alabama. It was a great experience but was in stark contrast to my work in the studio. For me, they are totally different things, and I am interested in them both but for different reasons. While publication design is client focused, my work in the studio is me-focused and driven. I am the client. Doing a combination of the two would be ideal for me because sometimes it’s nice to have someone else make the final decisions.

All aspects of the books at a bookstore are machine-made. Now that’s not to say the people don’t work with the machines at various points in the process, but no one is sewing those books. When I was a print production assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was able to go on press with our projects. I was there press side to make sure all the colors matched the approved proofs. Several of these printers also had in-house, commercial binderies. The first one I saw, I was awestruck. I felt like I had entered Willy Wonka’s factory. There were tracks and pulleys, engines and levers. It’s a wonder to watch.

Just because something is made by a machine doesn’t mean that it can’t be special. There are commercial printers and binders working with the technology and experimenting with materials and processes in a way that is really exciting, but it’s also expensive. With deluxe editions, publishers are often trying to emulate the handcrafts that we learn but doing so on a dime to still make it affordable for their audience. In industry, it’s all about money, time, and the bottom-line, and when that’s the case, hands will lose to machines every time. And this isn’t a criticism. It’s just a fact.

6. How can a regular, everyday reader support what you do? (Buy from indie publishers? Buy handmade items? Keep buying print books?)

I think buying local is always good, and a lot book artists make prints, cards, and journals on the side to support their art practice. Sometimes you can find them at local shops, other times on Etsy.

Because our projects require a lot of expensive materials, funding a new project from your own bank account in the hopes that it will sell can be daunting. I’ve seen several colleagues use online funders like Kickstarter to get financial support, and this fantastic for a couple of reasons. Having funding means you won’t starve to make your work, having public support means you have an audience, and offering donation incentives is yet another way to get the work out there!

Buying print books surprisingly doesn’t help book artists, but keep doing it if you like it! I do. 🙂

A huge thanks to Kate for sharing a bit about Book Arts! Want to know more? Please leave any questions of your own in the comments.