The National Library of Medicine recently acquired three artist books, a new format for NLM collections providing cultural context for the study of medical history. The new artist books, Caudex Folium, Fractured: Covid 19 – Memento Mori vs. Memento Vivere, and Hecatombe 9-11 were created by book artist Maria G. Pisano, who tells us what an artist book is, how she became a book artist, and how these unique objects function as both book and artistic structure. To read her full bio and see more of her work, please visit: www.mariagpisano.com.
Circulating Now: Tell us about yourself and how you became a book artist.
Maria G. Pisano: My journey from printmaker to book artist was an evolution; my background is in printmaking, a medium where layering, adding, subtracting and texture are part of the process, something I fell in love with my last semester in college. I then decided to learn more about it and took printmaking classes at The Art Students League and then went on to do my first Master degree in the field. Intaglio printing has a very tactile quality, from making the plate, to the printing, and very much so in the particular paper chosen to support the print upon it. Learning how to make paper was the next endeavor, doing a residency at Dieu Donne Paper in NYC, and eventually reaching a point where I had too many prints and too many sheets of paper that asked to be bound.
I have a background in embroidery, and utilizing this skill I created my first book, Miniatures. This was an initial exploration of the sculptural aspects of handmade paper and prints into book form. After creating a number of works this way, I took my first bookbinding class with Hedi Kyle at the Center for Book Arts in NYC, the first center for the book in the country.
Hedi was and is an amazing inspiration. I was creating what I call “creative book works,” but had no knowledge of how a traditional book is actually bound. The codex is a form that we all take for granted because it works so beautifully intuitive, which led me to do a second Masters in Book Arts/Printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where Hedi was a professor, so that I could learn how a traditional book is actually bound alongside its history and evolution over time and cultures.
As a result it freed me to begin to create works that had good craftsmanship, where I could integrate my interests and the work is interdependent and responds harmoniously to the theme. The format would not be arbitrary or pre-determined, but strive to encompass and internalize its meaning made visible not only through its visual language, but also within its structure. The form becomes malleable, I now decide the order, progression, shape, media, etc. and interweave them within my personal experiences and social commentary.
CN: In your opinion, what is unique about the artist book as an art form?
MGP: Artists books are all encompassing in that they synthesize the fields of drawing, painting, print and printmaking media, papermaking, text, book design and any other creative mode, be it written or graphic. The amazing variety of book structures and themes offer many outlets that are used by artists to create in their own unique mode of expression, there are no barriers or rules—just good craftsmanship and clarity of ideas. Book arts can combine the old and the new; from papermaking to computers, and as an expressive form can be used across disciplines. It is also a more meaningful, democratic and expansive art form; there are no guards at the door preventing one from expressing their ideas. This is self-publishing, commercial book companies are sidestepped, allowing for a wider variety of voices to be heard. For me, it encapsulates my love of printmaking, papermaking, book arts, the history of the book, photography, writing, design, computer graphic programs, laser printing and more, not limiting my choices of theme, media or structure. Scholarly pursuits, teaching, studio experience, and in depth application and integration of these arts, afford me a rich platform to create the works and share them with students/readers and collectors.
CN: What inspires you to create?
MGP: The theme of memory is present in many of my works, in my images and writings, hence the Memory Press imprint. So I would say my first inspiration is memory, not only my own, but communal memory of the past and present; social history that is part of our fabric, and was just skimmed in my schooling. My ideas come from personal curiosity/concerns about issues we face in our daily lives, followed by research into topics that have meaning for me. I am intrigued by visual and structural patterns within nature and cultures, current events, immigration, human rights, women’s rights, my love of poetry and reading, are all recurring elements that inspire me. As an artist, I want my work to resonate and connect with my audience, but first it must sustain and inspire me to pursue the theme to its fullest and be able to express it in a creative and visual form called a book.
When I’m not in my studio or teaching, I am inspired by visiting botanical gardens or tending to my own garden, watching flowers and vegetables that I’ve planted displaying magnificent evolving forms, and I am utterly amazed by their beauty, variety of designs/structures and colors that they offer. Two examples of book works inspired by nature are: Girasole: a miniature carousel book with a poem reflecting the transient nature of time and Colors of Memory, containing four accordion books/environments, each representing the four seasons. Each season is a marker, beginning with Primavera, a time of discovery and self-awareness and ending with Inverno, a time of fragility, loss and death.
CN: What is one thing you want those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ‘the book as art’ to take away from your artist books?
MGP: An artist’s book is a conundrum. What the artist/writer is presenting may not be familiar to what a reader is accustomed to in a book. The structure may not be familiar—we understand codex, accordion binding, scrolls, because of their history. I would encourage readers to look closer, to see that any structure has its resonance in some form of traditional/historical book structure. Yes, there is inventiveness in an artist’s book and sometimes the book is more a piece of sculpture that a book. But ask yourself, aren’t all books a three dimensional sculpture? Going back in the history of the book, seeing the myriad structural interpretations, one would understand that form along with materials used reflected the diversity of the culture making that artifact. Today we see these historical antecedents to the “book” as mere precursors. But are they? I would like my artist books to reflect my concerns, my celebrations and my artistic endeavors, while at the same time share with the viewer their meaning via multiple readings. As the artist, I’m embodying my ideas in book forms, and as such I am continuing the tradition of bookmakers as keepers of our collective memory.
I hope that readers/viewers are intrigued by my books and themes; are inspired by them, to create their own or share them with others; to see that the structures I use are not just arbitrary, but add to the meaning of the work, enriching the experience and understanding of the theme. No book is immediately revealed unless one gives it time to read it and understand it. Any good book requires commitment and the answers may not always be apparent. Many times one is left with more questions than answers, and hopefully this interaction between author/creator, and reader, is what makes the book alive.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, The Artist Book: Cover to Cover with Maria G. Pisano Part II, where Maria guides us through her creative journey while creating her artist books and shows examples of her work.
Here is a sampling of Maria’s favorite artist book resources:
- The Book Arts Web Links to papermaking resources, centers for the book, workshops, and tutorials
- Guild of Book Workers Worldwide book organization
- Movable Book Society A pop-up books organization, publishes quarterly newsletter
- Bromer, A.C. and Edison, J. Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures Abrams, NY, 2007
- Feliciano, K. and Thompson, J. Making Memory Book and Journal by Hand Thunder Bay Press, 2001
- Kyle, Hedi and Ulla Warchol. The Art of the Fold Lawrence King Publ. 2018
Maria G. Pisano is a book artist, printmaker, curator and educator. Memory Press works are represented in The Library of Congress, The 9-11 Memorial Museum, Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Lafayette College, National Library of Medicine, University of Delaware, Smithsonian Institution, Wesleyan University and many more.