Instructions for Becoming a Book Artist

1. How to learn bookbinding

Begin by learning how to needlepoint from your mom when you are very young. That way, when you start to bind books, you’ll amaze people with your needle-threading prowess. They won’t notice your sewn-shut silence and how you stare at museum walls through glass. Your first books will be blank, crafted like furniture or hand-made shoes. Sewing together signatures will come easily; you learned the long stitch and French knots generations ago. Realize that women’s work holds together the sequential canvas of pages and that books aren’t meant to sit behind a velvet rope next to a “don’t touch” sign. Start to define the line between art and craft. Ask yourself if that line has anything to do with gender.

2. How to learn letterpress printing

First, after taking your initial proof from the press, ask your instructor if you should turn off the printer. Ask this after your fingers are black with lead, after you’ve hunted down the letters k and w in the job case, after you’ve confused bs with ps and ns with us, still not used to reading upside down. Ask this after you’ve made the ink snap on the palette, after you’ve run your fingers over the grooves the type makes in paper, after you’ve listened for the hiss of distributed ink on the rollers. But ask this before you’ve destroyed all the words and sentences you’ve spent so much time assembling.

Then, the instructor will point out that a letterpress is not a computer. It is not about the abstractions and sterility of information and electronics, of pushing buttons for instant results; it’s about the tangible adjustments of mechanics and forces, the messiness of another ink-stained sweatshirt, the patient repetition of setting type. Letterpress is the magic of snow angels become permanent.

Finally, after you realize that you have mistaken yourself for a machine, ask if you should restart yourself or shut down altogether.

3. How to be an expert

This isn’t really your fault, but since you know a little something about something not many others do, people who know nothing about that something will think you’re an expert. Because you know what Coptic binding and a composing stick are, they’ll throw you in a box so vast you’ll rattle. A smaller box, where you could have swelled and grown against the sides, would have been better. Maybe you should have remained silent, instead of explaining what typeface you used and that yes, you did make your own sketchbook that way you would have avoided the false bravery of judgment and the constructions of other people’s expectations.

4. How to introduce yourself as a book artist at parties

Whenever you’re at a party, someone will inevitably ask what you do. Remain calm and be truthful. Tell them you’re a book artist. The next question will be, “What’s that?” Explain that you’re interested in the relationship between text, image, structure, and material. “Oh,” they’ll say. “You illustrate books.”

At this point, ignoring them would be preferable, but rude. So take a breath and explain some of the books you’ve made. They still won’t be able to think beyond the abstraction of a briefcase for writing. They’ve never thought about the joints and bones and heartbeats of a book. They won’t realize that a book is as tangible as the kitchen counter they’re leaning against.

5. How to look in the mirror and tell yourself you’re a book artist

Maybe you were always meant to be an artist the way you write and sketch and needlepoint and you start to poke your toes in the cold ocean. Maybe, since you don’t work with clay or paint and no one thinks of what you do as art, you didn’t know you could be an artist, even with all that creative energy slipping through your fingers like the hair of a balding man. While you are still dabbling in photography, book design, writing, the waves slide past your ankles and then your shins and knees, until the water is up around your waist. You might as well start swimming.

Despite the cold water and kelp against your skin and the shadows that might be sharks or jellyfish, you stroke your arms and kick your legs. It’s invigorating like wasabi exploding on your tongue. You realize that a book unifies writing, drawing, photography, collage, that a book expresses time and sequence in a way that a painting or sculpture can’t. You reflect that the ocean erodes shores like preconceptions, that a book is a structure engineered.

Nikki Thompson is a poet, book artist (aka Deconstructed Artichoke Press), and happily failed architect. Her work has appeared in Palimpsest, Mason’s Road, and Cobalt Review, among others. She is the host and organizer of the Deconstructed Artichoke Press Reading Series in San Francisco’s Mission District. She currently resides in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights with her fiancé and Boxer-Pitbull mix, Billie Holiday.