Anne Covell Paper Artist - San Diego, CA, USA

You make a very different comment to many other artists; you are interested in the capacity of the artist to physically shape the environment.  Discuss this.

 As an artist, I am interested in the human capacity to physically shape the environment, and the subtle, observable ways nature adapts and responds. Put more simply, my work explores connections shared between humans and the natural world, and takes a critical approach to the impact of human involvement in natural processes.

As part of my artistic practice, I try to always be observant of my surroundings. I document and collect natural objects that I find that fascinate me. These objects, which often pique my interest for their aesthetic properties (color, shape, texture), typically have some deeper story to tell. For example, several years ago on a walk in Iowa City, I picked up a skeletonized leaf because I was attracted to its lace-like quality. I brought it home and studied it and through research I found that the form was a result of invasive insects that made their way to America on cargo ships over 100 years ago. Often, these small observations lead to deeper research that then translates into new work.

In making paper you are reconstructing from one mass to another.  Discuss one of the techniques you use to make paper.

 Paper is an incredibly versatile medium. I’ve created handmade papers for my work that ranges from delicate, translucent gampi to heavyweight, indigo dyed flax. Each project has its own aesthetic, which calls for different properties in the paper to be made.

As a hand papermaker, I have the ability to control how a pulp behaves through factors such as fiber preparation and beating time. For example, in my piece Cult of Relics,



I carefully and meticulously wrapped natural objects in handmade abaca. I chose abaca because it is a fiber that through overbeating (in this case, 12 hours in the beater) becomes incredibly high shrinkage and will conform anything it is wrapped around. In order to cover the forms, I first made a post of sheets and pressed them in a hydraulic press to remove the excess water. At this point, while they were still wet, I tore small sections of the wet sheets and wrapped the forms piece by piece, using methyl cellulose as a bonding agent. As the paper dried, it shrank to conform to each object.Cult_of_Relics_1 

Artists Books are not always ‘books’ discuss this in relation to ‘Cult of Relics’.

Cult of Relics is a reliquary that houses paper-wrapped natural objects. I tend to think of it as both a book and a sculptural object, because of the different ways it can be experienced by a viewer. On exhibition, it is typically displayed open as a triptych and viewed as a whole. However, when handled, it is most often placed flat on a table and opened. The doors contain text that can be read and experienced in relationship to the objects, so in this way it operates more as a traditional book than as a sculpture.

What lead you to doing a MFA in Book Arts?

My path into the field of book arts has been somewhat circuitous. After graduating from college, I worked for several years in the education department at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. In contemplating graduate school I looked for a program that would have education as a central theme, but that would also allow me to work with my hands creatively. I chose the University of Iowa for its unique joint program that would allow me to receive a masters in library and information science with a graduate certificate in book studies and book arts. I knew very little about book arts at the time, but the prospect of studying the book both conceptually and creatively intrigued me. I fell in love with the program at the Center for the Book. Several years later, when the Center for the Book transformed into an MFA program and offered recent grads the opportunity to return to advance their graduate certificate to an MFA, I jumped at the chance to come back. 

Expand on the importance of Timothy Barrett in your art career?

While at Iowa, I had the privilege of studying Asian and Western papermaking techniques with Timothy Barrett, a renowned papermaker and MacArthur Fellow. Additionally, during my tenure at Iowa, I worked as a production papermaker at his Oakdale Research and Production Paper Facility. Tim has been a guiding force in my career as an artist. In addition to teaching me this skills required to become an adept papermaker, he has also become an incredible mentor, and a good friend.

Take us through the journey of ‘Towards a Just Landscape’ from conception to completion.

My mother’s side of my family hails from Whitefish, Montana, which sits just outside Glacier National Park. Each summer that we would visit, we would take the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the top of Logan Pass. Glacier National Park is part of the larger Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which spans the international boundary between Montana and Alberta.


In 2012, my family and I decided to explore the Canadian side of the park, and it was on a boat excursion along Upper Waterton Lake that a tour guide pointed out the clear-cut swath demarcating the international boundary.


Prior to that point, I hadn’t given much thought to the border, but its image haunted me. After some research, I learned that the clear-cut I had witnessed spans the entirety of the US/Canada border, some 5,525 miles. I began to think about all the land this swath cuts through and its impact upon its surrounding environments. In 2014, I set out on a research trip that took me from my home in Iowa City, Iowa to the Alberta/Montana borderlands, skirting the 49th Parallel along the way. At each border crossing I documented the swath. In Waterton, I hiked down to the border and camped alongside the clear-cut. After two weeks, I came home with a mountain of information and began working on what would become Towards a Just Landscape.


This project is comprised of three artists books housed in a deluxe clamshell box. Each piece uniquely explores the political and ecological impact of the US/Canada border clearing on its surrounding environment. While Boundary Vistas studies the varying landscapes along the 49th Parallel at the macroscopic level to comment on the scale and enormity of the clear-cut, A Field Guide to New Growth, by contrast, focuses more microscopically on the swath itself and what can be found growing in the wake of destruction. Vanishing Point envisions the clear-cut as a physical representation of a deeper disconnect over how to achieve peace and justice in the Alberta/Montana borderlands.

Many of your works are Limited Editions, can you expand on how you make up to 15 editions? 

