Interview with Marian Crane, Crane Designs - Arizona. June 2004

'Turquoise Scroll ' by Marian Crane

"I'm drawn by the special possibilities of books: layers of art and text hidden behind covers."

You describe yourself as an artisan not a bookmaker or artist. Why?

I've been a silversmith, a leatherworker, and a fiber artist for a few decades. I'm still new to bookmaking, so that label isn't quite instinctive yet. I love the mix of engineering, material experimentation, rich content, and creative highs that craftwork affords me. I have some deep philosophical differences with the contemporary fine-art world's adulation of shock value and exploitation, distrust of beauty, and exaltation of shoddy workmanship. At the same time, I understand the utter banality that flavors much of today's decorative mass- market artwork. I've spent many years in the interior- decorating and decorative-arts fields, and seen the worst they had to offer to the least-discerning customers. So, standing between these two worlds, there really is nothing that I can be, except an artisan trying to hold true to her creed.

Which comes to you first – content or structure?

It's an even split. Sometimes I'll create or stumble on marvelous content. I might spend up to a year figuring out the structure to fit it, asking for copyright permission to use it (if it's not original), and assembling materials. I do make sets of unfinished wooden and leather covers when I have spare time in the workshop – months or years later, something will evolve to fit them! Sketch books and digital drawings flesh out content and layout. Foamcore models of new structures often help me iron out engineering problems before I get to the expensive materials – but not always, and once I get into the actual sawing and sewing phases everything is subject to change without notice.

Generally your books and wall hangings sustain a Southwestern flavor and feel, but the subjects are wide and diverse. Where does your inspiration come from?

The Southwestern feel is simply a personal default setting – a lazy reaction. After growing up in New Mexico and Arizona, the colors and textures of these landscapes are probably hard-wired into my brain. This seems exotic to people who don't live here, so it often helps my work. I also like the prospect of affectionately satirizing the Southwestern art and trends that I've watched develop over the last few decades. No doubt, if I move to another climate and landscape, my artwork will – and must – adapt. Even reading travel books and regional magazines is helping me break away from that Southwestern 'look'.

I know dozens of would-be artists and writers who are constantly looking for Inspiration, for a helpful Muse, for that magical formula that will launch world-class projects. The sordid truth is that ideas are everywhere. Ideas are easy. Grabbing them, hammering them into a physical form that doesn't completely smother the shimmering spark within – that's the hard part. Diversity is one key: an open acceptance of new ideas and structures, and the willingness to flesh out a half-finished concept with research (which also generates more ideas, I might add.) A certain ruthlessness is also helpful. No old project still in my possession is sacred. Like a newsprint sketch or a piece of unfired clay, it can all be ripped apart, altered, or added-to in the goal of creating a better piece. My own best path to inspiration, though, is diligence. At any one time, I have between 10 and 35 projects at various stages. A partial snapshot of my current project list includes artist's books about creativity, aspects of Liberty, 19th-Century architect/designers and their ideas about universal symmetry , the number 'pi', American Blues music, a quote from the naturalist/desert rat Edward Abbey, a quote about compulsive wandering from Clark Ashton Smith, original poetry books about amber and the aftermath of global warming, a tapestry about aquifers, a tapestry based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, and several pieces of wearable art. Will all of these be finished next week? No way. Can I finish them a bit at a time, so that hundreds of hours of work can fit into spare evenings and lunch hours? Eventually.

Who or what has been the main influences in your work?

I have the most respect for the artists and designers of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the jewelry and metalwork firms of Faberge' and Tiffany, and the ancient guild systems of Europe and the Far East. Their legacies have taught me there are ways to balance rich content with high technical skill, personal satisfaction and the demands of an elite clientele. I am awed and delighted with art created out of spirituality, from prehistory through the Christian and Buddhist traditions – there's a depth to work driven and shaped by prayer that isn't often seen in secular modern pieces. At the same time, my philosophies have been firmly shaped by ideas that go back to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: the value of human thought and logic, and the quest to understand one's self and the universe.

You have chosen not to use paper in your books. Why?

