Make what you love! Bookbinder and photographer Anna Low’s mantra is one that many of us can (or want to) claim as our own. Anna ensures opportunities for her students to celebrate their individuality as they create and bind beautiful, meaningful books.
All the while, she keeps the FUN in functionality! Let’s learn more about Anna Low.
What does this year’s Fiber College theme “Do It Your Way!” mean to you from your perspective as a fiber artist and teacher?
To me “Do It Your Way!” means celebrating everyone’s unique creative spirit, nurturing that creative spirit by sharing and learning new techniques, and displaying the confidence and courage to let it sing.
How did you decide to become an artist?
Like many people who call themselves artists, I had no choice in the matter – I was born this way. And although I’ve tried other careers (high school teacher, museum special exhibits coordinator, consultant, secretary, a brief stint as a horrible waitress), I can’t deny the irresistible urge to make things. I’ve been fortunate to have supportive people and wonderful mentors along the way who encouraged me to pursue it and come out of the studio with my work.
How do you develop your own style?
For me, developing my own style is much easier to recognize in hindsight and often through the eyes of others. There are things I know I am drawn to – the color green, quirky stuff, strong design and functionality. I often see something that inspires me and try to make it my own (like a You Alone in the Maine Woods blank journal based on the classic fluorescent orange pamphlet of the same name I’m working on this week). Or I need something for a specific purpose and that leads me down a whole new bookbinding adventure (like the mini, leather bound journal with cribbage score pages I made for a hiking trip last summer).
What kind of creative patterns, routines, or rituals do you have?
It’s taken me years to realize and accept how my creative juices flow. The most important discovery I’ve made is that I have to make a lot – often mistakes and crap – before I reach something I’m happy with, something unique, something original and well-made. I have to allow myself to play (I call it play but you know it’s serious work), dance around the studio to loud music, walk in the woods to think quietly or not think at all, remember to have fun, and try new techniques.
What would a student be most surprised to know about you?
My students might be surprised to learn that I hate blank books.
I love when people show me a Purplebean Bindery journal they’ve purchased and are steadily filling it with great stuff. Often the book is well-loved with coffee mug rings, smeared, inky writing and fanciful doodles. Those books are travel companions and cherished useful tools. I love seeing that. Then there are the people who find me at art fairs to tell me that they can’t use a journal I’ve made because it’s too pretty. Although it seems like a compliment, it makes me so sad. It’s as if that book hasn’t fulfilled its purpose in life. Blank books are meant to be filled.
How does your early work differ from what you are doing now?
My early work, as opposed to what I’m doing now, was more one-off books. It took a while for me to find a book binding style that I loved and was also sturdy, functional, and fun. There’s a liberation in making something over and over – knowing the measurements and steps in your head and being able to produce the same thing 30 times in one day. That said, I’m also moving back towards unique books, more specifically merging my two loves of bookbinding and photography into artist books.
Tell us about a proud moment you’ve had as a result of your students’ efforts.
I love teaching, everything from sharing what I love to do to the happy challenges of explaining techniques and reaching students with varied learning styles. It’s easy to be proud of the joy students find in creating something. My favorite moment when teaching is when everyone reaches ‘the zone’ – when the room goes quiet and everyone is absorbed and content in what they are working on. It’s like a communal 20 minutes of Zen. The best is when that happens with some loud, hyper music is playing and everyone is quietly working and doing this very mellow, unconscious head banging to the beat. Love that.
You’ve just run into an old friend from high school. How do you answer the question, “What do YOU do?”
I used to dread the question, “What do you do?” because very few people think about how things are made and that everything around us was first designed (if it’s good design, by an artist) and then manufactured by a person in some capacity. Now I (sometimes) relish the chance to blow minds open by talking about the history of paper, bookbinding, and the value of handmade. I recently had the pleasure of trying to explain this to friends who don’t have conversational English – bookbinding was literally a foreign word. I had to get my speech of what I do down to the essentials – I use needle, thread, and paper to make a book that other people use.
How do you imagine your work might change in the next five years?
I’ll be curious to see where our technology goes. Will we continue to move away from using pen and paper and have everything recorded on devices? If so, I can imagine making fewer blank books and more artist books (with images, words, and folding things to be contemplated). If the zombie apocalypse comes or we start valuing things that are compostable more than batteries, I’m golden.
Tell us about your studio space and how you work.
My studio space is dominated by several long work surfaces of varying height and lots of storage. It’s in a room in my house that was at some point a second kitchen, so there is wonderful pantry space filled with art supplies and paper where the canned goods used to go. If you were to walk into my studio on any given day, you’d witness waves of total chaos, with paper, thread, and teetering piles of projects covering every surface followed by days of order with everything in its right drawer and projects neatly contained in boxes in order of priority. You’d also find a sassy black dog ready to lick you and have her belly scratched.
As an instructor, what would be the best advice you could give to a student?
I ask my students all the time to be brave, have fun, and NOT expect to make something perfect on their first try. Those who have taken my class know too well that I’m going to ‘yell’ at someone, ‘It’s your first book! It’s impressive that it even looks like a book.’ Especially when learning a brand new skill or technique, I think it’s very important to celebrate the process, not the finished product. If you like doing it, and continue to use your new skills, the technique will come and more importantly, you’ll find how your unique expression fits into it.
What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?
I’ve mentioned above working more with artist books – books that have my own photography, words, and illustrations in them – and this has been very satisfying lately. Often these little books have my quirky, subtle sense of humor or share very personal expressions that can be nerve wracking to put out in the world. I know the audience for these is limited (I have a hard time defining an artist book) but it’s thrilling when people pick them up and giggle or we launch into a deep discussion about the subject matter.
Who has had the greatest influence on your work as an artist?
My books, both artist books and blank ones, are happily, heavily influenced by a group of breathtaking artist / bookbinders I meet with every month. They remind me how important it is to surround yourself with creative people, people whose work intimidates you it’s so good. Participating in our bookbinders group also reminds me that sharing ideas, sharing creative and life struggles, sharing opportunities and victories (much like I feel we do at Fiber College) is not only so important for growth but buoys the creative spirit.
How do you ensure plenty of time to be an artist?
Ensuring plenty of time to be an artist – even when you profess to doing it full time – is tricky. For me, I need to shut off my computer and phone sometimes (sorry for those unanswered calls and emails) to not get distracted. Some days I need to think of it as a job, working a set amount of hours and not allowing myself to slip into the easier tasks of doing laundry (don’t you love those tasks that have a clear end goal?). And there are some days when I need to remind myself not to deny the happiness of working in the studio.
What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned as a fiber artist?
As someone who works with paper, I find that I’m on the edges of definitions. Some say I work with fiber, some not. I often face a similar dilemma as a photographer, too- sometimes I’m a printmaker, sometimes not. And the lesson I take from all of this is MAKE WHAT YOU LOVE. Just do it. Who cares if you’re repeatedly making something functional that doesn’t function, if people can’t easily define or place your art, if you usurp a technique from one medium and use it for something else. Keep making what makes you happy.
What’s the most important thing that you want potential students to know about you?
I’m going to ‘yell’ at you – “It’s your first book! Relax and have fun!”