Artists’ Books

Just published:

A Manifesto for the Book, Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden, with an edited selection of interviews, essays, abtree diagrams and case studies from the project What will be the canon for the artist’s book in the 21st Century?
Published by Impact Press at The Centre for Fine Print Research,University of the West of England, Bristol, February 2010

ISBN 978-1-906501-04-4
Free download here

Included in this book is the following interview with me, conducted by curator Tom Sowden as part of the Canon for the 21st Century Artist’s Illustrated Books AHRC Research project and the “New Wave” Exhibition at UWE, September 2009. It was published in the Artist’s Book Yearbook 2010 – 2011, September 2009, Impact Press, UWE Bristol, and online in February 2010, as a case study in the final Canon of the 21st Century Publication. The interview is the most complete overview of my work in Artists’ Books.

Above and below: Spirit and Sense of an April Fool L. Vandegrift Davala, 1984. Fourteen oil monotypes, gold leaf, letterpress on Arches, paper binding, slipcase. 23 1/2 X 19 1/2 X 1 3/4 “ (Collection: National Library of Ireland)

Above and below: Spirit and Sense of an April Fool L. Vandegrift Davala, 1984. Fourteen oil monotypes, gold leaf, letterpress on Arches, paper binding, slipcase. 23 1/2 X 19 1/2 X 1 3/4 “ (Collection: National Library of Ireland)

Spirit and Sense of an April Fool 1984Spirit and Sense of an April Fool 1984

L. Vandegrift Davala – is an artist based in County Sligo, Ireland, who works across a number of disciplines. Her recent work has utilised interactive digital technologies in the production of book works.

Tom Sowden – To gain some background into your practice, could you give me a little bit of history about your work and how you arrived at the book?

L. Vandegrift Davala – I began making books in 1984. I was living in Dublin (Ireland) at the time, and frequently visited the Chester Beatty Library and Gallery of Oriental Art. I had been making monotypes and had completed a series of portraits of the Head of Delores. I could feel the ‘itch’ to break through to something, but of course this is a thing you feel long before you see a way forward.

At the Chester Beatty I had just been admiring a copy of Matisse’s Charles D’Orleans. The paper construction of the book and cover, typical of many French 20th century artists’ books, offered me a different way to view my work. I realised that collecting a number of the portrait works together added to the complexity of the work’s content, while the hand-held format was distinctly not architectural, as all my work had been to this point. This immediately suggested a dialogue between images (nature and human) and that lead to one of the biggest conceptual breakthroughs: the spiritual (black and white images) and sensual (colour images). The book made itself from that point on. As many of the portraits had been done on April 1st, I entitled the work Spirit and Sense of an April Fool. The letterpress printing on the binding and colophon was the first of three works completed in collaboration with the master printer, Peter Gleason, at Killarney Print.

So, this first experience succeeded because this medium enabled me to combine things and processes that I loved: the monotype and calligraphic brush work, letterpress, gilding, construction of objects, revealing simple yet complex imagery, the dialogue between the sensual and spiritual, architectural versus hand-held.

As a result of Spirit and Sense of an April Fool, Dr. Patricia Donlon (who was then a curator at The Chester Beatty), invited me to become a ‘reader’ at the Library. I wanted to see the ways in which people had interacted with books and manuscripts, talismans and sacred texts. Together we spent about six months looking through Ethiopic satchel books, Indonesian parabaiks, Japanese accordion books, healing talismans, Korans, prayer books and much more. It wasn’t until 1990, when my own life became nomadic, and the experience at The Cheater Beatty had been absorbed that I began making portable artist’s books in goatskin satchels; rough, sturdy and sacred.

Since 1984, I have arrived at many ways to make what are essentially still books, without actually setting out to do that. The Procession: 12 Women, Movable Bookroom, 2003, projection, and the Incantation, Intonation, iHeal meditation Station, 2007, delivered over a custom engraved video iPod® are more recent examples. The book format has answered a need – as it has throughout time.

