Fiona Dempster: Exploring Collaboration

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This paper was presented by Fiona Dempster at the inaugural Association of Book Crafts conference, themed Inside/Outside: A Case for the Book, held at the Auckland University of Technology campus in Auckland, 24-26 October 2014. Her collaborator, Susan Bowers, was sitting in the audience.

Exploring Collaboration

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I must start by saying that my presentation on collaboration is likely to be different to the kind of collaboration most of you are familiar with – the inter-disciplinary collaboration between different professions – poets, binders, printmakers. Instead it is about collaboration within the same discipline – between book artists.

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Susan Bowers and I live in a beautiful part of the world – the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Despite knowing each other a bit, the story of our collaboration starts as many good stories do – through random and serendipitous good fortune. As I checked my diary at a meeting about something else back in 2012, I noticed that UNESCO’s International Book Day was on 23 April, and said “we should get together and make a book”. From this throw-away line has emerged a beautiful body of work, much joy and wonder, and a deepening understanding of the many forms collaboration can take. Susan is here today, and this is the story of our work together, and my ponderings on collaboration.

Here’s the Oxford dictionary definition of collaboration.

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For the purposes of today I think we can choose not to focus on the second definition, although in many ways my earliest collaborations did feel a bit like that!

I was asked to collaborate on an edition of books to be used as gifts. I thought that meant we’d decide together what would go in it; how it would look, what words we’d use and so on. I discovered it actually meant – “when I’m finished designing it all can you stitch the books up please”? All creative control rested with the requestor. I did it but I swore off collaborating ever again. For my presentation today I’ll be exploring the many ways in which we can collaborate in the making of artists’ books. I think it can be more than producing an edition of books with designers, printmakers, editioners and box-makers all playing their part along the way.

From my early experiences, I was wary of the collaboration where you only get to do what somebody else wants you to do. I have come to think of this as sub-contracting not collaboration.

And in my mind, Collaboration ≠ Sub-contracting

For something to be a true collaboration, for me, the focus needs to be much more on the doing and deciding together, the trust and reciprocity that lie within asking somebody else to contribute to your work. Susan and I have now completed 8 collaborative books each and have a couple more planned. With each book we have attempted to collaborate in a different way. My presentation shows you glimpses of our books, as well as look at a framework for collaborating and the essentials of successful collaboration.

Pas de Deux 1

InSlide06 our very first book, we weren’t even sure we were going to collaborate – we were just going to get together a make a book.

 

We had full control over the size, the shape, the binding, the theme of our own book. Yet we could see where the other had added to the content. The working title for our collaborative work emerged from Susan’s blog post on this first joint experience.

She wrote, “I don’t dance though today it felt as though I was.  Dance isn’t really the right word for what happened today and I think pas de deux (steps of two) may come close to the mark”. I reflected back that “Pas de deux goes close to describing the way we worked – there was a hint of music too – one led, the other followed, they set up a new movement, the other responded…”

Pas de Deux 2

We were each then free to choose from the materials offered, to use them all or not, and to build a book of our own around the materials.

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When we each speak of these books, we recall how hard it was to work with the dark palette (me) or the light palette (Susan) and how we struggled to make them our own; yet we did.

 

Pas de Deux 3

Our third book was all about collaborating at the beginning. Each of us had the exact same set of envelopes to work with. Then once again, the freedom was ours to go away and make the artworks, the content that sat within the structure. We simply set the scene in a collaborative manner, then let each other take off.

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Pas de Deux 4

For book four, we did another three step-dance (like book 1) but this time with the added constraint of a title and page limitations (Starry Starry Night, seven pages).

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When I received Susan’s pages I felt they were complete artworks and couldn’t work on them; she looked at mine and said the story’s told already! But we each pushed and found a way to make our marks on each other’s work. We received our pages back and went on tell different stories, once the other’s work had been included in them.

Pas de Deux 5

Book 5 was a book for travelling – a little something to play with whilst Susan was on the road for a few months.  We set the same materials, size and themes, We had 16 squares each – one side b&w graphic, the other side about journeys. On her return we blended the pages by sharing half and half with each other.

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Pas de Deux 6

We were surprised that by book 6 we could still find different ways to consider collaborating. This time around we chose to work with exactly the same materials and images as our starting point, using small prints that each of us had prepared for a printmakers’ exhibition.

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We agreed to a square book format and then off we went. Amazing how different the same images can look after two artists have been making books with them! Our themes ended up quite differently as well.

Pas de Deux 7

In a slightly more conservative manner we collaboratively chose the theme and shared our expertise as we made book 7. We worked alongside each other, helping, sharing, testing ideas and nudging each other along. We asked the other to do the bits we couldn’t – in effect we sub-contracted! We sought assistance for a specific action – I asked Susan to draw and emboss a nest for me and a wing, and I wrote her selected words for her. We produced unique books, rather than an edition.

