Sunday, September 13, 2015

Books as Art: with Susan Steinhaus Kimmel

Susan Steinhaus Kimmel at the Sept. 12 CQA meeting
CQA members were treated to a wonderful display of artistry and workmanship at their September 12 meeting as Susan Steinhaus Kimmel demonstrated--yes, demonstrated!--a number of her beautiful and intriguing handcrafted books.

The Wenatchee, WA area artist has a strong background in the arts, as she's both studied and taught calligraphy, design, drawing, painting and mixed-media collage. She's been painting for 25 years, and taught art at the college level for 19 years. Then, in 2001, she left academia to focus full time on  her own art projects, many of which are handmade books-- all one of a kind.

"I'm stubbornly committed to one-of-a-kind pieces of art," said Kimmel, adding "To be creative is to never repeat. And many artists produce 'editions' of their pieces, but even when I did paintings, I did only one--the original. No subsequent prints."

[Shows two separate books] (1) "Chaos and  Creation" (back) based on Genesis, features a neutral background (chaos) and vibrant, colorful foreground (creation). (2) The little house (front), created after the artist's visit to the American South, was inspired by a friend's photo of a house on the "Underground Railroad," which aided so many escaped slaves on their way to the North. It unlocks from the rear and includes a little box in which an accordion-folded text presents writings and photos about slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Calligraphy and "making marks" were elements of Kimmel's art works even during her time in graduate school. There, one of her major student projects involved making some 500 random ink "marks," one per sheet of paper, in a "visual language" all her own. She then enlarged each sheet sequentially on a copy machine, watching the marks get rougher and rougher as they grew in size.  Finally she had a series of six-foot panels, each with a single unique mark, to create a lengthy wall display. To present the work to her instructors in a manageable format, she bound a pictorial representation between sheets of handmade paper--her first "book."
The tall book, left, was Kimmel's first, and provided a visual record of her grad school project comprising pages of enlarged ink "marks," her own "visual language." At right is "The Good Earth," containing alternating pages of poetry and drawings on natural subjects.
Kimmel opens her large "first book."

When Kimmel had completed this project she realized it was the "feeling" of a handmade book that she wanted, not just to work with traditional bindings. Her ideas and the contents always come first; the format is secondary. To aid in recreating that feeling, the idea, in the pages, she initially called on her calligraphy experience to design her own alphabet that only she can read or write. "Calligraphy in a language you don't understand is something you can appreciate simply for its beauty," she said. Sometimes she wrote texts backwards to emphasize visual strength over readability and to alter impressions: "When you write left to right, your hand is 'pulling,' and when you write right to left, your hand is 'pushing.' It's an entirely different feeling," she added.

Kimmel, who plays flute and piano, created a book presenting musical terms rather than quotations. The paintings represent whole, half and quarter notes and the treble clef. A hole cut in the front reveals part of the first page, and the text is an accordion-fold pullout that's attached in an unusual way. The inks are French.
As her thought processes and projects evolved, she asked herself, "Why can't the cover be as interesting as what's inside?" Thus she began to playing with the shapes and designs of the covers, and  frequently echoes the cover shapes in the inside pages. She uses Davy or binder's board for most of her covers, as it resists warping, stands erect, and accepts glue. (She uses Yes brand glue.) Her primary tool is an Xacto knife, but in at least one instance she resorted to a saw: One spectacular book has front and back covers comprising two pieces of wood cut from a single board that had two similar dramatically "carved" ends--and that she picked up from a store's scrap bin!
"Woodcutter's Song," left, was bound in a board Kimmel found with the sculptured ends. The book at right has pages shaped to mimic the shape of the cover.

The "wooden" book also caused her to consider how she was binding her books,  usually done with a straight strip of binding cloth. She engineered a method of internal "hinges," with tabs hidden under front and rear pasted-down endsheets, for a clean finish that allowed the resulting book to open nearly flat. This project led to further consideration--Why should the binding strips be just straight?--and soon she was shaping binding strips to correlate with the rest of the books' designs.
"Daring Harmonies," above, has a shaped binding strip, and a hole in the cover to reveal part of the interior. Below, Kimmel with the cover open. Text consists of poems on individual pieces of paper hidden behind some of the structural elements.

