I have never been ashamed to embrace the often turbulent digital culture of the 21st-century twenty-something. Nearly every day new technologies are introduced, aiming to ease the burden of living in a technology-saturated world; and more social media tools are created to help the lonely pseudo-adult connect to the outside world from the comfort of her desk, couch, and occasionally — as I’m brave enough to admit — bed. Out of the mess of fan blogs, gossip headlines, and pictures of cats, there sometimes emerge genuine communities, such as networks of enthusiasts passionate about their particular field, using popular web platforms to collect, document, and archive the objects of their own passion. As Zadie Smith wrote in her second novel The Autograph Man, ‘the collector is the savior of objects that might otherwise be lost’.
Two years ago I started following Leah Leslie’s blog, F*ck Yeah, Book Arts! Behind the crass and bold title, I found a carefully curated blog that regularly presented examples of books both old and new, triumphs of art, design, and language. Finally! Physical evidence, high-resolution pictures to feed my bibliophile obsessions! Unlike many blogs that focus on flash-in-the-pan media events (the dress was blue and black, I tell you), this blog was visually and intellectually refreshing. Each post was a careful commentary on the nature and significance of each work, and gave credit to the creator and the curator. On many occasions it inspired me to utter the expletive phrase that makes up its name.
As a social media platform, Tumblr does not naturally lend itself to user-to-user interactions. Rather, we get remnants of what the people we ‘follow’ found funny or interesting, while they hide behind terse personal statements, microscopic header pictures, struggling with a horrendous privatemessaging interface (seriously, it’s appalling). So it took rather a long time to define the face behind the features of F*ck Yeah, Book Arts! After all, I was only one of the many thousands who follow Leah’s blog. As of March 2015, her blog has 76,000 followers: a fact that astounded me, and instilled in me an infinite joy that there were far more than, say, forty people in the world who shared my love of book arts. I felt like I knew this person, and that this person knew me, and it took a long time to break out of the mould of typical online interactions to finally extend a digital hand in friendship. While I narrowly missed the chance to meet Leah in person (Dublin, how tricky you can be!), finally I had the opportunity to interview her, informally, about her personal experience of running a book arts blog on a modern image-based platform. Below, I offer you a rare glimpse into the brain behind Tumblr’s favourite book arts blog.
1. Leah, please tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Leah Leslie and I’m a 23-year-old multi-media artist in a committed relationship with my books, my blog and the future of publishing. I’m currently shacked up in my family home by the sea in Ireland, which I share with my brother Luke (a director and filmmaker) and Lila, my podgy British Blue Shorthair cat.
Although I originate from Dublin, I mainly grew up living abroad in the centre of Paris, Edinburgh and London. Moving around so often throughout my childhood made me extremely adaptable, independent and incurably curious.
I’ve been a bibliophile for as long as I can recall, but my passion was cemented growing up in France. We moved there when I was very young, and the language barrier caused me to reach out for books as entertainment (and sanctuary) more than ever. One of the teachers in my new school took a shine to me and encouraged me to develop my creative writing skills and penchant for drawing. She gave me a blank hardback book and told me to fill it with the stories in my head. It was the first book I ever wrote and illustrated, and years down the line it was little wonder I ended up studying foundation-year illustration at Central Saint Martins, followed by a degree in Book Arts & Design at London College of Communication.
2. Why did you start the blog, F*ck Yeah Book Arts?
The cuts to the arts were fairly devastating during my student years in London and I grew frustrated at the increasing lack of resources and teaching time available to us. I really enjoyed exploring the possibilities the book (its content, visual format, and future formats in an our growing digital age) so I found myself sitting at home whiling away the hours researching what other book artists were up to.
