In my last post on why I’m skipping the “Photo 2.0” upgrade, I outlined the signs I’ve seen that artists are leaving the on-line, digital realm of presenting work and returning to, or newly embracing, physical objects as the output of their artistic practice. None of this is surprising because people who buy and collect art are looking for physical objects, be it original works, fine prints, sculptures, or hand crafted books. They appreciate the choices artists make about the process that was used, which paper was used, what materials with different textures and smells were used, the size and shape of the print/book/painting. These same choices and opportunities create work that can be experienced on a richer, deeper level that is more compelling to both artist and audience.
Leading these changes are artists who are not only producing fine art objects, but are selflessly helping others who want to extend their artistic practice in that direction. One such person is Lauren Henkin, a remarkable artist from Portland who in recent years has produced a series of extraordinary hand crafted fine art books of several compelling bodies of work. Lauren has a full time day job, and takes on art projects that might last a year from initial concept to completion and require many late nights in the studio. Yet she also chooses to spend a great deal of time and effort encouraging other artists who want to improve their work and produce finely crafted work, by maintaining a pretty busy teaching schedule. Her drive and generosity of spirit is truly remarkable.
This weekend I was one of seven students in a two day workshop Lauren gave at Lúz Gallery in Victoria entitled “Turning Towards Self-Publishing”. Having taken a workshop on marketing previously with Lauren, I knew that I could expect a well organized, comprehensive presentation given with clarity, kindness, wit and with a sensitivity to the different needs of individual students. And that was exactly the experience I had in this new workshop.
I think one of Lauren’s great gifts, and what makes her an outstanding teacher, is her generosity in sharing her personal experiences and stories as they relate to the subject at hand. In this case, she shared the pitfalls and mistakes she went through with her first book project; she share financial details, and time commitment requirements of her projects so that we could fully understand the scope of each of the different book projects she’s completed. There are not many teachers who would be so open about their experiences.
The topics covered in the first day and a half were comprehensive, including details on how to finance a project, how to find and work with collaborators (e.g. designers, bookbinders, letterpress artists), how to learn the difference between different types of handcrafted books (important for conversing with various dealers and librarians), how to structure a project from beginning to end, when and how to build an audience for your book, how to market the book, how to increase your chances of recovering the costs of the project and gaining income beyond that. We also looked at many examples of different fine press and artists’ books in our hands – Lauren shipped four boxes from her personal library to share with us. We were introduced to the wide variety of paper choices for bookmaking, and cloth/paper choices for binding from sample books that she brought. There was also a presentation on elements of designing a book, and inspiring examples of the many different forms artists’ books take.
You’re probably reading this, thinking that no matter how well organized the workshop was, that sounds like an overwhelming amount of information, and how could anyone possibly retain enough of it. In addition to the excellent instruction, Lauren had prepared a 65 page course manual that can be used by each of us as a resource after the workshop. In the words of one student “this manual alone is worth more than the cost of this workshop”.
The final afternoon was spent looking at prints each student brought of bodies of work they were considering for a book project. Lauren engaged the entire class in considering each other’s work, how it related to the intent of the project, what were the strongest images that relayed that message, and how could those images be effectively sequenced. This was done in a very supportive, sensitive way and was in itself a great learning experience.
I took away three important lessons from this workshop, each of which I think illustrates what a great teacher Lauren is, and how well she connects to her students. The first important lesson was her caution that making books takes time away from photographing/drawing/painting – i.e. making content. She encouraged us to think carefully about that and whether delving into book making was consistent with the goals of our art practice. The second important lesson was her encouragement that everyone take on a project that would have be consistent with the time we were prepared to devote to it, even if it was a small project that didn’t involved producing a bound book. While she had given us the information and tools to tackle complex projects, it was clear that she supports and encourages artists who are willing to take on a book project regardless of whether it’s relatively simple or complex. The third important lesson was her relentless requirement that whatever we choose to do, that we do it to the highest level of craft possible, out of respect to the quality and beauty of the images we are each producing.
It’s that final lesson that has defined every outstanding teacher I’ve ever had, and Lauren is firmly in that group.