Above and below: Re-member/ Fear Lent Wings L. Vandegrift Davala, 1991. Twenty-four oil monotypes and gold leaf on d’Arches, cedar covered with silk and goat binding and satchel slip case 8 1/2 X 5 1/2 X 1 1/2 “ (Collection: Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Above and below: Re-member: Fear Lent Wings L. Vandegrift Davala, 1991. Twenty-four oil monotypes and gold leaf on d’Arches, cedar covered with silk and goat binding and satchel slip case 8 1/2 X 5 1/2 X 1 1/2 “ (Collection: Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Remember: Fear Lent Wings 1991

I’m interested in how your practice developed from one of making “books in goatskin satchels; rough, sturdy and sacred” to the projections and work on an iPod®. Do you feel this was a natural progression? Are works on an iPod® now the modern portable medium, as the books you studied at the Chester Beatty Library had been in their day? Do you also feel that using new technologies allow you to retain the things that you first loved about books, in particular the sensual and the spiritual and architectural versus hand-held? Or is this less of an issue?

If you had told me, even 10 years ago, that I would be making any kind of art utilising digital technologies, I’d have been incredulous. But at the same time, and for more than 25 years, I was envisioning a kind of scale, and a transmission of imagery without losing integrity of mark, as well as the ability to have a more flexible relationship within architectural space; that only the use of technological solutions could provide. Needless to say, I did angst about taking the plunge.

Procession: 12 Women: Movable Book Room, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2003. Digital model and life-sized projected work

Procession: 12 Women: Movable Book Room, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2003. Digital model and life-sized projected work

Procession: 12 Women, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2001. Archival ink on Arches, edition of 9, 3 artist’s proofs. Plexiglas slipcase, 4 1/2” high (Collection: Franklin Furnace collection, MoMA, NY)

Procession: 12 Women, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2001. Archival ink on Arches, edition of 9, 3 artist’s proofs. Plexiglas slipcase, 4 1/2” high (Collection: Franklin Furnace collection, MoMA, NY)

In 1995, in addition to my work as a painter and book maker, my partner and I began AOV, an interactive media and web design firm. Over the next 5 years we designed interactive kiosks for museums, and business-to-business websites for international companies (Berman Museum of Art and Crayola.com). As my partner was the chief tech guy, this gave me a fantastic opportunity to dive into the medium, explore its potentials while utilising the artistic tools and standards I’d developed as a ‘fine artist’. This was a time in which those distinctions were being re-defined, and I found I welcomed the paradigm shift. I gained access to people who could help me technically to develop imagery and prototypes and more importantly, new thinking. By the early part of this decade, I made the decision to bring these technologies into my work. My vision needed to go here, and my work as an artist would have stagnated, (regardless of my love for the precious materials and techniques of the earlier work) if I hadn’t been able to also pursue these means. In 2003 I wrote:

…authorship has been expressed in every way in which an artist can make, conduct or manage and transmit a mark, sound or movement. David Hockney recently argued that many painters have used optical and projection tools consistently from at least 1430 onwards (Secret Knowledge, Viking Studio, 2001). For anyone who has ever had a paintbrush in his or her hand and been involved in the process of representation – Hockney’s discovery rings true. It’s a major contribution to our understanding of what artists have done – and an indication of the inventive spirit that can continue. Those who employed optics (Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Leonardo, Giorgione, Raphael, Holbein, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Halls, Ingres and many others) – did so secretively, for the most part, because of fears of prejudice, misunderstanding, and devaluation of their work. Their decision to use optics was not a short cut, but a willful step closer to their subjective intentions – a step closer to their vision. My decision to use optical, digital, and projection technology is also – not a short cut – but a ‘bulls eye’ whose time has come.

