A book/novel/text has always occupied space and the senses for me in diverse and complex ways, allowing for new ways of seeing, and understanding the world. With Tia Blassingame, the artist’s book becomes a living, breathing body of memory and discourse, speaking beyond its borders and whispering alongside the lives we build. With a background in architecture and a deep love of language, Tia opens borders instead of closing them, building structures inside speech and silence that captivate and complicate her narratives. I entered this interview with the hopes of both slipping into the skin of her process and discovering how the artist’s book speaks to her. Tia graciously shared these words with me.
Jordan Okumura: Tia, you create such beautiful moments and hauntings in the spaces that your work occupies. What is it about the artist’s book, printmaking, and letterpress, which allow you to communicate and meditate within the historical, social, and political issues that you often address in your work?
Tia Blassingame: We all have a relationship with, and feelings about, books and reading which allows artists’ books as an art form, to have unique power. That relationship or lack thereof and negative or positive feelings, can heighten the effect artwork in the book form has upon the reader/viewer. This container or artwork that we can handle and unlock its contents can seem magical- intimate, sculptural, effecting of our senses, memorable, activated by the reader’s hand, eyes, ears, mind. Like a book, painting, recording, sculpture, fragrance, conversation all wrapped in one.
JO: What does your creative process look and feel like?
TB: My process jumps between archival research, creative writing, project management, graphic design, fieldwork, drawing, printmaking, editing, collating, selecting materials, etc. Typically I work on multiple related and disparate projects simultaneously. I may start three projects while finishing one and shelving two more. It’s a bit chaotic but they all tend to share a theme or aesthetic.
JO: How do documentation and research play a role in your art and your process? For example, for the work Harvest, which was created while working with Brown University’s archives; how did that experience align with your work?
TB: The research and documentation are paramount to my practice and artwork. Often I am not sure where it will lead or if it will appear directly in the final piece. I have faith in the process, and that seemingly tangential information will lead me where I need to go. Often it is the unrelated that gives me the most insight or inspiration. Often it allows a related project to be born. For example, from the same research that influenced Harvest: Holding & Trading; Harvest Reimagined; Settled: African American Sediment and Constant Middle Passage; Slavery’s Historic House Signs, and BS: The Benefits of Slavery, etc. – without that research, I would not have started a series of self-portraits of myself as a slave wearing a headscarf. Moving those drawings to photogravure prints to printing information from those eighteenth century receipts with images of leaves collected in the making of Harvest for wearable artists’ books.
JO: Many of your pieces are fully created by your own hands, heart, and mind. You have touched and designed each moment of the art process from hand-making the paper and writing the text, to designing, illustrating, printing, and binding. It feels like each piece occupies your entire body. What is that experience like and why must you do it this way?
Tia Blassingame: Complete immersion, part control freakiness. I find it very like my early experiences of writing and editing. As a kid I would go to sleep conceiving lines of poetry. The cascade of light or a gesture would inspire a line. When I was in the process, it was constant. That is how my practice feels. I accept that it is every day, every hour potentially. When I am in a project, I am always thinking about it. Constantly working it out. I don’t need to be at my desk or in the studio to be working. Because my practice has varied components there is no one location for them all.
JO: With a background in architecture, how has that lens and area of study helped inform they way you approach and explore your own art?
TB: I conceive of, and execute, each book as a project. Some are more complex than others, but I consider them as projects to manage and complete. There is a lot of play and model-making to explore ideas and execution. I learn so much from the model or mockup. Very quickly I can see if the images, pacing, page layout, scale, color palette, text are working how I had envisioned. Whether it is apparent to the reader or not, I am always concerned about the built landscape. At times that will appear in the content, at others how the page layout and book components serve to create order and meaning.
JO: Where are you focusing your next experiences?
TB: I’m very interested in the relationship between black and white in terms of who is considered innocent, criminal. As a nation, we continue this long history of re-victimization of black victims and their loved ones, and of a justice system that does not provide justice if the crime is committed by a white
American against a black American. Even in our popular culture we joke about this. We accept this as tragic, but almost inevitable. Though both are constructs, blackness does not exist without whiteness. Whiteness cannot exist without blackness. It’s fascinating how that relationship plays out like the biggest threat to white supremacy is just being, existing in this skin.
Tia Blassingame teaches Book Arts at Scripps College and is the Director of the Scripps College Press, a student, experimental letterpress and bookbinding laboratory. She holds a B.A. from Princeton University, M.A. from Corcoran College of Art + Design, and M.F.A. in Printmaking from Rhode Island School of Design. She has been an artist-in-residence at Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and Santa Fe Art Institute. Her artist’s books can be found in library and museum collections around the world including Library of Congress, Stanford University, State Library of Queensland, and Tate Britain.