[Images to come, I will post pictures of my Minnesota work and trip in a few days.]
Last May, I found myself in that hotbed of sin, that what-happens-here-stays-here city, that home of Norwegian Farmers' Sons, Minneapolis, Minnesota (say it all together in the local patois: Meen-eh-soh-tah). And all -- or mostly -- for my ART. Did I have fun? You betcha, gosh darn it.
All right, we can all put on our "Fargo" accents, but really, it's darn nice there. I arrived in May, which I had been advised is the, er, most tolerable month for this California beach girl. One month earlier and you're still at risk for scraping frost off the windshield and the odd tornado, one month later and it's already lethally humid, hot, and the sky is black with mosquitos. I do not get along with mosquitos -- the skin has barely closed over the supporating, oozing sores decorating my legs after a mosquito swarm attack two months ago in Sunny So. Cal. I am THAT allergic to the little bloodsucking bastards. And cold? I like a cold ocean fog, I left my windows open all winter to the dismay of my mother, but that's mid-coast California. I remember one short visit to Sioux Falls, SD, in March, crossing a parking lot without a hat, and my ears fell off. They made a "ping" sound, rather like glass wind chimes, when they hit the asphalt. So there I was in May, when, according to my friend who has a farm downstate, "it looks like Heaven, the Heaven they told you about in Sunday School." He was right.
With that in mind, I scheduled for May14-21 a week of book art tutorials ending in a weekend intensive class on bookbinding. Time to stop pussy-footing around. I don't know that what I do is Capital A Art -- that's such a loaded word. But while art depends on inspiration, the judgment of others, the fickle winds of trend, the craft of what I do requires training. Primarily, I make altered books. Yes, I love my shrines and other assemblages, but there's something about pages that turn. About a 3-D bulk I can carve and embellish in any way one would any other form, but with all those echoes of story telling, and every sheet of paper a new canvas. Book making, book binding, paper making -- these are all trainable skills that will impact whatever I do. Learning those skills under the auspices of a Book Art center seems the right approach. I don't want to work for a library conservancy organization repairing important 15th Century incunabula (earliest examples of printed text in book form) although that might have its attractions. I want to learn these learnable skills and go from there.
I contacted the few major book arts centers in San Francisco, Manhattan, Minnesota, and the University of Alabama ("they call Alabama the Crimson Tide, they call me Deacon Woo" -- Steely Dan) and Iowa. No response from Manhattan. Of course. San Francisco replied that they had many course offerings, and I should simply come to town when something of interest was offered. Very egalitarian, very San Francisco. U of A and Iowa both sent form letters that set out their University offerings and no more. I already knew I didn't want another fucking degree -- I wanted to know what they knew without the 3-year investment in time and tuition and beauracratic BS. Minneapolis, blessed Minneapolis, home of People Pleasing People, sent back a personal e-mail, signed by an ascertainalby real person, asking, "What do you want to know? We'll teach you."
Better than 3 wishes from a genie. Imagine that -- an exchange of knowlege, the knowledge I seek, no more, no less, no BS. It only took the entire continent and the miracles of the internet. Said ascertainably real person received my effusive reply, and I set up a full week at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Real person (aka: Jeff Rathemel) arranged for four separate book artists to teach me for several hours a day and the rest of the day I got to play in their fully stocked studio, applying what I've learned. I was humbled. And excited. For me, this was the golden ticket to the Willy Wonka factory, the key to the FAO Schwartz toy store.
First, I spent the day with Susan Hensel, a renowned book artist for what was supposed to be three one-on-one hours about off-beat book bindings and using found objects in said bindings and books, with an eye to altered art and altered books. It ended up being more like six blissful hours. This is my jumping-off-point, because I incorporate all sorts of weirdness into my books, but I want to work intelligently in 3-D -- flat stuff is just a matter of eye and color and glue. Try to work in a computer motherboard, or driftwood, or a primitive fertility carving, or rusty metal, then I need help. We went to her studio for this because this obviously involves STUFF which requires storage and transport and hell, Mohammed has to go to the mountain. As previously noted, I am currently crippled with STUFF. Seeing how a Real Artist Deals With Stuff was inspirational. She demonstrated the basics of adhesives, different effects of same, and how to build textures and architectural elements from her own work and ideas for my own. Not only that, she offered insightful advice after looking at my work thus far. The key words of wisdome were that the entire work, its shape, its format, its materials and content, everything about it can carry the message. Holding that idea in mind throughout will keep me from falling into the ordinary and help me tell the story in every conceivable way -- and prompt new, inventive ideas.
The next day, with a brilliant bookbinder and renowned book conservationist Jana Pullman: Coptic Binding. This is one of the most ancient book forms: a stitching of pages into book form that is more of a weaving art than simple page assembly -- so beautiful in its result along the spine that to cover it seems a crime. One practical advantage of coptic binding is that the pages lay flat at any point in the book. No swirling pages, a perfect flat relationship from left to right. I love that. Hands free. For a business-related application, think of wedding guest books -- how frustrating to inscribe one's good wishes for the happy (ha-ha: it's marriage, how can that ever happen, never mind me, sorry, the cynic escapes) couple while wrestling with preceding or following pages. Or any number of other applications. It is lovely, a braided macrame (forgive me, I mean that nicely) spine. It is also mind-numbingly hard to learn just from the how-to book examples -- you really need a hands-on instructor. And again, I got to play with it for hours afterward in the Book Center Studio. I made three, count 'em, three, different examples and styles.
