Creating Community and Artist Books. An Interview with Joan Birkett

Joan Birkett, an artist from the UK, has collaborated several times with Art Byte Critique. Currently, she is part of the UK contingent sharing a table with Art Byte Critique at the Tokyo Art Book Fair Ginza Edition at Sony Park in Yurakucho. The TABF Ginza Edition runs from March 8-April 7. The Art Byte Critique tables from March 9-March 10.

In this interview, Joan talks about her work, collaboration and building a community.

You and Arthur Huang were instrumental in creating Reading Between the Lines, and other shows, how did that collaboration come about?
The group of artists connected with the Tokyo St Helens project, came together at my request after I had made contact with Art Byte Critique through Arthur.

What was the purpose of building the artist group in your area?
Some of them belong to Platform Arts studios which was originally formed by Claire and myself linking up with a number of other interested artists, with help from the very active Arts and Library service in the Town. This was about ten years ago now but it has changed over the years to what it is today, most of the artists now involved are new. Other artists involved work individually across the North West but come together for group projects. There has always been a number of individuals and small art groups in St Helens but Platform arts was possibly the first artist network around in St Helens at the time of its conception. Since then there seems to be a number of artists coming together to form collaborative partnerships. The Yellow Door artists are one example.

Not long after Platform started to operate, the Heart of Glass programme began in St Helens with funding from Arts Council England. This was through what is called the People and Places funding which is for artists to work with communities in order to introduce innovative arts and cultural opportunities, hopefully broadening and raising the level of engagement with Art and Culture throughout a particular Town. A number of different organisations in the Town were involved in bringing bidding for the funding and Platform was one of these. It was through this programme that I originally received some funding to look at the possibilities of linking with artists in Japan, it was suggested by one of the Heart of Glass producers because of my family links in Tokyo and my interest in Japanese woodblock print work and how my own work had been influenced by the connection. It was also about providing information to others about how links could be made and the benefits of working in this way on a number of levels, perhaps influencing others to have a go. So I did quite a lot of research about what networks were in Tokyo and I put some information together which I sent off to them. My daughter-in-law helped by translating the letter for me. However, I wasn’t very successful until I discovered an online blog/help site, by an artist working in Tokyo, named Miki Saito, she was very helpful and receptive to what I was trying to do and put me in touch with Arthur Huang and consequently the artist group -Art Byte Critique. Arthur, was from the beginning as I have always found him to be, so positive and resourceful, open to just trying things out, exactly the artist I needed to meet, he has been so such a great person to meet and work with. It is really down to him and all of the other artists involved that we have been able to put on three joint exhibitions as a result of the partnership. I can’t believe how lucky I have been in being able to meet such open and interesting people.

Another artist that I met was Atsu Harada a really talented traditional wild life artist, this was through a friend of my Son, and we keep in touch and have been able to meet up when I have been in Tokyo

How long have you been making art books?
I started to explore making book art objects as part of the Tokyo/St Helens return project, which began in 2014. This was somewhat of a pragmatic decision on my part because of the practical difficulties of sharing larger works between Tokyo and St Helens. Also the fact that a number of the Art Byte Critique artists with whom I had made contact through the artist Arthur Huang, were making books and zines as part of their practice and exhibiting at The Tokyo Art Book Fair.

Why do you like making books?
It has allowed me to explore 3D possibilities on a scale that I am able to cope with easily, experimenting with materials and form, I also like the fact that it can be touched and explored by the viewer. Although not normally working with paper unless I am sketching or drawing from life, I am interested in materials and texture, and book art has inspired me to work with different papers and to explore my interest in print as a process.

What do you like about making books compared to other forms of expression?
My work generally begins from my being inspired by a particular subject or idea, after  which comes the research that informs the work I eventually make, this is often large scale and consists of a visual language type imagery as a depiction of humanity. Book art allows another dimension to this in presenting a number of possibilities, particularly in the size of the work, it makes me think about working on a different scale and with the text in a different way. It does though present certain constraints given I am quite new to the process and book making skills.

Do you have a favourite method or technique to make books?
I am still learning so I haven’t tried many of the techniques yet, my experience to date is limited but I intend to keep exploring the possibilities.

What method of making books do you want to try next?
I have had a long term interest in using text within my work therefore I suppose I would be interested in exploring different types of text and what I can do with it, therefore developing my work in this way.

What was the biggest challenge in making your book?
Definitely for me not getting too expressive in the making, so that the object becomes too fragile for the viewer. Although I have to say this is often really what I am looking for, a depiction of strong and fragile within the same object, so a bit of challenge. I have also attended a number of print making workshops in order to extend my knowledge and skills with printing methods. I don’t deny that this is quite a challenge for me I work expressively, precision and constraint is not something I am necessarily very good at.

Do you have any favorite book artists?
There are so many artist’s work that I find inspiring generally, I haven’t really just looked at artists who concentrate on this medium. I’m interested in how the making of book art can influence the expression and physicality of my ideas.

Where can people find out more about your work?
www.joanbirkettart.com

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