A Conversation with Susan Mills, Sneak ‘Peak’ featured artist

image courtesy of WSW

image courtesy of WSW

Susan Mills, an artist who works entirely in artist’s book form in her NYC studio, is working with Freshkills Park on a project to be presented at this year’s Sneak ‘Peak’, on September 28 called UnCommon Pages. On July 19, Susan will lead a group to harvest plants including phragmites, the invasive species on our site (also known as the common reed) to make paper for a bookmaking workshop at our fall festival. Susan will work from Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY to cook the plants to remove impurities, beat with water to form a pulp from the plant fibers, then hand dip to form paper sheets. These will become the cover stock for 2,000 passport-sized Field Notebooks to be made by Sneak ‘Peak’ visitors to take home with them, made from plants in the very landscape in which they stand. We talked with Susan about how this project fits into her practice as an artist and teacher.

examples of Field Notebooks that visitors will make at Sneak 'Peak'

examples of Field Notebooks that visitors will make at Sneak ‘Peak’

When did you start making books?

I started making books as an undergrad at Nova Scotia College of Art – in what was called intermedia (including video, performance and books).  I have worked only in book form ever since. I started with books and stayed with books.

What brought you to New York from Nova Scotia?

I moved to NYC to apprentice as a bookbinder; both so that my own books would look more like ‘real’ books and so that I could work for others as a bookbinder.

What makes certain plants better for papermaking than others?

Plants with mostly cellulose are traditional in papermaking; for me interesting might not be what is traditionally considered ‘best’; the meaning and use of paper has changed often since it came to be.

How has the meaning and use of paper changed for you over the course of your practice?

As a bookbinder I handle a lot of paper!  Over time I have become more and attuned to paper qualities, and paper has become more ‘visible’ to me.  I enjoy talking about paper, especially with David Aldera, the manager of the paper department at New York Central Art Supplies. I am especially interested in what paper is made from and where it is made, and more and more, in making it myself. In making books, I sometimes like to let paper take the lead in where the book will go.

Why did you start using invasive plants, or plants that grow on compromised urban sites?

I identify with the plants and see myself as living in a compromised urban site.  I see myself as strong and healthy despite my site.  I identify with plants labeled as weeds, rather than non-weeds. And I find urban non-planted plants uplifting.

How do you choose your materials for a project?

Materials seem to fall in my lap.  And I am not sure how.  There is a thread connecting all the materials I use, and that is very surprising!

image courtesy of WSW

image courtesy of WSW

With what do you usually fill the pages of your handmade books?

I don’t make the books first – the content and the structure is developed together so there is never a moment when a book is ‘blank’.

What are you working on in your studio now?

I just hot foil stamped the cover of ‘Synthetic Biology for Sigmar Polke’ – and yes, the book deals with plants…

Do you pull inspiration from particular artists? Who and why?

I love the sculptures of NY-based visual artist June Leaf and the books of her husband, photographer Robert Frank. They mentored me as a young artist; I chose to be mentored because I love their work, and I think I learned to love my own work from them. I also am inspired long-term by the writing and installation work of Mary Kelly. And of the New York School poets.

Summertime in Freshkills Park, phragmites in the middle ground

Summertime in Freshkills Park, phragmites in the middle ground

Why Freshkills Park for this project?

When I think of Fresh Kills I think of garbage.  After this project I hope to think of plants.  And, like most people, I hope the Park, when it opens, will be beautiful, so it is a special time right now, on the way to beauty.  Plus, I have a chance to be in the Park for a little while.

How do you imagine the experience of those who participate in making books at Sneak Peak?

I hope everyone will like to hold a piece of the park in their hands.


Please contact Programs and Grants Manager, Mariel Villere for more information and to get involved with this one-of-a-kind project: Mariel.Villere@parks.nyc.gov.


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