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August // Book Artist of the Month: Jody Alexander

August 2, 2013 by Erin Fletcher

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Sedimentals is an altered book project that Jody Alexander completed between 2011 and 2012. This collection of art objects include found furniture stuffed with layers of discarded books and fabric. These layers appear like a cross section of sediment revealing treasures between the layers. 

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While reading the interview, you will begin to understand the depth of Jody’s commitment to her materials and characters. This exclusive connection is the cause for such a well-rounded body of work. Her dedication to teaching is just as exceptional, offering her skills to several venues both online and in person. Read the interview after the jump and come back each Monday during the month of August for more posts on Jody Alexander.

Your artwork involves manipulating and revitalizing found and discarded papers, fabrics and objects into historical and modern bindings and installations. What significance does the book as a medium hold in your work?
Even though I have branched out into mixed media artwork and installations there are always books at the core of my artwork. It is what gives my work heart and soul.  It was my “gateway” medium – the book arts really resonated with me and are what led me to other media and eventually installations. Books have depth and are substantive objects and they anchor, and tie together, my mixed media and installations.

The complexity in the construction of your artwork is apparent in the many ‘literal’ layers found in your artist books, altered books and installations. What is your creative process and how do you actualize your concepts? Do you have a dedicated workspace with bindery equipment and other tools?
Materials speak to me. I gather materials and items that attract me without really knowing what I will use them for. As I start playing and working with them my characters, and the concepts surrounding them, emerge.  Occasionally, I will start with a concept or idea I want to work with, but even then the materials, and how they play off each other and speak to one another, take the concept further and deeper.  The process of working is also important to me.  My handwork is often quite time consuming, labor intensive and repetitive and it is during my work time that my mind drifts into a place where I imagine who is making this and why.  The “why” of my characters and the objects “we” make is very important and I’ll touch upon that further later on in the interview.

I have a studio called Wishi Washi Studio in the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, Ca.  It is my happy place.  The studio is filled with old books, papers, fabric and objects that I’m currently working with. I am 100% a hand tool gal and have no heavy equipment except an old copy press that I occasionally use as a book press.  I love my bone and teflon folders, Olfa knife and scalpel and my sewing awl, and mostly make non-adhesive bindings with exposed stitching on the spine – both contemporary and historical.  I also have two old sewing machines that I love to use: a 1940-something Kenmore named Cherry and a 1948 Singer Featherweight named Scottie St. Sophie.  The process of sitting down in front of these old soul metal machines is an experience in and of itself.

There are many character names included in the titles of your work, do you create these characters first or are they manifestations of your pieces?
Usually, my characters and their names come to me while I am working with my materials that include old book pages, found photographs, fabric, threads and a myriad of found objects (things I find on the ground, in thrift stores or that are given to me). As I work, and a pattern or style starts to develop, these questions usually come to me: who would do this? And why?  As I touched upon before, the “why” of my characters is very important.  What is driving them to make this object? To fill their space, feather their nest or pad their cell with these books and objects?  What has occurred in their lives that have caused them to retreat (since most of my characters live a rather solitary existence) and compelled them to create.  The act of creating is as important to my characters as it is to me. I am very inspired by outsider artists and particularly ones that made books: James Castle, Henry Darger and Adolf Wolfli.

Sometimes my characters have names and sometimes they don’t.  With my last installation, Preparing for Evanescence, I consciously pushed the details of my character away.  I didn’t want to know the name, exact situation, or even the gender of this person. I wanted there to be a level of mystery even with myself as I created this person’s house as to exactly what was going on.  All I knew was that this person was gradually disappearing and the objects in his or her home were being prepared accordingly – swaddled, buried, bundled and bound. It was up to the visitors of the installation to fill in the blanks and draw from their own life experiences to finish telling the story.  One of the most fulfilling parts of the exhibit was hearing the different interpretations.

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exhibition view of Preparing for Evanescence

My current character is completely opposite in that I knew her name and her situation before I knew what she was making and I have to say that I miss the mystery.  I am delving further into fiber arts and making soft sculpture, embroidered imagery as well as books that are incorporating drawings and fabric.  The soft sculptures that she is creating are very entertaining, though, and keep me company while I work.

