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Never Mind the Press: A Chat with Bookmaker and Artist Alisa Golden

Posted on March 17, 2009 | Interviews | Leave A Comment

We recently caught up with bookmaker, visual artist and writer Alisa Golden. Golden founded never mind the press in San Francisco in the 1980s and has taught bookmaking and printmaking at the California College of the Arts for years. Here, she shares insight into staying creative and staying put in San Francisco’s vibrant book arts community.


Tell us a little bit about your education and background.

People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I’d say, “a writer and an artist.” Then I would get a lecture about how you couldn’t make a living being a writer and an artist. I also wanted to be a teacher, but was told by my favorite high school teacher not to do that either. Meanwhile, I always had art lessons, I always wrote, and I worked with kids constantly.

I had an art teacher at the Brentwood Art Center in Los Angeles who was also an art therapist, so I thought that might be a good path and enrolled at UC Berkeley figuring I’d major in psychology and art. It was a great school, but my plan didn’t work out (primarily after I got a C in my first psych class and didn’t want to learn how to mix egg tempera in a preliminary art class), so I transferred to California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts).

I enrolled in Betsy Davids’ letterpress printing class concurrently with her creative writing class and found, finally, that I could merge both writing and art by making books. I had learned to set type in a graphic arts class in junior high school and loved it, so the meditative typesetting process was comforting as well. Additionally, as I set my writing I have a chance to spend more time with the words, and it proved to be a good way to edit my work.

The craft of bookmaking was hard at first, but something I enjoyed learning. As a child I was always busy creating things: macramé, candles, knit scarves, embroidered cloth, calligraphy, collages, needlepoint, leaded glass, ceramic objects, quilts, experimental food in the kitchen. I’d been hanging around writing in cafés in Berkeley, so I had a stash of poems to set in metal type and print for my first project, a book called never mind the crowd, from which my press name is derived. (I like puns and wordplay and used to want the personalized license plate “UNKNOWN” for my car).

During my two-and-a-half years at CCA(C) I made about twelve books, some with linocuts, some with screenprints, some with handmade paper, but all with handset type printed via letterpress. I got my degree in Printmaking in 1985.

I’ve recently been making only very small editions of letterpress books (under thirty copies), as well as unique books that are acrylic-ink painted, felted (both wet-felted and needlefelted), or books grouped with objects in handmade boxes.

Is the book arts community vibrant in the Bay Area?

Since the time I began making books the book arts community in the Bay Area has grown enormously. I used to know everyone, or at least I’d heard of everyone; now I can’t keep track of all the people making books. The San Francisco Center for the Book has been a fantastic resource. They offer 300 classes and workshops per year, I think. They have events like the amazing Roadworks event where artists carve huge panels of linoleum and a rented steamroller prints them; exhibits—I just curated an exhibit there called “Wings for Words: New Bookworks from Korea and Japan”; and readings—the poet laureate Kay Ryan is a friend of the Center so she has been involved there. After they take preliminary classes, people can rent time to set metal or wood type, make photopolymer plates, or use the letterpresses. The place is hopping! The universities in the area—art schools and academically based colleges—are offering many book arts classes, and they are very active as well.


You are in a unique position of combining original writing with printmaking. Is the writing to bookmaking process seamless or do you need to move between two creative spaces to make both happen well?

Both writing and artmaking are about seeing and interpreting, transforming an experience. However, it is true that if I try to do both at once, only one wins. I have days when I can write well, or days when I can draw well. And there are other days when I can do neither one very satisfactorily at all. That’s when I take a walk, play with paper or objects in my studio, or paint with a really large brush; physical movement loosens up the creative work. I try to dance and exercise at home as much as possible, also.

It takes time to incubate a book. When I’m doing an edition, the planning takes the longest, the writing is the hardest, and the production is the quickest and easiest. When I’m doing a unique book I begin easily, usually with the materials or the art, but the book takes much longer to finish because I don’t know in which direction it will go. For a unique book I often don’t have any idea what form the writing will take either: fiction, poem, research, or personal narrative? The writing for that, too, is hard.

I like doing my writing just before going to sleep or just after waking up, when dreams are filtering into my thoughts and reality isn’t concrete (and the internal editor is turned off). But at the same time, writing takes focus and concentration. I have to be absolutely aware of my feelings at the moment and connect with whatever those feelings are. Sometimes I can do some line drawings of imaginary things in this in-between, hypnotic mental space, too, although I prefer to draw in the daylight by a window. Large, gestural painting, binding, or setting type, felting, any stuff I do with my hands, and any rewriting or editing, I can do any time, anywhere. I’m a compulsive maker. Have thread, will travel.

