Spotlight Iowa City: Local artist plays with book form


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Some call them books. Some call them sculptures. Some, such as Adjunct Assistant Professor Emily Martin, just let the others do the talking.

“It’s constantly being defined by the people making things, and that’s what interests me more than the specific word meaning,” she said.

Martin is one of those definers. The Iowa City resident creates artist’s books — works of art that capture the content of the book beyond writing on pages with the form of the actual object.

The 56-year-old discovered this type of art while studying painting in graduate school at the UI. With time, she gradually moved away from her M.F.A. roots and by the late-80s was creating artist’s books as her primary form. In 1995, she adopted “The Naughty Dog Press” (named after her former Jack Russell terrier Gomez) as a signature on her artwork.

In her studio (located in her basement), Martin owns two types of presses: a clamshell and a Vandercook. The former is mainly used for cutouts, and the latter deals with fonts, colors, and printmaking.

With ideas constantly being generated, the studio, full of ambient light, is cluttered with papers upon papers of sketches, drawings, and paintings. Along the walls, in what initially look like bookshelves, a variety of fonts and letters.

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Beyond her own work, Martin also teaches an assortment of classes in the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Colleague and book arts lecturer Julia Leonard believes that “when you see an Emily Martin book, you know it’s hers.”

“She is a master at finding the appropriate structure for the story she is trying to tell,” Leonard said. “She has a really quirky sense of humor, and that shows in all her work.”

In a type of art form that is still finding its footing in the world, Leonard said Martin is very well-known and respected. Her work is in an assortment of collections over the world, including the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris, Chelsea College of Art & Design in London, and Yale University, to name just a few.

Martin said she didn’t feel the effect of having work spread out all over the globe until she had the chance to actually see her own work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“That was pretty amazing. It was kind of surreal. It’s a museum I’ve gone into time and time again, and there was my work,” she said.

Surreal, it must be. Associate Professor Matt Brown, the director of the UI Center for the Book, calls Martin a “treasure.”

“Her artwork makes you rethink what a book is,” he said. “Her folds and structures cleverly conceal and reveal word and image in ways that make screen-based reading banal and flat.”

But, beyond all the compliments and recognition, Martin just wants to explore.

“I have to nail [my thoughts] down enough to know where to begin, but there’s a discovery that happens,” she said. “You want to be able to make decisions and let things happen as they come along. Sometimes things change, and they need to change.”

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