Interview with Bettina Pauly, Book Artist

Bettina Pauly

Bettina Pauly

A few weeks ago, I shared with you my tunnel book class at the San Francisco Center for the Book with Bettina Pauly.  I was a fan of her art before I even knew who she was and became an even bigger fan after taking her class.  She is a doll and a very sweet lady, and I wanted to share her fascinating story with the readers of my blog.

Bettina Pauly's wild tunnel book

Bettina Pauly’s wild tunnel book

Q:  Where you creative as a child?  Did you grow up in a home where creativity was encouraged? What is your earliest memory of creating?

A:  Growing up, my brother and I would always make gifts for our parents for birthdays, Christmas and all other occasions.  We became quite creative, and if we had no more ideas, we would create awesome rain checks.  Our parents always appreciated what we made.

Thinking about it, there was all the cooking and baking at home, as well as, for example, painting a room new, sewing an apron, fixing parts in the house, knitting, decorating eggs for Easter, preserving food, taking pictures, carving linoleum blocks for Christmas cards, just to list a few things.  I guess it was the perfect idea of a Martha Stewart’s household!  But it did not feel much different from others I knew growing up.

Q:  What brought you to the US from Germany?

A:  After high school graduation, I started vocational training and became a chef, then went through a second training to become certified for the “front of the house” in hotels, worked in hotels throughout Europe, went to a two-year hotel management school, finished with a BA in Hotel Economics, and then was offered to come to San Francisco to start a management trainee program.  So I thought, now or never.  That was 17 years ago.

Crazy Carousel Book Alice 3

Crazy Carousel Book – Alice. The images were entirely stamped out by hand.  Learn more about it here.

Crazy Carousel Book Alice detail

Crazy Carousel Book Alice detail

Crazy Carousel Book Alice detail

Crazy Carousel Book Alice detail

Q:  What do you do for a living besides being an artist?

A:  What do I do for a living?  I still work in hospitality to make the money I need to pay my bills. However I am not full time anymore, fortunately, by choice.  In addition I work once a week as a letterpress printer at Painted Tongue Press in Oakland where I print handcrafted cards on a Heidelberg Windmill.  Another day I am teaching a workshop at the Academy of Art University and on and off with workshops at the San Francisco Center for the Book.  And of course I try to make time for my own artwork.

What defines being an artist?  There are people around you who consider you are an artist because you are making art, showing art, selling art.  Then there is oneself who says, “I am an artist,” because I think I am an artist.  Why do I call myself an artist?  Because it is my passion to create art.  That’s what I love to do, what I am passionate about.  I may not make a living with it.

Dolly carousel book

Dolly carousel book

Q:  Do you have any formal training as an artist?  If so, what and where did you study?

A:  While I was working in the Management Trainee Program at the Hilton, I enrolled at the Academy of Art University.  I kept working full time and did one or two classes per semester.  That way I finished all foundation classes in the Fine Arts program.  Stayed with printmaking, took book arts several times and then letterpress.  I also took classes that were offered at the SF Center for the Book.

Q:  How did you come about creating and teaching book arts?  What is it about the art of the book that fascinates you?

A:  Once I took book arts at the Academy, I was hooked.  It became a perfect match in combination with letterpress.  I love the many different structures a book can have.  It is amazing when you pull out something that seems to be flat and compact and it unfolds in front of your eyes to a stage where things are happening, where a story is told –  compared to, let’s say, a painting.  It is great that the viewer can pick up the piece and hold it, turn the pages, be interactive with it, look at it from different angles.  It is a sculpture, too.  And all of my books have boxes.  That’s the part I really like – building a box, creating different enclosures for the books.  These make the books more complete. Not only that they are protected, they (also) become part of the whole piece – the form, the design, the colors.

Year of the Dragon flag book 1

Year of the Dragon flag book

Year of the Dragon flag book.  Learn more about it here.

Q:  What did your family say about your change in careers?  Were they supportive?

A:  When I graduated from high school, my idea was to become a potter.  My parents advised me to learn something where I could make some money and later pick up pottery as a hobby.  I started my training as a chef.  Being a chef is creative, too.  And I liked cooking, too.

With my work in hospitality it was easy for me to travel through Europe, which I enjoyed a lot. Eventually I came to the States where I started at the Academy and finally did what I wanted to do in the beginning – even if it is not pottery.

My parents are supportive.  They still encourage me.

Cista Nova Bestiolarum tunnel book with hand cut images

Cista Nova Bestiolarum tunnel book with hand cut images.  Learn more about it here.

Cista Nova Bestiolarum tunnel book 2

Q:  A spontaneity and an irreverent sense of humor seem to permeate your work.  How would you describe your style?  What inspires you?