Images that are light transmitted can ‘mediate between visible and invisible realms’, moving from solitary reflection to ‘group entrancement’. There are a lot of factors to consider regarding the historical use of projection with regard to spiritual inference – materialising the sacred, appearing to make the absent present, immersive experiences, kinetic depth, and religion and theatre.

I wasn’t tired of leather, gold leaf and paper; I love them. But I needed additional tools to enable me to transmit, more completely, the vision I have always had. Need and purpose will dictate whether I use an iPod® or paper, a projection or the Internet (http://www.dearcharmides.com). You can see from the quote from 2003, that I was beginning to take the original ideas that always inspired my book making: portability, immersive experience, spiritual/sacred/personal transmission between ‘realms’, and manifesting them with the help of technology. The greater surprise for me, was finding that once again, what I was making – was a book.

Incantation and Intonation/ “These Charms My Dear Charmides, are Beautiful Words” L. Vandegrift Davala, 2005. Portal light installation, threshold mounted, beautiful words in a variety of languages. Variable size.

Incantation and Intonation: “These Charms My Dear Charmides, are Beautiful Words” L. Vandegrift Davala, 2005. Portal light installation, threshold mounted, beautiful words in a variety of languages. Variable size.

As you stated, artists who employed optics did so secretively “because of fears of prejudice, misunderstanding and devaluation of their work”.

Have you seen this as a problem as you have moved towards digitally produced books? Is it as well received and considered with the same importance as your paintings and books (in the traditional sense of the word)?

Can I also ask how you have distributed your digital work so as to reach your intended audience and has this been a problem for which you have had to adopt different models?

Finally, have you given any thought to how this work can be collected by both private collectors and institutions, especially considering the fast-paced nature of change within digital technologies and the speed at which certain platforms become obsolete?

Moving to digitally-produced work has perhaps been most welcomed and accepted in my book work. I think this has as much to do with the acceptance of experimentation within the book arts and the constant re-invention of the medium itself. The concept and very definition of the book has expanded because we now have the technology to manifest new visions. It was the research I did at the Chester Beatty in the 1980’s that opened my view of the book as an art form. The breadth and variety in the design, construction, use and purpose of these books from the past ‘illuminated’ my view of the future possibilities. From the background I have already given you, you can see that this migration to technology has been a gradual process in which the new digital forms answered a subjective artistic need. I will say that the one area of resistance I have seen over these years has been regarding the use of digital technology to transmit or project figurative and non-figurative hand made marks and images (as versus filmed or photographic imagery).

Incantation and Intonation/ iHeal Meditation Station, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2007. Video iPod® custom engraved with blessings, seven monotypes in oil, digitally transferred to the device and accompanied by spoken blessings in five languages.

Incantation and Intonation: iHeal Meditation Station, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2007. Video iPod® custom engraved with blessings, seven monotypes in oil, digitally transferred to the device and accompanied by spoken blessings in five languages.

This resistance is now breaking down, especially in light of the phenomenal work coming from Asia. I think, too, this is where I connect to my earlier comment about optics. It has somehow been assumed (for centuries) that artists making painted marks should not engage in any lens-based or digital manipulation of those marks. Now that the artistry and mastery of molding and shaping images, light and space using technology is becoming more widely manifest, this issue will resolve.

Below: Tuatha Dé Danann, Lords of Light And Masters of Time, L. Vandegrift Davala, 2004

Architectural scale model for pre-fabricated installation to be assembled within a gallery space, consisting of a passage of light connected to a chamber of time .

As regards distribution of the work, this is a bigger question. We are also in time of great change regarding the ways artists interface with society, do business, market ourselves, and maintain employment. Many of the decisions regarding the exhibition and distribution of artistic “products” have been, and continue to be affected by the progression of digital technology, and have moved beyond earlier accepted methods. The Internet was an instigator in this. The orthodox gallery system has had to adapt, and artists are exploring more purposeful ways to be seen and do business.

