Codex Australia operated from 2011 to 2014. On its website was a series of interviews with fine book makers. Pretext has been allowed to reproduce these interviews.
Painter and Printmaker
Interviewed by Alan Loney, August 2012
Codex: Denise Campbell, I have known of your work making books for only a short time – a few weeks ago, Ian Morrison in Hobart emailed alerting me to your books, and now I have the privilege of having one of then, SEA, in front of me. In our subsequent correspondence, you describe yourself as primarily a painter who also makes books. This is not uncommon, and artists come to the making of books in a variety of ways. What was your way? How did you arrive at the notion that a book, a collection of surfaces unlike a painting or a print, was what you wished to make?
Denise: After graduating from Art School in 1975 I began a series of drawings, paintings and prints based on a deserted mining town not far from Launceston. Many of the paintings had map-like features and were quite large in scale. At the same time I wanted to make something more intimate, something that could be held in the hand. A suite of small black and white linocuts became my first book in 1984. The prints were almost like a picture map because they showed a particular landscape as if seen from the air. Certain shapes and symbols represented the mining activities that went on in the area for over half a century.
Codex: All the evidence, at least of this volume, SEA, done in just 6 copies, is that the texts are handset in type in wood and metal, the paper is either hand-made or mould-made, and the binding is also done by hand – to what extent do you do the work yourself – all of it, some of it – I’m thinking here of papermaking, typesetting, printing, binding. . . Could you describe how you do some of the work – how you print the linocuts, for instance, as there are many options for that (letterpress, etching press, back of spoon, ball of hand, etc. . .
Denise: I have always preferred to keep my image-making as simple as possible and do all the work myself – this probably stems from earlier times when I couldn’t afford expensive equipment and would use basic implements, for example a wooden salad spoon to burnish a print. Over time I have collected book presses and use one in particular for most of my relief prints, up to a certain dimension, for anything larger I have an etching press and Farley flat-bed proofing press. From time to time I have considered using commercial printing workshops but as these are based on mainland, I have never felt the expense was warranted. As I often use my own hand-made paper it seems appropriate to maintain the same hands-on contact throughout every stage. I am fortunate to have a Hollander beater made for Bea Maddock by Howard Clark at Twinrocker Handmade Paper in Indiana, 1983, No. 52. Besides, I like to see the image develop, making modifications along the way. All prints begin with a basic outline in my drawing book – not necessarily a literal drawing though, usually words, descriptions, possible dimensions and colors etc. I need to picture in my mind what the finished book/folio will look like. I then decide on the type of paper and if it has to be made, it should be done several months prior to printing. Making the relief blocks and/or etchings can be a lengthy process; occasionally I use the same image, for example a map, repeatedly and combine elements with the addition of chine collé and acetate stencils.
Codex: I mentioned earlier that SEA is in just 6 copies – the processes you employ are of course capable of many more than that – American printer Lewis Allen once wrote of hand-made limited editions that one should make two books per year, in 150 copies each, and that that should earn a sufficient income to survive. When I started printing fine editions in 1979, I tried to follow him, but my edition numbers have reduced slowly over the years so that now I print 26 copies for sale. But you make 6 – why such a small number?
Denise: Deciding on the edition size is largely dependent on the complexity of the images, the availability of materials, the time needed to produce the work, and the work space itself. Until two years ago I only had a small printing workshop with limited bench space, I now have a spacious studio next door. As I do all the printing myself I need to maintain a high level of concentration and enthusiasm throughout the process! In the past when I printed editions of thirty individual prints or more, I would do half at a time, going back and printing the other half at a later stage. It’s hard to pick up the momentum months or years later so I soon abandoned this practice. Until quite recently there has been very little interest in artist made books or folios in this state, the commercial galleries seemed reluctant to include them in exhibitions. I have experienced a very different response in Scotland.
Codex: How long does it take, days, weeks, months, for you to make a book like SEA, from the initial idea to the object appearing in your hands?
Denise: SEA had quite a long gestation period – the idea developed during four months spent working in Orkney, Scotland, in 2007 and reading the work of the Scottish poet George Campbell Hay. His lilting, song-like prose was evocative of the sea and sea-going vessels. The actual making of the book began in June 2008 and was completed in February 2009 in time for an exhibition in Orkney later the same year.
Codex: Some artists have a sense that, for instance, painting is their serious work, and that other activities like printmaking or bookmaking are important to them but are actually subsidiary to their painting. Other artists, like Bruno Leti, paint, yes, but see printmaking & bookmaking just as central “in their art” as painting – do you have a hierarchy of value in this respect? Another way of putting it might be, What role in your total art-making does the book play beside other modes of working?
Denise: There is no hierarchy. Deciding to make a book or folio is made in the same way I would select a particular type and size of paper, canvas, board or other material. This format compliments the rest of my work, it doesn’t stand separate from it. Once the printing is underway I always allow plenty of time in advance so I can proceed at a steady pace without long interruptions.
Codex: What sense of predecessors do you have in the book? One could say, Do you have favourite hand-made books by others, but as a maker of books, what notion of ‘tradition’ do you work with, if any – whose books do you admire? how do you understand your books within a history & tradition of bookmaking that extends from the earliest codices around 2000 years ago to the present day?
