Helen Douglas interviewed by Birgit Rieger, art critic.
BR: Helen Douglas, you have made bookworks since 1972 and joined Weproductions in 1974. In the early days you and your partner Telfer Stokes produced paperbacks. Could you tell about your starting point?
HD: My own starting point was the investigation of image in relation to book. So for instance, Threads, published in 1974, developed from my exploration of thread threading within and through the book: front and back of the page/s in sequence. It did not involve photograph: I took the physical art work of threaded pages to the printers, who made page scale 1 to 1 line copy and printed offset.
When I began to collaborate with Telfer Stokes, the camera became the means, the vehicle of exploring image and book. It enabled tone and dimension in rendering the image on and illusionistically within the page, as well as constructing the page/s of the book. So for instance in Chinese Whispers the pages of the open spread are constructed as a corner cupboard and this becomes all part of the narrative sequence. What we thought of as happenings: happening in the book. The pea pod opening from the spine with the reader opening the spread, the cabbage pealed to the heart, the fingers leafing each leaf of the book.
BR: Has your perception of what a good artist book is changed since then?
HD: Fundamental to my understanding of a good artist book is the concise use of the physical form of the book, its pages, paper and print in the shaping of the conceptual and visual expression of the artist: making something concrete whether as visual narrative and/or as fleeting visual poetics. Over the years the book has continually reinvented itself for my different expressive needs. As well as the codex form, the concertina and related scroll form have opened up possibilities for the shaping of visual narrative. So have the inextricably related areas of print, paper and binding.
Deuchar Mill, Helen Douglas’ home and production place
BR: You have lived and worked in the countryside of Scotland for many years. Can you describe what your home is like?
HD: I live in the Scottish Borders, an area of Scotland traditionally known for sheep farming and wool – woven tweed and knitted – textiles. My home at Deuchar Mill, is in the Yarrow valley, renowned for its ballads and beauty. The hills around are steep, and grazed by sheep. Trees only grow in the gulleys and by the Yarrow River.
Telfer Stokes and I converted Deuchar Mill into a house and studio/workshop in the '70s. In the 1980s/90s we did all our own offset litho printing and pre-press camera work. This summer with much help from Angie and Si Butler, I got the Vandercook letterpress printing again.
Helen Douglas’ workshop
BR: Nature is an important element in your artistic work. To which extend nature influences your way of book making?
HD: It was a choice to live in the countryside. The day to day living with nature all around me inevitably leads me to working with it. I find it wondrous. Out with the camera, I begin to be lead and something begins to grow. Chinese Whispers was the first published book to consciously bring in the spiral growth of nature in its shaping. Clinkscale in its accordian form, opened out to the expansive green field as an arm’s breath from the chest. In many ways this opening out to the open minutely interconnectedness of nature that I experience bodily has influenced how I work with the flow across the page. This way of working has also been inspired by Eastern looking, with their understanding of nature and their painting/hand scroll/book tradition.
Helen Douglas and Telfor Stokes, Chinese Whispers, 1976
BR: The book in itself is in deep crisis. Do you think the future of the artist book is digital?
HD: Yes, I do believe the book is in crisis. People say they love books, but nevertheless they are, more and more, buying digital. And that is only going to increase. Industrial printers, the underbelly of book production and publishing are going out of business. Printers will survive and so will books – as a niche specialist market, as a Fine Art. You could argue this is exactly where the world of book meets that of artist book. But when I began to make artist books, exploring the book as physical object and container for the visual we used industrial “non art” means such as offset, perfect binding, in contrast to the livre d’artiste tradition. The books were not conceived as limited editions, but part of the every day – and placed on bookshelves not collectors’ cabinets!
Now times have really changed. The boundaries between artist book and livres d’artiste have gone, traditions are merging and the digital is everywhere, with photography, computer, digital printing, to e digital. And artists working with code have a whole new medium for making art publications. While I can see this potential and would like to explore this further, I do believe my DNA in making is still with books, paper and print.
BR: Do you still produce hand printed editions at Deuchar Mill? What exactly does this mean – “hand printed”?
HD: When in the late 1970s we set up our own workshop with the Vandercook letter press, offset litho press, and associated prepress dark room we never spoke or wrote about hand printed editions, although we did all the printing. It was our way of taking control of production and producing books in the most economic way we could.
By the late '90s with the digital revolution the computer (rather than dark room) became the means by which to originate, in colour, the manuscript book. In the same period, industrial offset litho printing costs came down (because of digital competition) and it was possible to print industrially once more.
However with industrial printing choices of paper began to become restricted – if I wanted to keep prices affordable – and I began to want more variety of paper, acknowledging also that the whole field of book publishing and artist books was shifting to an overt emphasis on the textural hand held feel of the book. In 2006 I began to experiment with making small digital archival ink jet printed editions in my studio, using fine light papers – unimaginable with offset – such as Chinese Xuan paper and Japanese Toshu. I conceived as these books as hand printed limited edition books, which is exactly what they are. I’m involved in every part of their making. The beauty of making these books, is I can make more experimental books without huge cost because I’m not producing a 1000 copies. The downside of all this is they are labour intensive to make and therefore more expensive to those who want to buy my work.
BR: You do produce your own books and you collaborate with other artists. With whom do you work?
HD: I collaborated with Telfer Stokes for many years. This was an artistic collaboration of the deepest kind sparked by a shared visual and conceptual sympathy. I collaborated with the sound artist Zoe Irvine on Illiers Combray, a joint collaboration in that we spent time together when gathering material, but we then worked completely independently making our respective work, me the book, Zoe the sound CDs for the whole. My collaboration with writers has tended to happen later in the process of making. Marina Warner/A Venetian Brocade and Rebecca Solnit/Unravelling the Ripple. In both cases the writers were approached with my visual idea and much of the book fully formed. In this way they have worked to the visual concept, rather than the visual working to the text.
BR: Do you collect artist books yourself? How do you interact with artist books? Store them? Use them?
HD: In the early days artists used to send each other books all the time, by post. So quite a collection has built up over years. I also used to buy artist books at book fairs, books I liked, books with a quality of something I wanted to know more about and perhaps achieve in my own work. Recently at fairs there is such a huge tidal sea of tables and books, I honestly feel rather overwhelmed. And don’t buy as much as I used to. I keep my artist books on a bookshelf and look at them, like I would a book.
Helen Douglas, In Mexico in the Garden of Edward James, 2014
BR: What will you bring to Friends with Books: Art Book Fair Berlin?
HD: I will bring a range of Weproductions books that are still in print, as well as current recent work, also my new book In Mexico in the Garden of Edward James. I spent seven days exploring the fantastical, surreal Edward James’ Garden Las Posaz at Xilitla.
I don’t show scrolls at book fairs, for although related to my books they are too fragile and need more space. I like to show the span of my work, as often younger people, have no idea of the early books or the thinking that went into making them. Sometimes my stand can become a bit confusing because of different periods of books and different qualities of their making. But I stand behind them and I enjoy seeing what people are drawn to and what they might like to buy. I can learn a lot from just watching people looking at and handling my books. And I enjoy the conversations that can ensue in showing my work.
Helen Douglas is an artist and publisher based in Scotland and practicing since the 1970s, renowned for her poetic visual narratives.
December 7, 2014