For more than 30 years, Julie Chen has been unlocking a world of imagination through her artists’ books, giving readers an experience that is artistic and playful, and at the same time, very intentional.
“I use the analogy of a pocket calculator to help explain the relationship of a normal book to an artist’s book. Almost anyone can use a pocket calculator to do simple calculations just as almost anyone can read a book,” said Chen. “But a mathematician can take the same pocket calculator and unleash a huge amount of power that a typical person has no idea how to unlock, and probably doesn’t even realize is in there. This is what a book artist does with the book form. There is a huge amount of power inherent in the book form vis-a-vis the reading experience that can be unlocked once an artist starts to work with it in an intentional way.”
Chen, who started the Flying Fish Press in 1987, got her first start with artist books at Mills College during her graduate career. After receiving her undergraduate degree in studio art from UC Berkeley, she headed to Mills College, where she now teaches, and was instantly captivated by one program in particular: Book Arts.
“When I went in for a studio visit, I was hooked from the moment I walked through the door,” remembered Chen. “I can’t really explain it, since I had no idea what any of the equipment was for, but it just felt right to me.”
Now decades later, the student who had no idea how to correctly fold paper or sew a book, has become an internationally known master, sought after for her meticulous three-dimensional, movable books and letter press printed works. Her books often take months, a year, and sometimes even longer to create.
“Each new book starts to take on a life of its own after a while and it’s my job as the artist to honor the direction that the book wants to go in,” explained Chen.
On March 20, 2018, Chen will bring her knowledge to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as she serves as the guest lecturer for the fourth annual Bernstein Books Arts Lecture. Chen’s talk, Every Moment of a Book: Three Decades of Work by Julie Chen, is open to the public and will be held from 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. in Memorial Library, Room 126. Additionally, she will lead a workshop for Professor Jim Escalante’s Book Arts and Letterpress class.
“I am deeply honored to welcome Julie Chen to campus to give the Bernstein Book Arts Lecture and to showcase her work in a captivating exhibit at the Kohler Art Library,” said Lyn Korenic, Kohler Art Library Director. “Her nearly 60 limited edition masterful works explore the reading experience and the materiality of the book. Using inventive book forms and personal narrative to comment on the human condition and the environment, Chen creates book art that is nonpareil.”
Students taking the Art Librarianship class through the iSchool this semester are curating an exhibition of Julie Chen’s work in the Kohler Art Library. The Reimagined Book: Julie Chen & Flying Fish Press will be on view from March 14-June 8, 2018.
Chen said she is excited about the opportunity to share how her work comes together, and to watch others experience her art.
“My motto is to make work about what you know, and even though my pieces have pretty intricate structures, I hope that a certain level of universality in the messages within my books comes through,” said Chen.
The lecture is funded by the Leonora G. Bernstein Artists’ Book Endowment and sponsored by Kohler Art Library /UW-Madison Libraries.
For a full Q&A with Julie Chen, see below! For more information about the Book Arts Lecture series, contact Lyn Korenic, Lyn.Korenic@wisc.edu or 608-263-2256.
Lecture by Julie Chen (Free and open to the public)
- Tuesday, March 20, 2018
- 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
- Memorial Library, room 126
- 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706
Q&A with book artist Julie Chen
- You established Flying Fish in 1987. What inspired the name of the press?
I liked the idea of the flying fish, which lives between the elements of air and water. From the very beginning I had the feeling that my work would be drawing from overlapping worlds such as: the world of printing and typography and the world of bookbinding; the world of text and the world of image; the world of the reader and the world of the maker.
- How/when did you get your start in the world of artists books?
I got my undergraduate degree in studio art from UC Berkeley, focusing on printmaking and sculpture. There was no mention of artist’s books during my undergrad education. When I starting thinking about going to grad school in art, I checked out Mills College (where I now teach), which at the time had programs in both printmaking and sculpture. In the graduate catalogue there was another program listed: Book Arts. I had no idea what this was, but decided to find out more about it. When I went in for a studio visit, I was hooked from the moment I walked through the door. I can’t really explain it, since I had no idea what any of the equipment was for, but it just felt right to me.
