… in conversation with Amanda Watson-Will

Page from “M.E.”, self portrait by Amanda Watson-Will, 2014 and 2021

Amanda Watson Will is an Australian book artist who has a varied body of work, utilizing different techniques and materials for each work of art. This fresh approach to each book she produces, makes her body of work powerful and energetic.

That may seem like a contrast to her personal circumstances, as she has been diagnosed with ME/CFS, a condition that has many symptoms, but which most powerfully impacts on her energy levels and ability to continue with any given activity over stretches of time.

Thanks to the wonders of video call technology, I am able to visit Amanda in her Brisbane home today, to chat about her work to date.

Hello Amanda, thank you very much for taking your time to speak with me today.

Let’s start with some biographical background. You studied Fine Art and Ceramics, is that correct?

Yes, but it wasn’t straight forward. My first career was in occupational therapy. I had to stop working, however, when I got really sick. I tried to go back into work in a graded fashion after my diagnosis of ME/CFS, but it just was too much.

I saw a potter throwing on a wheel during a demonstration, and I was immediately inspired, and I knew that this was something worth pursuing in my life.
I started with adult classes in pottery first, and through that found out there there was a program for a diploma which I then enlisted for. During that time, my interest in Fine Art awoke, and I became aware of this art/craft dilemma that hangs over ceramics. For a long time I didn’t really like the craft aspect to it. Even though I like throwing, I wouldn’t have wanted to make functional ware. I always wanted to make art.

The work I did in ceramics was mostly sculptures and installations. And when I had finished my diploma, I felt like I wanted to go on and study art in a university context. That chance came when I was accepted for a master’s program at the ceramics department at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT). That’s were I started book art. I sort of stumbled across it.

“Like Weather”, Amanda Watson-Will, 2007

Where do you see the difference between art and craft?

I think, craft is a way to follow an honoured pathway. The traditional idea is to not bring something original to it. I, on the other hand, am interested in exploring and understanding my personal experiences through my making.

My view on crafts has changed over the years. I remember visiting the V&A in London, where you can see the highest level of craft that you can imagine. I spent the whole day there, way past the energy I really should have, but I just couldn’t drag myself away. There’s so much beauty and skill, and there’s something to be said about the fact that all these amazing objects were made by we-don’t-know-who. There’s an amazing humility about that.

Now I value that. And I realise what a gift those people have given society. It’s possibly more relatable for many people than fine art.

You said you started a master’s in pottery, and you ended up making book art. How does that go together?

Working with clay is very physical, and your work has to be fired in the kiln for at least 8 hours, sometimes longer, and you can’t just leave and go home for a while, you have to monitor it. During my time in Melbourne I found I was lacking the energy to do that.

So I decided to work with unfired clay. I almost painted with it: I added a bit of water into it, so that it stuck to the wall. The first thing I did was a figure on the wall, and then I projected a blurred picture of myself walking onto that. As the clay dries over the time of an installation, it shrinks, and eventually pulls away from the wall and falls off, and I worked with that.

This made the work very ephemeral, though, and so it needed documenting. And that’s when the book art came in. I took photos of that process and made the book “Self (states of self)”. That is a ceramic book with pages that are not bound. That came about toward the end of my master’s.

Wraith, Photo of clay installation by Amanda Watson-Will, 2008

So these first books you made were a cross-over, really, between ceramics and books. But you probably wouldn’t have seen yourself as a book artist then.

No. That came a little while later with Book Art Object in 2011. After the Masters I was pretty exhausted and I knew I had to find a way to express myself, to use my creative energy that was even less physically demanding.
Sarah Bowen invited 15 artists to join her for this project. The idea was to choose a text, and each of us made a book inspired by that text in an edition large enough so that each participant could have a copy.

For this first round of book arts object, I made the work “Judy & the Jacaranda”. The project coincided with my mother’s death and that book became about my mother.

Your parents dying, … I feel this is a whole other developmental stage in your life, like becoming a parent. There are these huge mile stones that happen and really change you.

