The World of Book Arts with Sarah Nicholls

If you asked someone to imagine a book, they would probably envision the mass-produced copies that line the shelves of bookstores--all with unique covers and designs, but still standardized, rectangular and constructed in the same way. Books have held a similar shape for hundreds of years, but modern book artists have emerged to experiment with all the ways text can be contained. The Center for Book Arts in New York is a hub for these artists, a space filled with giant paper cutters and letterpresses, drawers teeming with inks in every shade. Books lay about on display, some opening into pamphlets or bound into the shape of an envelope. To learn more about book arts, Her Campus NYU talked to Sarah Nicholls, a teacher at the Center for Book Arts and Parsons School of Design.     


HC NYU: Could you tell us a little about your personal and professional background?

SN: I’m a New York-based artist who has been making books since 2002. I make limited edition artist books, pamphlets, prints, drawings, and works on paper. I studied painting and literature in college, and making artist books allows me to blend the two in a satisfying way.



HC NYU: How did you become involved with book arts?

SN: After college I took a bookbinding class at the Center for Book Arts; I got hooked and wanted to take more, so I started volunteering for the organization as part of the work study program. I was able to take more classes in letterpress and bookmaking through the program, and then eventually got hired full time to manage the studio program.


HC NYU: Could you explain what the term “book arts” means more specifically? Is book arts different than printmaking?

SN: Book arts encompasses printmaking, but also includes other activities. It usually refers to all of the creative practices involved in the making of books. This can include: letterpress printing, printmaking, calligraphy, paper marbling, papermaking, typography, and bookbinding.



HC NYU: What kind of programs do you teach at the Center for Book Arts and Parsons, and are they open to the public?

SN: I teach mainly letterpress printing classes at the Center for Book Arts. These classes are open to the public and are geared to a wide audience, and are in a variety of formats (ongoing weeknight clases, single session workshops). We work with moveable type and relief imagery to produce a variety of printed projects. At Parsons, I teach an intro to artist books class to enrolled undergraduates, which is focused on how to translate students ideas into the book format. We go over different kinds of bookmaking techniques and think about time, sequence, structure, and the interaction of visual and verbal language.


HC NYU: I saw on your website that you have exhibitions and commissions, and was wondering what that involves. Where do you exhibit and are the works focused on a certain theme?

SN: I have been lucky enough to have been included in group exhibitions around New York City and elsewhere; sometimes these are books specifically of artist books, sometimes they are group exhibitions of a variety of work organized around a theme. In January I was able to exhibit a range of pamphlets, prints and drawings I made about the history and communities around Jamaica Bay in a gallery at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Center. Right now I have some pamphlets on birds included in an exhibition called Avifauna: Birds + Habitat at Wave Hill in the Bronx.



HC NYU: Could you explain some of the pieces in your portfolio? I would love to know more about the techniques and timelines of specific projects.

SN: Most of the things I make fall into one of two categories: pamphlets or full length artist books. My pamphlet series has been going on since 2010. I make three simple pamphlets a year, in an edition of approximately 200 each, and mail them to a mailing list that changes for each publication. They are letterpress printed from hand carved blocks and movable metal type. They are usually research based, on a variety of topics; last year I produced three pamphlets on the history, communities and ecology of Jamaica Bay. I have a list of subscribers that help support the series, and I mail out pamphlets to subscribers, friends of subscribers, my friends, people I have met, people I would like to meet, strangers, organizations I enjoy, and others. Pamphlets take about month to produce, not including research. My full-length artist books are usually more elaborate productions, and are made in smaller editions. Past book projects have included: a field guide of extinct birds; a book using found text about the self-help industry and the transformational experience, and a book about this history of greenhouses. These books take a year or more to print and bind, are letterpress printed, and are made in editions of twenty-five to forty books.



HC NYU: Do you have a particular style that you enjoy the most, or other artists whose work you admire?

SN: I’m a big fan of Lilli Carre, Julie Doucet, Veronica Schapers, and Lubok Verlag.


HC NYU: What advice would you give to people who are interested in pursuing book arts? Are there other resources available to them besides the Center for Book Arts and Parsons?

SN: There are a number of places that offer community classes in bookmaking and printmaking here in the city–The Center for Book Arts, Manhattan Graphics Center, the NY Chapter of the Guild of Bookworkers, Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, and Dieu Donne, for example. I would encourage people to also look at exhibitions and at places that publish and sell artist books: Printed Matter, Small Editions, and Desert Island are some examples. There’s also a number of special collections here, like the NYPL and the library at MOMA, that take appointments from the public, for viewing the works in their collections.


Images: Provided by Sarah Nicholls