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The wing I asked Susan to draw and emboss for me; I added the writing I added to Susan’s book.

Pas de Deux 8

Our most recent book has been a collaborative planning and working together effort. We collaborated in our thinking, planning and working out about how the parameters could be interpreted. Together we learnt a new skill (solar plate etching) and sat together encouraging each other. We undertook a mind mapping exercise.

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Collaboration

After such a horrible initial ‘collaboration’ and then experiencing such a wonderful and beautiful collaboration, my quest in a way, has been to try and make it clearer and easier to understand what it means when somebody asks you to collaborate with them. Or of course for you to be clear when you ask somebody else to collaborate with you!

As we went along, we often sat and spoke about what it is we are doing, where and how is collaboration possible? How can we think about it or group it somehow so it makes sense? I was fascinated by the unfolding process, and was fortunate that Susan would bear with me as we tested these ideas and explored what we thought was happening.

In the end I came to the view that we could build on a format that exists within the book arts, that is at least recognisable, if not familiar, to most who work in the area.  It seemed to me that we could begin to talk about artists’ book collaboration in terms of Content, Materials and Structure. And because collaboration is a verb, we can also include Making.

Content – when Susan and I worked on each other’s pages, created imagery or a theme, we were collaborating around the content of the final book.

Materials – when we gave each other materials to work with, when we used the very same materials as a starting point we were collaborating around our materials.

Structure – when we dictated the number of pages or the binding of the finished book we were collaborating around the structure of the book.

Making – when we actively helped each other in the making of a book, mentored each other along the way and problem solved together – we collaborated in the process of making. This has changed from no involvement to high involvement as we have gone along.

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Here’s the beginnings of a framework for thinking about how and where we can collaborate in the making of artists’ books (left).

We haven’t done all of these, but I think they are possible

 

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And here’s how we collaborated on each book, using the framework idea.

The double/triple ticks mean we did this in a couple of ways.

But then there is something more elusive that forms part of collaboration – something about the process itself and the attitude you bring to it. As I explore collaboration I think that a successful collaborative process involves:

  • Shared decision-making around which elements we will collaborate on;
  • Supporting each other as we explore how to pursue the challenges of a collaborative book;
  • Holding the other and their work and style at the front of our minds, and not doing anything that would overwhelm or work against them;
  • Honouring your own work and trying to make your best book;
  • Being given the autonomy to make your own mark in your own way;
  • A sense of guiding and suggesting, hinting or encouraging; rather than directing, telling or dictating;
  • Reciprocity and exchange – taking your work and giving it to somebody to do something with, receiving it back and continuing to work with it;
  • Commitment to completion – it doesn’t work if you both don’t deliver and meet your commitments.

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A schema to represent my ideas. Shared decision-making is at the heart of a successful collaboration. You collaborate on these elements, but what holds it all together is the attitude that surrounds it.

Pas de Deux 9, 10 & Beyond

We have two more books planned – a burning book.

And to finish up – a slightly more traditional collaboration – working together on a theme, designing the book, Susan doing the artwork, me doing the lettering and creating an edition of up to 50 books.

For anybody in Queensland or wanting to visit Noosa – we are exhibiting Pas de Deux as well as our own individual works at Noosa Regional Gallery 12 October – 22 November 2015.

These are some of our discoveries as we have gone along….

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Here is how you can contact us after the Conference.

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Thank you and I wish you happy collaborations! A good collaboration can truly be one of the most satisfying experiences in the making world.

 

About the author/s

Fiona Dempster

Fiona Dempster is a calligraphic and book artist based in Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. She loves books, words, marks and text, and her work is generally elegant, spare and restrained; seeking the essence of things rather than an elaborate and complex expression of them. Fiona has studied calligraphy since she was young and has developed fine skills in both calligraphy and as a bookmaker. Her work is often paper-based and takes the form of books; however, she also works with metal, timber and Perspex to express words and texts in ways that take calligraphy off the page and into the outdoors.

Fiona was a finalist in the 2010 and 2013 Libris Book Awards, the 2009 and 2011 Southern Cross University’s Acquisitive Artists’ Book Award and the 2011 and 2013 East Gippsland Artist Book Award. Her work is held in private collections in Australia, the USA and Japan. Her work is also in the collections of the State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia USA; University of California Santa Barbara, California USA; Otis College of Art and Design Los Angeles, California USA; Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota, USA; Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia USA; Emory University, Georgia USA; Lafayette College, Pennsylvania USA; University of Washington, Washington USA; and Baylor University, Texas USA.

Susan Bowers is an artist residing in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Her background is in painting, drawing and design, and her more recent explorations and passion centre around etching and artist’s books.