Karen Hanmer

Artists' Books & Installation


Interview with Roxanne Samer for Chicago Art Magazine, Summer 2010


Can you tell me how you began in book arts? When did you start? What drew you to the medium? Why book arts as opposed to some other medium?

I came to book arts from photography. I did my own darkroom work, but still I wanted more of a physical connection with my work than the camera and darkroom gave me. I felt too removed from the processes that created the image. So I experimented coating odd papers with emulsion, using pinhole, photographing myself. In 1997 I had a project in mind that involved combining text and image on hinged panels. I got a designer friend to show me the basics of PhotoShop, and found a bookbinder to teach me how to make the simple book-like structures. I liked how it felt to make books. I also liked that the viewer could connect physically with the work. It seemed to be a much better way to work with text and narrative than a series of 2D photos hung on the wall.

From what I can tell you do not have a BFA or MFA in the field. How have you been able to develop your art through classes and workshops and/or other ways? Who/what institutions have been the most helpful in this regard?

I’ve taken workshops at Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. They have a graduate program, but also offer a different set of classes to the community. I also study with Scott Kellar, a Chicago bookbinder and conservator. I am a member of The Guild of Book Workers, a professional organization for the book arts. They have an annual conference with demonstrations by leaders in the field, and the regional chapters offer workshops. I take an annual series of masters classes in traditional binding offered by The American Academy of Bookbinding, based in Telluride, CO, but also offering classes in Ann Arbor, MI. I’ve also attended Paper Book Intensive, an annual event where participants take three intensive book arts related workshops over a ten day period. I learn a lot when I teach and lecture – it forces me to clarify what I am doing and why, and developing a workshop is a good opportunity to examine the technical aspects of bookbinding more closely.

Having read your statement online, it seems as if the subject matter you address in your books stems both from personal narrative and an interest in pop culture. Is this fair to say? How do you pick your subjects? Why do you pick the subjects that you do?

Personal history, cultural history, the history of science and occasionally current events. I attribute this eclectic mix to my liberal arts background. I did not learn how to do any specific job in college, but I was exposed to a wide sampling of subjects and learned an appreciation for most of them. I learned to be interested in many different things, and how to draw connections across disparate fields, locations, and time periods.

My work could be inspired by something I read, an interesting set of photographs I come across, or something in literature or history that seems to match with current events. Sometimes I make work for an exhibit that has a theme chosen by the curator. I try to find something I’m already interested in that can fit.

Can you tell me about the various guilds & book art associations you are associated with in the Midwest? What is their function & how do they work? Do having these groups around make your work less of an isolated practice? Do they let you develop your creativity with like-minded artists?

Most of my friends are members of The Guild of Book Workers. The Midwest regional chapter covers an area from Ohio across the Plains states and as far south as Kentucky, so I don’t get together with these friends and colleagues in person very often. The local group Chicago Hand Bookbinders dissolved at the end of last year. I do keep in touch with out of town book arts friends by phone and email, to discuss what we’re working and send photos of finished work. Several times a year I’ll get together with a friend for a brief vacation to work in the studio together so we can learn from each other and enjoy some camaraderie.

Can you describe your process more generally? How does a project begin? How does it materialize? Where do you get your imagery? Your text?

The content almost always comes first for me – I’ll write out some rough text and start matching it up with images. Then I see how it will work with a variety of book structures. Once the structure starts to become defined, I’ll work on the content and structure in tandem until the piece is completed. I make lots of prototypes, four or five or sometimes many many more if it is a complex piece, experimenting with different materials, sizes, which illustrations to use, text edits, various book structures.

I’ll use family photographs or images from public domain sources, or something old enough to be out of copyright. Occasionally photographs I’ve taken. I don’t draw, so if I need an illustration, I work with Henry Maron, a Chicago artist I met through Chicago Hand Bookbinders. Sometimes I write the text myself, but I prefer to use quotes or first person accounts. The text may come from literature, interviews, or historic speeches.

Have you exhibited recently in the Midwest? Are there any Midwest exhibits on the horizon?

I had three pieces in the Rockford Art Museum’s Midwestern Biennial at the beginning of the year. One of my books won the award for Best 3-D work. It was good not just for me but for the entire field, that they chose a book over sculpture, assemblage or some kind of installation work. A traveling show I curated for Guild of Book Workers opened last year at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and is at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County until the end of August.

I’ve had work in several other shows at the Minnesota Center for Book arts this year and I’ve just begun working on a piece for a Halloween-themed book show curated by Chicago book artist Shawn Sheehy that will be up in October at Ragdale, the artist colony in Lake Forest. In the fall and through next spring I’ll have work in a Guild of Book Workers Midwest Chapter exhibit that will travel to four universities in Illinois, Michigan and Iowa.