Ian Boyden > Essays > Frank Boyden as Collaborator

Some Observations about Frank Boyden as Collaborator

and Accounts of His Book Projects at Crab Quill Press

—Ian Boyden



This essay first appeared in Frank Boyden: Prints and Books. Co-authored by Ian Boyden and Prudence Roberts. Salem, Oregon: Hallie-Ford Museum of Art, 2006.





There is a decisive beginning to my book collaborations with my father, Frank Boyden, the circumstances of which feel more literary to me than real. On Sunday, May 28, 1996, we were traveling by train to Wuwei, an ancient oasis town at the edge of the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province, People's Republic of China. It was nighttime and our train car, called a hard sleeper, was pulling slowly through smoky air, the floor of the car was strewn with fruit rinds and Styrofoam noodle bowls. We had just been visited by the train's conductor who, hearing there were foreigners on board, had come back to welcome us and regale us with amusing stories about learning English during the Cultural Revolution. As the rest of the passengers fell asleep, Frank and I sat at a small table lit by the dull glow of the running lights and talked for hours about the variety of systems used by the Chinese over the past three millennia to track time, astral cycles, and the evocative Chinese zodiac. While at the time we did not know it, our conversation that evening triggered a series of thoughts and events that significantly changed both of our lives and our artistic development; it led to our first collaborative book, A Carousel at Birth (published by Kathy Kuehn of Salient Seedling Press, 1997), joining my poetry and Frank's prints, and was then followed by six more book projects to date.




Frank Boyden as a Collaborator


Over the past four decades, Frank has worked with a remarkable variety of materials, including ceramics, fabricated and cast metal sculpture, painting, drawing, prints, and, most recently, books. Scholarly discussions of his work tend either to be technical in nature (these being mainly about his ceramics) or to reflect on Frank as an idiosyncratic individual devoted to the estuarine ecology of the Oregon coast (these being primarily about his images of fish, birds, and coastal landscapes). An aspect of his work and personality that has been overlooked thus far is the extent to which Frank and his work in all of these media have been, and continue to be, shaped by collaboration.


In fact, collaborative projects have been a fundamental part of Frank's relationship with many of his closest friends and associates, as well as members of his own family. And it can be argued that collaboration has been one of his primary vehicles not only for experimenting with new materials and learning new technologies but also for exploring and promoting the ideas and personalities of others. A narrow list includes other sculptors, potters, and printmakers; poets, writers, and composers; and a host of other artists and technicians such as wood workers, stone carvers, calligraphers, and bookmakers. His relationships with his collaborators are filled with delight and magic and are often fraught with a sense of immediacy and consequence.


Frank sees each material as a separate language for expression. Because different materials are capable of conveying aesthetic thought in different ways, the very process of learning to work with them brings added richness and depth to his ideas. And because many of the materials he works with entail complex sets of processes and techniques, it is often necessary for him to find an individual (or team of people) to teach him how to work with the given material. In this process, Frank is drawn toward those who will not simply provide technical support or teach him the desired techniques, but with whom he can collaborate creatively as well. It comes as little surprise that many of the major developments of his artistic career are the direct result of collaboration. Among the most prominent of his collaborative endeavors are the founding, with his wife, Jane Boyden, of Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in 1970; the building of an anagama kiln with Tom Coleman and Katsuyuki Sakazumi (1983-85); his sculptural work with the technicians at Walla Walla Foundry (especially in the early 1990s); his large-scale public art installation at Doernbecker Children's Hospital with Brad Rude (1997-98); his experiences making prints with master printmakers Myrna Burks, Tom Prochaska, Martha Pfanschmidt, and Julia D'Amario (1984 to present); and, since 1997, the making of limited-edition books at Crab Quill Press.


The word collaboration, meaning literally “to suffer (work) together,” is commonly applied when describing prints and books that are the product of two or more persons. For good or bad, the use of this term is now so ubiquitous that it has become something of a nebulous signifier. The general fact of collaboration is less interesting than the quality of a given collaborative relationship. Frank and I have worked together across multiple disciplines, on multiple cognitive levels (including that time-honored state of suffering), and with a number of other individuals. While some aspects of these collaborations conform neatly to established practices and divisions of labor (like that of the artist and the publisher/bookmaker, or artist and technician), others are more unwieldy and unique to our own relationship, humor, and shared aesthetic space. These latter aspects inform much of the technological, material, and conceptual elements of each one of the books we have made together.




