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A Glimpse into the Life of a Book Artist: A Conversation with Alicia Bailey

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Until I moved to Colorado and was introduced to Abecedarian Gallery in Denver, my thoughts of Alicia Bailey were mostly tied to her role as treasurer of The Guild of Book Workers, a position she held from 1998-2014. She was a reliable and valuable fixture that helped guide the Guild through so many years. My more traditionally bound bookbinding life had not yet discovered the artistic and original world of artists’ books. I had never before entered a gallery full of these imaginative creations, some deeply moving and others delightfully whimsical, until I entered her space in Denver. Alicia owns and operates Abecedarian Artists’ Books, located in the artistically vibrant area of Denver called, the Arts Center on Santa Fe. She has carved this space into a place where artists’ books are sold, where book arts classes take place, and where people gather for energetic discussions about book related subjects.

Below is a delightful interview with Alicia that highlights her path into the world of artists’ books, and the wide variety of roles she plays in that world.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the RMC newsletter. I am really enjoying doing these interviews, and especially getting to talk to and learn about members from around the region, their backgrounds, and the different types of book-related work they do.

How did you first become interested in the book arts?

It was a series of steps. When I was an undergraduate, I studied printmaking. As I got closer to leaving, I realized that I wanted to live rurally, not in a city, and it was pretty hard to set up a printmaking studio, so I switched to photography. By the time I left CU [University of Colorado at Boulder], I was making really large black and white prints, and I was then applying surface color, so beyond tinting, but definitely more painterly, and sewing on them, and things of that sort. I moved to a really small town in the San Juan mountains and had a lot of time in the studio. That was lovely, but about seven or eight years after I made that move, I was getting really starved for conversations with other artists, so I applied to be an assistant in the photography program at Anderson Ranch. Book artists would come to teach classes there in what they called, I believe, interdisciplinary studies. The photo assistants would assist the book artists. I worked there, in that capacity, for two summers. Over the course of those two summers, I got to assist a lot of book artists.  I worked with Susan King, and I worked with Susan Kae Grant, and I worked with Sass Colby and John Wood and his wife. Most impactful was that, for both of those years, I worked with Keith Smith. One of the benefits of being a grossly underpaid assistant there was that I got to meet with all the instructors that I wanted to, to talk about my work. Keith Smith and I met both summers, and both times he looked at what I was doing and he said, “You’re making books that hang on the wall. Why don’t you make a book?” So, I’ve been introduced to various techniques through these book artists – book art techniques, definitely not binder techniques. One of the very first books, if not the first book that I made, I submitted to a show, and it was accepted. It was a traveling show called Westward Bound, and it traveled for three years. That was a real confidence booster. That was how I got started, and the impetus to continue – well, it was fun - but was also getting the work in that show.

It sounds like you have a broad art background, and you morphed into book arts. I wonder about people that see your work, or go into your gallery and see these amazing artists’ books and they think, “This is so cool, this is what I want to do.” What would you tell them? What kind of skills do they have to have? How would they go about entering into that world?

One of the things that is so wonderful about the book arts is there are so many different varieties, so if someone’s content or concept is based in narrative imagery, with or without text, really, all they need to be able to do is fold up an accordion. People with an interest in writing have a ready-made skill set. Any graphic designer has a step in. I think that is very, very helpful. Also, any craft where you would be working with your hands.  Even things like engineering or chemistry—to understand how materials interact. I really think that there are very few fields that don’t provide some sort of in-road into at least one aspect of book arts. But I think what’s very challenging about book arts—and as a binder you know how many things you need to understand and have a grasp of in order to build a book that functions properly—is if you start wanting to put content in there, it increases all that you need to engage with. It’s almost beneficial to sort of lack focus, or be a little bit ADD, or be able to work across a broad spectrum of skill sets. I think the biggest frustration for people starting out is that it’s very easy to get discouraged. You can make a really beautiful series of pages and bind them up and stick them in the press and take them out, and oh boy, you forgot to put in a slip sheet and your pages are all stuck together. And hopefully, you don’t do it more than once, but even that is not unusual.

Yes, we all learn from our mistakes. I love looking at your artists’ books, like your cosmetics themed piece, and the artist book inspired by your Great Aunt. It seems fun to grab on to something of interest and then go with it. You can delve deep into some subject that interests you, in such a creative way. Is that what you do?

Sort of. I do that—I delve into a subject, but I don’t need as much depth as I might if I were in another field. If I were writing or researching for something, I would need to go in deeper. What I do is I kind of just dabble my toes until I get enough good content for the project at hand. If it’s compelling, I will continue down that road, but I don’t need to reach conclusions like a scientist or a researcher might. I get to learn however much I want on a variety of topics. It’s a different version of what I was saying earlier about this broad topic—not so focused on just one thing, but all over. That’s certainly not the only way that wonderful artists’ books are made. That’s just my way—master of none!

