“Even though I make books, I really hadn’t considered this kind of thing before because it’s so far from what I know,” said Asheville artist Margaret Couch Cogswell about her recent publication, Book Play. Still, she says of the venture, “If it’s all easy, you’re not learning anything.”
Book Play, Cogswell’s first publication, is primarily a how-to manual, but it entertains equally with its sweet images and playful drawings. The publication does an excellent job explaining the basic materials and processes of making books.
Cogswell’s easy and personable voice clearly distinguishes where it’s worth it to invest in a quality tool (such as a Japanese hole punch), and where the creative crafter could look to repurpose tools and supplies that are already on hand (such as using cereal boxes to create homemade book board).
The form of the books has been symbolic in Cogswell’s journey, and as a result, meaningful in her artwork. “It’s a really dynamic relationship,” Cogswell says. “I really want the knowledge that’s contained in books, but I have a hard time sitting still. This goes back to being a kid and not being able to read fast, so books were objects.”
After being approached by Lark Books with the idea for a publication, she expanded some of the guiding principles for her art to the new endeavor. “I wanted it to have some weight to it … but even if people didn’t want to make a book, it was interesting to look at, that visually it was interesting.”
Cogswell began making art books in 1995, but her approach is not that of a fine binder or a traditional bookmaker. She was especially influenced by a course on altering found books taught by Doug Beube. According to Beube in Book Play, “I use the term ‘Radical Bookworks’ to refer to challenging common assumptions about the nature of the book.”
Cogswell responds to this “radical” approach. “He opened that door. Maybe the book is just a disguise of a container for something.” After this course, Cogswell began pushing the edges to create her own structures with which to tell her stories. “I see almost anything as a book now.”
Cogswell’s work is notably charming, witty and playful. “If sometimes [the artwork] seems light, it’s a reaction to how devastating [it is], how hard we are on each other, how cruel we can be, how things are out of our control.” Often using animals in her work, Cogswell includes these characters as a non-threatening way to tell a human story. “As adults we learn to gloss over and cover up our emotions a lot of times, but they’re still there. Or we embellish them and make them more sophisticated, but they’re still these basic things. And a lot of times, we don’t acknowledge them because we’re supposed to be adults and have a handle on things, but we don’t. These things are still under the surface — basic needs of being loved and cared for.”
In the coming months, Cogswell will be teaching workshops at both Asheville Bookworks and John C. Campbell Folk School. She also has a solo show scheduled for September at Mica Gallery in Bakersville. And if you’re planning ahead, the annual calendar that Cogswell produces in partnership with her sister will be released in October. In fact, she just finished doing its images.
“As a child, in my family, I was a carrottop amid a sea of blonds. I mean the kind of red hair that is impossibly red! To complete my charms, I was a squeaky wheel — better known as a whiner. Growing up in a family of four girls means one must speak up to be heard. My father had nicknames for each of his girls, but I had two: ‘Doodlebug’ when I was cooperative (seldom) and the ‘Red-Crested Bellyacher’ the rest of the time.
Recently one of my sisters gave me an empty shoe-polish tin. I figured it would make an excellent ‘cover’ for ‘The Red-Crested Bellyacher,’ a story I created about that little mess of a girl I used to be. It just so happened that the pages of this story can be read in any order. Turn the little metal lever, take off the top and pull out the pages one by one.”