Julie Chen established Flying Fish Press in 1987, when she was a graduate student in Book Art at Mills College in Oakland, California, and she has been publishing her work under this imprint ever since. Most of the work published at the press are authored by Julie although she has also collaborated on artist’s book projects with other artists including Lois Morrison, Barbara Tetenbaum and Clifton Meador. More information on the history of Flying Fish Press, including many book images and essays, can be found in Reading the Object: Three Decades of Books by Julie Chen, co-published by Flying Fish Press and the Mills College Center for the Book in 2016.
I first started making artists’ books in my mid-twenties and can still recall the tandem feelings of intense infatuation with my newfound medium and vague terror that I would never be able to pull off the ambitious ideas swarming in my head. During the first ten years after graduate school, I developed an ever-increasing belief that if I shared my book ideas with anyone before the printing phase was at least two-thirds complete, I would suffer a form of cosmic retribution that involved getting hit by a bus so the book would never be finished. As my experience and confidence grew, the looming threat of this hypothetical bus remained a constant companion: there, perhaps, to remind me of how fragile and mutable the process of bringing an artist’s book to fruition actually is. If the bus wasn’t warning enough, I also suffered from the common existential dread that many artists experience: the successful completion of a project was followed by an excruciating interval during which I was convinced that I would never be able to make another artist’s book again. Only when a close friend who had watched my way of working over many years pointed out that this was how I felt after every project did I begin to realize that these rituals of thought, however bothersome, were themselves a crucial part of my creative process.
Explaining the process by which an artist’s book gets made—from the initial idea through the development of text, image, and structure—is not an easy task. I often find that I work on different aspects of a book with different parts of my brain. I think of these parts of my mind as being akin to members of a committee who do not always communicate with one another. I can be working diligently on the creation of a text and during the same period be engaged in intense exploration of structural ideas. These two activities are independent of each other, and it sometimes takes a conscious effort of will to bring them together into one unified activity. Once those vital connections have been made, however, the piece often starts taking on a life of its own, and decisions about text, image, and structure become focused more on what the book wants and needs than what I, as the humble bookmaker and artist, would like to do.
The first book I made in graduate school was in accordion form because at the time that was the only structure I knew how to make. Little did I realize that the accordion structure, with its myriad variations, would become a mainstay in my creative practice. Early technical instruction in bookmaking has played as forceful a role in my artistic development as early influences in my personal life, for in my books there is very little separation between structure and content: the book’s physical form is a crucial part of the perception and experience of meaning. My identity—as a woman, as an Asian American, and as a native Californian—is seamlessly woven into the content of my work, not necessarily as a theme, but in the physical manifestation of the book and the meaning conveyed through its content. It is my hope that this catalogue may prove useful to book art practitioners, especially to those who are just starting their careers, as a source of insight into the processes and experiences of one artist who has devoted her creative life to a deep exploration of the book form.
Preface from Reading the Object: Three Decades of Books by Julie Chen