Where do you find inspiration to stay creative?

So many things are inspiring to me that I can’t keep up with the ideas. Every day has a story in it. I tried writing down the “story of the day” one summer to see if it was really true, and it was. Maybe it was someone I met, a dream, seeing something and mistaking it for something else: any of these got me started. Primarily, I watch and listen to interactions between people. I watch neighborhood cats, squirrels, or birds for a few moments when I can. The newspaper is full of outrageous events that demand responses. Or I just get obsessed with a subject and research it until it gives me a gem that I must make into something.

I’ve researched flyfishing, butterflies, dandelions, Maimonides, and squash, to name other subjects. As Ken Rignall, a former professor of mine, when answered what he was painting, said, “Anything! Nothing! It doesn’t matter!” I’m bombarded by ideas constantly. I keep a sketchbook where I write down many of them, but these ideas can easily be replaced by others. No subject is too irreverent; everything can become source material.

Is teaching rewarding in a different way from making art or writing books?

I love teaching. The students are inspiring and I learn from them. They see things differently, and I find it interesting to figure out what they are seeing and why they are seeing in that particular way. I’m curious about what will motivate each of them, what will inspire them. Sometimes, they ask questions I haven’t considered, so I have to do some research to find the answers. I get to listen, grow, and learn along with them.

My colleagues are also wonderful. The printmaking program was my home as a student, and continues to be a comfortable place for me as a teacher. Teaching, particularly at the college level, takes me out of my solitary routine, out of my studio, and into the world.

Any advice for people wanting to get involved in letterpress and book making?

Take classes if you can and get to know the processes. Or work through some projects in bookmaking or other craft. Find out what kind of handwork you like to do. Ask yourself questions, constantly. Do you prefer sitting at your computer or setting metal type one letter at a time by hand? Do you like to sew? Do you prefer folding paper or assembling cloth or clay or wax? What do you want to make?

Find out what materials appeal to you, experiment with them, then make more things with them. Getting good at bookmaking takes practice, and you will get better with practice.

Once you get an idea, make a model. You can’t make books in the air. Always make a model with the paper or materials you plan to use to make sure it will work.

Don’t use tape for final projects. Tape is evil. Except self-adhesive linen tape—that’s okay. Good materials contribute to a better project.

And finally, what do you want to say? If you are making book art outside of blank books, you probably have a story, a feeling, a dream, a concern you want to communicate to others. That’s what art is about. Most likely it will come from deep inside you—you’ll be most motivated by something about which you care passionately.

What’s in store for the future for you?

Recently, Charles Hobson showed me a book called Riceboy Sleeps. It is a quiet book with no words, but with haunting imagery; it is offset printed but has the quality and aesthetic of a handmade book with rounded corners and debossing. The book itself is an interesting object, but it is even more interesting when you go to the website and find text, small film-loops, and music that relate to it. When you look at the book again it is now a different book: you carry the memory of the music and film and text with you, which enhances its content. I find this fascinating and would like to explore this idea of object and web-connection further, for one thing. I also have been having fun making personal print-on-demand books using blurb.com.

In the past twenty-five years I’ve also organized community activities on occasion and am thinking about how to continue this work. I ran a print exchange for seven years; I’ve planned salon-style events like the “Book Arts Evenings and Weekends” for the Pacific Center for the Book Arts; I’ve organized exhibits (we had a big book show at CCA this past February called “ArtRead”); and in May I’m going to have an Art Kitchen/Open Studio where people can come and make art and I’ll donate money to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. People need to make art, and they need to eat. It seems a good way to feed souls and mouths.

Beyond that, it’s whatever the tide washes up, the neighbor cat brings, my pockets and dreams yield, and the people I meet that will continue to inspire me to write and make things, any things.

Alisa Golden is an artist who works with the book as her primary medium. Since her first book of poems in 1983, never mind the crowd, Alisa has used a variety of materials and techniques combined with her original poetry and prose to create letterpress printed editions and one-of-a-kind books; she writes, designs, prints, and binds the books herself under the imprint never mind the press. In addition to creating book art, Alisa teaches classes and workshops on bookmaking and printmaking at California College of the Arts and at her studio. She has also written several instructional books including, Expressive Handmade Books, Creating Handmade Books and Painted Paper. Her work can be found in the special collections of universities, museums, and libraries across the United States and abroad. More at neverbook.com.

Interviewed by Sara Billups. Thanks to May Marston for research. Photos by Alisa Golden.

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