Karen Hanmer

Artists' Books & Installation


Printmaking Today May 2010 Sarah Bodman

Karen Hanmer book artist and designer bookbinder

Karen Hanmer lives and works in Chicago, Illinois but regularly exhibits across the USA and further afield. Hanmer is an interesting practitioner as she crosses over the fields of both artists’ books and designer binding - producing small editions of books, larger editions of inexpensive multiples, installations, and traditional bindings which respond to authors’ works. She defines herself as an artist who makes works that can sometimes be classified as books, and her intense study of traditional binding skills has also made her an expert designer bookbinder.

Hanmer initially moved into the field of books from her work as a photographer around 1997 (having been interested in playing with her father’s cameras from an early age), using the book format to solve some of the problems with the lack of tactility in her photographic work. Using the book to permit visual and physical contact with her audience, Hanmer started to combine several photographs into one piece, adding text to the images and creating three-dimensional structures to contain them. She enjoys exploring narrative, quality of materials, surface texture and unusual book structures to offer a sense of play and engagement for her audience. Hanmer also works with installation, but most of all appreciates the portable and intimate format of the book, allowing her to show her work to interested parties wherever she is. The act of assembling her books allows her also to engage with tactility herself, using her hands rather than distancing herself from the physical production process of using machines like a computer or camera.

One thing that her artists’ books, multiples and design bindings have in common is that they are based on her inquisitive nature; asking why computer programmers love the code they write, what people are seeking when they look out into the night sky, how prime numbers or aviation work. Hanmer is also inspired by her family’s background in engineering, she has a natural interest in how things work and are put together, which comes across in her book structures and binding designs.

A recent example of Hanmer’s fine binding work is Jeff Porter’s Oppenheimer is Watching Me: A Memoir, which she completed in 2009. The design was inspired as she explains, “by the author’s vignettes of growing up during the Cold War with both the paranoia of nuclear attack and a landscape filled with playful pop culture atomic references”. It also reflects Hanmer’s interest in the beauty and decorative nature of scientific models.

Hanmer has an intuitive sense of design when planning a book, which is often done whilst researching a subject. She makes many notes of the themes, places and objects inherent to the subject, and will visually determine the appearance of the artwork emerging from her research.

Celestial Navigation (2008) and Star Poems (2008) have both materialised from her study of the sky at night. She began the project in 2001 after realising that less densely populated areas than her hometown of suburban Chicago do get dark at night, enabling a study of the stars. As it occurred to her that people have been gazing at the stars since the beginning of time, Hanmer explored what modern or ancient people might be seeking when they looked at the stars, and also what she would be looking for herself.

Both books can be held in the hand to read the text, but can also be folded in an infinite number of sculptural shapes or unfolded flat in the manner of historical astronomical charts. The background of each book is a photograph of the Milky Way, and the books are also sometimes shown within an installation of 6 feet high panels of Japanese paper printed with an image of the Milky Way. These panels create a kind of stage for viewing the artists’ books which reaffirms the vastness of their subject matter.

Hanmer is currently producing more works for, and curating a show on the theme of the night sky that will open in the summer of 2012 at the Evanston Art Center in Evanston, Illinois. Links to details, a complete catalogue of Hanmer’s work and a calendar for 2010 and beyond are online at http://www.karenhanmer.com