Technical and Material Explorations—Encounters by the Hand and the Eye


Frank has taken distinct delight in exploring with me some of the technologies and materials of book production. Together we have constructed a variety of tools for making our books, including etching presses, spray booths, and ball mills; we have located and processed woods for book covers and papers to carry etchings and type; and we have experimented with a variety of wood finishes and printing inks. Our projects attend with great care to essential aesthetic and material experiences of the book—especially those of the hand and the eye.


Because of his background in clay—especially the production of hand-held drinking vessels—Frank has been unusually receptive to my own attention to the haptic and kinetic experiences of the book. Unlike large sculptures or framed prints, books are generally meant to be held in the hand, cradled in the hand, operated by the hand. How the book does this is extremely important and I have attempted to include Frank in as many of these decisions as I can. The most conspicuous element of the book's encounter with the hand is, of course, the cover. And of all of our books, our two lacquer-covered books—Bird Spirits (Crab Quill Press, 2000) and The Irreverences, Provocations, and Connivances of Uncle Skulky (Crab Quill Press, 2003)—are the most successful from a collaborative standpoint.


Bird Spirits is a book that celebrates the crow through a series of nine piano compositions by American composer and pianist William Bolcom (American, b. 1938), written in response to a portfolio of drypoint prints by Frank titled Stances (1996). In the book, the original hand-written musical scores appear alongside the original intaglio prints. The book invites multiple forms of readings and viewings: the music can be read in response to the images; the images can be understood through the medium of music; the handwriting of the original autographs can be compared with the lines of the drypoints; and so forth. It was a book that Frank and I produced in honor of Jane Boyden (Frank's wife, my mother) on the occasion of her retirement from teaching for thirty years.


As the book's producer and designer, I wanted the book itself to pay homage to both the crow and the piano. And so we decided that the book should sport black lacquer covers, specifically the black lacquer used on Steinway pianos and that I would employ a Ming dynasty (1368–1644) lacquer technique found mainly on musical instruments to paint the footprint of a crow on each cover. In my search for Steinway's lacquer I ended up having the opportunity to speak with a man named John Herkaler, one of the primary technicians who developed lacquers for Steinway pianos. Not only did he supply me with the lacquer and colorants, he enthusiastically led me through the process of their application.


One obstacle in using wood for the cover of a book is that wood has a tendency to warp due to both moisture and the pressures exerted by a given finish. Our intended edition size for the book was 90 copies, which meant locating a minimum of 180 pieces of wood measuring 11.5 x 14.5 inches. Because of the difficulty of finding stable, quarter-sawn material that wide, we decided to use plywood and ultimately chose a type of Finnish aviation-grade plywood that, despite being extremely thin and lightweight, was virtually guaranteed not to warp.


Bird Spirits is bound as a sewn-boards binding with a drop-away spine. This means that not only did we need to cut the plywood to size, but we also needed to machine the spine edge of each piece to accept the text block and sewing stations. Finally, everything was ready and I carefully wrapped up and stored the text blocks of the entire edition, cleaned out my studio, built a spray booth, and turned the space into a lacquer finishing shop. We donned masks and other protective gear and proceeded to finish the covers with a vinyl sealer and then sand them in preparation for the lacquer. We then drew images of crow footprints with lacquer on the front side of half of the pieces of wood. All was well. We then sprayed our first coat of lacquer. To our utter surprise, after the first coat about half of the covers warped—and the edition changed from 90 to 45. With the second coat, another portion of covers warped, and this was the case for each subsequent coat until, at the end of the process (approximately 10 coats of lacquer), we had enough covers to make 20 books. We absorbed the blow.




Systemic Explorations—Remarks on the Design of Evidence of Night


It is important to remember that books are not just structures for storing information; they are also sophisticated systems for shaping and delivering information. How a given bit of information resides in us is shaped by how we initially encounter it—with the book we encounter it with our hands, with our eyes, not to mention with our heart and mind. There are two types of books: those whose design remains relatively indifferent to the content and to the reader (the standard trade novel is an excellent example); and those whose design informs and is informed by the content and that present the reader with an overtly aestheticized experience. When these two types are laid side-by-side, one realizes how broad the term “book” really is.