I had only made one other paper book before. But I did a lot of reading about book art and I wrote about that, about my masters and my ideas on my blog. It was a time when bloggers were very active and blogs were an incredibly rich source of information, inspiration and connection. I think that’s how Sarah found me.

I am a natural born researcher. And if I have found something that interests me, I just dive right into it. I am just fearless that way, and that’s what happened with books. It’s very lucky that I am not afraid to experiment, because I have needed to keep exploring new media in order to be able to continue making art despite my diminishing energy.

page from “Judy & the Jacaranda by Amanda Watson-Will, 2009

That’s one of the things that initially made me follow your blog, and keeps me following your work over the years. I think it’s fascinating how you keep starting new things, especially keeping in mind the energy and time you can invest in something is limited. There is risk involved in starting something new without knowing whether you’d ever use it… I recall seeing some interesting experiments with embroidery and scrim. – Did you ever do anything with that?

I started exploring textiles when natural dyeing was really big on the internet, maybe 5 years ago. People got some beautiful results, collecting leaves that grew locally and using their natural pigment to transfer onto the textile. But for me it didn’t work that well because I live in a subtropical area, and the trees here don’t produce the pigment needed. So I started embroidery instead.

But at the same time, I was also looking into pastels and learned to use them.

Then the last book arts object came around with the poem “Overwintering” by an Australian poet, John Bennet. It raises environmental issues and the importance of keeping the breeding, feeding, and resting spaces of migratory birds intact.

So, while learning to work with pastels and embroidery, I developed some ideas for “Curlew”, my latest book. I developed a technique where I shaved the pastel to get powder, press that through a stencil, and then burnish it to make it stay. I realised that, because I can work only so many hours at a time, pursuing both pastels and fibre art was too slow. So decided to focus on pastels. But I do have some ideas for the fibres.

Curlew, Amanda Watson-Will, 2019

Which do you consider your best work and what makes it the best, what’s the criteria?

I like it when my work fulfills and expresses successfully what I wanted to convey, and I am interested in expressing emotional things. “About M.E.” is quite an emotional work, and “Judy & the Jacaranda” is…

I would go back to “Self” if I had to choose one that I think is best. There are two continuing themes that I find important and try to explore and extend each time I make work. They’re the idea of change and exploring transparency/ translucency in ways that contribute to the mood of the work.

You are diagnosed ME/CFS. Do you consider yourself as disabled?

While I wouldn’t really identify myself as a disabled artist, my condition has certainly handicapped my participation in the art world.

First I have been forced to change medium again and again, because my energy over the years has gradually got less and less. I changed from pottery to working with unfired clay to artist books, as a means of reducing the physical demands of my work. I used photography and explored printmaking for imagery. But the technique I felt most drawn to, intaglio, I found to be outside my physical possibilities. Which then led to exploring techniques with pastels.

The other thing I did was to take a decision after my masters to always do work first and then look for an outlet for it, rather than responding to a commission or call-out to a topic. In that way, book arts is a good field to be in. Because, at least before Covid, there used to be a quite reliable calendar of events, and I could prepare for that.

That might all have been for the better. But the thing that I miss most is the ability to go to conferences and workshops. When M.E. first set in, I used to go to shows more and even to workshops, but I can’t anymore. I rarely have the opportunity to speak about art and about my art with anyone these days.

Self, Amanda Watson-Will, 2008

Do you think that there is something that art galleries or other venues and organizers could do to make it easier for you to participate?

The challenge when accommodating people with ME/CFS is to allow a high degree of flexibility. This is needed because even for a single individual with ME/CFS, their energy levels can fluctuate from day to day.

With today’s interview, I trusted that you were the kind of person who would be o.k. with postponing on short notice. There was always a 50:50 chance of that happening. When you agree to do an artist talk for a gallery, postponing late could be difficult. So I can’t normally do that. Even as an audience member, I have booked to attend events in the past and then couldn’t go.

