Interview for GBW Rocky Mountain Chapter Newsletter, Autumn 2016

Interview with RMC member Sammy Lee, October 2016

by Pamela Leutz

Sammy is a book artist member of the Rocky Mountain Chapter who also served as RMC Events Chair for the Denver area for several years until 2015. After moving from Dallas, I reached out to Denver Rocky Mountain Chapter members to find a book arts community in Colorado. Sammy was one of the first people I met, and she was welcoming and enthused to have another book worker in the area. She was instrumental in bringing well-known, talented binders to the area to give workshops, and I signed up for as many as I could. I admired her own book arts work and discovered her paper art sculpture when I took her class at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art where she taught felting and casting with Hanji, a Korean mulberry paper. Her works are shown in museums and galleries in the US, Spain and S. Korea.

Sammy works in her home studio when working on book arts. She has two spaces there, one of which is located in the home she shares with her husband and two boys. It has room to spread things out and houses her 33” board shear and a couple nipping presses. There is a 180 square foot building in the backyard that is home to her laser cutter and etching press and where she executes steps that create dust and fumes.

Recently I visited Sammy at her other working space: a studio at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, in the RiNo arts district of Denver. This fall she was awarded a two-year artist residency. RedLine “fosters education and engagement between artists and communities to create positive social change.” 

During my visit, students from an art class at Metropolitan State University of Denver stopped by her studio to learn about book arts. Sammy showed some of her works and explained the thought process that went into coming up with the concepts and designs. Her education in the fine arts, book arts, and architecture all contribute to her art. A student asked why her works are 3-D (several include enclosures that open to tell the stories through images and objects). She responded by saying that she had been a nomad much of her life. By the time she was 33 years old, she had moved 26 times. She had no permanent childhood home or place. She was drawn to creating art pieces that portray spatial-ness, narratives, and memories. For example, in an artist book titled Māyā-Bheda, she collaborated with Joshua Bergeron, who took the photos narrating the Bengali holiday of Durga Puja in Kolkata, India. Sammy bound them in a folded book with Indian tassle handles and housed this in a structure depicting an old 1888 Kodak camera. Check out her website to see images and explanations of her artwork:

Pam: How did you get interested in bookbinding?

Sammy: I was in architecture school, and my professor took me on different field trips. One place was Daniel Kelm’s bookbindery. He showed us many books, very innovative and crazy books. My heartbeat went up and I knew right away that this was something that I wanted to do. I asked for an internship on the spot, and Daniel asked me to come back. That is how I started my internship. I still wanted to get my architecture degree, so I did a double amount of projects for my thesis. I did an architectural project that incorporated book-like qualities in it; and I also designed an artist book that had spatial qualities. Dan’s bindery was in East Hampton, about a 20-minute drive from my school in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Pam: Yes, I’ve been there.

Sammy: Do you remember all the Kotex boxes?

Pam: Yes! So many of them up there on shelves.

Sammy: I didn’t know how to ask him, but when we were all done, I stayed there when others left and asked him, “Hey, Dan, what’s with all these Kotex boxes? By the way, do you need an intern?” That’s how we got started.

Pam: I’ve had workshops with him, and he is such a good teacher.

Sammy: Yes, indeed! And to be in that building…there are other bookbinders and artists in the building. I worked with him two and a half, almost three years, while living in Western Mass. My husband and I were moving out to Boston, and I was “potluck organizer.” He did a lot of potlucks with the other artists in the building.

Pam: How fun. I think of him as someone who values relationships and cooperation.

Sammy: He is a good collaborator, with his projects too. In addition to publishers and printers, he worked with a seamstress, woodworkers and many others in the building. He is very generous with his knowledge, materials, teaching – and with food.

Pam: Was Daniel the most influential teacher for you?

Sammy: Yes, in bookbinding he was. I was always kind of creative in my mind. I always had projects going in my mind, but I didn’t know how to actualize them. That’s why I was intrigued with architecture. Dan really helped me with how to figure it out mechanically, and how to approach it from a crazy idea to something real.

Pam: As you are becoming more well-known, I feel like it is for incorporating architecture in your artist books. You build things – it’s more than just making a book. You use engineering skills too.