I am working on making one of my works downloadable to MP3 players. I have utilised digital printing in another bookwork. I am currently working with a holographic expert to bring my most recent book concept into the free-form holographic projection that will enable it to be viewed and interacted with by viewers. Another current land art/land book project will use groups of participants (as many as 200) to participate in writing a line of poetry in light over a landscape in Ireland, filmed from the air. Some of these works are obviously projects for or in a public space, as are many of the works I presently pursue. In my experience, the aesthetic development of a project concept usually includes or ‘leads to’ an audience, because of the purposeful nature of this medium of the book.

As regards issues of collecting, MoMA in New York has set a precedent in collecting film, media, and technology-based art. Acceptance will grow as the technologies used in the production of works of art become more sophisticated, transparent in use, and serve the artistic intentions in the same way that any other mediums and techniques have in the past. Artists now have well over two decades of experience in writing contracts of sale for digital and conceptual works, as well as closely managing the edition sizes, intellectual property issues etc.

This knowledge, of course, should be taught at art colleges, and increasingly, it is. In general, at this point I feel that works are being considered on their merit as regards collection, and if anything it appears that we are beginning to see an increase in the public and private collection of art utilising technology. In my own experience, interest is increasing.

Infanta Venus Records of a Heart (Rosa Mutabile) L. Vandegrift Davala, 1990-91 Seventeen oil monotypes and handwriting on Arches, paper binding, goat leather satchel slipcase. 13 3/4 X 11 3/4 X 1 1/2 “

Infanta Venus Records of a Heart (Rosa Mutabile) L. Vandegrift Davala, 1990-91 Seventeen oil monotypes and handwriting on Arches, paper binding, goat leather satchel slipcase. 13 3/4 X 11 3/4 X 1 1/2 “

Infanta Venus Records of a Heart (Rosa Mutabile)1990-91

As you are at the cutting edge of utilising interactive technologies for the production of your book works

(do you still title them as such or have they really become another discipline?), where do you see the work progressing?

Do you have plans for work for which you are waiting for developments in the technology or ideas for how current projects can expand?

I see these works, firstly, as a fulfillment of the scent of an idea, or as ways of capturing an essence. I think that all innovation comes from need. I didn’t go into this space thinking that I would use this or that technology to make a book, but rather that I would do whatever I had to do to make certain ideas manifest. The work dictates the means. It has been a surprise to see that these works are actually artists’ books, but I credit the durable, continuous and intimate relationship that humans have had with the book; and in some form we will always have it. So, yes they are books, and I think it is exciting that they are. It doesn’t matter what I make them of, on some level they are always operating as book. We all see in a particular way, and clearly there is something about this group of book-like sensibilities that I keep re-visiting and maybe even re-inventing.

I’m curious to see where this develops. Yes I do have plans, and they do depend to some degree on the development of technologies. The work Om & Etc. that will use free form holographic projection will take at least 9 months to get a working prototype. I have created many of the actual brush-made images that will inhabit the projected spaces. In some cases, such as …for peace comes dropping slow, the original concept has begun to expand and develop and I am working on completing the funding, and scheduling around the large number of participants. So technology, funding and logistics all become more important in these works, which can be frustrating. As an artist, you strive to get it done, get it made; make this elusive thing manifest. Eduardo Chillida, a sculptor I admire tremendously, said that “a work born a priori is born dead”, and that you work from a sort of “whiff” of the idea. I have to agree with that, and my working methods in every medium have attested to that concept. There is a tremendous amount that I will not know until I have done the work, and completed it.

In conclusion, I would say that there is a tremendous amount of overlap in the disciplines utilised in the arts, media, communications and technologies. Traditional categories and labels will adapt to the genuine intentions of artists. My way of negotiating with the world around me has always begun with a paintbrush in hand, producing the calligraphic mark. The complete vision I have of an immersive experience incorporating scale and light can only happen by incorporating technology to facilitate and reveal that work.

Tom Sowden interviewed L. Vandegrift Davala by email between January – March 2009

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