Karen Hanmer

Artists' Books & Installation


Interview with Columbia College Chicago Book and Paper Arts MFA candidate April Llewellyn, Spring, 2010

Karen Hanmer is an artist from Chicago who brings together issues of personal memory, cultural memory , and scientific history through the mediums of bookarts, fine binding, and installation art. Her pieces—playful, immersive, and reflective--range from computer punchcard ephemera to board games inspired by her family to books about the economic crisis or the space age or wheatfields to installation companion pieces. Nice.

I was introduced to her when she taught a bookbinding workshop at Columbia College Chicago's Center for Book and Paper Arts, and learning about this mix of memories in her work from Hanmer herself was a great beginning for finding out more about her process, which relates well to how many contemporary artists handle their work.

AL: You discuss this mix of personal and cultural memory in your books and installations in a way that allows the viewer to experience a more universal understanding of personal biography. How do you find a way to balance the personal and the universal?

KH: I’m getting better at this. I’ve just gotten more sophisticated in how I deal with personal content over the years I’ve been working. I used to lecture, and I’d give too much personal information – this is a challenge for artists whose work is autobiographical. People in the audience would ask questions that addressed my personal life, not the work (“how old were you when your mother died?” “Who took care of you?”). Now I’m able to make my work and talk about my work and leave my personal journey behind the scenes. Even in the work I made as a direct response to the death of my father. This may also have something to do with me aging. When I was making my first book project I had gotten very curious about my mother again. I interviewed my aunts and uncles and wrote down everything I could remember about her. Now I’m older than she was when she died. I usually think of her from the standpoint of and adult woman considering the thoughts, feelings and experiences of another adult woman of roughly the same age.

Some of my work addresses a lost loved one. It is usually pretty cryptic who that person is. In my very first books it was pretty obvious that it was my mother. Now if someone who does not know me sees the work they are probably more likely to think I’m addressing a former lover. In these works I do not say “my mother,” I address the person directly as “you.” If there are no images of who the “you” is, or no images of any person, it is very easy for the viewer to substitute someone for their own experience.

The use of the vintage images helps also. My family snapshots probably look pretty much like everyone else’s, and establish a time and place that is not so difficult to put one’s self into. The historical images I use have a familiar look to them even if people have not seen these particular images before. Similarly, the particular historical quotes or incidents or quotes from literature I refer to or I use in my work may not be familiar, but will probably have a familiar feel to anyone within 20 years of my age with a liberal arts education.

This makes me curious how someone from another country would respond to my work.

AL: How do you see and measure the desired effect of your work? It seems like this relates to this mix of scientific and personal itself--that your way of finding out if a model works has some experimental leanings.

KH: When I’m working on a new book I’ll carry my prototypes around with me ask for feedback from friends I see, both artists and non artists. They do not always navigate through the piece in the way I planned, and it is not unusual that people manipulate the structure in ways I never imagined. If one person does not move through the book in the way I intended, I can think they do not “get” it. If person after person does not, I can be stubborn and think they are all “doing it wrong.” But if I want to communicate with the viewer, this feedback is valuable. I can use what I observed to make the modifications that are necessary so they will have the experience I intended, or change my expectations about what the viewer will come away with from the piece.

AL: A lot of your recent work incorporates with fine and design-binding (where a certain book is given a well-designed and crafted binding to reflect the contents). How does this fit into the bookarts world? How do you view this in light of the rest of your work?

KH: I find it very, very odd (and supremely frustrating) that the fine binding I do, arguably the most "normal" thing, as it is a very fancy extension of traditional utilitarian bookbinding, is the thing that people are least likely to "get". Even artists, or maybe especially artists. Maybe it is the art vs. craft thing. Also, it is my observation that book arts programs are much more about printmaking and content, and the binding component is a smaller part of the education, and traditional book forms are not emphasized. I know design binding is not something most people come into contact with, but it seems quite logical to me that when binding/rebinding a book, an artist would do a little something extra and make a design that references the content. A likely response to the work is the question "Is it a blank book?"

I don’t worry about where my activities in this area “fit”, I just do the work. I find it to be one more way to work with material I am interested in.

As I am becoming a little bit known in the field, lecture to book arts groups about the full range of my work and take on leadership roles (Exhibitions Chair for GBW, and I serve on the editorial board of The Bonefolder, the peer-reviewed online book arts journal), I am well positioned to introduce contemporary design binding to book arts people unfamiliar with or dismissive of this kind of work.

