Friday, September 20, 2013

Interview with Doug Baulos

To start our new series, Book Artists in the Southeast, I chose Doug Baulos. Doug is  an art professor at The University of Alabama Birmingham. His curiosity about the world and how things work keeps his work fresh and interesting. I recently went to his studio in Birmingham to interview him.  
--Sonja Rossow

What is your artistic background?

I got an undergraduate degree in drawing and painting. Then, I went to University of New Orleans for grad school where I studied video and drawing. All of my graduate schoolwork is sequential, serial huge installations. My MFA thesis show was this narrative, sequential building of panels I thought of as pages. My first big show at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in New Orleans was 1,800 pages on all bi-metal copper bookplates. I acquired these plates during a period where I lived and was friends with this really old printer in New Orleans. He just gave me this huge amount of copper aluminum, those old printing things. They used to come in these big 40 x 60 inch plates and he gave me 80 of them. So, one summer I started photo exposing five plates a day.  I’d first make the image and then the negative. By the end of the summer I had 1,800 plates.  

How did you become interested in Book Arts?

When I was younger and interested in book arts during undergraduate school in Birmingham, I didn’t know Glenn [House, Jr.] or anything about Tuscaloosa. So, I applied and received a scholarship to The Whitney. While in New York City. I also wanted to study a bit about book arts. I called up The Morgan Library and asked if they would be interested in having me for a few hours a day. I was fortunate enough that they did, and also that The Whitney let me go. I studied with a wonderful curator/conservator and was highly influenced by their collection. I had taught myself Coptic and simple stuff, but I was an absolute beginner. She was amazing. Although I was only in New York for a month, I learned so much from her. It was really cool cause the Whitney let me study with her for two hours a day and she was willing to let me see stuff. As a result, all of my early training was on historical binding and historic conservation.  

I see many of your books are based on historic structures, is that what you are mostly interested in?

That is what I teach a lot when I do workshops at places such as Penland. I’m teaching historic combinations such as how to combine different ones together on the same book. It’s something that a lot of people have never done, but it used to be done a lot. I’ve always sewn in my work. When I saw medieval binding, I was just blown away. The weird thing is that I always make the distinction that I don’t do anything that is decorative. I don’t think of it as historical, but everything I do in my books currently is something that I’ve borrowed from history. When I have shows I like people to think it’s the real thing.

How do you think about books in general?

The big thing about books is not just the finite idea of the book, but the way that books are ordered.  For instance, I’m really interested in studying what happened before and during medieval times with respect to book ordering. When I tell people that books didn’t have a table of contents they are just like, “what are you talking about?” So, that whole transition from a scroll to a book and what happened in the first early years really interests me. I’m interested because if you play with those notions when people are looking at your books, it makes them not only rethink about a book, but how information is ordered. The cool thing about books is not just the book as an object but when you open it up the book is an unimaginable huge space of imagination and information. That is such an awesome thing that we rarely stop to think about.

Let’s talk about your work in the last few years.  I see many wreaths around the studio. What is the inspiration and what are they made of?

I originally got the idea from the tiny hair wreaths and I’ve always loved the wreath form but you know when you tackle something like that its weird. Wreaths are so decorative, but if I’m going to devote my energy I have to go way beyond the decorative so that when people look at it they have some sort of emotional and psychological transfiguration.

I’ve always collected old dictionaries. In my school office, I have all these dictionaries from thrift stores that were going to dump them. I really had this thing because it’s weird when you get into studio and practice the decisions you make. I  used to be one of those artists that didn’t really like to tear up books, but then I was like they are going to the dump them so you might as well up-cycle and draw attention to the fact that they are being thrown away. So, I started making things out of the dictionaries. It’s weird because when I go to the thrift store the ones I keep are the ones that are really dog eared and super looked at and then the newer ones, those are the ones I tear up. So it’s weird because a lot of people are attracted to the newer thing and I like the older ones that you can tell that people actually used and read.  