A:  I can see a new piece of art in many things.  It is dangerous for me to go to a second hand store. Never take me to SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts in San Francisco).  I won’t leave that place without picking up a tote full of things.  I love collage, either using rubber stamps or magazine cut outs.  I don’t know how I would describe my art.  Playful?  Weird?  Crazy?  Imaginative?  The sense of humor is in my family.  (Wait – don’t say it’s German – lol).

Q:  What has been the most rewarding part about teaching?

A:  Having students who are getting excited about their own work.  To see that they really pick it up, that they enjoy what they do.  When someone comes back and makes another piece.  When I show a student a way to make it easier for her to do something and the student has this “aha” moment and gets excited about the work.

Ideation by Chance accordion book

Ideation by Chance accordion book.  Learn more about it here and here.

Q:  Has teaching changed you or made you a better artist?  If so, in what way?

A:  Teaching is always a time to learn.  There is always something you can take away.  It is always interesting to hear other people’s stories, their ideas, and then take them and apply them to your own work.  It inspires.  I think it is important to be with other people who are doing their art to break out from your own routine.  It helps you see things differently and appreciate other work.  It takes you away from your own style, and that is very important.

Q:  What would you say to someone who is contemplating creating for a living?

A:  Be realistic.  Have a secure source of income.  Know your expenses.  Do the calculations to find out how much money you need to survive.  Once you see that it works, do it full time … if you are brave enough to plunge into the unknown.  Or just do it .  But that’s not what I can do.

I Know You Know How Much I Love You tunnel book housed in box

I Know You Know How Much I Love You tunnel book housed in box

I Know You Know How Much I Love You tunnel book.  Together, the panels spell out a full poem, with each line on a separate panel.

Viewed from the front, the panels spell out a full poem, with each line on a separate panel.

When viewed from the other end, another poem is revealed.

When viewed from the other end, another poem is revealed.

Q:  What has been the reaction to you work?

A:  I still find – unless you are among book artists – most people do not know what book art is.  When I talk to people, and they ask me about my artwork, and I say book artist, in general people think that I am a graphic designer or illustrator for books.  Once I show my work, especially the tunnel and carousel books, people enjoy the work.  You only have to look at the images.  No reading required!

If it comes to the books that contain a story and have more writing than images, people need more time to understand the work to really appreciate it.  However I find that even if someone does not have the time to read through a story/poem, there is still the appreciation for the craftsmanship.  People like to touch/feel the book.  The tactile part is apparently something people are naturally drawn to.

The Joy of Stamping tunnel book with an Alice in Wonderland theme

The Joy of Stamping tunnel book with an Alice in Wonderland theme.  Learn more about it here.

Similar to the earlier Alice carousel book, the images were entirely stamped and cut out by hand.

Similar to the earlier Alice crazy carousel book, the images were entirely stamped and cut out by hand.

Q:  What has been your proudest moment/achievement as an artist?

A:  It is always exciting when someone is not only interested in your artwork, but is also willing to buy a piece.

The first time I entered a book in a show was for the annual spring show in 2005 at the Academy of Art. I entered a book arts piece, even though that was not really a category back then.  There was also a limit on how many pieces you could enter.  I created two books with a total of 32 etchings in a full clam shell box.  Not only was it accepted, but it also received first place, and this in book arts.  It was very exciting.

And when, for the first time, one of my books was acquired by a library to go into their special collection – I was thrilled!

The Wild Book tunnel book


The Wild Book tunnel book

Dolly carousel book


Q:  In addition to teaching, do you also sell your work?  If so, where can fans buy or view your art?  In addition to your website, where else can we find your work online?

A:  I do have a website where you can view some of my work –  If there is anything that is of interest, people can always contact me through the site.

I do have some of my work at 23 Sandy Gallery in Portland, Oregon.

The Kelmscott Bookshop in Baltimore, Maryland, just asked for three of my books.

I love how Bettina’s life has come full circle, as far as pursuing art is concerned.  From wanting to become a potter, to becoming a chef and working in the hospitality industry, to eventually becoming a book artist and instructor, her story demonstrates that the path to what we want may take a circuitous route and a few detours, but if we are passionate, we will eventually get to our destination.

Thank you, again, Bettina, for sharing your inspiring story with us!

As you can see in the preceding photos, Bettina has a really broad range when it comes to the art of the book.  From whimsical, to irreverent, to elegant, to rustic, her style runs the gamut.  Which is your favorite?  Please share in the comments.

About Serena Y Lee

Serena worked in the biotech industry for 18 years before leaving to pursue her life purpose – to live in freedom with creativity and simplicity. Her love for baking, creativity, and story-telling compelled her to start blogging to share her ideas with a wider audience.

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