Professor of Art at Washington University in St. Louis and publication designer Ken Botnick spoke Wednesday afternoon about the creative process and structure of artists’ books. The talk was part of the Bowdoin and the Book lecture series at the new Special Collections Learning Lab at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.
An artist book is a genre that focuses on the structure, assembly, and presentation of information within a book rather than its content. These books, which function as works of art as opposed to reading literature, are usually handcrafted using unique materials and construction methods.
“Like poetry, the idea for an artist’s book can come from even the simplest, most basic… What’s important is to allow yourself the luxury of noticing — lingering and allowing whatever it is to deepen your understanding of the world,” Botnick said . “The practice, whether it’s writing poetry, painting, or throwing pots, is a way of deepening that understanding, that connection. My practice is making books. The book is my lens to explore the things I see in the world.”
Botnick began creating these books after a career in landscape design and publishing. Through these activities, he learned the basics of papermaking and printmaking while delving into creative material design.
Botnick’s presentation focused primarily on the genesis of his two most recent publications, the Diderot Project and Table of Contents, which he published under the name Emdash. Both books can be viewed in the library’s special collections.
“When we first bought the Diderot Project, Ken said, ‘I’d like to come on campus and talk about this project.’ That was three or four years ago,” said Marieka Van Der Steenhoven, librarian for Special Collections Education and Engagement. “Meanwhile, he had made a new book during the pandemic, and it just seemed like good timing.”
Diderot Project is an artistic interpretation of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia, a 35-volume 18th-century French encyclopedia containing thousands of prints carved from copper plates. These particularly fascinated Botnick and made them the heart of the project.
“I realized it wasn’t the famous anatomical natural history charts I was looking at—it was the charts about making things. I was fascinated by the tools and the stores,” said Botnick.
The project also deliberately used more modern sources and analysis of Diderot’s “Encyclopedia” to reflect on the antiquity of some aspects of the work, while highlighting elements that have stood the test of time.
Botnick’s detailed analysis in Diderot Project influenced his later work Table of Contents, published in 2020. As the title suggests, it focuses on the table of contents of James J Gibson’s The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. The project examines how information is parsed and presented in the form of a table of contents.
Table of Contents also used a wider range of materials and experimented with the perception of color and shape through translucent materials. This variety led to a more complex binding process, with each page being hung and sewn in individually.
Both projects earned Botnick the title of ‘Texcavator’, bestowed upon him by Ruth Rogers, Curator of Special Collections at Wellesley College.
“She said, ‘You’re a textcavator. They’re digging up text from those other books.’ I liked it. I mean I steal [but] that’s better than calling yourself a thief,” Botnick said.
Botnick’s books, and the concept of artist books more broadly, were of particular interest at Crystal Hall’s first-year seminar, How to Read a Million Books, from the Associate Professor of Digital Humanities and Director of Digital and Computational Studies Program. The seminar examines the modern digitization of books and how modern reading practices shape our information consumption.
“We just wrote an essay on what reading is, and in my essay I argued that it’s so much more than just the text of a book. You have to think about what the book looks like and what perspective you bring as a reader,” said Emma Mazlish ’26, a participant at the seminar. “It’s interesting to see that he really put so much of his own perspective into his adaptation of the Diderot Encyclopedia and how aware he was of the book’s actual form.”
The class met with Botnick Thursday for a more in-depth discussion of his books and his process of presenting the information. By analyzing the books, the class hopes to better understand the interaction between the book and the reader.
The library will host other events as part of the Bowdoin and the Book series, including a Marbled Paper Making workshop during Graduation Season and an additional faculty member.