How do you make it into a living?

It’s kind of a lifelong process. It was only about three years ago that I completely stopped doing bookkeeping work. When I started working after college, I did a lot of service work in this small town—restaurants and bartending and cleaning. Luckily, a CPA hired me and trained me to do basic bookkeeping. What I was paid per hour was enough that I could work only part time. I kept that model for decades of working part-time at a task that paid pretty well, and living very frugally with low overhead, and getting to spend quite a bit of time in the studio. I think time in the studio has to come before any attempt at earning a living. You just have to really put your time in. That’s my life’s approach: first you do the work, and then you reach out and see what the rewards might be, because getting distracted by potential rewards can hinder focus on, and a personal assessment of, the work at hand. So that’s what I did. And every year I was able to do less bookkeeping. My last bookkeeping position was for Guild of Book Workers.

I always knew of you, for so many years, as the treasurer of Guild of Book Workers. How did you get involved in the Guild?

Very early, after I had taken classes at Anderson Ranch, I wanted to take more classes. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know who the good teachers were or big names or anything. I learned about a class in Salt Lake City, a two-week workshop with Claire Van Vliet.  It was co-sponsored by the Guild of Book Workers with the University there. I believe I had to join the Guild of Book Workers to take that workshop, so I did. I was practically a brand new member, and there was another workshop with Daniel Kelm that was at Laura Wait’s Denver studio. We were talking one day. She knew I had done bookkeeping, and she told me that the Guild was looking for a treasurer, and I should run for that position. I made some inquiries, and I was told that it was about four hours a month. It seemed quite manageable. I was elected. I’m not sure how to say this tactfully, but it was really a mess. Early on, the Guild was in a lot of trouble with the IRS because they hadn’t been filing any tax returns, so I worked very hard and got that situation resolved. The IRS said that “relying on volunteers is okay unless it leads to things like this, so perhaps your organization should look at hiring someone who knows what they’re doing for handling the money.” So the Board agreed to have me, not only be on the Board, but also be the paid bookkeeper. That is how I started—16 years.

I think about all that you learned—you learned a lot about business, and then you started Abecedarian. How did that get started? Did your business expertise help you run a business like that?

It didn’t hurt. I think that my business experience was already well developed because of all the bookkeeping that I had done. I had been an office manager for a small newspaper—that’s where I picked up a lot of that. Because of my involvement with the Guild of Book Workers, I had name recognition. When I started Abecedarian, I sent out emails. Peter Verheyan’s Book Arts listserv was so helpful because it was a way to contact people immediately and widely, and people recognized my name and were willing to trust me and consign their works to me, and then buy from me. If I was somebody whose name was unfamiliar, I probably would have had to work a little harder to have people be so responsive. Knowing so many people from Guild conferences and being the treasurer, I knew everybody’s name even if I’d never met them. That really helped. I’m so often asked by people who are asking about the gallery how I find my artists. It’s pretty easy to find people involved in the book world if you are a member of any of these organizations, such as Guild.

Was it your dream to have this gallery? How did it come to be?

I needed a social life. I thought about volunteering somewhere. But at the time, I was still traveling back and forth a lot from my previous home in Lake City [Colorado] to Denver. I didn’t want anything that regular. I was already spending too much time alone. My bookkeeping was by myself, and my studio time was by myself. By that time, I divorced, and I was living by myself. I thought about joining a cooperative gallery. Then I thought, well, I’m going to see about selling more books. I had gone to Pyramid Atlantic a couple times and sold my own work, and I always really enjoyed talking to people about books. So, I rented a very small space and was open two days a week.  It was going well enough, and I was really enjoying it. I then decided to buy a space. In part, one of the things I understand about business is that it’s really hard, if you have sporadic and uneven income, to pay rent. You want to keep your overhead low, so early on when I had first bought the space, when it was slow, and it was slow a lot, I would feel okay about it because it was a real estate investment instead of paying rent where it would just feel like I was throwing money away. It was the need for a social life.

It must have been something you liked, because how long have you had it now?

Nine years. It will be ten years this year.

You’ve recently changed the format. Is that something that suits you?

It does. I was working just a little too hard, too much, and just getting kind of burned out, and not liking the work that I was doing. That’s not a good sign. Fortunately, I was able to figure out a way, a work-around. I actually hired somebody to help me figure out how to reconfigure my life and not completely distance myself from Abecedarian. It was important to stay attached to this world of working with other artists and helping find buyers for their work. I wanted to hold on to that world, if possible.

