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March // Book Artist of the Month: Sarah McDermott

March 2, 2013 by Erin Fletcher

problemsofscale1-sarahmcdermottIn 2011, Sarah McDermott of Kidney Press created Problems of Scale; an artist book exploring the syntax of a short prose poem by Joanna Ruocco. Sarah laid out all of the phrases and examined the relationships between each phrase and then used that as the framework for the book layout. An overarching relationship between two people is represented on the vellum overlays, which are tipped in to a modified hardcover long-stitch binding. The text was letterpress printed with metal type on a combination of Hahnemuhle Bugra, Chartham vellum and handmade abaca paper. In addition polymer plates for letterpress printing were made by hand with Rubylith cutouts and scratched negatives. The book is housed in a slipcase.

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On a visit to the New York Center for Book Arts, I saw Sarah’s work for the first time. I thought Problems of Scale was beautifully crafted as both an art object and a book structure. I’m really excited about this interview, her determination for making art and outlook on teaching are quite inspiring. Check back each Monday for posts featuring more artist books, as well as Sarah’s print work. 

You received your MFA in Book Arts at the University of Alabama in 2010. Can you talk about your training in the book arts at UA and how you decided to get into book arts and printmaking?
I’ve taken a somewhat indirect path toward this field. I have always liked making things, but I didn’t take art in middle/high school because I clashed with the art teacher’s conservative approach. In my twenties I started to get more into my own drawing practice and learned how to screenprint, inspired by the amazing art happening in Providence, RI where I was living. At the time I was working doing light construction/carpentry with two contractor friends. I then moved to Uruguay for a year and ended up hanging out at several vibrant collective printshops. I got inspired to learn printing and when I came back to the U.S. and moved to N.Y.C. I started to do work-study at the Center for Book Arts. All of the letterpress classes were full so I took bookbinding classes and really liked them, finding it kind of like carpentry but on a more appropriate scale for my body (smallish). After a year and a half I decided to go to the University of Alabama for further study. I chose Alabama because it had the strongest craft orientation of the M.F.A. programs and at the time I thought I was more interested in trade school than art school. Alabama also had the best funding; I knew I was looking at years of underpaid labor when I finished school (which has proved true) so I wanted to avoid debt if possible. At Alabama I just worked all the time, and ended up building my artistic confidence in addition to developing solid craft skills. Book arts still seemed somewhat random to me at the time, I’m not one of those people that has made zines since I was a child, but I kept being drawn to it, and more and more these days it seems like this field encompasses pretty much everything I am interested in. 

Since graduation you have participated in residencies at the New York Center for Book Arts and at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center. How have these experiences influenced your current work and shaped your involvement in book arts?
It felt essential to me to set up a structure for myself to continue working immediately out of graduate school. I felt happy with my work in my last year at Alabama and wanted to continue the momentum. I also thought that if I didn’t reinforce the skills that I had learned that I might forget them. I was therefore lucky to get the scholarship at the Center for Book Arts, because it provided the perfect place to do that. I systematically went through and re-did several things that I had learned in grad school, in an attempt to make them more of my own, instead of having to follow instructions or handouts. I also set up projects for myself that required recombining skills, and forcing myself to think creatively instead of, again, just following directions. As I did this I could bounce ideas off the community of binders and printers at the CBA. I also took a lot of classes, which were sometimes a review, but good for learning from different people and remembering certain things. So overall it was great.

At Pyramid, I enjoyed being able to make paper and do printmaking simultaneously, which isn’t a combination that is easy to find. I was interested in the balance that Pyramid negotiates between being a community center and being an arts residency program. I also really enjoyed the personalities and the camaraderie at Pyramid which led me toward moving to the DC area. 

When describing your work you’ve mentioned the use of raw materials: “fiber becomes paper, receives print, becomes book.” Once a concept has hatched, what is your process in transferring that idea into the book form? Is your workspace in a shared studio?
Well, it’s been somewhat different for every book and I feel like it’s shifting with the project I am currently working on. My general process has often tended to be: get in over my head, and then catch up and learn what I need to in order to make the project happen. While some of this impulse is natural and exciting and good, I also think it comes from the pressure of being relatively new in the field and feeling like there is so much to learn. I am getting to a place where I feel like I can work less from this position of scarcity/catch-up, and instead from a stronger, more rooted impulse, where I am more comfortable in my role as an artist and craftsperson. This is a lifetime task, probably.

I also use collaboration as a framework for projects. I frequently work with a writer, Joanna Ruocco, and with a magazine Birkensnake (edited by the same Joanna and Brian Conn). Being accountable to other people is incredibly helpful for getting things done. 

Generally I have used the paper-making process as kind of a conceptual warm up. After coming up with some general ideas, I continue thinking about content while I am making the materials for the book, so the two grow side by side.

I used InDesign for Compendium of Domestic Incidents, mostly so I would learn InDesign. I became worried though by how quickly it started to feel necessary (how easily I forgot how to organize material without computers) and I started to think about how expensive InDesign was and how I couldn’t find a good freeware option, so I decided to do my next project (Problems of Scale) without the use of the computer. 

The book project I’m working on now, I want to have a bit more of a commercial/industrial feel so I am mostly using machine-made paper and am planning on going back to the computer some, especially now that I have access via the school where I teach. 

I have no workspace of my own at the moment. It can be difficult to share equipment and create dedicated work time amidst socializing, but it’s also inspiring to be around other people making things. I rotate between working at Pyramid Atlantic and in the Corcoran letterpress and printmaking studios.  


You work under the moniker Kidney Press. Is there a story behind the name?
The Kidney Press moniker is pretty random. I have always admired the kidney, since reading about its functioning in AP Biology in high school. Since my work deals a lot with body stuff, fetishizing an organ seemed appropriate. I also liked that “kidney press” sounded kind of like a torture device, rather than some of the statelier press names I encounter. 

You teach workshops in both the book arts and printmaking at various venues including the Corcoran College of Art and Design and the New York Center for Book Arts. What types of workshops do you teach and who are your typical students? What aspects of teaching do you enjoy the most?
At CBA and at Pyramid Atlantic I’m teaching a class on alternative ways of making polymer plates in the coming months. I have also taught bookbinding at the CBA. At Pyramid in early summer I am teaching a class I am really excited about called The Intermediate Object combining screenprint with simple book structures. All of these workshops are for adults who run the gamut in terms of their motivation for taking the class- some are serious students of book arts who are looking to go further, some are folks who want to try something new. At the Corcoran, last semester I facilitated a large collaborative project with the second year Masters’ students in the Art and the Book program, which was challenging and fun. I also teach youth workshops via Pyramid Atlantic which engages different skills. I haven’t really specialized, which means I teach many different things and sometimes my brain feels like it is going to explode with all the prep work I have to do. But I also like it, because I like variety and I get to learn new things and push myself that way. At the moment I need to figure out how to make more time for my own work (which seems like a common teaching artist conundrum), but in general I love teaching- it keeps me ethically engaged and makes my own work better. 


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  • My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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