Sammy: That is definitely something that I learned from both architecture school and Dan. Also, just watching Dan demonstrate his projects – how he opens it and tells a story. I was always impressed by the kinetic and interactive aspects, the book’s narrative qualities, the sequence of opening, how it invites viewers to handle it, how things drop and pop-up, and all that.

Pam: As you go forward in your bookbinding career, what do you foresee for your future? Will you continue in the same vein, doing similar styles?

Sammy: Yes. Another thing I love about bookbinding is that nothing is wasted in art. I feel like I took some detours and went round about with different practices. I was a fine art and media art major during my undergrad. Then I worked with Vitra, a Swiss chair company, wanting to be a furniture designer; then I went to architecture school. I ended up coming back to art and book making. Bookbinding brings in everything – design skills, model-making that I learned from architecture… I’m using everything from my past experiences. I think I’m just going to continue it and discover. I’m also doing the paper felting and collaging – that’s one type of work I do; artist book projects are the other thing. I’m kind of balancing. The common thing is using paper and working with its innate quality, story telling. I’m using a lot of Korean mulberry paper called Hanji. With this felting and collaging, most of the process involves wetting the paper, and beating it, and kneading it, and massaging it - kind of making the paper fall apart—destruction, and get felted and built to a new form—regeneration. That process is laborious and “story” is more deconstructed and released from the process. On the other hand, bookbinding is putting it together—I gather every fragment and bind it. Also, bookbinding requires a lot of processes and planning and measuring up to a 32nd of an inch (partly because of Dan’s influence!). But the paper felting is very spontaneous, emotional, and sometimes very cathartic, so it balances. I really enjoy doing two things simultaneously.

Pam: You have collaborated with some interesting people. How do those projects come about?

Sammy: Sometimes I have to be proactive, like when I asked Dan to take me as an intern. Most of the time it’s not planned, but it happens. I enjoy taking the journey and discovering things along the way. The photographer I worked with was commissioned by a museum where I exhibited my work. He was commissioned to take photos of me that day, and then we became Facebook friends. I ended up doing a project about India at the same time he was in India taking photos, which he posted on Facebook. I approached him saying, “I am very interested in India. Let’s do a photography book together.” I observe the sequence of events that are happening to me and take a leap of faith. I know something is happening, and I need to do something about it. Projects with other artists that I collaborated with, too, have come about in a similar way. I run into them somehow, and find we have something going on at the same time. Things happen.

Pam: What would you say, up to this time, has been your most interesting project?

Sammy: What I am working on now is always the most interesting project to me. Currently I am working on a breast project. It is really interesting to me because I just went through becoming a mama again, having a baby that I nursed, getting up at 2:00 in the morning to feed, and pumping, and a lot of that comes to mind. I am doing the content of the book, like in most of my projects, and I’m very interested in being involved in that part so I can make the book be more integrated. I want to be there from the beginning stage. I’m gathering content, casting the breasts - I actually got breast imaging from a radiologist, a consultation, and even got my mammogram done—to see how the whole thing will influence this project. This is going very well, and I’m having lots of fun.

Pam: I love that part about projects like these – the researching and learning. It adds new dimensions to life.

Sammy: Research is good and fun, and it influences my design decisions. It shapes the whole project.

Pam: What is your favorite part about the work that you do?

Sammy: For artist books, the whole early process of the researching, gathering materials and making mock-ups is my favorite. I love seeing how “story” is forming during this process, and I really want to know every aspect from different perspectives as much as I can to tell the story.

Pam: What would you tell someone who sees your work and is inspired and tells you they want to do the kind of work that you are doing?

Sammy: That’s wonderful, but I think that person will do something different than what I do —according to who that person is and the experiences and exposure that person has gone through, and the influence that person provides will be different. I would love to work with that person and see the different ways that person will evolve.



Video of Māyā-Bheda

Published on Mar 16, 2016

The second handmade artist book collaboration between artist Sammy Lee and photographer Josh Bergeron featuring images from Kolkata, India during Durga Puja, and designed after the 1888 Kodak camera which brought portable photography to the masses.


Art & Soul | Soul Struck at Space Gallery

Supper was featured in Art & Soul | Soul Struck exhibition.


Video of Shahjahanabad

Collaborative artist book project with Joshua Bergeron, a Boulder-based photographer.  Video credit to Joshua Bergeron


Beyond Words - Contemporary Book Art

January 24,2015 - March 22, 2015

Reception: Friday, January 23, 5 - 8pm