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Books as a Beginning

Books as a Beginning

Books as a Beginning

June/July 2012 issue of American Craft magazine
Monograph Bookwerks

Photo: John Brodie

Monograph Bookwerks
5005 NE 27th Ave.
Portland, OR 97211

Thanks to TV’s Portlandia, the perception of Portland, Oregon, as the place for quirky makers to eke out a living is all but cemented in the public mind. Though less audacious in temperament than a prototypical Portlandian, John Brodie and Blair Saxon-Hill have shown that such a life is possible – and they’ve done it in high style. Committed artists themselves – Brodie is an established painter who also works in mixed media, book arts, and installation; Saxon-Hill works in mixed media, painting, and sculpture – they opened their art bookstore, Monograph Bookwerks, in 2010, in the diverse and trendy Alberta arts district. The store features new, used, and out-of-print scholarly books on art, architecture, and design, from the 19th century to present. The store also is full of rare prints, vintage tools and supplies, and a rotation of mid­century and contemporary studio ceramics.

What prompted you to open Monograph?
We wanted an art bookstore in Portland – a place for artists, art lovers, and designers to discover and exchange ideas and beautiful handmade things. The bookstore is also a place where other projects – commissions, publishing, and lectures – can take place or be generated from. In this sense, Monograph is an extension of our own art practices.

What do each of you bring to the equation?
John leans more toward the nuts-and-bolts side of the business, whereas I create rich, textured vignettes of books and objects in the store. We both collaborate on curating the books that we carry, and we designed the store’s interior together to create a warm and inviting space.

What is it about Portland’s personality that makes it an ideal location for Monograph?
The pace of engagement and sincerity of exchange in Portland are unique. There is a large community of architects and graphic designers working professionally in Portland, not to mention visual artists. There has also been a recent surge in smaller, independent publishers in Portland, creative printers, letterpress studios, and fashion designers – all looking for inspiration and a connection to the greater art community nationally and internationally.

How has the neighborhood responded to your store?
We’ve been warmly welcomed by the community! As native Oregonians, we are committed to this place and to the great work being made in Portland by artists, architects, and designers.

How has owning and operating Monograph influenced your own artmaking?
We both have a love of paper and the physical book. Our increased exposure to print technologies, design, and artists’ works since we opened the bookstore in 2010 is definitely evident in our own art. The work feeds the bookstore, and the bookstore feeds the work. As artists, we generally tune our cultural antennae to other contemporary artists’ practices, so mining the field of makers is a fun exploration of self, meaning, and contemporary culture.

Along with books, you carry a variety of unique objects. Why the focus on ceramics?
Studio ceramics carry a strong and immediate sense of the hand and surface, and allow for a tactile engagement that we see as parallel to the book. They’re both object and vessel for art and ideas. Objects also contain and carry with them their own histories, which we feel is an important counterpoint to our culture’s emphasis on technology and the new.

Carolyn Hazel Drake, an artist, teaches visual art at Silverton High School near Portland.