Carol Chase Bjerke is a visual artist and educator in Wisconsin. The Library as Incubator Project interviewed her in the spring of 2011. – Laura

Point of Departure. Carol Chase Bjerke, 1986.

What kind of work do you do?

Over time, much of my work has included photographic processes and materials, and it has taken a variety of forms in addition to traditional 2-D presentations, including books, sculptural pieces, and installations. For the last several years, due to circumstances beyond my control, I have also done an extensive mixed media project that includes medical supplies and their packing materials.  And I am just now launching a new exploration to re-work traditional darkroom photo processes for camera-less imagery. This will probably result in books at some point, but I am not there yet. More information and images at www.carolchasebjerke.com

What is/has been your relationship to libraries?

As a student I used the library more than I do now. As I think about it, I find this sad. It’s not that I choose not to go to the library, but I generally manage to access what I need elsewhere. In addition to a collection of books about my particular interests, I have acquired some basic references for my own library. VERY basic, i.e. I use my dictionary and thesaurus a lot for reference and brainstorming; sometimes having to do with information about a subject or the content of pieces, and sometimes for playing with words and titles and texts. I also have a couple of dictionaries of symbols that I refer to frequently. These take me a long way into ideas, and into the execution of my work.

Have libraries informed or inspired your artistic work, and if so, how?

One piece in particular comes to mind, and it’s a good story so please bear with me. I was in grad school, and was checking the stacks for reference materials for a paper I was writing. I like to browse the stacks whenever possible, although the old card catalogues were great fun, too. It has to do with the tactile experience. So I was running my fingers along the spines of the books as I read the titles, when I came to a book that had been repaired so there was a solid piece of tape along the spine and no title was visible. I pulled it off the shelf to learn that it was an odd little photography book called Posing for the Camera: Tips for the Photographer and Tips for the Model. There were no photographs in it, but the diagrams intrigued me. I wanted to spend more time with it, so I checked it out along with other materials even though it had nothing to do with my needs at the time.

Because I had many other things going, the book sat on my desk until it was time to return it at the end of the semester – which was still a frantic time because my plans for traveling to Scotland and France for the summer had just fallen through, and I was having to quickly find a replacement for the credits I would have earned there. It was a beautiful spring day, so I took advantage of the excuse to be outside by stopping at a bench en route to the library. Flipping through the pages of this book, I experienced one of those eureka moments when a whole new creative project is born. Page after page of the diagrams and text inspired ideas for a pop-up book that would be an imaginary journey to all the places I would have spent the summer had the actual trip occurred. I renewed the book, arranged for an independent study project, and set about to make my Point of Departure pop-up book that has since traveled to numerous locations and exhibitions, and inspired several other projects and reviews.

Point of Departure. Carol Chase Bjerke, 1986.

As an artist, what would your ideal library look like?

It would be large and open and inviting, with warm and quiet and comfortable areas for study and work. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On a purely selfish level, it would be within walking distance of my home and studio, but I would also want it to have general appeal and accessibility because this is how we all benefit from the serendipity and exchange of information and ideas – through contact with people and books and programs.

Stacks would be open, and would include a variety of standard reference books as well as information specific to all manner of technical, scientific, literary, historical, cultural, spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns and subject matter. Everything.  Signage would be conducive to browsing without first going to the digital catalogue. Computers would be in the back, so we wouldn’t just habitually leap to use them first.

There would also be an area devoted to artists’ books, and we would be permitted to read and handle them. Perhaps an attendant on hand to make this feasible, answer questions, and make suggestions. Special exhibits would feature specific books, ideas, and themes.  Information about the artists would be available nearby. Also books related to book arts, and information about book-related resources and facilities. Maybe a “hot-line” for tech support in all media. Programs could include a series of salons with artists talking about their work. Plus of course this particular collection would provide a market point for book artists.

What specific libraries have played a role in your work?

The Kohler Art Library has been very supportive in terms of access to resource materials, periodicals, artists’ books, and thoughtful exhibits. [Library director] Lyn Korenic is terrific. Accessible, informed, intelligent, considerate. I have been pleased to exhibit books there from time to time, and am honored to have several books purchased for the collection.

I would say much the same about Max Yela and the Special Collections at Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee, although I get there less frequently, and he has purchased only a couple of my books.

Special Collections at UW Memorial Library is also a valuable destination and resource. Their exhibits are especially thought-provoking and well-done, with interesting related programs. I have also studied from their collection a few times.

Central Michigan University Library was the repository for Posing for the Camera that inspired my Point of Departure pop-up book.

I am also enamored of small libraries in small towns where often the building itself is a relic of some particular era or architect or craftsperson. Or sometimes a certain literary collection provides the focus. These are intimate and meditative spaces, generally, and tend to make me think more about comprehensive design and use of space. I have spent many thought-full hours at the one on Mackinaw Island, for example. Oh, and the Charles Rennie Macintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art – a gem of a space. (I did eventually get there.)

Point of Departure. Carol Chase Bjerke, 1986.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention the Concord Public Library in my hometown in NH where my early love of books was fostered.  I made my first book of original poetry at age 9.

What does the phrase “library as incubator” mean to you?

I have never thought of using this term, but it is a good one. An incubator is a warm place that encourages things to come to life.  Information is the seed from which one grows. Information informs our work. Interaction with other users and librarians cross-pollinates our ideas and passions. Plus it takes time for development to occur, and presumably/hopefully a library is ongoing and reliable.

More images and information on Carol Chase Bjerke’s work may be found at carolchasebjerke.com.

Posing for the Camera is authored by Harriet Shepard and Lenore Meyer, published by Hastings House, 1960, and distributed by Milady Publishing Corporation.

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