You are so smart about that. It sounds like you have a business mind, but also a good deal of life-style awareness. They don’t always go together, and you seem to work to make them go together.

I am really lucky. It’s not always easy, but I’m really fortunate. It was a long time before I recognized that not everybody has this skill. I do appreciate that I have that skill.

I think about the things that you do now. You have the gallery; you do your own artists’ books; you teach classes all around and educate people, and give talks; you curate shows. Does that sound right? Am I missing anything?

No, that does sound right. I do all those things. And actually, now might be a good time to mention that when I changed the way that I was running the gallery, I also changed the name, so it’s Abecedarian Artists’ Books because it’s not really a gallery anymore. That means that I don’t have to have open hours and things like that.

Of the different things you do, is there something you like best?

I like working in my studio the best, but that has the least potential for income. I appreciate the way I’ve structured my life. It means I can work in the studio and not be worried about that generating income. I think if I were worried about that, it wouldn’t be as rewarding. One of my favorite things to do now is to combine as much as I can. So, I have workshops in the new book space, and I have a lot of artists’ books there on-site. I can show those books to students at lunch, or if somebody mentions something, I can access a book very easily and show them. That is a wonderful way to generate even more excitement about artists’ books. I also like when I’m able to combine teaching with selling, which I’ve been doing on some road trips. And when I go to conferences, quite often there will be an opportunity to teach while I’m there. As much as possible, I try to combine things, not only because it’s fun, and books are all about combining things, but I have to do it that way or there’s not enough time for everything.

I remember your Artists’ Books On the Road project – are you still doing that? You were fundraising and educating about book arts as you took road trips.

I’m not doing any fundraising anymore. I did that for two years. One of the things I realized when I had the gallery was that not enough people were coming to see the books. I am in one of the busiest and most active arts districts in Denver, and still I felt like there should be more people who got to see these books. So, I packed them up and would take them places where people had never heard of such a thing, or where opportunities to engage with them were limited. After two years of doing that, it started evolving into a situation where the venues in the small communities where I was visiting asked me if I would come back and teach a workshop. That is what I started doing last summer and am continuing this year. I don’t need to raise money anymore because I’m getting a workshop fee.

That thing that happens when people see something that they’d never seen before, and it’s something that’s exciting to them, it’s like a magic moment – getting to see that. And I get to see that a lot. It’s pretty fun.

What would you like to achieve in the future? Is there anything that you’d like to do?

I think that my studio work could be better than it is. I want to see if that’s really true. Putting more time in the studio and being exposed to so many wonderful works of art has given me a better understanding of what is possible and what quality is. It’s kind of nebulous, what is good and what is bad, but I do think that my ideas about what’s important in artists’ book have become more sophisticated through all this exposure to artists’ books, so now I’m working to implement that more in my own work. Other than that, I really don’t have any big goal. I’m kind of living the life here already.

That’s the way it should be. What do you do in your free time, besides book-related work?

I was raised by a musician mother and a father who made musical instruments as an avocation that then turned into a full-time occupation. I don’t play musical instruments, but I love to listen to almost any kind of music, particularly live, so I go to a lot of music shows. I like to spend quite a bit of time in the mountains hiking and walking, and I am a pretty avid reader. I’ve always had a dog, and I’ve had horses in various times of my life. I like hanging around in the natural world as much a possible. It’s a pretty good life.

Is there anything that you are especially passionate about?

I wish that there wasn’t such a link between artistic activity and finance. I don’t know that passionate is the word to describe it, but I feel like one of my missions is to re-educate people, or at least introduce this idea, that being involved in a creative endeavor is a gift, and it’s a gift aside from earning any financial rewards. It’s something that we get to carry around with us – this ability to have interesting conversations with ourselves. So, I feel it is my mission to help remind people or spread that word broadly.

In conversations recently, artists that I converse with have been very distracted by things that have been going on. I’m compelled to keep reminding all of us that we can always return to this relationship that we’ve cultivated with ourselves, as a release and a wonderful place to go, and then be able to face the world again without bitterness.

That is a really good mission.  You are so thoughtful about your life, about the choices you make, about your conversations with people. I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you want to comment on?

It is possible to be very involved in a way that I have been in this world of book arts. It seems like a small world without that many practitioners, but it is so vast. It touches on almost everything. I have found that people involved in the book arts tend to be the most generous of spirit and the most interesting of the different sort of categories of people that I interact with. It is a wonderful world, and we are both very fortunate that we stumbled to this place.