It has taken me many books to begin to appreciate how a book shapes information; however, beginning with our first book, the exploration of this idea has been a central part of my collaborations with Frank. I search for ideas that have the capacity take full advantage of the form of a book, ideas that require or employ many of the features unique to the book such as sequence, pacing, and intimacy. There are some basic technical aspects of book construction that lead to (or impose) a certain consistency of geometry and meter to these systems. Books are composed of folded pages, each with a front and a back, a right and a left. This tends to lead to bilateral spatial considerations and information that is sequenced in powers of two: two, four, eight, and sixteen. Most books also have a beginning and an ending, and a specific sequence of pages that the reader/viewer is expect to follow. This consistency presents some very significant obstacles. For instance, the rigidity of the sequence easily leads to soporific monotony—how does one maintain the interest of the reader/viewer over the course of the book? Or how does the designer cope with ideas that are not necessarily so strict and/or severe, ideas that have a more organic shape?


After making several books, I began to consider the book in terms of music. The first four books I made with my father are dominated by rhythms inherent to the book: one-two, one-two, or one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. These rhythms began to feel tyrannical and I started to puzzle how to create a book that would not fall prey to this monotony and would instead generate a more organic sequence. The “eureka” moment came while listening to one of Beethoven's late piano sonatas. I suddenly saw a book unfold as a sequence of three parts with poems, prints, drawings, and blank paper functioning like voices that would rise and subsequently be subsumed by each other. Their duration would be marked not just by pages, but by density as well. The result was Evidence of Night, a book that presents a sequence of ten poems by my wife, Jennifer Boyden, and a sequence of original intaglio prints and drawings by Frank.


Evidence of Night is the only one of Frank's collaborative books where the specter of the book's form, rather than text or images, came first. The next step was to select the poems. To do this, Jennifer gave Frank a manuscript of her poems and asked him to identify ones he felt he could respond to visually. Out of the twenty or so poems he chose, she then selected ten that she felt made a coherent group. And out of this selection emerged the theme of night. Jennifer and I then put those poems in a sequence composed of three parts. I set the poems and determined the size of the book based on the dimensions of her typographically largest poem. I then made a dummy book and placed the poems, leaving space for prints, drawings, and blank pages. Jennifer and I then presented this dummy to Frank and he set about making the prints with the dimensions and sequence in mind. Once the prints were finished, I then retypeset the poems in response to the prints. Once the books were printed and bound, I delivered them to Frank to finish each book with three original drawings, which, of course, responded now to the poems, the type, and the other prints.


I am tempted, in the case of Evidence of Night, to consider the book as a collaborator as well. For the object itself exerted an unusually significant influence on the content, to such an extent that the line between content and carrier is blurred—every material in the book, with the exception of the binding thread and glue, was selected to augment the book's argument.



The Book as a Translation—The Field of Aki


Like Evidence of Night, Frank's sixth collaborative book, The Field of Aki (2004), also presents an excellent example of how a book insinuates its structure, material, and system into the information it carries. The Field of Aki challenges some of the usual expectations of a book. It is quite large, measuring 10.75 x 29 x 1.25 inches, and for that matter heavy (book, box, and corbel weighing over 28 pounds). Rather than being held in the hand, it is meant to be presented on a wall; and while most books are viewed within arm's length, this one is designed to be viewed from much greater distances. Most books close when the reader's attention drifts away, but this book is designed to remain open. And while most books of poetry present a set of poems, this one presents a single poem in multiple manifestations —including material, visual, haptic, and polylingual expressions.


Like A Carousel at Birth, The Field of Aki began with a memorable conversation, this time on a rooftop in Manhattan. On a clear evening in October 2002, my close friend Edward Morris and I were discussing book design, when I voiced the desire to make a book that would present not a series of poems (as books of poetry generally do) but a single poem. I wanted to isolate a single poem so that the reader and the poem might have a chance to let the text have full sway over their shared space. Edward then made the incisive observation that such a book as a whole could be understood as a form of translation, and that the book itself would be understood to be part of that poem. This observation became the kernel from which The Field of Aki took shape: a book that would simultaneously house a set of translations of a single poem and be a translation itself.


