Image of artist book, "XYZ"

The Artist Book: Cover to Cover with Maria G. Pisano Part II

This is part II of our interview with book artist Maria G. Pisano. The National Library of Medicine recently acquired 3 of her artist books, Caudex Folium, Fractured: Covid 19 – Memento Mori vs. Memento Vivere, and Hecatombe 9-11, a new format for NLM collections providing cultural context for the study of medical history. Maria continues to discuss 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: Read part I.

Circulating Now:  I’ve come to discover that there are many types of “artist books.” What types do you create and what elements do you include in your books?

Maria Pisano portrait

Maria G. Pisano: When I started making artist books they were all unique works. As such the challenge was to create a unified whole in terms of idea and execution. A one-of-a-kind artist book allows an artist to work more intuitively, so that changes and additions can be made up to the last moment. The freedom of spontaneity however has to balance with the fact that a unique book limits the number of viewers that the work can be shared with and once sold there are none left to exhibit.

Sanctums, Sactum, Sancta is an example of a unique artist book. This work explores the human façade, striving to penetrate beyond the frontal plane—the mask—the multiple layers, the artificial and superficial, the exterior and interior existing simultaneously. The forms disintegrate as they near the interior to acquire a new identity. The pages decrease in size as they near the center where a series of five masks reveal multiple personas. The illusion that the outer self is reflective of what is within is just that, an illusion.

Today all my works are limited edition artist books. Because each book is individually designed, printed and bound by the artist (or in collaboration) like a one of a kind, each book in the edition needs to be reasonably alike. To achieve this, planning for an edition has to be thorough and complete. It is a process that requires a strong theme that will sustain the artists’ interest, determination, and knowledge of specific skills. Each project is unique, and each contains its own parameters and challenges.

In working with artist books, I orchestrate a theme, incorporating both the visual and structural elements. Each book contains its own individual form, creating patterns that speak of personal and communal identities. I assemble objects, memories, and realities, in a physical, concrete and tactile object called a book, to resonate and create the link between the constant personal journey as an artist and as a traveler. This is not to record a linear destination, but a search that evokes the gathering of layers of experiences. The resulting landscape is one of continual flux where the colors, patterns, wear and tear, all speak of time, memory and history. Integral in all this is expressive language. Some examples follow:

Image of artist book, "Tunnel Vision"
Tunnel Vision, poem, 2004. Structure based on the Holland Tunnel in New York City.

Tunnel Vision is based on the Holland Tunnel, and juxtaposes a child’s imaginary view of the tunnel with its reality. This book reflects my introduction to America. When I was a child in Italy, every summer we used to go and live on the beach. My father would tell me about the United States, and this wonderful underwater tunnel. I assumed that the tunnel would have fish swimming around in it, and my father never told me otherwise, allowing my imagination to thrive and flourish. When I began this project, and did some historical research, the story of the tunnel itself, its workers, and its chief engineer fascinated me.

This book seemed an ideal venue to mesh the child’s fantasy and the historical background. The books structure is a tunnel book, 200 cm long (80”) when fully opened; the inside of the book depicts the imaginary vision of a colorful underwater world, where vintage and modern cars travel through its space accompanied by fish. The outside of the book represents the reality: close to 6 million tiles were used for the tunnel, hence the tile pattern used to create the outer walls of the book. It is here that I also include some of the more significant historical facts along with my story. The book is dedicated to my father, a manual laborer, whose hard work and contributions remained anonymous. Similarly, the workers of the tunnel, who worked under extreme conditions, were never recognized. The book measures 8”W x 8”H x 80” L and is a limited edition of 25.

Image of artist book, "Viva Voce"
Viva Voce, 2011

Viva Voce is a response to landays taken from Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry, edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, (who was subsequently assassinated) and translated by Marjolijn De Jager. The landays are anonymous, unwritten poems, sung by Pashtun women. These women subsist in a culture where they are isolated and discriminated against, live under strict Sharia law and are kept segregated and hidden, most severely when the Taliban took over the area.

Maria Pisano printing "Viva Voce"
Maria Pisano printing Viva Voce

The book celebrates women’s undying spirit, even in the most austere, repressive and confined world they live in, their voices rise to sing about love, violence, exile and war. The songs of love are powerfully visceral and emotionally laden with hope and imagined happiness.

The work is made up of four volumes: Love, War, Exile and Violence. Twelve landays were chosen from each of these themes and each was paired with visual responses and translated Persian titles. They are contained in a structure with enclosures for individual support, making each removable so they can be freed from their confined spaces, read, seen, or displayed independently. The images are created with collagraph plates using diverse papers, uniquely designed, intaglio and relief printed by the artist on a Charles Brand Etching press. The poems and the descriptive text are letterpress printed. The book measures 12”H x 8.5”W x 2”TH and is a limited edition of 20.