But I must say that Covid in this way really opened things up for me. Because quite a few art institutions have started to put talks and workshops online to watch at your own pace. Some are offered only as live events, for three or four days over zoom, and that really is no better than if I had to do it in person. That’s no option for me.

So one thing that would allow me better access, would be to keep a recording of such a class online and allow people to do them more slowly on their own afterwards.

The Great Library of Alexandria, Amanda Watson-Will, 2013

I wonder whether just keeping a record is really enough. Maybe there’s a way to include disabled artists better. If they are excluded from live events, we are losing the connection.

Yes, and I do really miss it, this connection with other artists, the feedback you can get about your work. But I do think it can work online. We had this type of exchange with Book Art Object. There was a discussion going on, we got feedback. It was all online, it was through blogging about it.

On the other hand, in a way, if you have people away in their homes, connecting through the internet, it might be convenient for them and everyone. But it is very similar to having disabled people in care homes, in that they are away from the community. They are not seen. And understood. The understanding of what they can contribute is really lost and that they are valid valuable members of society as well.

Thank you very much, Amanda, for speaking with me today, that was an interesting insight into how intertwined your personal story and health story are with the books you make and media you use. Any final words?

I’d like to thank you, Hilke, for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about my work and my life as an artist. I hope it’s been of interest to your readers. If there’s anyone who has any questions or comments about the work, or about ME/CFS or combining the two, I would be more than happy to hear from them.
You can reach me via email: potsrme1962@gmail.com.

Amanda in 2008

Here are a few links for you to follow up on Amanda, have a more detailed look at her work, follow her blog, and see her work in progress on instagram:

Images have been used with the kind permission from the artist.

Headband Challenge

Celtic Weave Geometry, blank book, featuring two-coloured Coptic endbands, bound and designed by H. Kurzke,

My love with headbands has been a fierce but sporadic one. I first learned to make Coptic headbands in from Nina Judin in 2009. While she was teaching us, I found the directional asymmetry of the Coptic stitch (and endbands) striking. I asked her whether instead of from left to right, it would be possible to work from right to left. – She confirmed. I then asked her whether you could do both, first making one from left to right, and then another one, maybe in a second colour from right to left. – She didn’t quite get what I meant, and I had trouble explaining. — That was the start of researching, not finding, and finally developing my two coloured headbands.

My fumbling with a simple headband the other day

Since then I have been fascinated by headbands, and I started to invent headband-type stitching and included them with my books. I not only did my own thing, of course, mostly I looked into traditional styles, monastic endbands, headbands with beads on the edge and on the spine, French, Renaissance… I then fell pregnant with twins, and when I was not yet in hospital (that’s a whole different story which I talked about in length here) but already restricted to my couch, I made this bunch of training pieces that I just found again the other day (see below).

Different headbands, training cards

And then I had twins… Bookbinding became something I didn’t do daily anymore, and headbands were done in bouts of sudden fierce love, but restricted by the fact that you can’t just go and look what your children are doing and then return to it later.

Every time I return to headbanding, I feel like I am starting from scratch again, and I need something more steady to keep me going again. so I thought:

Headband Challenge

Mainly I am going to challenge myself. I’ll find a topic per month and make a headband to it. It will probably start with some styles, but maybe also just design challenges, like “three coloured” or “asymmetric” or something like that. Wouldn’t it be fun to support each other in learning. We could share our efforts and teach each other a thing or two. Just like the old times, when the book binding forum still existed. If you are “in”, then please let me know. (I’d love to hear that I am not alone in this!), follow me on instagram and/or the hashtag #headbandingchalling to find the challenge for each month, and tag your work , too. Let me type it once again: #headbandingchallenge. Let’s get talking about them again!

Links and Literature

I have two books dedicated to headbands

  • Jane Greenfield and Jenny Hille, “Headbands, How to Work them”, ISBN 978-0-938768-51-7, Oak Knoll Press
  • Les Tranchfiles Brodées. Etude historique et technique, Bibliothèque Nationale – contributors are listed in the preface, but it’s published without author’s name(s), apparently to emphasis the joint effort of the whole conservatory team; this one proved really hard to get my hands on…

You’ll also find headbands instructions in most books on bookbinding (as part of the finishing).