- For those who aren’t familiar with artists’ books, how would you describe this particular genre of book, and why is it so important?
Artist’s books are reading objects that take into account the experience of the reader not just with the content, but with the object itself. I use the analogy of a pocket calculator to help explain the relationship of a normal book to an artist’s book. Almost anyone can use a pocket calculator to do simple calculations just as almost anyone can read a book. But a mathematician can take the same pocket calculator and unleash a huge amount of power that a typical person has no idea how to unlock, and probably doesn’t even realize is in there. This is what a book artist does with the book form. There is a huge amount of power inherent in the book form vis a vis the reading experience that can be unlocked once an artist starts to work with it in an intentional way.
- How have your own skills developed through the years, and how do you decide what your next piece is going to focus on?
I’ve been making books for 30 years now and would like to think that my skills are at a pretty high level now, at least with the basic things like folding paper and making boxes. I can still recall how out of my element I felt when I first started grad school and had no idea how to correctly fold paper or sew a book. Many factors can influence the direction of my next new project. Sometimes it’s based on an idea that I’ve been wanting to pursue for a while, and sometimes it’s based on the theme for an upcoming show that I want to make new work for, including shows that I myself have curated. Each new book starts to take on a life of its own after a while and it’s my job as the artist to honor the direction that the book wants to go in. Many times this means expanding my skills to include new technologies or media that is out of my comfort zone. But I am always willing to be challenged by my work to learn new things.
- Your pieces often encourage physical interaction in ways many books don’t. Why is that so important to you?
For me, the artist’s book is all about creating an experience for the reader, not just in their minds, but with the interaction with the object. An important part of the experience of a book is about the turning of the physical page and interaction with materials and structure as well as content. We live in a physical world and even though we now get a huge amount of our daily content on screens, there’s nothing that compares to interacting with a physical object for drawing the reader in. I have nothing against screens and feel that video can be a very powerful medium. But the medium through which I choose to speak as an artist is the book.
- What’s the most difficult aspect of creating one of your works?
My books are extremely labor intensive to make and take a really long time to make. First there’s usually a 3 month- a year or more time period when the book is being designed and printed. I have to work on the book in parts and don’t get to see the whole thing completed during this period. Then the construction of each individual copy in the edition can take a few days to a few weeks, so a good portion of my time is spent doing production work, assembling books in small batches to fill orders. I have a studio assistant who works for me four days a week and even with the two of us, we are always behind. It’s a very long process, but it’s always very rewarding to see the finished books all lined up.
- Do you have one particular piece that is your favorite or has a particularly sentimental aspect to it?
One of my favorites of my own work is called Praxis (Illustrated). It’s all about the creative process, and is a manifesto of sorts that is illustrated with images of citrus fruits. How the book got designed and made is a long story, but in the end it is both a letter to my students and a letter to myself as an artist about things to think about when making a book.
- You’re coming to UW to speak in March to speak to various audiences, including students. What would you hope the students would take away from your time with them?
First and foremost, I would like students to feel inspired to make books. My motto is to make work about what you know, and even though my pieces have pretty intricate structures, I hope that a certain level of universality in the messages within my books comes through. I will also be giving a demo about box making to one class, and since box making is one of my favorite things, I hope to give students a lot of good technical information as well as enthusiasm for creating their own boxes.
- Lyn Korenic has given a tremendous amount of energy to growing the artists’ books collection at UW. What does that mean to you, and what do you hope to see in the future?
One of the things that I truly love about artist’s books is that they can be found in libraries which will let readers handle them. This is very different from other forms of art which often can only be looked at but not touched or interacted with. It is wonderful when an institutional collection can be seen and read by many students. There is nothing as powerful as putting a book in the hands of a reader. My hope is that libraries such as the one at UW Madison will continue to thrive as places where the physical book continues to be revered.
- Anything in particular you’re looking forward to during your visit to Madison?
I have never visited UW Madison so am looking forward to seeing the library and meeting the students. It’s always exciting to visit a place for the first time and notice both the differences and the similarities between the new place and where I’m from. I’ve been to the town of Madison once before but it’s been a really long time.