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For Artist Kathleen Walkup, the Book IS the Art

For Artist Kathleen Walkup, the Book IS the Art

Book artist Kathleen Walkup’s career trajectory involves a long journey of self-discovery as well as being in the right place at the right time. She is now a respected professor of book arts at Mills College in Oakland.

“At a very early age, I was told that I could not draw by my mother,” recalls Walkup, a Menlo Park resident who was raised in a rural area of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “I was also left-handed and that made it even more difficult. It was a discouraging environment and activities such as drawing and painting were simply not open to me. I pursued other interests.”

Walkup says she majored in English in college, and was interested in becoming a publisher.

“I thought I would go into publishing, but at that time I found out that for women, it meant being in the typing pool,” she says.

Soon after, Walkup says she was fortunate enough to “stumble” into the New England Free Press in Boston, where she saw women operating presses and had an epiphany that she wanted to move in that direction for her career.

Following her time on the East Coast, Walkup moved to San Francisco where she learned letterpress printing, and established a letterpress business with four other women for the next several years. At the same time, she began creating and publishing books.

“Aside from the book’s content, I quickly became more interested in the book as a material object,” she says. “I was looking at a book as a piece of art in itself.”

For nearly four decades, Kathleen has been teaching letterpress, typography, bookmaking and book history at Mills College.

“The whole process is fascinating to me as a kind of technology, because it’s a technology that’s been around for a millennium,” she says. “People talk about the ‘death of the book,’ but there are so many aspects of it that haven’t been explored yet. And I think that’s the reason not everyone uses an
e-reader—there is the physical interaction with the book, and the way it seems to be an extension of your body.”

Because her artistic endeavors were frowned upon when she was young, Kathleen says she found books to be a means of escape; she taught herself to read at the age of four.

“I watched my grandmother read and I was determined to break that code,” she says. “Books gave me a window into what was possible out there.”

Over the years, Kathleen has created her own books, including a book on a 12th-century farmhouse in England, with windows on the pages that actually open up. She also creates altered books, existing books to which she adds graphic elements. “The idea is that it’s really subtle and you have to look closely at the images to see what’s going on.”

Ironically, some of her students tell her that they take the bookmaking classes because they can’t draw. “But I always tell them, ‘of course you can draw,’” she says.

Kathleen encourages her students and colleagues to acquire a greater exposure to books to attending exhibitions on book art and visiting the San Francisco Center for the Book, which is a bookbinding and letterpress studio offering workshops, public events, and exhibitions that promote traditional book arts and experimental book forms.

“The range of book art is so broad, that if you don’t think you can create the entire book, focus on things like the digital aspects, hands-on skills, the materials, or the text,” she says. “See if you can put yourself in an environment where you’re getting some constructive critique and feedback.”

This story is part of a new ongoing series, “Makers in Your Neighborhood,” featuring artists in the Palo Alto area who are pursuing their creative dreams.

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Last Updated: September 26, 2019