I don't know paper as well as I know fibers and wood.. And while I love fine paper objects and artwork, they don't appeal to me as an outlet for my own creativity, beyond a few note cards made for holidays and friends. Part of that aversion is that I work with paper artwork in my mass-market career, and don't like the bleed-through between corporate and personal artwork. From a marketing standpoint, I avoid paper because it seems most of the other book artists out there are using it. I ambled into fiber arts years ago because I saw an ever-increasing glut of young, earnest painters and sculptors vying for limited markets. The fiber and bead arts were a smaller field, a pariah clan largely ignored by fine artists and museums – and because of that, craft artists playing with those materials had more freedom and less institutional pressure to Be Important. Now, of course, fiber art is mainstream and beads are so hip every decorating magazine has to have some angle on them!

I sometimes worry about the archival aspects of choosing fiber and wood over paper. In a world that praises ephemeral art, I don't know if it's foresight or hubris to consider how my work will appear a century or two down the line. I use archival varnishes, substrates, and assembling systems that can be taken apart by a skilled conservator.

Mostly, I love the feel of wood, leather, and fabric. Thinking back, I might have subconsciously chosen this line of work more than twenty years ago, when I saw an embroidered linen Missa Brevis in a university library reference book. The covers and pages were pierced with tatted lace figures and text, tiny pearls twined in a filigree over the background, and the spine was carved boxwood. It was no more than 5 inches high. I was enchanted – by the object, by the fact that it had survived hundreds of years, by the obvious time and quality of work spent on it.

Why bookmaking?

It seemed the next level. I love books, from their physical feel to the social and cultural traditions we associate with them: learning, mystery, magic, access to new worlds and states of being. The act of opening and reading a book evokes different responses in viewers, than simply walking past the same panels on a gallery wall. The sequenced nature of books offers new ways to create and present ideas.

Most of your pieces are one-of-a-kind? Why?

When one paperback-sized book may take me several months to complete, I simply don't have the time to create editions of work. The whole point behind editions is that they are somewhat cheaper to produce and sell than unique works. If all my art is that labor-intensive, what is the point of editions? I certainly don't want to lower my quality or scope of work, since that is one of the main reasons to create it in the first place. I intend to create several series of books, eventually – individual books linked by theme, size, and appearance. At some point, I plan to publish high-quality images of my work. Again, my career has shaped that decision. I work in a large commercial art studio that makes millions on reproducing open and limited editions of artwork for clients all over the world. When I make my own art, I shy away from repeating myself too often or too obviously. From a marketing standpoint, the unique work may hurt my chances of reaching all possible buyers – but it concentrates my ability to reach collectors who prize originality.  


What kind of workspace do you have? If you would change it, what would you do?

(Looking around.) Let's see – the kitchen table when it isn't used for food prep, the top of the wetbar in the basement audio room, the living room table, various floors, the garage for carpentry and welding, and whatever space I can grab during my lunch hour at work. Materials storage consists of huge plastic stacking bins in my office. Fabric lives in archival boxes in the basement ( my Phoenix basement is a cool, dry, congenial place rather more like a hobbit-hole than the standard visual picture of 'basement'. Heck, in the summertime, I almost live down here!) My workspace is fairly disjointed, since I have a busy life and roommates with their own interests. It's one factor in keeping my work small and easily portable. I store unfinished projects in handy bags or plastic cases, so I can have access to them nearly anywhere. I am told it's bad form to bring out the embroidery at an especially awkward or boring party, or in line at the Motor Vehicle Department – but it passes the time, creates interesting conversations, and gets me that much closer to a finished piece of art.

If I had my fantasy workshop, it would be have separate vented areas for woodworking and metalsmithing, long tables for sewing and project layouts, a computer area for digital sketching and printing, a futon to snooze on, a fridge and electric teapot for basic sustenance. But I'd keep the wetbar.

Have you taken classes for the techniques you use in your books? Where? What classes were the most influential?

What I've learned, I've learned on my own through books and experiments, by critically looking at what I see in exhibitions of book and fiber art, and by reading publications devoted to these areas. Yes, I find myself reinventing the wheel upon occasion, but it's fun, and I sometimes go places more conventionally-taught artists might not reach. I'm just now starting my first variation of a Coptic-bound book, even though that's a staple for new book artists. (My own first cover was similar to the wood-and leather 'Artists' Invocation'.) I accidentally came up with the format for 'Turquoise
Scroll' last year, only to discover later that it is a combination of ancient Chinese slat and whirlwind bindings.