AL: Something I've been really intrigued about is that you make the work affordable for a wide variety of audiences: on your website you clearly publicize your "thrifty picks" alongside your more intensive and expensive work, which is something I haven't seen other artists do. What are your motivations for this--is it influenced by our economy and times, a larger goal for broadcasting book arts, or is it some combination that includes further considerations?

KH: I didn’t always have the “Thrifty Picks” as a separate category on my website, but I do remember the day I got the idea to do this, and how excited I was about the idea, and how pleased I was that I was able to come up with a catchy name – in fact two other book artist/gallery owners have asked me if they could use the name for selling inexpensive work from their galleries (I said I’d rather they did not and gave them suggestions for similar names: frugal finds, prudent picks, etc.)

The primary market for my work has been university libraries. Individuals seldom buy my work. I thought if I separated out the Thrifty Picks I might sell more work to individuals, or to institutions with smaller budgets or wanting to spend a lower amount per acquisition. Maybe even get people to buy something small, fall in love with my work, and buy a more expensive item. (This has not happened.)

If I make something that can be made inexpensively (time plus materials) I’ll add it to that category of the website, but I don’t spend a lot of time trying to think of ideas for more modest items. There are a lot of book artists making work in the under $100 price range, so I don’t feel a responsibility to the field to make work that anyone can afford. Maybe not everyone can afford an artists’ book made by me, but most people who want an artists’ book can afford one by someone.

I don’t think the affordability of my own work will have any effect at all on the visibility of the book arts. I hope my work with the Guild of Book Workers, exhibits of my own work, interesting my non artist friends in what I am doing, and lecturing for friends’ photography or other art classes has an impact there. My husband has been able to interest some of his engineer colleagues in what I am doing.

My work on the editorial board of The Bonefolder is more “preaching to the choir,” but I hope it introduces people involved with the book (teachers, conservators, fine binders, book artists papermakers, printmakers, and on and on) in some way to other aspects of the field, and fosters mutual respect and camaraderie among diverse practitioners.

AL: Further, it seems like you do a lot of teaching with your work and techniques, and of course, this is how we were introduced. Is this to extend your accessibility, or a way that modern artists support themselves--how do you see this element of teaching in your process?

I don’t do a whole lot of teaching. I’ve been doing a lot of teaching and lecturing this year, but it usually evens out to just a couple of workshops and lectures a year. I don’t actively seek out the opportunities, but if someone expresses interest, I’ll send a proposal. It is usually for a regional book arts group in another part of the country or in conjunction with an exhibit of my work. I spent much of last year curating a traveling exhibition for the Guild of Book Workers, and some opportunities have come from that.

Lecturing and teaching the occasional workshop is not terribly lucrative, especially once the prep time is factored in. I am enjoying passing on helpful tips I’ve learned, and having a platform to present aspects of the book and the field that are important to me.

Often I come up with more interesting or efficient ways of doing something when I have to think or write about what I am doing in preparation for presenting the material.

Sometimes I pick up tips from the students.

Many book artists teach at universities or work as conservators. Since I am not with an institution, the teaching I do is a way for me to be connected with other artists – usually my hosts at the workshop/lecture venue, but sometimes there are more advanced people taking my workshops.

One aspect of teaching that can be frustrating for me is that the workshop students are often taking the workshop more as entertainment, and will probably never make work independently outside of a workshop setting. But then other students really amaze me by using the structure in a way that I never would have thought of.

AL: Along that line, what do you find to be the most enjoyable reaction to your work?

KH: When I see people really taking time with a piece to see what it is about, appreciate the nuances of how it is made – both how the piece is crafted physically and how the content is crafted.

When someone is able to map their personal experience to whatever I have hinted at in the more autobiographical work and the work touches them in that way. I showed my first books in a small group show. The woman on the wall around the corner from me had work about language and cognition. People would look at her work and think or be puzzled. Then people would go on to look at my work and FEEL something. Some of them would leave with tears in their eyes. The woman with the cerebral work said to me “I hope you’re glad you’re making everyone miserable.” I was – I was delighted that I was able to get an emotional response.

AL: We're delighted for you to share this with us. Thank you.

Karen Hanmer has had her work exhibited in such venues as Tate Britain, the Library of Congress, Brooklyn Museum, Harvard, and The Center for Book Arts (NYC); solo shows in Florida Atlantic University, University of the West of England Bristol, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (OH)., and traveling exhibitions sponsored by the Guild of Book Workers, the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists' Guild, and Les Amis de la Reliure d'Art du Canada. She is Exhibitions Chair for the Guild of Book Workers, and serves on the editorial board of The Bonefolder, a peer-reviewed online book arts journal.