Edward had spent several years studying and translating poems from an early collection of Japanese poetry called the Man'yōshū [provide translation?]. While doing this he translated several poems thought to be written in the voices of the dead or that dealt with ceremonies for the dead. Among the poems he translated was an unusual text (perhaps a linked sequence of five poems) by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro titled “The Field of Aki.” It describes events surrounding a ritual that took place on the winter solstice in the year 698 and begins with the journey of a young prince to an alpine meadow. Once he arrives, a ritual takes place throughout the course of the night to conjure the spirit of his dead grandfather. In the early light of morning, as the full moon sets and the sun rises, the grandfather's spirit appears and the imperial soul is transferred to the prince.


One salient quality of the poem is the transformation of landscape and the line of the horizon. Edward saw this landscape as strikingly similar to some of Frank's landscape prints and suggested that we invite him to translate the poem through the medium of prints. Edward sent Frank the poem and a few months later the three of us were in Frank's studio discussing the poem, his prints, and the book. Among Frank's prints was a recently completed series of 14 images, variously drypoint, aquatint, and spitbite. These were long horizontal prints of brooding landscapes, and to our astonishment there was one image juxtaposing the sun and the moon that seemed to precisely describe the climax of the poem. In that portfolio, we also found six prints that seemed to be worthy analogues to the sequence. Over the next few months, Frank produced an additional seven prints to complete the translation. And so it was that part of a pre-existing portfolio was reshaped to become a component of a larger narrative.


The book took the form of a very long horizontal structure. The wood for the box and the covers was chosen for its capacity to inform the sense of landscape and horizon. This sense of horizontality was augmented by the spine of the book, which ran along the back so that opening the book created not a right and a left, but a top and a bottom. It is thought that the poem was chanted much like a Noh performance, so I decided to have each element of the book appear isolated on the upper half of the page, with the turning of each page evocative of the slow drum beat of a performance. The reader encounters the poem in multiple manifestations: in the original Chinese characters (the style of the calligraphy was chosen to reflect what would have been written in seventh-century Japan); in a Romanized version to allow the English reader to pronounce the sounds of the original poem; Edward's English translation; Frank's translation of the poem into images; and finally Edward's translation once again.


The production of this book was informed by the otherworldliness of its content. The collective effort on the part of Frank, Edward, and myself to make a 1400-year-old poem—its logic, magic, and imagination—come to life in the present moment made the poem a visceral entity. And from a collaborative standpoint, it felt at times that the three-year collaboration was extending beyond the three of us to include the poem itself.



From Portfolio to Book—Charting a Shift from Lyric to Narrative Images


When we stop to consider the sequence of materials with which Frank has worked over the past forty years (canvas to clay to metal and stone to paper to books), it becomes clear how the logic of one has informed the next, re-informed the previous, and so on. Frank's two- and three-dimensional objects are predominantly fixed or stationary carriers of images and textures. In these objects we witness an artist obsessed with lyric images—mostly solitary images of extraordinary beauty and technical virtuosity that present aesthetic arguments that are primarily formal in nature. However, not long after he began to work with books, a notable change occurred in his imagery—he began to introduce significant narrative qualities to his work. For instance, Frank now often creates images that present one or more characters engaged in some activity. He also often creates sequenced series of images, which take into account complicated issues of pacing, rhythm, and shifts in tone. I ascribe this shift in large part to the tremendous conceptual impact that the structure, system, and history of the book have had on how he considers images and their functions (another obvious source being his involvement with the history of prints, detailed in Prudence Roberts' essay).


Our most recent books—The Irreverences, Provocations, and Connivances of Uncle Skulky and The Field of Aki—evidence the extent and depth of this change. It is interesting to note that both began as portfolios of prints. Here it is important to describe a manic aspect of Frank's image making. He will virtually disappear into his studio for weeks and months at a time. When he reappears, he will have magically produced a new set of images/objects, which he then presents to the larger world. Because of my proximity, as his son, I often have a chance to see and respond to these projects as they unfold in his studio. Some of these projects clearly have the capacity to become books, and when this occurs we are able to take that possibility into account early in the process of making the prints so that they will be “book friendly.”