I won't say that I've been working in a vacuum for twenty years, because I read voraciously, attend gallery and museum shows, and belong to several local and national arts organizations. But since a great silversmithing class in high school, and a few pottery and printmaking classes in college, I haven't attended a single workshop. I could claim that the commercial art career has been one huge workshop, since I've learned things there about mediums and techniques that most mixed-media artists would kill to know. Truth is, I haven't had time, and in some cases money, to drop everything and attend classes. Now, at what I hope is just the midpoint of my own craft career, I'm beginning to look carefully at future gatherings around the country. I recognize that I must work with other artists, at this stage, or risk stagnation. And I miss the social parts of workshopping, the encouragement, and the brainstorming.

Which part of bookmaking do you like the most? the least?

I live for the moment I finish a book – the pages locked into the cover, the last tassel threaded into place, the whole object complete for the first time on my worktable, a real thing instead of an abstract electrochemical map existing only in my brain. The act of making a book may be meditative or mind-numbingly complex: hours of research, sketches, structural and ornamental sewing, carving or painting the covers, filing and sanding and finishing, the stop-and-start process of assembly. But that first moment the book exists outside of me, I can sit back and be happy. Of course, five minutes after that I usually start seeing the glaring flaws in my new creation, and wanting to take it all apart again.

Since you have a full time job, how and when do you find time for bookmaking?

As I've said before, it can be difficult. It's made easier by choosing processes that allow for portability and incremental work. People who know me allow for the fact that I will always have a project at hand. I am firm in pointing out that this is not some hobby kit from a craft store – this is my job, or one of them. I often end up giving mini-workshops on the bus or in waiting lines, to non-artists who are fascinated or bewildered by this madwoman in their midst. Kids love it. Especially when they can grasp that it's a metaphor for patience and ability. It can't all be finished in an hour, and little bits of work add up to a massive undertaking.

I've also had to be realistic about my craft, and where it stands in my life. If I quit my day job tomorrow, I'd have eight more hours in a day to make books – but I'd have a lot less money coming in, no benefits, and more stress which would ultimately poison my joy in art.

Do you have a favorite piece in your portfolio?

Some of them I still like. Some make me wince, but they are long sold so I can't get at them and re-make them as they should have been made. Usually, my favorite piece is either the one now finishing, or the one I just thought up. 

Your work is colorful and fun. Do you have a favorite color? a least favorite color?

I'm in love with color. All colors. Every single dazzling or dull hue in the lot. Even the sappiest pink or most sickening yellow-green can be effective in the right place and amount, with the right companion colors. That said, I am least intoxicated by badly-conceived examples of color trends in fashion, art, or furniture. I loathe the idea of the same few colors being trumpeted each season in Target or WalMart aisles, the pages of Vogue, and the sleek galleries of Soho, Santa Fe, and Scottsdale. As if all of us want the same colors on our bodies and our walls, and believe the ASID designers who tell us that we do! While I use intense color in my work, I have a tendency toward neutral tones in my personal dress and living areas: I find it restful, and I enjoy the protective coloring that lets me blend into a crowd, be underestimated, and observe the world around me.

Your work is visual and tactile. If you could add a sound, what would it be? Or, a taste?

Hmm. The deep questions, now. I can already add subtle scents to the work, with herbal layers inside the pages or scented woods like sandalwood, cedar, camphor, and cinnamon. If there was a convincing way to achieve complete artificial synesthesia, I'd add sounds and tastes that complemented each book. To a book on clouds, I'd add the sound of light rain and distant growling thunder. I'd work the scent and taste of really good black tea to 'A Tea Wish'. And what would a book about roses be, without the changing perfumes of several different roses?

And, lastly, if you were a book, what would your design be?

I have no idea, other than various squirmy thoughts about topology, folded skin, and layers of bone. Here is where my naivety about bookmaking shows its disadvantages – I don't have the vocabulary yet to describe many types of books. But I'm currently trying to adapt the German springback design into something that will work with my wood, leather, and fabric styles. The springback books that I've seen are sturdy, efficient, and elegant in their design. I could only hope for so much!

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