Alumnae Spotlight: Abigail BainbridgeMarch 29, 2016
Abigail Bainbridge lives in London where she works as a conservator of paper and books. In 2009, she came to WSW to edition her artist’s book The Complex of All of These. In this book, images and words parallel each other to form a poetic language in which the author contemplates the world around her.
This summer, Abby returns to our studios to teach two classes in our Summer Art Institute: Letterpress Intensive and Bookbinding: Case Binding with Rounded Spine. We recently caught up with her to see what she’s been up to since her residency.
What have you been up to in the time since your residency at WSW? Have you had any career milestones or other important events happen recently?
After I left, I went to graduate school for book conservation at West Dean College in England. I had been working in conservation already, but the master’s degree is really required to do more interesting work. I ended up staying in England and teaching in the book conservation programs at West Dean and Camberwell College of Arts. I also started a business with my new husband! So it’s been pretty much all milestones since I left, really.
Congratulations on getting married! Can you tell me about the kinds of work you two do together as part of Bainbridge Conservation?
Tristram and I met at West Dean; he was a year above me studying furniture conservation. The objects are not that dissimilar—it’s all cellulose, for the most part, it’s just that he works with the tree form in furniture conservation and I work with the pulped form in book and paper conservation. We assist each other with projects; sometimes there’s paper glued to wood that I can help him with, or wooden boards in a binding that he can help me with. Our business lets us choose interesting projects and have flexible hours that we fit into our teaching schedules. The work really varies, from lovely objects in private collections, to consulting with institutions on storage and treatment options, to analysis of adhesives and other materials, and so on.
What interests you about conservation? How did you become interested in it?
I like the history of the objects. I liked the process of printmaking, but I think the image-making part of it wasn’t enough to hold me. This has aspects of that process in the repair and rebinding work that I do, but the idea of safeguarding cultural heritage brings a level of interest and importance that makes the work really engaging. These objects give us continuity, surviving long past the maker, and by intervening we can ensure they survive longer. The problem-solving aspect of it is also rewarding. There are plenty of long hours of repetitive work, but I’m constantly coming across structures I haven’t seen before, or issues with the logistics or materials that require the same kind of mind-bending I learned in art school.
Is there anything coming up for you that you’re excited about? Any shows or new projects?
I’m starting a PhD on 18th century French binding in May. This is something I’ve been working on slowly for a long time now, so it’s exciting to finally set it into motion. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that and keep my end of the business going, albeit a little slower.
I have some great projects currently on my bench as well. I’m working on a 9-foot Piranesi etching, two 18th century English account bindings in green vellum that are incredibly damaged, a bible from 1616 that was also in really bad shape, and a photo album from 1927 that survived bombing in World War II.
How did your WSW residency impact your work or your career?
It gave me the confidence to walk into a new project, figure out how it’s going to work, and make it happen. We have to do that in conservation all the time, and I didn’t have that skill before I came to WSW. The work that I did there led to me teaching classes in the Summer Arts Institute for a few years, and that in turn added to my teaching experience that set me up to teach in the conservation programs in London. There have been smaller unexpected things as well, like conservator Peter Verheyen buying my book, The Complex of All of These, and becoming a great help as I got started in the field. I made what I’m sure will be lifelong friendships with some of the staff, and it was just a fantastic experience. I’m honestly not doing it justice.
I’m glad you had such a great experience here! You mentioned your artist’s book made at WSW, The Complex of All of These, can you tell me a bit more about it?
It started with an idea I had mocked-up in my last year of undergrad. Each spread had a small block of text that matched in size a small block of image on the opposite page, and three spreads were completely taken up with dark aquatints. They represent vignettes of memories of relationships to linger on, and then sink into. The prints were from large copper plates on which I built up several layers of rosin aquatint, then burnished back like the way one works a mezzotint. I had made the plates before the residency, but I had them electroplated at WSW to stand up to the editioning. Laura Beyer was such a help in printing all of those!
Originally, I think the cover was going to be made with book cloth, but Tana told me we could use handmade paper, which I never would have dreamed of otherwise because of the cost. Chris Petrone worked so hard to get something with the depth of color that I wanted, and I remember she and Kristen DeGree pulled the sheets together because the mould was so big. We rounded and backed the slim text blocks, I sewed plain single-bead endbands, and then we made the cases in German bradel binding style. I still love them.
How do you move between your art-making practice, teaching, and conservation work? Are they very separate for you or do you see them as linked?
Conservation and teaching are quite fluid; I often bring in objects or photos of objects I have on the bench to discuss with the students, or take home ideas from what I’ve seen them doing. At Camberwell I teach conservation science, so that’s a little more abstract. Art, as I do it now, is less all-consuming than it used to be; I suppose conservation had to be the priority for so long in graduate school that it just became the way things are. I made an herbarium recently, covered in pressed flowers and leaves under transparent vellum, and inside is a journal. I think that’s the closest I’ve come to art in a while.
Who do you admire and why?
Chris Petrone! But don’t tell her, or she wouldn’t let me say it. With all the printing and binding processes to keep track of, the studios and extra projects like ArtFarm to maintain, a constantly changing rota of interns and artists and summer teachers, she somehow manages to keep the magic of WSW going. During my residency, I felt like the most important person there, and that the world revolved around my project, and I know she makes everyone else feel like that as well.
What advice would you give to emerging women artists?
Find a job that feeds into your work, or at least doesn’t take from it. Try to think of yourself as an artist, not a woman artist, and hopefully the rest of the world will catch up at some point.
This summer, don’t miss either of Abby’s workshops during WSW’s Summer Art Institute. In Letterpress Intensive, spend a week with WSW’s collection of lead and wood type and learn traditional hand typesetting and letterpress printing. The following week Abby will be teaching Bookbinding: Case Binding with Rounded Spine, where students will learn how to make a traditional case binding from start to finish. Those enrolled in both classes will have the opportunity to incorporate their letterpress prints in their bookbinding. Space is limited so register today!