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You Cannot Put a Fire Out By Susan Lowdermilk: Home

Book Talk Q & A: You Cannot Put a Fire Out By Susan Lowdermilk


A newly acquisitioned item was recently added to Mertz Library! The limited-edition popup book by printmaker and book artist, Susan Lowdermilk titled, You Cannot Put a Fire Out addresses the 2018 natural disasters in California and North Carolina. Titled after Emily Dickinson's poem, You Cannot Put a Fire Out features environmental protection in artform, different elements of nature, and promotes dialogue on environmental climate issues.

This masterpiece is one of a few pop-up books added to the Mertz Library’s Rare Book and Folio collection. April marks Earth Month as well as National Poetry Month and to celebrate, Resource Sharing Librarian, Rose Octelene reached out to Lowdermilk to learn more about her and her work.


Q: A brief background of your education and becoming a book artist, how did you get your start into this occupation?

A: As an undergraduate, I studied printmaking and graphic design at Colorado State University where I earned my BFA in 1986. Now, a cross-disciplinary arts education is common, but it wasn’t then. Looking back, these two areas of study became a great foundation for the work I do now. While working towards my MFA in printmaking at the University of Oregon, I discovered the genre of artist books through my professor Margaret Prentice. I also became acquainted with letterpress printing and book binding working with fine press publisher, Sandy Tilcock of lone goose press. I created an artist book titled Interior Passage as part of my MFA thesis in 1991[and] entered the book in a traveling exhibition called “Dressing the Text.”

One day, I received a phone call from Joshua Heller, a dealer in artists books and rare books in Washington D.C. One of his clients was interested in purchasing a copy of my book. That conversation was pivotal for me because as an artist still in my twenties just out of graduate school, having a dealer call from across the continent with interest in my work was the encouragement I needed to realize I was on the right path on my artistic journey. Josh remained a dealer of my artist books until he retired years later and his client, Jack Ginsberg from Johannesburg, South Africa, is an internationally known collector of artists books and started the Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts. 

Susan Lowdermilk's work studio

Image: Susan Lowdermilk's basement studio -printing the second layer on the “wildfire” woodcut layer of the pop-up on a Takach, hand crank etching press


Q: What inspired you to create the woodcut images of the 2018 climate events?

A: The Pop-up woodcut images are modeled after the wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California and Hurricane Florence off the coast of North Carolina. 2018 was a year of extreme weather coast to coast. It amazed me that essentially an entire town was wiped off the map by wildfire. A friend of mine lost a house in Paradise. The 2020 fire season was also unprecedented. Over one million acres burned in my home state of Oregon and four million acres burned in California. Several small towns were also decimated by fire. The town of Blue River, Oregon about 40 miles away was the closest to me. This artist book is my response to our increasing climate instability due to human caused climate change and our defenselessness against powerful natural forces.


(Top) Applying white ink to the “hurricane” woodblock with a hand brayer
(Bottom) Carving the “hurricane” woodblock from an image of Hurricane Florence on my laptop. A model of the pop-up is on the left of the computer

Q: How long does it take to complete the hurricane and wildfire pop-up/ woodcut imagery?

A: It takes me a year to two years to design and produce one artist book from an edition. After I design the book (which takes a lot of research, notes and sketching as well as producing physical models), I start in on production. I choose and order the paper and other materials, design and carve the woodcuts choose the font for the text etc. It is time intensive work that I sandwich between a full load of teaching art and design courses at Lane Community College in Eugene. I don’t keep track of my hours, all of the woodcuts are hand carved and were hand printed using my Takach etching press. I laser cut the text and the pop-up shapes at the college. After I get the book to a place where the printing is complete, and laser cuts are done, and I have all the materials available, I can then assemble the books as they are ordered.  

Susan Lowdermilk's Hand carving the wood on the “trees” layer using a small Japanese woodcut “U” gouge

(Top) Susan Lowdermilk's Hand carving the wood on the “trees” layer using a small Japanese woodcut “U” gouge
(Bottom) Detail of the “trees” woodcut print (black layer) of the wildfire pop-up 


Q: What message do you hope viewers/readers obtain while engaging with your work?

A: I see my artwork as a form of witness bearing. I would like for viewers to have a sense of the environmental disturbances that continue to concern me as our climate continues to change and loose its stability. The woodcut imagery of the wildfire and the hurricane is both beautiful and frightening. The pop-ups are delightful, but the themes are serious. I hope these elements of oppositional simultaneity will cause viewers to pause and consider the themes I explore in my work.

 You Cannot Put A Fire Out, Close Up Book Art

Image: You Cannot Put a Fire Out, Close Up Book Art

Learn more about Mertz Special Collections and for questions about the library's holdings or to arrange a research visit, please contact the Special Collections Librarian.


Studio images and captions courtesy of Susan Lowdermilk

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