Denise: I return again and again to the earliest printed images – the block books produced in the first half of the fifteenth century, for example The Art of Dying and The Poor Man’s Bible. These small books with their beautifully hand-cut text tell a simple and direct story, the latter with pages organized in an architectural framework are particularly appealing. The blocks were printed in pairs and hand burnished. There is an honest and powerful message in these books which I can relate to and they still have relevance today. Early maps hold the same fascination, the way they show a bird’s-eye view of the shape and pattern within a particular area of the landscape and the use of elaborate signs and symbols – like an artificial construction.
Codex: What is it about the form or structure of the book that interests you?
Denise: The book is like a vessel – it contains/holds something; look within and you will discover. . . . A vessel is universal, it crosses all boundaries and stands as a metaphor for all kinds of things. As Virginia Woolf wrote “we are like sealed vessels afloat on what is convenient to call sensation. . . .” A book is an object that is easily held in the hand – allowing for a more intimate and direct experience with the work, the touch of the paper and the smell of the ink are primary sensations.
Codex: Looking at SEA, you wrote the text. When did writing enter your activity, and what triggered it? Or have you written for as long as you have painted?
Denise: Text in one form or another has been a part of my work since the late 1980s. I used collage in many of my earlier paintings on paper and canvas, sometimes the text was readable or the ‘forms’ contributed to the overall design. It also introduced a human element to what appeared to be a landscape painting.
Codex: There is these days, internationally but particularly in the United States, a growing literature on “the book”, whether it will survive the commercial onslaught of the computer industry, whether all texts will soon only be reproduced and accessed digitally and the book publishing industry disappear etc. But there is also a more interesting literature on the book, which seeks to find ways of understanding the nature of this long-lasting phenomenon as a multi-sensorial, multi-faceted, overall experience of the eye, the hand, the mind, the heart, that can still speak to us in the twenty-first century. Are you in touch with this literature? Are you aware of such writers as Johanna Drucker, Robert Bringhurst, Betty Bright, Umberto Eco? Or others? If so, to what extent is the literature of interest or importance to you?
Denise: I understand the need for discussion/debate surrounding the longevity of “the book” in an age when there are so many alternative ways for people to communicate with each other. I am not in touch with this literature. However, I believe that as long as people put pen/pencil to paper and feel the urge to make their ideas and thoughts visible, there will be a place for books.
Codex: Most of those who, as the old saying has it, ‘make book’, do so by way of writing and/or printing. In our time, there are college and university courses in the United States where writers, artists and printers can collaborate to make works that none of them would have made on their own. Does collaboration interest you? If so, why? If not, why?
Denise: I have collaborated with specialists in other fields in order to produce a particular art work and found it very worthwhile and informative. Under certain circumstances I believe this process does have merit.
Codex: Over time, we all change, develop, grow, diverge in what we do. Do you have a sense of growth in your book-making? A place you’d like to get to? Are there parts of the process you’d like to develop to a higher level?
Denise: Making a book or folio is part of my overall arts practice. Therefore, as with everything I do, I can see changes, but I don’t know that I would use the term “higher level”. Everything comes from ‘within’, the result of experience and observation. Every new art work makes its own demands, often requiring a different approach in methodology and materials. The artist has to be open to the challenge.
Codex: What’s next? Are you working on something you could talk about?
Denise: Currently I am working on two projects; firstly a suite of ten colored intaglio and relief prints based around the theme of fish, fishing vessels and fishermen (which all constitute a world apart). Marine life is being fished to exhaustion and in recent decades fishing as a way of life has changed forever. Secondly, several construction pieces made from cardboard and found objects touching on the same theme but also a visual response to the plight of the boat people attempting to reach Australia.
Codex: What’s next for you bookmaking as a whole – how do you see it developing over the next few years?
Denise: A method of housing prints together with associated found objects is something that is evolving slowly and I can see the potential for merging the printed images with the constructions. I like the sense of tradition in the making of a book, of using a craft or skill that has remained largely unchanged for centuries, much like intaglio printing; a 21st century etching press uses the same principles as the very earliest wooden press, only the materials have changed. I like the idea of combining traditional methods with contemporary materials and this has the potential for collaboration with people offering a different range of skills and expertise.
Codex: Denise Campbell, thank you very much for spending the time on my questions. I look forward to seeing more of your work soon, as much as I hope that others too will discover the pleasures of the lovely mix of text, image, colour and materials that make your books alive in the hands. Thank you.
Education: Launceston Technical College, School of Art; Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, 1970-74. Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, 1974-75 and 1980-81.
Fellow-in-Printmaking, Exeter College of Art & Design, Devon, England, 1983-84. Artists-in-Residence, Soulisquoy Printmaking Workshop, Kirkwall, Orkney, 1993.
Part-time Lecturer in Printmaking, Launceston College of Technical & Further Education, 1976-95.
She has held over 25 solo exhibitions between 1974 and 2011 largely in Tasmania, but also The Netherlands and Orkney, Scotland. Participated in 30 group exhibitions in Australia, Japan, America and U.K. Her work is represented in Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery; Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery; Regional galleries; Artbank, Sydney; Fuiji Keori, Japan; Exeter College of Art & Design; Private collections, U.S.A., U.K.; The Netherlands.