The majority of the artist books I produce are printed in limited edition quantities. I print my work primarily on a Vandercook letterpress, which is a type of proof printing press designed for editioning, or printing multiples. One of the factors I decide when I start a new project is the edition size, because it is a major factor in determining both cost and time. Because my projects often involve making the paper by hand or other specialty work such as papercutting or pochoir, my editions are small in size and range between 10-25. Natural Order: A Game of Pairs, as an edition of 50, is one of the larger editions I have done.


At a different level you have used your techniques to make ‘Natural Order’ A Game of Pairs.  Discuss this work.

Natural Order: A Game of Pairs is a play on the childhood game of memory or concentration wherein the goal of the game is to match like pairs. However, in this game there is a twist – the goal instead is to match symbiotic relationships as they are found in nature. The game consists of 30 cards (15 pairs) and a learning guide that teaches about not only mutually beneficial relationships, but also commensal and parasitic relationships in order to better understand the complexity, diversity, and often brutal severity that brings order to the natural world.

Would you consider taking commissions for Game of Pairs?

Natural Order: A Game of Pairs is a limited edition set of 50. It was letterpress printed from original drawings using polymer plates. I have had the idea for some time to make an offset print edition in order to offer the game at a more affordable price. If I do decide to do that, I will let you know!

You use French Chipboard.  Can you explain what the properties of this product are and where you source it?

 French Paper Company is an independent US paper mill that specializes in natural and colored cover stock and text weight papers. They produce a durable chipboard with a strong fold endurance that was perfect for strength required for the playing cards in my game Natural Order: A Game of Pairs.

Presentation and packaging is a large part of your art please give details of this aspect of your art. 

Typically, when I begin a project I start by doing several mock-ups that include those for content, structure, and materials. As these decisions are made, other elements come into play, such as how the piece will be covered and whether or not it will require an enclosure. My work often involves delicate papers such as kozo and gampi, and because of their fragility, these books often require protection. When a book requires an enclosure, I like to think of the enclosure as part of the reading of the piece. When a reader opens a box or enclosure, they are taking in visual clues that affect how the book is experienced. Therefore, I attempt to think of the book and its enclosure as a whole, so that the collective work is harmonious and in tune with the content of the piece.

You do classes can you take one class and briefly describe the technique you teach and the importance of the basic understanding of a student to complete the class.


I teach on a wide range of subjects that include bookbinding, hand papermaking, letterpress printing, and natural dyeing. One course I enjoy teaching in particular is titled, “Pulp Ecology: Papermaking with Plants, Pigments, and Dyes.” In this class, students begin by learning the fundamentals of papermaking (sheetforming, couching, pressing, and drying) through exploration of cotton, flax, hemp, and abaca fibers. Later, I teach techniques for immersion and vat dyeing wet pulps with dyes such as indigo, logwood, and cochineal for a wide range of colors. Students have the opportunity to learn how to manipulate dyed pulps on the paper’s surface through mark making techniques, as well as how to embed materials between sheets and how to create thin veils to conceal and reveal elements. After sheets have dried, students learn further techniques for working their sheets through natural processes of rusting, bleaching, and resist dyeing. In the end, each sheet becomes its own work of art.


Explain about the work you and Steph Rue and Radha Pandey.


While at Iowa, I had the opportunity to collaborate with fellow artists Steph Rue and Radha Pandey to create a piece for Hand Papermaking Magazine’s portfolio, “Negative Space in Handmade Paper: Picturing the Void.” We chose to collaborate because of our mutual interests and similar aesthetic. For this project, we attempted to embed a grid of threads between two sheets of handmade abaca that gradually shifted from dark to light and subtly disappeared into the paper itself.


This was easier said that done. In order to accomplish this, we created a lightweight frame out of balsa wood and meticulously threaded each frame with 250 overlapping threads. However, the difficult part came when it was time to sandwich the grid between two freshly couched sheets of abaca. This required tremendous patience and a gentle touch. Two of us held the grid while the other pulled loose threads taught and sighted the frame to land centered on the wet sheet. In the end, we created 25 sheets using this method and learned a tremendous amount about collaboration and teamwork in the process.

Discuss your involvement with Kazuko Hioki and the work she is doing with historical Japanese block printed books.


Kazuko Hioki, a conservator at the University of Kentucky Libraries, has been researching the physical traits of historic block printed books from the Edo period in Japan for some time. Several years ago, she and I began a collaboration to attempt to recreate the cover papers for these soft-bound side-stitch bindings from the information available. These cover papers were likely created from layers of poor-quality recycled paper covered with an outermost layer of thin, high-quality dyed paper that was either burnished or embossed for decoration. However, due in part to its designation as a lowly craft, little of the process used to create these covers survives in the historic record. Kazuko, not a papermaker herself, enlisted me to try to replicate these uniquely soft and flexible cover papers. My research has focused on historic recycled papermaking methds, lamination, and processes for burnishing and embossing patterns into these papers using carved woodblocks.

Discuss the importance of Historical books and bookmaking to a contemporary book artist?

I feel fortunate to have studied at Iowa, because, for me, the strength of their program lies in the equal attention they give to book history and book arts. There, I not only studied the history of the book, but researched and recreated historical models. At the same time, I also focused on creating a body of work as a contemporary book artist. Along the way, I realized how significantly these two approaches to the book had merged in my work. Like any art form, knowledge of the past informs the present. The contemporary structures we use as book artists are all drawn directly or indirectly from historic specimens.

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 Contact details

Anne Covell

Sin Nombre Press, Proprietor

Anne Covell, San Diego, CA, USA

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, January, 2017