There are many blogs out there that deal with different endbands. The one I like best is:

Here’s a little bit of self-promotion and links to my own stuff:

Got more useful links or literature references? – Let me know, and I’ll include them.

Additions

  • BPG Endband Wiki – Only discovered this one right now, and going by the title it should be an awesome resource
  • Rodrigo Ortega used to post about all kinds of endbands and made beautiful examples. His main blog seems no longer maintained, but here are still a lot of examples: https://artesdellibro.mx/cabezadas
example with bead on the spine

A New Book – Greek Eco Journal

Greek Binding by H .Kurzke, blank book, complete open cover view

Things move slowly along their projectory in this house. And I have to learn to come to terms with that. In the artist book/scroll that is today for the last day on display in the Share Bears Exhibition at Backlit, I wrote:

And then, very suddenly as if someone had pulled a lever, something shifts within me, it is an almost physical feeling inside my chest:
This torn and pushed, hasted feeling of never being enough vanishes. Where there used to be a hard, heavy spot like a stone right under my right clavicle, there now is soft tissue, a source of confidence and calm. I realize that I have been fighting for a long, long time against being pigeonholed: as a student of a specific subject, as a teacher, a mathematician, an artist, a mother, …

And right here and now I stop fighting. I know that I will be fine.

from “346. A Journey While Staying As Still as Possible” by H. Kurzke

While maybe this lesson lasted in that I don’t care as much as before to fit within a prescribed shoe-box, the haste, and feeling of not being enough, is still very much there. The many things of which I do “just 30 minutes daily” eat up pretty much all of each day, and so, everything takes time…

The pages for this book were eco printed in 2021, almost 10 years ago, and thus have been sitting on my desk for almost a decade, waiting to be bound into a book. That sounds so solemn, but actually, it involved moving twice, one of them across borders.

some pages are blank, some are printed, all are handmade (not by me) 100% rag paper

The covers are semi-soft, laminated boards, covered with goatskin, decorated with eggshell panel and a laced in parchment strip (painted with an acrylic paint). And those have been sitting around, with the pages inside, for 3 years now. So high time to actually, finally, get the book bound.

I had 12 gathering prepared with a mix of printed and not-printed pages. I was always going to make this a Coptic binding, but decided on the spot to make it a Greek binding. What I like about the Greek binding is that it is symmetrical. A chain stitch always has a direction, you put on a new signature, and then link it with the signatures before, and thus it is always visible in which direction you have sewn the book, and the covers are attached essentially the same, but due to the direction of the sewing, there’s always the cover that was put on first, and the cover that was put on last. A Greek binding on the other hand, has the two halves of the book sewn individually and identically, and then there’s a symmetric, figure eight style join in the middle of the two halves. To show and stress that, I decided to choose a different coloured thread fort his joining part.

spine view

There are many different Coptic Style or Chain bound binding styles. There are those “with lock” and those “without lock”, and to make the chain, you always link to previous sections, and this is done by a “drop one” in the simplest case, but can also involve a “drop 2” or “drop 3” and so on. A Greek binding according to K. Smith’s instructions involve a “drop 3”, and thus requires at least 20 signatures. So I modified the instructions slightly. The pages that I am using have a high volume and since the format is rather small (A6) I figured, a “drop 2” would be enough for stability, and it allowed me to do the binding with 6 signatures for each half. I then added two completely empty gatherings for the linking in the middle.

Yue Fung Button Thread – 3-ply, lightly waxed linen thread

The binding thread is Yue Fung Button thread, and I must say, I am very impressed with how it stood up. I used it as it came from the spool (lightly waxed) for the green stitches, the sewing of the two halves. And then, for the linking, I chose to additionally wax it lightly – but I don’t think this would have been necessary. It’s such a pleasant thread to work with. Although it wasn’t waxed, it didn’t show any signs of abrasion damage. For this book I used the thickest thread they make. They label it was 332 (to indicate it compares to Fils Au Chinois, Lin Cable No. 332), but it is thinner than that. I would say it’s very comparable to a NeL 18/3 thread. They do not label their thread with the industry standard NeL, though.

