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BRAVA Award Winners 2023 – Julie Chen

Julie Chen

Artists’ Books Artists Award (United States)

This award supports the work of contemporary visual artists and craftspeople working in the genre of Artists’ Books. Artists’ Books are works of art that utilize the concept of the book in some fashion, in works that often reveal themselves to the user over time and through interpretation, manipulation or storytelling. Artists’ books can include small edition works or one-of-a-kind objects.

Julie Chen is an internationally known book artist who has been publishing limited edition artists’ books under the Flying Fish Press imprint for over 36 years. Her books combine text and image with innovative book structures to create reading experiences that engage the reader in interactions that go far beyond the simple turning of a page. She uses letterpress printing and laser cutting as well as a host of other traditional and contemporary technologies within her art practice.

Julie’s work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions including recent shows at the University of Washington, the Kohler Art Library at the University of Wisconsin, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., and the Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts, Wits Museum, Johannesburg. Her work can be found in numerous collections worldwide including the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland, NZ. In 2009 she was a featured artist in the PBS television series, “Craft in America” and in 2020 she was one of the featured artists in the documentary film, “The Book Makers.”

In addition to her practice as an artist and mentor, Chen contributes to her field as a curator and invited speaker at many exhibitions, conferences, and institutions around the world. Before becoming a Professor of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the fall of 2022, she was a professor of Book Art at Mills College in Oakland California for 26 years, ending her time there as the director of the Book Art Program.

Artist’s Statement

My approach to artist’s books combines research-based poetic writing, imagery, and book form to present the reader/viewer with an immersive reading experience. My books are based on a deep consideration of the book as an art object starting with the outer packaging and book covers and continuing through the material and design choices for all aspects of the book. Enclosures such as boxes, along with a corresponding concept of creating a world within a world, play a major role in the reader’s experience of my books.

The activity of reading an artist’s book can go far beyond the simple reception of information through text and image: it has the potential to be similar in nature to experiencing a personal theater production with the artist’s book as a performative object that allows the reader to play the roles of both performer and audience simultaneously. The book itself must contain meaning and sequence within the content as well as visual, written and/or physical prompts that help guide the reader through a successful performance of the book. To facilitate this complex art experience for the reader/viewer, I must encompass many roles in my art practice including that of artist, designer, writer, engineer, printer, binder, and publisher.

I have created artist’s books on a wide range of themes over the course of my career from personal narratives about identity and loss to global issues such as war and climate change. My books have taken many forms including a tablet with sliding pages (True to Life, 2004), a circular book contained in a polyhedron outer shell (Chrysalis, 2014), and a Chinese thread book which is a many-layered origami folded structure (The Accretion of Identity, 2022). The size of my books run the gamut from a miniature book housed in a wearable metal locket (Memento, 2012) to a book that opens to a full width of five feet (Panorama, 2008). My overarching goal with each artist’s book is to translate my own understanding of a topic into a reading object that expresses my creative vision to my audience through the interaction of the hand and the eye with the book. As pages are turned, unfolded, or otherwise manipulated, the reader is taken on a journey of exploration that offers new and innovative paths towards consideration of ideas and information.

I use the crafts of letterpress printing and hand bookbinding, combined with more modern technologies such as Riso printing, digital printing, photopolymer plates and laser cutting. I create work that is designed digitally but produced with an intense attention to the materiality of the resulting piece. The physical object itself is of equal importance to the visual and textual ideas expressed within the pages in conveying meaning and presenting the reader/viewer with a compelling experience. 

My work explores the time-based nature of the book form. The fact that the full content of an artist’s book can only be revealed over time with the turning of the pages, or an equivalent action, on the part of the reader/viewer, has an enduring fascination for me, and is, I believe, one of the book form’s most singular features. I often work with the potential for including multiple reading experiences within a single book through the use of complex book structures as well as through the use of codex or accordion formats. Even in its simplest form, the book is a dynamic medium for delivering both visual and written narratives. I have spent the last 36 years of my art practice striving to understand, unlock, and utilize the full power of the book form and feel that there is still an immense amount of untapped potential yet to be explored.