How did you get involved in bookbinding and the book arts? Were you trained at an institution or are you self-taught? Have you always incorporated books into your artwork?
While working on my Master’s Degree in Library Science at Simmons College in Boston one of my professors, Dr. Wolfgang Freitag, introduced the class to artists’ books in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  I was blown away.  These objects were the perfect amalgamation of my interest in books and art (I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History from U.C.L.A.).  I proceeded to dedicate the rest of my course work and special projects at Simmons to learning about book arts, and as soon I finished my degree I started taking classes in bookmaking, printmaking and papermaking.  Being in Boston was a perfect place for this as I was able to take continuing education courses at Mass Art, the Museum School and North Bennett Street School.  While I would have loved to enroll in the full-time North Bennett Street School program I found myself with student loans and a baby on the way so I made do with taking classes when and where I could and working at the dining room table.  I think that is where my love of working with hand tools and making non-adhesive exposed spine bindings, came from.  Out of necessity, I had to keep things simple, safe and non-toxic so that things could be stored away at a moment’s notice.  Even though I now have a studio I continue to work in that same way.

Books have always been an important part of my artwork.  While I dabbled in art before making books, it was bookmaking that really caught with me and made sense.  I loved the intimacy inherent to books – that looking at an artist’s book was a very personal experience.  And, although my artwork has jumped off of the page on into rooms and on the walls, I am still telling stories and the books remain central to my work.

In addition to your art, you teach book art workshops at various venues like the San Francisco Center for the Book and The Center for Book Arts in New York, as well as, online at CreativeBug. What type of workshops do you teach and what aspects of teaching do you enjoy? Does your teaching strategy and experiences differ from online to live venues?
In the past, I have taught workshops at numerous centers as well as college level book arts course.  Teaching a semester long college book arts course was challenging but also quite fulfilling to take art students through the basics of bookmaking, teaching them various structures, introducing them to the potential of content and then see them create these amazing book art projects at the end of the term.  Workshops are great, too, in that we can focus on one structure or process and then we are done and on our way at the end of the day or weekend.  The best part of teaching for me is what I learn from my students. So many of them are accomplished artists who come to me to learn bookmaking and often have a wealth of knowledge to share in addition to interesting little techniques and tips of their own.

I have recently delved into online teaching with Creativebug, a start-up company in San Francisco.  This has been a unique experience for me being someone who doesn’t even like having her picture taken.  Being filmed took me way outside of my comfort zone but I am so glad I did it.  It has been a wonderful way for me to teach beyond my physical locale and it is a great resource for my students who need a reminder or refresher on a specific binding, or step.  I think we all agree that in-person classes are the best way to learn but on-line classes offer an option if in-person is simply not possible.  I love it that Creativebug encourages face-to-face learning but also realizes that it isn’t always possible or that in-person classes can be augmented with on-line learning.  They offer a unique structure where you can get a monthly subscription to their site and gain unlimited access to their classes.  So, if you need a reminder on how to do a specific embroidery stitch or help getting through that tricky part of Coptic binding you have the site at your fingertips.  Students can also purchase classes a la carte, such as Coptic Binding, who may not have anyone in their area who teaches it.  The Creativebug workshops are professionally, and creatively, filmed so that each step is clear and materials and tools are gone over in detail. I’m hoping that my involvement with Creativebug provides a wider audience access to book arts.

Jody’s workshops available through Creativebug can be found here.

You’ve recently begun teaching workshops in your own space called Wishi Washi Studio at the Tannery Art Studio. Can you talk a bit about the studio space, workshops available and what type of events you host?
People often enter my studio space with very wide eyes.  I have a lot of “stuff” in there: art on the walls, shelves full of books, library card catalog drawers filled with tools and supplies, sewing machines, found items tucked here and there, and rugs on the floor.  Visitors often use the word “homey” when visiting my studio.  This is where I work on my art and teach small workshops.  The workshops are usually one day and focus on a specific book structure, technique or process.  I also invite guest instructors to teach, too, which is a great way to bring unique classes to the Santa Cruz area.  Occasionally, I will open my doors for a group visit or open studio event and have hosted gatherings of the local book arts group.  The Tannery Arts Center is an incredibly vibrant and creative place to be – the halls are filled with dancing, printmaking, metalworking, glassblowing, kids art classes, etc. that are spilling out of the various studios.  Please come and visit sometime!


1 Comment »

  1. […] Update:  Erin Fletcher at Flash of the Hand has tracked down Jody Alexander for an interview (2 August 2013). […]

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