Here some more images of my book, click to see more.

Freshly Pressed

Yay! A new newsletter. The first one in almost two years. Incredible. I always intend to write them more regularly when I have just finished one, so maybe I shouldn’t promise too much. But if you’d like to see a very short summary of the last 2 years, plus a 30% discount inside, have a look on my newsletter page to download the latest edition.

Back to Life, Back to Reality…

beeswax in a variety of forms

Have I shown you all the new wax pieces yet that I have made last autumn? – I am not sure anymore. Lockdown came on hard and too fast last December. Anyway, if you want to take a look, head over to my supplies page and download the new catalogue. Or you could click through to my newly re-opened Folksy shop (or Etsy) and take a look there at even shinier photos. I realize, I have not even listed all the blocks yet.

Well, about Brexit and lockdowns and all the miserable in the world… The past year for me – as for many others – has been a little bit like living under a glass dome. But the last lockdown hit especially hard. I am not the only one experiencing this winter lockdown or rather, for me it’s the school closure that’s so very disruptive, especially hard. While I was home schooling (and I was home schooling more than many of my co-home teaching fellow parents), I had to close shops and didn’t get much done in way of my own art projects.

Now I feel like I am re-surfacing and find the world changed. I opened my shops again, albeit, only for UK customers for now. It’ll take me a few weeks to figure out how to ship internationally in this changed world now, marked by postal delays and new custom borders.

I am also trying to sort through my begun, ongoing, or maybe abandoned art projects.

New Work: At Home

I did work on a few ideas since last summer. It is still a little too “unbaked” to formulate in coherent speech, but it’ll be about premature birth (again), and I strive to use a new way of interaction. For that I started to teach myself electronics:

a breadboard and arduino board
One of my very first arduino sketches: a modified “blink” (with an on/off toggle switch), the electronics variant of each programmer’s first program: “hello world”

I don’t think I am especially good at computer stuff. I wanted to be good at it for a while, and I studied computer science for a while (without finishing it). But I wasn’t all that brilliant back then. And that was more than 20 years ago.

While back then a new computer meant to fun and joy to discover what new it could do, now I am mostly annoyed by things not working the way they did before, whenever I have to change computer. – So I am your typical, mid 40s woman for you there.

But what maybe sets me apart a little, is that I am not afraid of digging into code when I have to. I managed to learn to program before, I refuse to believe that there’s something I can’t learn if I want to. And so I just started. I bought a student kit from arduino, and just got started.

What I would like to build, ultimately, is a room (or a model) with a life-image that viewers on the internet can interact with. For example open a drawer when they click a button on a website.

In principle this should be straight forward. Arduinos are relatively small and easy control boards that are programmed in a programming language that’s essentially C or C++ which is what I used before.

Therefore it didn’t come as a surprise that I found the programming side of electronics to be the easy part. However, now there’s also mechanics, electrical circuits, and, well, all that real-world stuff involved. And that’s where it got hard for me. Especially the mechanics, gears, spokes, and putting it all together. Gears work so easily in theory, but when you put them together, even just a few wobbles can make it all fail.

I posted a series of videos on instagram, if you want to see a bit of the progress I made over a few days. Do let me know if you like these kind of images, and what else you might want to see!

a miniature hat to put in the miniature drawer, so that something is revealed by opening the drawer

But, yeah, that’s how far I got with that project: I have a model with a teeny tiny chest of drawers, and when you press a little button, a wonky robot arm pulls open a drawer. The plan at this moment is threefold: a) to make that button virtual, b) to add more interactive elements to the dollhouse (and more things), and c) work on a larger scale model to interact with; this one is too small… – I’ll keep you updated.