September book arts show

Booking it to the Midcoast

By Dagney C. Ernest | Aug 22, 2018
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Cynthia McGuirl has a display area for her artist books in her studio. She uses roofing copper for book covers, as well as display stands.

Last summer, three Midcoast book artists joined forces to teach a multi-day Book Arts Intensive at 26 Split Rock Cove, an artist retreat, studio and workshop space in South Thomaston. The experience inspired the trio, as well as one of the intensive’s attendees, to bind — well, band — together to form Midcoast Maine Book Arts.

The new group will present Camden Public Library’s September art show. “Book Arts: Maine Artists” will open Sept. 1, have its opening reception Sunday afternoon, Sept. 9, and hold an Ask Your Bookmaker evening on the 13th.

The show, featuring work by 14 book artists from around the state (and one honorary Mainer), is curated by the three intensive instructors — Cynthia McGuirl of Thomaston, Abbie Read of Appleton and Sandy Weisman of South Thomaston. The fourth group co-founder is Paula Blanchard of Camden, who has taken a number of book art classes at Weisman’s 26 Split Rock Cove. Weisman, the other three concur, is the spark that ignited Midcoast Maine Book Arts.

“Essentially, an artist book can be one of many things,” said Weisman, who was introduced to the medium some years ago in the Boston area.

It can be like a sculpture, based on the idea of a book, she said, “the way a book opens and closes or has pages.” Rebecca Goodale, art lecturer and coordinator of the Kate Cheney Chappell '83 Center for Book Arts at the University of Southern Maine, is one of the artists in the show. She has a book artist group that meets regularly, which several of the local contingent have attended. They like the idea, but not the drive.

“Somebody who’s in the show, Jan Owen [of Belfast], said, let's try to get together once in a while and talk about books and talk about what we're doing. So the Midcoast Maine Book Arts group is going to meet every other month starting in October,” said Weisman.

Another approach taken by book artists is something more like a broadside, combining text and images — or all text/all images — in any number of bindings, Weisman said.

“And then there's another spectrum, the one-of-a-kind book — maybe it has pages that fold out and images and the artist has bound everything; or maybe the artist does all the work and then has it produced — and that can be called an artist book, as well,” Weisman said.

So the medium draws from and is informed by many others, and many an artist comes to the book arts through another discipline. Weisman, McGuirl and Blanchard all have backgrounds in the fiber arts, and book arts seem to have developed out of the fiber arts movement of the 1970s. Then again, the idea that a handmade book can be art goes back centuries.

“I mean, I go to Ireland to look at the Book of Kells because of all those illustrated manuscripts,” said Weisman.

She said she “got off the loom” and started working with paper, then mixed media with paper and collage, then started to write poetry. She took that first book arts class in hopes of finding a way to combine “all this stuff!” and was excited about the possibilities. She still writes and publishes separately and makes collages, “but I really like figuring out ways to put them together.”

McGuirl had spent years as a weaver. But she too left the loom behind and moved into printmaking, looking for a more narrative approach to imagery. When her 10-year-old daughter said she wanted to learn bookmaking, mother and daughter dove in and taught themselves. And McGuirl found it a surprisingly good fit for the direction she was going with her art.

“I really loved it! It just seems like the perfect sort of medium to combine a story and visual art,” she said.

And it’s a malleable medium. McGuirl’s current “Old Maid” project is a deck of cards — of sorts. A small, one-of-a-kind book about women in her family, one of her pieces in the art show, led the way. She’d had an aunt who was married to an abusive man. When McGuirl as a girl asked her mother why, the reply, informed by Armenian history and tradition, was because the aunt was afraid of becoming an old maid.

“And there still are ‘acceptable’ categories for women: mothers, orphans, widows and brides. So then I ended up making a little deck of cards,” she said, using the categories as suits.

Now the “cards” of “Old Maid” are becoming large sheets of printed papers, lined up on a wall. McGuirl’s fiber artist background asserts itself in the hand-stitched royal designation and numbers, as it does in the bindings she employs. How those pages, which will have woodblock print backs, will be joined and in what kind of “cover” is still to be determined. But there is still enough about a book to the project to fold it into the book arts medium.

Read of Appleton said she had begun making artist books on her own before she really had good knowledge of how books are structured, something remedied by working with Goodale.

“Then I took it in my own direction and abandoned a lot of it, because I really wasn't interested in making a book with pages that had some sort of sequential format and some story that went from page to page,” she said. “I just took it in the direction of sculpture because that was what worked for me and my purposes.”

Read’s traveling exhibition “The Library” is a wall-mounted sculpture. Rather than one-of-a-kind artist books or limited-edition publications, this work combines many individual objects that resemble books into a larger piece.

“The whole concept of ‘The Library’ evolved out of the fact I was using so many different kinds of books — artist books, altered books, sort of shadow box structures that opened and closed. It made sense to look at it from the point of view of having a collection of individual pieces that make up this larger work,” she said.

That larger work has helped her find a way to present her smaller artist books in a gallery setting, which can be problematic. The library’s Picker Room has a display case, but otherwise its exhibition space is all wall. The group is hoping to have a temporary shelf on one wall in order to better display propped-open books, but Read’s work will be presented in a kind of hanging shadowbox system she has devised.

Read teaches bookbinding, as well as gelatin printing and paste paper painting — ways to produce decorative papers for book arts use —at Waterfall Arts in Belfast and her own studio. McGuirl also teaches bookbinding and hand paper marbling at her home studio. Both have shared their expertise in the summer book arts intensives at 26 Split Rock Cove, which is where Blanchard has been pursuing her interest in the book arts medium.

“Making handmade books is one arm of my interest in fiber arts, which for me includes the exploration of fabric, thread/yarns, paper, etc. in both two and three dimensions,” said Blanchard, a stalwart of the Camden-based Coastal Quilters.

Blanchard spent most of her career in publishing, so books have a special place in her heart. And while she does like digital books, there’s nothing as satisfying as paging through a beautifully constructed book, she said.

“And much of the making of books is a meditation — a wonderful antidote to the craziness we read about elsewhere every day,” she said.

In addition to being home to a number of book artists, the Midcoast boasts the Book Arts Studio, a relatively new program of Maine Media Workshops + College in Rockport. Thanks to the support of program coordinator Linnea Brotz, the fledgling Book Arts Progress Group will meet in MMW+C’s Book Arts Studio. The first gathering, open to all interested in the book arts, is set for Oct. 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

“I think the Progress Group … will be the encouragement and/or incentive many of us amateurs need to pursue our interest further,” said Blanchard.

For more information about Midcoast Maine Book Arts, visit its open group Facebook page. In addition to Weisman, Read, McGuirl, Owen and Goodale, book artists with work in the upcoming library show include Sissy Buck of Cumberland Foreside, Isobel Gillian of Rockport, Stu Kestenbaum and Susan Webster of Deer Isle, Sharon McCartney of South Thomaston (and Belchertown, Mass.), Richard Smith of Camden, Walter Tisdale of Bangor, Anastasia Weigle of Caribou and Dudley Zopp of Lincolnville.

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