The portfolio titled The Irreverences, Provocations, and Connivances of Uncle Skulky is the product of one such highly productive six-month period. It began as a portfolio of etchings and drypoints in which Frank used the figure of a skeleton named Uncle Skulky to address a multitude of individuals and issues: from work of printmakers such as Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669), Franscisco Goya (Spanish, 1746–1828), Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1798–1861), Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), and José Posada (Mexican, 1852–1913); to his relationships with fellow artists, galleries, and museum curators; to vicissitudes of current politics and foibles of the human spirit; to contemplations of his own mortality. And this set of prints, like its protagonist Uncle Skulky, has appeared in several manifestations. The prints and the portfolio as a whole are a tour de force, and subsequently the Portland Art Museum decided to publish the portfolio as an offset catalogue, with an essay by Pamela Morris and extensive commentary by Frank. But that was not enough; the portfolio begged to be reinvented as a Crab Quill Press book. The question was: What could a fine-press book accomplish that the portfolio and catalogue had not?


I happen to be fond of evocative book dedications, dedications that set the tone of the book. For instance, Twenty Views of Cascade Head is “dedicated to the margins of place,” and Evidence of Night is “dedicated to dreams too far from shore.” After I looked through the Uncle Skulky series, my thoughts turned to the history of skeletons and eventually to a wily tenth-century Viking poet named Egil Skallagrimmson (ca. 910–990), the hero of the great Norse epic Egil's Saga. Why not see what happened if we dedicated the book to him?


Skallagrimsson means “Bald Head.” But Egil was not just bald, he had a skull that has become legendary for its size, resilience, and hideousness. It is speculated that he suffered from osteitis deformans, or Paget's disease, where bone keeps growing excessively throughout one's life. In the case of Egil, his skull kept growing until his brow grew over his eyes and he became blind. His skull and skeleton seemed a worthy match for Uncle Skulky and, like Uncle Skulky, Egil's poetry is full of trickery, invective, and blood. So it was that Frank and I presented his prints as a book dedicated to Ejil in which we paired Frank's images with Egil's verse. Short of a séance, it is impossible to truly collaborate with the dead, however as in The Field of Aki, Frank seemed to channel the inanimate so that the book becomes informed by a logic of a spirit from the distant past.




Homo collaboratus—A Modest Proposal


Earlier I remarked that the word collaboration is a fairly nebulous signifier. The prevailing definition seems to be that of a defined group of people working in concert toward some end. Some regard it essential that all of the collaborators share authorship of the end product; others consider it enough to recognize that several individuals shaped the final product. But where does one draw the line? In this essay, I have gone so far as to suggest collaborating with the inanimate: for instance, a book, a poem, and even a dead Viking.


Frank is keenly aware of our species' collaborative spirit. In fact, he points it out with such regularity that it has become something of a mantra. He has delivered several lectures on the vast industrial web that is required to produce simple objects such as a spoon or cup. And in the production of our own books, he has often stopped to consider what it took for a tool to arrive at its given form. For Frank these are moments of reverie.  It seems important therefore to acknowledge that the very catalogue you are holding about Frank's work is the product of collaboration—and a vast one at that.  From Frank to the contributing writers, to the editors, designers, and photographers, to the team of workers at the print shop, to the team at the bindery.  But the list does not stop there, for none of us could have done a single thing with out the involvement of a host of others, most of whom remain totally anonymous. A few examples will suffice. Who designed the computers? Who built the cameras? Who harvested the wood for the paper? Who designed the shapes of these letters?


Collective suffering is certainly not a newly articulated concept. In fact, the first of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, stated more than 2000 years ago, is that life and suffering are inseparable.  Species names often indicate an essential trait of a given animal. In our case, Homo sapiens, the species indicator “sapiens” would indicate that we are “of knowledge.” But really, the case can be made that the state of collaboration is far more noteworthy in our species than that of knowledge. So here is a modest proposal to change our species' name to Homo collaboratus.