How do you "demonstrate" a book? Kimmel likes to have her books interactive, and showed how a hole in the cover of one book gives a peek at what's inside and invites the viewer to delve into the interior. In another, the reader is invited to search for the contents, as the text consists of several poems on small pieces of paper that are hidden behind some of the structural elements of the pages.

One of Kimmel's first "box" books was based on Frank Lloyd Wright's famous "Falling Water" house.
A number of Kimmel's "books" are actually boxes, each containing texts in some form of visual delight, sometimes as accordion-folded, illustrated pages. ("Boxes are difficult!" she laughed.) One such box encapsulates her favorite parts of "Alice in Wonderland," starting with a "rabbit hole" in the cover, revealing a "lock" to be opened with an antique key Kimmel bought in Paris. The accordion-fold pullouts open in two directions, and are illustrated with watercolor drawings and calligraphy.
Above, interior of "Snippets of a  Dream" that represents Kimmel's favorite parts of Alice in Wonderland. The antique key, bought in Paris, "unlocks" the accordion-folded text, below, that pulls out in two directions,.

Kimmel does all her text work by hand--lettering, alphabets--nothing is done by computer or by other "commercial" printing methods. Although she has made paper herself, she prefers to buy interesting papers instead "wherever and whenever I can!" as creating her own would take too much time. Before doing her illustrations she'll "stretch" her watercolor paper by pinning it to boards, wetting it to allow it to "ripple," as it then flattens as it dries. If she's trying out a new paper or ink she may practice her calligraphy before embarking on a final page in case the ink were to bleed. And (unlike many of the members of her CQA audience!), she works on only one project at a time, thoroughly cleaning up her workspace before starting the next project.
Kimmel shows the interior of "The Good Earth"

For Kimmel, the main difference between the collages in which she used to specialize (and still makes) and the books she now creates is in planning: she needs to see the end before she even starts. First comes the idea of the content; then she sketches the format, and finally she thinks through every step in sequence--and writes it down. She tries never to get to the end of the project and find something was wrong earlier in the process.

Even with meticulous planning, sometimes she will get a surprise. One experimental shape resulted in a foldout that resembles an alien UFO where every fold was a new challenge. Unfortunately the design proved to have a weak joint that tended to tear when the folded text was opened. "Definitely a design flaw," she said. Asked if she ever builds a "model" before committing to a final design, Kimmel laughed and said, "Generally, no... I hate practicing!" Only once did she construct something of a practice piece, and that was for one where the calligraphy had to fit within extremely tight parameters.

CQA's program chair, Nicole McHale, left, helps Kimmel show the interior of "In the Beginning," based on the creation story. Here the artist's calligraphy required some practice as it had to fit in very tight parameters.
Close up of illustrations (acrylic on watercolor paper) in "In the Beginning," where each segment is revealed sequentially with the turning of each of the book's seven pages.
One of Kimmel's books, "Passing of Time," was selected for 500 Handmade Books, Vol. 2 (Lark Publishing, Julie Chen, Ed., Page 62). This piece was an engineering challenge, as the "pages" fold out in four different directions. Considering that she was able to submit only two photos--one of the book open and a detail shot of the title page--that hardly represented this complex piece, Kimmel was thrilled to have the work chosen!
Above, Kimmel prepares to open "Passing of  Time."Below, the book fully opened, in four different directions. This book required some clever engineering!

Considering the scope and variety of these works, one might ask, as Kimmel does, "What is a book? What are the limits? To me, a book is a container of text and/or images...a container of information. When I show my collages, people don't get close to them...they seem to feel that they can 'get' them from a distance. My books? People want to engage with them...and that's what I like!" And at the end of Kimmel's presentation, that's exactly what her audience members did, exclaiming as they opened the pages and boxes and discovered interesting bits every time!

Above, CQA members gather around to investigate Kimmel's books more closely. Below, Kimmel talks about the alphabet she created for one of her early works with CQA's Roberta Andresen, right, and Christina Fairley-Erickson, left.

 For more about Kimmel and her other artworks, go to

Added attraction!

Our August speaker, Nancy Stephens (see post below), did an excellent job of making the subject of copyright approachable. As she is an attorney rather than a practicing artist, it was decided that we would thank her with some artwork of our own--potholders and fabric postcards! Here's a small sample of the pieces created by some of our members for Nancy!