Eventually I thought it seemed silly to waste all that collective research, so I set up my blog F*ck Yeah, Book Arts! in late 2010 when I was just 19, more or less on a whim (and also as a much needed place to direct the people who kept on asking me just what the hell book arts actually was!) I never expected more than a handful of students and art lovers to take any notice of it. But within a year, the blog has garnered over 10,000 followers. It’s up to 75,000 people now, and I’m bowled over on a daily basis by the positive response it continues to receive. I’ve had incredible artists, writers and publishers connect with me from across the globe, and teachers of all levels telling me they use it as an educational resource. Running FYBA has probably been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
3. What are the biggest challenges of blogging about book arts?
A lot of people seem to think book arts is solely the art of altering books (the rather controversial act of cutting up books to make sculptures etc), when in fact book arts is an umbrella term for artist’s books, graphic novels, bookbinding, typographic book design, sketch booking and paper engineering (which can include altered books, but is certainly not limited to it!) I hope a glance through my blog will show those new to the world of books arts how wide-ranging the field actually is. In our digital age, it is vital we continue to explore the purpose, design and evolution of the book.
Another issue behind running FYBA has been finding enough time. Since graduating in 2013, I’ve been interning for peanuts within a design magazine and now working constantly within a non-profit art gallery, so I don’t feel like I’ve been able to give FYBA the attention it deserves. I literally have thousands of unanswered messages gnawing away at me, and they keep growing each day…. Most people who submit their work to FYBA don’t realize there’s isn’t a team behind it — only me. That being said, I do try my best to get through the list on my days off, and I would never stop accepting in submissions — I feel very privileged that so many talented people want to share their work with me.
4. Have you had a large following? Why do you think people are drawn to book arts and book history?
FYBA is slowly creeping towards its next milestone of 100,000 followers, which is unbelievable to me. It’s been so incredible to have this network of talent at my fingertips, that I can call upon for submissions, critical debate surrounding the book as an object, or help with ideas behind various artistic projects I’ve been working on.
I think that book arts is easy to connect with since it’s an art form that developed as a way of bypassing the constraints of the gallery, as a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas, and as a radical format for bringing art to a wider public through artists self-publishing their work. This notion of making art in an affordable, non-wall-based format led to the growth of what we now recognize as the artist’s book, and it very much parallels the freedom of blogging in many aspects. What’s not to like about free, instantly accessible research, inspirational art and educational DIYs at the click of a mouse?
5. You have an interesting mix of contemporary book art and older, historic books/manuscripts. How do you decide your content and what is the best part of mixing the two?
To understand what book artists are making now you have to look at where the book has come from. I have equal love for contemporary and historical book art — both have huge value in my eyes. The content I share is a real mishmash of eras, styles and artistic abilities — but if I’m sharing it, it probably means it made me feel something. I think the mixture of work keeps things fresh and surprising for my audience.
People have told me I also have a knack for predicting trends in the art and design world. Perhaps it is because of this that the website Tumblr asked me to become an editor of their ‘Crafts’ and ‘DIY’ sections, a voluntary position, which I have happily maintained for several years.
6. What is your favourite post?
With an archive of nearly 5,000 posts, it’s hard to pick just one… but the crazy cat lady in me loves this post of a beautiful 15th century medieval manuscript covered in inky paw prints. I think about how often my own kitty walks across my keyboard, or a painting I’m working on, and I can’t help but giggle and instantly connect with the poor soul working away on that mammoth book all those years ago. Material books make history come alive.
7. How does running the blog affect your personal tastes and passions? What do you think the outcome of your blog is on your audience?
While my own personal taste obviously directly influences the content shared on the blog, running FYBA has in turn informed my own developing taste and ideas for future book projects. I’ve learned a great deal through the work submitted in to me, or from stumbling across fantastic posts by others. It has given me hope for the future of the book — as evidenced by the thousands upon thousands of people who have connected with this blog run by one girl geeking over book arts!
Ultimately it comes down to this: if I have helped an artist gain well-deserved recognition for their work by directing a larger audience to it, or if I have helped a stressed-out artist or student frantically searching the net for inspiration, then FYBA has done its job.
Report and interview by Pattie Flint, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.
Leah Leslie is an illustrator and storyteller who works as a Digital Content Editor and Gallery Assistant for Graphic Studio Gallery in Dublin. She has a BA in Book Arts & Design from the London College of Communication, and completed her foundation year at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, where she specialised in illustration. She is the curator of the blog F*ck Yeah, Book Arts!, and also finds time to edit Tumblr’s ‘Crafts’ and ‘DIY’ sections.