The Stunning Book Art of Elysa Voshell: An interview
“Harry & Zeke Go Fishing addresses issues pertaining to attention deficit disorder, cumulus clouds, the slow but steady return of the door-to-door vacuum salesperson, and circus-related phobias, all within thirty-two, glorious, full-color pages,” reads the online description of a 2006 book crafted by Elysa Voshell, in collaboration with comics artist John Karpinski. The limited edition 3 ½” x 5 ½” x ¼” work is a product of screenprints, letterpress and inkjet prints, and a fishhook clasp.
For most, it’s hard to imagine just how much work goes into making something like this. But, to Voshell, book arts are a major artistic passion. Aside from her own studio practice, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA)— which supports “the limitless creative development of book arts” with year-round public programming, artist fellowships and residencies, free exhibitions, and artmaking workshops for all ages — has been running the nonprofit organization since 2019.
“We take a very expansive view of the book,” explains Voshell to ARTpublika Magazine, a declaration that's echoed in the organization’s mission statement, which is to “ignite artistic practice, inspire learning, and foster diverse creative communities through the book arts." Founded in 1983, MCBA has been “promoting innovation, sustaining traditions, educating new enthusiasts, inspiring creative expression and honoring artistic excellence” for nearly 40 years.
Book arts are something Voshell has been slowly inching towards her whole life. “I’ve always really loved books and grew up in a family that had books in every room,” she recalls. “I was reading a lot of classic stuff in school, and a lot of women writers — I was very interested in feminism as a teenager.” She was a fan of Toni Morrison (1931 — 2019), and generally enjoyed literature that was “out of the canon from a lot of the stuff we were learning in school.”
On top of her interest in reading, Voshell “was always really interested in writing and the visual arts.” In high school, “when everything was analogue, pre-digital,” she picked up photography, going so far as taking classes on the weekend to hone her craft. She also put out a zine with her friends. “It was the 1990s, so [it had] a lot of angsty, bad poetry and writing,” she recalls, “we would photocopy it at Kinko’s and distribute the zines in school and around town.”
These early experiences proved to be her first ventures into a field that would eventually define her career as well as her art. “I usually end up utilizing some sort of photographic process together with written language,” she explains. “I love the synergy between images, words, and structure, [all of which] influence the reader’s experience.” She is also interested in the book as a space of collaboration — between artists, and between artists and viewers. And this interest is clearly present in her work, as demonstrated by Harry & Zeke Go Fishing and others.
“A lot of my work focuses on surveillance and travel and how people move through spaces and how spaces are inscribed with stories,” explains Voshell. Her piece The Space Between Me & You Is Only As Wide As The Ocean is a good example of this: “Inspired by an interest in oceanic travel, this book unfolds to create an environmental sculpture reminiscent of waves or distant mountain ranges.”
Although much of her artwork has an existential air about it, one of her favorite things about book arts is the intimacy: “I made something with my hands, you are going to hold it in your hands. That sense of touch is very powerful, because you can’t touch a lot of art objects. But with book arts, you have to — to experience them — and I think that multi-sensory experience and connection between maker and viewer is quite profound."
The sensory experience, though, extends to the artistic process as well. Voshell loves the physicality of setting metal moveable type, savors the process of screenprinting images, and enjoys sewing up book pages by hand. “I’ve always loved process-driven art forms, like ceramics,” reflects the artist. “I just enjoy artistic processes that take a lot of time, and book making is not an instant gratification kind of thing. It’s slow. And the pace and space it requires also makes it very special.”
Over the years, Elysa Voshell — whose work encompasses book arts, printmaking, photography, and installation — has managed to successfully moonlight as an artist, curator, writer, and nonprofit arts leader. Today, her work is exhibited internationally and is part of museum and library collections worldwide. But we’re fairly sure that there are far more incredible accomplishments in the artist’s very bright future.
*Note: Images of artwork are the creative and intellectual property of Elysa Voshell, images of MCBA are property of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.