Interview with Audrey Niffenegger: Book Maker, Printmaker, Novelist, Painter

Self Portrait as Medusa
Self Portrait as Medusa. Courtesy of the artist.

Audrey Niffenegger, author of several published books, including The Time Traveler's Wife, is a multi-faceted artist. In her essay What Does It Mean to Make a Book? in The Book as Art by Krystyna Wasserman, Niffenegger answers: to make a book is to gain power over objects; to create physical form for ideas; to contend with beauty; and to time travel, to magically acquire the ability to be in many places at once. Niffenegger, one of the founders of the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, is a book maker, printmaker, novelist, painter, and teacher.

ArtStyle: Do you consider yourself to be an artist or writer first, and how do you balance the two careers?

Audrey Niffenegger (AN): I am both an artist and a writer. I don't quite understand why it would be useful to prioritize; it's much better to jump back and forth, as the ideas call for different approaches.

Grandmother's funeral
Grandmother’s Funeral. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What do you think of your success with your first book, The Time Traveler's Wife, and will you be involved in the movie, based on the book?

AN: The success of TTW was a lovely fluke. I am not very involved with the movie version; movie people don't want writer people around. Every now and then they show me a screenplay, and I freak out. That's about the extent of it.

Moths of the new world
Moths of the New World. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Your art at Printworks Gallery reminds me of Edward Gorey — gothic themes with a supernatural air about them with some humor thrown in, especially The Three Incestuous Sisters. Could you talk about this series and your current printmaking pieces?

AN: Edward Gorey is not one of my influences, though I like his work well enough. I'm more interested in Aubrey Beardsley, Horst Janssen, Charlotte Salomon and various comics artists such as Winsor McCay.

The show I am working on at the moment is called Elegy for Isabella Blow. She was an editor at British Vogue and Tatler. She had a very outre sense of style and an odd sense of humor. I'm trying to make a batch of art that she would have enjoyed. There will be lots of strange hats and perhaps black roses.

Nest. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: How did the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago evolve?

AN: In the early 1990s there were many exciting book and paper artists milling around town who had visited the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and also the Center for Book Arts in New York, and we wanted something even grander for Chicago. There were two small organizations here already, Paper Press and Artists Book Works. People met in each other's living rooms and tried to figure out how to set it up and fund it. Eventually Marilyn Sward heard about it. She got us connected with Columbia's Interdisciplinary Arts Department. Columbia rented a space for us, and we began to hold classes and exhibits in 1994. It was very shaggy and impromptu at first. In 1999 Columbia built us our present glorious Center.

Now we are very beautiful and have more than thirty graduate students. We are starting a publishing program, and JAB, the Journal of Bookarts, has become part of the Center's activities. It's very exciting.

I am not a papermaker myself, but I have worked with many fine papermakers including Marilyn Sward, Andrea Peterson, and others. I have always enjoyed watching paper get made, and of course as a printer I love to use it, but I don't have the patience or the desire to be wet all the time.

Song of the womb
Song of the Womb. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What do you teach and what do you want your students to get out of the classes?

AN: I teach a seminar on writing and image for our graduate students. We mostly work on various ways to combine text and pictures. I don't have an agenda for them, other than trying to move them forward in their work and help them to ask the useful questions. I try to teach them to set up interesting problems for themselves.

White Roses
White Roses. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What are you working on now in terms of your art and your writing?

AN: The aforementioned Isabella Blow exhibit for Printworks Gallery in November. Also a serial graphic novel for the London Guardian, to run next January. It's called The Library.

I am in the middle of writing my second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I am very slow and tend to work on many things at once, so it will be a while yet.

ArtStyle: What do you want to do in the future?

AN: Rest.

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