Next was papermaking with Jeff. I have a confession. About 8 years ago, I was asked for my Christmas list. I held my breath till I turned blue, kicked my tiny heels and threatened a full public hissy fit meltdown unless I got a papermaking kit. My duly intimidated spouse came through and got me the standard, $30 hobby kit for papermaking. I was as excited as I could be. The thing gathered dust untill well after the divorce and last year I finally broke down and used it. The result was three pages of grey pulpy flat material that disintegrated upon any attempt to manipulate it, nothing stressful, just folding. I love paper. Obviously, half my garage is devoted to amazing examples of the paper maker's art. Maybe I just go for cheap showmanship, but I love paper with inclusions -- flowers, leaves, legible chunks of the original junk paper source material. When I first moved into my loft in SF, in '93, I decorated the huge walls with the biggest examples of this amazing stuff I could find at Flax Arts (the motherlode of amazing paper). I thought these 3x4 foot pieces stood by themselves as art pieces, maybe with the mere addition of a swath of threads, stitched randomly, or a single dried rose. I approach beautiful paper with reverence. The real practice of this requires overalls, boots and blenders and beaters, a great deal of mudpie mess, and I'm jazzed. Great fun, and the end result was resilient, gorgeous and something I can do at home on a smaller scale and with less mess. I'm jazzed.
The next day was Paper decorating, again with Jeff. He set me up in a playroom (oops, studio) below ground in the wonderful MCBA building with every conceivable mode of embellishment of that utilitarian object, the blank page. Marbling, paste paper, dying, resist, guilding, and a variety of goo -- mostly Japanese from walnuts, tree bark, and sea weeds -- and utensils ranging from string, combs, dipping vats and buckets, to small scale drills. I ended up with reams of gorgeous papers I can't wait to use and skills I hope to use again. He knew I loved an organic feel, and the Japanese techniques in particular result in effects I couldn't have imagined previously.
Next, I got to experiment with Japanese stab binding and other entry-level decorative bindings. Back story: as a complete innocent in the ancient world of binding I decided to make a book in '94 and pulled a design out of my head that was in essence a Japanese Stab binding. I spent days (and nights of creative dreaming) diagramming the threading. I was, it turned out, reinventing the wheel. This is the sort of gathering of pages that can use gorgeous fibers in a simple but neatly contoured web that never should be covered. It ain't rocket science, and there are oodles of variants that I can now, thanks to some learned instruction and thumb-piercing experimentation, execute. I bought a book with diagrams of the variations, which would have saved me from a lot of anxiety in '94.
All of the forgoing served as the intro for the two-day marathon class of Bookbinding II, again with the patient and pellucidly clear instruction of Jana Pullman. Along with one other student, we invaded the technical areas of things that look like what we call regular books: stitching on linen, that lovely bit of embroidery between the spine's leather or bookcloth and the paper, especially the arcane piece that peeks over the back of the gathered pages into a lovely roll. I got to use huge scary slicing machines, wield mallets and hammers to get the spine into the proper symmetry, and choose all the materials for the case. The end result was one of the prettiest and most accomplished pieces I've ever made.
So..... that's why I went to Minneapolis, mostly. It got me out of a funk in a big way. It got me inspired with many thundering plans for new projects. It reaffirmed that as unlikely as it seems, this retired attorney turned beach bum really can call herself at least a lower-case "a" artist. It left me with a lingering affection for the Midwest, and a gratitude for the legendary Midwest Nice.
When not covered in ink and book glue and exhaustion, I managed to spare a few minutes, but not enough, to see some of the rest of the town. I took in a Broadway-caliber play at the Guthrie Theater and enjoyed both the performance and the astonishing structure of the theater itself. After some initial missteps, I stayed in a top-notch hotel steps from both the Book Center and the bridge which collapsed tragically a few months later. I crossed and recrossed the mighty Mississippi on foot and by car. I saw a church where my grandfather preached in the 1930's, and the house my mother lived in for those years. I drank some locally-brewed ales, lagers, and other hops-based beverages, including a Heiffenweizen (sp?) with lemon that changed my mind about how much beer one could imbibe just for flavor, not the high (although that followed logically as I stumbled the short way back to the hotel). I had a long and pleasant evening in an Indian restaurant after changing my take-out order to delicious eat-in, talking with the owner for hours about the American experience, philosophy, social mores and where to buy really lovely ties. (His secret: purchase the silk overseas and know a good local seamstress.)
After the Seven Days of Books, I spent three days on a farm downstate with friends, one was my very oldest friend of nearly 40 years, the other my newest friend, his wife, who performed, all unkowingly, a healing she could only guess. They are working artists, teachers, farmers and personal muses. I love them both dearly and hope they come to California to visit so I can partially return the favor. I came to know their friends, their barn, crops, dogs, chickens, turkeys and other livestock, and was shown a raffish outbuilding they sincerely wanted me to inhabit for my own Midwestern retreat.
There's more of this song to sing, of How Our Heroine Becomes Repeatedly Lost en route from airport, and The Blood-Curdling Tale Of The Internet Bargain Lodging (bloody Q-Tip encrusted into carpet, etc.). Another time.
Bottom line: Minneapolis and Minnesota nurtured, taught and healed me. May in Minnesota cured me of lifelong afflictions of guilt, ennui, and lack of motivation. Were it not for brutal weather and insects, I'd move here in a minute. Fuck Lourdes, come to Minneapolis. Gee, it's nice.