An Inside Look at My Artist’s Book

copyright Karen Viola

My ‘artist’s book’ is on display through the summer at the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan. And recently I was invited to participate in a ‘Roundtable Discussion’ about the exhibit. When I said ‘I’d love to,’ I didn’t realize it involved standing in front of the room, on a rectangular platform, to give a formal presentation with slides. Well. Phew, that’s done, and it was very worthwhile. It was fascinating to hear the other artists talk about their work in such a variety of contexts. And since it’s high time I posted something, I am sharing my talk in written form, here. You can pretend you’re at a round table with others interested in strange book art, and that I am speaking to you. Because now, I am. 


I didn’t really set out to make this book. It came into being as a response to two coinciding upheavals in my life. One, leaving my long-time, corporate job, and two, the 2016 election. One made sense, the other didn’t.


For twenty years, I was an art director in book publishing, catering to mass market buyers of children’s novelty, or ‘book-plus’ products. Books more playful than literary, prompting  pre-schoolers to open, lift, push, pull, turn, peek-through, etc. I learned a lot on that long, train ride.

I learned that making interactive, physical things by hand is central to who I am as an artist. I was a book artist at heart before I knew what that really meant. I spent most of my time engineering and building my own prototypes, and very little of my time delegating work to others. I am grateful I had a boss (friend) who understood me.


I’ve always had a thing for intimate, immersive experiences made with paper, simply by folding, cutting, and binding it in certain ways. And a thing for making this accessible to people who consider any printed book a luxury. But I also care deeply about conservation and conscious consumerism, which is a practically impossible practice when in the business of selling better-faster-cheaper stuff to the masses.


I tried anyway, slinging inconvenient truths around the office like a salmon flailing upstream, pushing green before green was just a selling point.

True green, it turns out, is hard sell. Or not. Depends on the industry, the economy, and who is running (ruining?) the country.


Which leads me to the other upheaval. A short time after the election, I got an email from the New School for Social Research about a course they were offering in the Spring of 2017 called ‘Post-Election America,’ which was in response to students’ demand for understanding how did we get here?

It was a 14-week series of weekly lectures, each one lead by a different faculty member who was an expert in relevant topics such as globalization, race, class, the urban-rural divide, U.S. constitutional law, immigration, climate change, and more. I grew up in Canada and went to an art college. I could use this. Plus it was open to the public and offered for free for alumni, which sealed the deal.


During the lecture on climate change, Joel Towers (Dean of Parsons School of Design) presented this compelling spiral graph created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins in 2016, which shows temperature change data over the past 160 years.  It was mesmerizing and scary. No wonder it went viral.

The only assignment for the course was to attend all the lectures and then submit a reflection that synthesized two of the topics, either in written or visual form. Not required for me, a non-credit student. But to process and retain some of what was learned, I took it as a personal challenge. Which turned into this book.


Being a visual artist, I knew I would be adapting the spiral graph in some way. Being a children’s book designer, I gravitated to a story that would strip away complexities of these topics while still conveying key points. My general motto is, If you can’t explain it to a child, you may not fully understand it yourself.


I took artistic liberties, with permission, and sliced the spiral into a series of concentric holes cut into every page, creating a layered, tunnel effect, enhanced by the flexibility of the accordion form. The larger the hole, the warmer the planet. A homage of sorts, to the drama of the original animation, offering time for reflection as each page is turned. To the left of every graph, the holes literally and increasingly cut into the Earth.


I paired the science with a playful but cautionary allegory, The Last Puddle, on the reverse side, sharing the same holes, but now decreasing in size. The illustrations are digital paintings, collaged with scans from my own texture library. My intention is that this work, which was printed and hand-assembled in my studio, be physically handled. Since the accordion is double-sided, the page-turning can loop continuously. It is a visceral experience impossible to convey on a screen, or even stretched out in a panorama display.


It drove me a little crazy in its early iterations. I changed its title, revised and edited it up to the time of submitting it to this exhibition. I hand-painted, stitched, and signed its storage pouch the day of the delivery deadline. So actually it drove me a lot crazy, the whole time. Which for those who know me, is perfectly normal.


The story focuses on scarcity, sharing, and survival. It illustrates the destructive path of a zero-sum thinking, and poses a non-zero choice in the end that celebrates creative collaboration in the face of nothingness.The story may seem simple-minded on its surface. That’s OK. Because underneath all the glittering genius that gilds every field of study in this Anthropocene era are very simple needs and fears.


I challenged myself to drill down to what I considered key messages for the sake of stewardship of our own home and future of humanity. In doing this I ended up eliminating a bunch of complicating topics like gender, sex, religion, employment, geographical borders, technology, disease, rule of law, basic laws of physics…gotta say, it felt pretty liberating to let all that go. And just go with ‘enchanted water.’

I did, however, construct a bare-bones logic regarding body functioning, hydrologic cycles, drought, communication, birth and death, basic needs, a dash of education and a pinch of cannibalistic capitalism thrown in for, er, good measure.


The main character in this non-character-driven narrative, is the collective Beings of Planet Be, a word-play name, owing to the thought that if we ruin the planet we’re on, we’ll need a Plan B, or maybe even a Planet B.


Here are other slides of the story, with allegory-annotations captioned:

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So my weird little art experiment asks, are humans fit to survive? Will we evolve? Will we think laterally when it comes to solutions for multiple systems failures? Create sustainable, sustainability industries with jobs for all? Go beyond tweets to conduct a beautiful symphony? Or, if after a swath of extinctions and population decline, will we harness some different way of life, that second chance? It’s worth asking.


We have a scientific consensus just shy of 100 percent, that global warming is real and caused by humans. Not fake news. Also true is that a huge percentage of people simply aren’t aware of this consensus and what it likely means: Mass extinctions, food and water shortages, and an inability to be or work outside, let alone hike anywhere for mental health, as the remaining trees stand around shaking their crowns. Hell on Earth. Well, HELL no, I don’t want that future, even if I am not in it. No wonder denial is irresistible.


So there is an awareness problem. That begs for design-thinking and imaginative storytelling. If many more people become aware of this scientific consensus, wouldn’t a few more people freak out, work together, and get scrappier with solutions? Legislate forward-thinking policies and vote accordingly? I think also, there is a need for true stories of current progress. We need to be scared shitless but we need solidarity with those who say yes we can. To mitigate the barrage of doom fed to us every day like the monster under the bed of our own making.


Collectively, we need to take, or at least search for the higher road. In as many creative ways as there are individuals. As for Planet B? It’s just a story. Let’s give the real world a little more love. 

More to come around the bend…

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