The big project I’m working on now is one that I got hired for by the city of Birmingham. They commissioned me to make a wreath for the upcoming Civil Rights anniversary. It will be on display at Space 111, which is an arts organization in downtown Birmingham. They are going to drape the whole building and the wreath will be on the front. I’m excited. The installation will last for five days.

Do you consider these wreaths book objects?

They are totally made of books. Almost everything is up-cycled, found books, because I’m just so concerned about the destruction of the book. But my most recent projects are hand-drawn, illuminated books that deal with medical anomalies and medical transfiguration.  

Do you make editions of your work or are they one-of-a-kind?

When I used to letterpress, I used to edition. That said, I think I’ve only done two book editions before. I’ve always thought I should do something like that. I do edition sculptural things like the birds. However, most of it’s hand drawn, painted or sewn.  

Where do you find materials?

It’s mostly an emotional texture thing. The way I look for and chose materials are the ones that speak to me from an emotional or psychological standpoint. I used to go to a lot of thrift stores, but that’s evolved a little bit.  

How have you evolved as an artist?

One of the big things about my evolution as a book artist is my transformation from doing conservation work and having to be perfect. In conservation, there are all these rules such as using the least amount of adhesive necessary and everything having to be clean and pristine. My early books all looked like perfect models. Then I realized that all the books I loved to look at were those crazy 17 limp vellum books that look like they’ve been drug through the mud. So, I began to question why was I making these perfect pristine things. I had this horrible dark night of the soul where I made mistakes in the workshop and where someone says something like grain doesn’t matter. I felt my hackles rise and had to tell myself to stay cool. But then I thought, “why I am so upset about that?” That’s why I like meeting people and seeing what they care about. I don’t think people should be so rigid. Rules are made to be broken. Everything in moderation, except for moderation.  

Tell us about new explorations you are involved in.

We’ve [Larry Lou Foster and Amy Lee Pard] started this thing where we meet every two weeks and we just talk about book ideas. It’s like a book arts club. A lot of people have seen this book I make called, “Not So Limp Vellum.” The reason behind it was my vegetarianism. I’m not a real super disciplined vegetarian, but I also don’t eat meat. However, as much as I love using leather in book arts, I at some point I had to confront the fact that I don’t eat meat. About eight years ago I was making a lot of leather stuff. I thought, “what’s going on with that?” Nobody else would care, but that’s probably not cool. That doesn’t make real sense. So, I wondered what could I use instead of leather. I’d always made these skins out of photo paper, but because you can’t pare it like leather, I had to figure out ways to pare the skins. So, I started using limp vellum instead of leather or vellum you use for photographic skins.  

What do you mean by that?  

It’s a long involved process. It’s basically a mat medium, then you make an emulsification of the mat medium on a color Xerox and then you remove all the paper from the Xerox. The image is trapped within the emulsification. Then you can layer imagery behind it. It gives you a ton of ways of thinking about imagery on a book. Imagine a limp vellum book with photographic imagery. I’ll be teaching that method at the Alabama Folk School, October 31 – November 3.

Do you consider archivalness?

That’s another one of those disconnects, because I take old things and make them into objects that are archival. Take those wreaths for example. There is so much methyl cellulose that they are pretty archival. They are not going anywhere unless somebody burns it. However, I’m also interested in making things that are supposed to be ephemeral and disappear.  

What are some of your favorite tools or non-traditional tools?

I’m afraid that I’m really humdrum about that. I bet that I use the same tools that you do. It’s perhaps not the tools, but the way I use them. That’s true of everybody and why I still take workshops to see how people work. I think the weird thing I do is when I’m making boxes I don’t use book cloth. I do collages on watercolor paper. When you’re doing turn-ins you have this crazy problem. It’s like covering a box with leather. I had to figure out how to pare down the paper. So, I have this crazy German paring thing that works really well on paper. It is made for paper. Instead of using traditional book board I layer 14 pieces of paper together. Some of it’s transparent. I use it as a structural thing. If you put a hard board on a Coptic spine and sew through it, I don’t use stiff leather or board, I make my own. Any kind of layering or cutting or folding that’s my thing. That’s how I think through things and how I find out about the world by doing that.