CN: How long does it take for you to finish an artist book and what materials do you use?

MGP: Every editioned book is unique and has its own timetable; there are many factors that must be taken into account when creating an artist book. Time is only one consideration before embarking to create complex book works. I design, print, bind and house all my works with the exception of Tunnel Vision, so one should also ask these questions:

  • Why are you doing this work?
  • Can you complete this work by yourself or do you need help to print and bind it?
  • Can you sustain the energy and interest this work will need?
  • How large is the edition going to be?
  • Do you have the budget to support such an endeavor?
  • What materials are going to be used? What media?
  • Are outside services going to be needed? If one does not have an etching press, a letterpress, a digital printer, or other means to print the work, who will print it and what are the costs associated with it?
  • Have you allotted enough time to design, print, bind and house the edition?

I will use Tunnel Vision to express the trajectory from idea to final execution. Seeing a finished artist book denies the viewer a full understanding and meaning of the process the artist has used to achieve the work.

The idea for Tunnel Vision began when I immigrated to the USA in 1964, not even knowing then what effect it would have on me. Once I decided on the book I wanted to create, I began to research the topic. Reading and research are a way to expand the meaning of the work beyond the personal. With this book I started researching everything I could about the Holland Tunnel in NYC, a tunnel I had traveled through many times. The book was started right after the 9-11 terrorist attack, in 2002, when even doing research on this tunnel was very difficult without having proper identification and credentials. I was lucky, since I was working in the conservation department at Rutgers University and the library is a depository of the chief engineer, Clifford Milburn Holland’s blueprints and books, which gave me a rich source to use in designing and important information to include in my work.

The structure would obviously be a tunnel book and the interior images originated from my childhood idea of cars and fish riding together under the sea, which were created with an array of media, from collagraphs, to relief printing, to digital printing. The outside of the book reflected the actual interior of the tunnel white tiles alongside historical text on its construction and Mr. Holland. The structure was a process of making mock-ups. Mock-ups are models that enable the artist to conceptualize how the work will move, where the images and text can be placed for best readability, if the correct paper was chosen, and if the book can work as it is designed.

Aerial view of artist book, "Tunnel Vision"
Tunnel Vision, 2004. Aerial view showing imaginary world (inside) and real world (outside). Structure based on the Holland Tunnel in New York City.

Then comes the actualization of the work. Since the two sides of the tunnel are 80” long, I could not print the work on my etching press. I applied for a residency at EPI studios at Lafayette College where they had a much larger press and digital printers, and it was here that most of the pages were printed by me with help from staff. For the papers I chose Rives BFK 250lb.—a very sturdy printmaking paper that could withstand the printing and the folding. The poem and images in front and back of the book were printed letterpress at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The interior and exterior walls of the accordion supports were printed using collagraph plates; intaglio, relief, chine colle, lithography and digital printing were used for the internal and external accordion supports of the book. The printing of an edition of 25 took considerable time. There are 8 inside supports, and each after printing was cut to expose the depth of the tunnel. The font for the poem and other text is Frutiger. Kozo paper was used to print the lithography text for the outside of the book, and mylar for the colophon, both at my studio. The book is enclosed in a plexiglass clamshell case, custom designed and manufactured for it. Binding is the last stage of an artist book, which depending on its intricacy, can take some time and for an edition of 25 it was considerable. The first book was finally completely printed and bound in 2004.

CN: How many copies do you usually make of each book and how do you determine how many you’ll make?

MGP: Since I am the sole artist for Memory Press, the edition number for each book is varied depending on the process I use for printing them or if it is crucial to the theme.

A hand sewn book with textured pages and an accordion structure.
XYZ, 2002

For example XYZ, a handmade paper book, is an edition of 26, since it is based on the alphabet. Most of my hand printed works—relief, intaglio and cyanotype, are somewhere between 10-25 copies. This is a number that I can sustain, doing all the designing, most of the plate making, printing and binding by myself, examples are: Viva Voce and Caudex Folium.

Via Dolorosa: From Sea to Shining Sea is printed digitally, but the construction is quite intricate and therefore the edition is also a lower number. Works such as Fractured: Covid 19 – Memento Mori vs. Memento Vivere, Under Cover: ABC of Banned Books, Tempo Allegro and Lost and Found are all laser or inkjet printed, and although their bindings are also challenging, the editions are usually “open,” since I have their digital files and theoretically I can print them as the orders come in from institutions or private collectors, rather than all at once, giving me more time for binding and housing of the works.

Here are more of Maria’s favorite artist book resources:

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.


    1. Such original work! Maria’s talent and imagination appears to have no limit. This artist has redefined our image of the book as art form.
      An extraordinary display of which the Art World should take more notice.

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