Thursday, August 12, 2010

Interview with Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is an English book artist who has been making books and teaching how to make books since the 1980s. He is known internationally both for his teachers and his lively, architectural, pop-up books. Paul will present Books as Architecture, a demonstration of techniques which feature no folds, but hinges, dovetail locks and joints instead. Paul sat down recently and answered some of our questions about his process.

When did your interest in the book arts begin? What did you do before you became interested in book arts?

My love of home-made books started as a child. My father produced twenty-five sketchbooks full of drawings of our family life between 1939 and 1963. This collection is a social document and deserves to be published and is my greatest treasure. But it was not until my early forties in the mid- eighties that I started to make my own books. Before then I was into experimental forms of art - visual poetry and performance art. I took a published pop-up book to pieces to see how it was made and then did my own work from that starting point. Why? I just don't know where the interest in pop-ups came from except that as a child I loved making models of castles and pirate ships that where printed on the back of cornflake packets. You cut them out and glued them together. I guess that my work today comes from my childhood creative life at the kitchen table. What a tragedy that most young people today, like my fourteen-year-old son are locked into an exclusively electronic, passive, world.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I have two creative passions - architecture and natural forms. In some cases the two integrate in, for example medieval cathedrals - the buildings grow just like plants do although made of stone. I grew up in the medieval city of Norwich in the east of England. There is a medieval church on every small street - over thirty of them. It is a magical place - it holds my soul - although I left there over fifty years ago. Since my parents died some time ago I have not returned and will not return. The past should be deposited in a secret place in the mind and left there to live a life of its own. I adore the architecture of Japan and Thailand too - maybe you can see the influence in my work? If my life could be stretched to infinity I would spend weeks solely drawing the trees and flowers in our garden. My wife knows the names of all of them - I envy this knowledge. I just refer to them as 'the small blue one one with five petals.' Like my father, I make sketchbooks and draw in one nearly every day. Not surprisingly it is ancient churches, landscape and plants that I draw most. England is so rich in these things.

You describe your technique as architectural, b/c of your use of dovetail joints, hinges, and locks, but your books also resemble houses. Did the house shape came out of the technique or was it the other way around?

I make movable books that have no folds partly to avoid paper fatigue caused through the constant movement of opening and closing a book but also because when paper is joined with a hinge there is greater structural flexibility than folded paper; the finished piece opens and folds down more easily. Of course the pieces take longer to make but the benefits are considerable. All my new work and indeed new workshops employ this style of construction.

One of your books is called Literacy Through the Book Arts, how do you understand the relationship between book arts and literacy?

I live two professional lives - related yet separate. One life - the one I have already referred to - is about making one-of-a-kind pop-up books. The other life is spent in schools making books with children and working alongside teachers. It is a holistic process integrating text and image and book form. I have written fifteen books about making books with children in which the book as form and the book as content is a continuum. Book artists tend to come from a visual background and not a linguistic one and consequently are not always as at ease with the content of their books as with the physical structure. I am just about to embark on my next, and I think final published book - The New Pop-up Paper Engineering. My Pop-up Paper Engineering was published in 1993 and was one of the first books to attempt to describe and define the genre. It is still in print. This new book is due to be published in 2013, twenty years after the first one and coinciding with my seventieth birthday. Somehow I have to make time to write it. So many places yet to visit. So many people I want to meet. So many things I want to make. Each new day is a precious gift for which I give thanks. So much yet to be done...

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