Artists on Artists' Books #1: Wilma Vissers

Interview conducted on March 2, 2020 by Lola Diaz Cantoni on Wilma Vissers’s studio.
Special thanks to Susan Pilborough and Scarlett Tanswell for proofreading the interview.


I had the pleasure to visit Wilma Vissers in her spacious and luminous studio on the first floor of a building which served as a school for girls back in the late 19th century. During our encounter, we spoke about material, space, ‘finding time to do’, as well as why and how does she see a book as a short film.

Lola Diaz Cantoni

Foto: Stichting ARTisBOOK

Lola (L): To begin with, I would like to go back to when you began studying. I read on your website you went to the Royal Academy of Art and Design in Den Bosch.

Wilma (W): I started at the Vrije Academy in The Hague, which was an unofficial academy. I wanted to become a photographer, I liked the work of Diane Arbus very much. I was rejected twice at the Art School in Breda, therefore I chose to go to the Vrije Academie to have a broader spectrum, not only in photography but also on drawing, painting, etching. It was a great place for me to start, I even tried filmmaking!

After two years, I went to the Royal Academy in Den Bosch, where I studied for one year at the department of Graphics. I did etching, drypoint and drawing. But at that moment, we had to focus on one medium only; whilst I wanted to explore others at the same time. Also, I didn’t feel very happy in that town. I did not feel in the right place there. After I met some lovely people from Groningen, I applied to Minerva and began in the second year, which was more reasonable.

L: So, in Minerva you had the space to really dive into what you wanted to do?

W: Yes! and to experiment, a lot.

L:  Which is (I feel) a very big thing in your practice: experimentation.

W: Yes! I always have the feeling I want to investigate the material and let the material speak for me. That is a very difficult thing to explain, because the material itself has a voice, without me interfering with it. In that sense, I feel very much attracted to the Arte Povera; because they also did a lot of things with material. That appealed to me always -and they it still do.

L: When you refer to your works, you talk about emptiness in space, and the space that has to be in between the works on the wall and the viewer. Now that you are referring to the material and the voice you want to bring from it; how much space do you leave empty for the person to experience and interpret?

W: That is always difficult, I think. I try to leave as much empty as I can, but at the same time; it is me who is doing that, so… that is contradictory as well. At the same time I don't want to tell much about myself, I want to have a different conversation. I want to let the material and, the work speak for itself.

L: How does that work with the artist books you have been making?

W: With the artist books… I think it’s through the use of the raw material; hand made paper and the empty pages. Like this book I have made in Iceland, with the little word ekkert on it (which means empty in Icelandic).

Before I used to go back home and make books with reproductions of the work I made on location, but after being in Iceland; I decided that I wanted to make a ‘one off’. A book, only one copy, inspired by the surroundings where I have been, materials I have seen, with the things that I've found and/or seen there.

So in that sense, my artist books began as beautiful books with reproductions in them, and now have evolved into ‘one of a kind thing’, focusing more into different materials.

L: This really is the focus now within your practice?

W: Yeah, this changed a lot. By making books, I delve in that present moment while being somewhere else in a residency for many weeks. In order to get into that state; I just think about what is there, what does really matter. Making an artist book helps me  to get into that state.

L: So the book as a medium brings together all these experiences?

W: Yes, it brings together all these experiences

Wilma Vissers, Ekkert/Nothing. A book with almost nothing, 15 x 10 cm.

L: I would like to talk about the residencies you have been doing over the last years. Last time we spoke you mentioned that while being somewhere else you’ve found time

W: Yes. Apparently in a residency I can get into that state. I don’t know why that is… After I have experienced the place, the results are a few books. Afterwards, I go home and in my studio I can work further on that.

L: Great! I wanted to ask you about this: Is there a next step, after doing a book which is so connected to a specific place that you feel the need to carry on with it, to take it further…?

W: Yes, it continues further. I cannot specifically say how, but something with the colour, the shape, the material… it carries me further. That is also why it's good to be back in my studio after many weeks. Then I make plans to go for another residency.

Foto: Stichting ARTisBOOK

L: I read you were doing daily drawings and then turning them into lithographs. Do you still do that?

W: No, no, because I had the feeling I must change the form. I did that for seven years! Then I had the feeling I was totally exhausted by this. Once, by mistake I bought a Moleskin with little squares… which worked really well in the end. The idea was that one day I would make a drawing with the page in a horizontal way and the other day I turn the book and create the drawing in a vertical way. Sometimes, over two pages. After seven years I was making the books bigger and bigger, and bigger, and I just couldn't go on with this.

Now what I do is, when I am in a residency, I can draw again! Because when I am here, my concentration is more focused on other things. I also have the feeling that I am inspired to make a drawing when I am not in a daily rhythm. When you are abroad somewhere else and everything is new, and you are on the bus a lot or on the train, or you meet a lot of new people and have interesting conversations… As if it appeals to your brain, the change and movements, of going from A to B.

L: Which is not always a straight line… haha.

W: Yes. When you are in your daily life you are more into a sleur (in English: routine). I think that the routine it's more suitable for a long on-going process, like doing a sculpture, which takes a lot of time, compared to making a drawing. When I am somewhere else, everything has fallen apart and then the routine is gone and then… I can make a drawing again!

L: Do you think you can get the feeling by pretending to be a tourist over here?

W: I try to do that… But its not long enough.

L: You really need time to get into this state?

W: Yes, I really need the time.

L : I understand, I can relate to it also. It is a very different state of mind…

W: Yes, yes.

L: We briefly touched upon that, but I would like to go back to it. In your website you say that ‘space plays an important role, not only the space between my artworks but also how space is used when I present them in a large installation on the wall’. How do you relate or think about ‘space’ when you are making artist books?

W: Well, then I am a bit out of space, because I am really fixed into this little book so that is a different process. I am using space as well, because the page of the book has also space; but then it's smaller, the space is more intimate.

L: When making an artist book, do you take into account how the viewer would experience it?

W: I try to do that, but not too much; because at that moment I am also a viewer myself. Making an artist book is like making a little film, because you get page one and then: what should happen on page two?. The viewer has seen page one, so that is still in their mind. So, what will happen on page three…? That element is very important.

L: So, a narrative.

W: Narrative, not in words but in images.

L: And you do this also by its size, as your books are very different in format. Does this experimentation also come back in the way you are dealing with books?

W: Yes! With the one in the photograph, for example, where somebody gave me a very old drawing pad and I found the metal spiral in between so ugly… I made the drawings, inspired by waterfalls while being on Iceland itself. After making all those drawings I tore them out and then I invented a new way of “bringing them together’, so it is almost becoming a pattern. One by one I stitched them together.

L: Which is also kind of resembling the energy and the power of the waterfall, that movement… so many possibilities when working with books!

L: How open are you with these books, you share them with people?

W: Yes! I show them a lot, but sometimes in a normal exhibition with my work it isn't possible to show them, because it is too much. That’s why I was so happy with the WKB18 because then I got the emphasis they really needed. I am also very grateful with the current exhibition at the Glass Cabinet in Minerva, because then it's really about the books. I should show them separately from all these works (pointing towards the ones on display in her studio) I think…

L: Why do you think so?

W: Or there should be a special cabinet or room where people can sit down and have a look at the books… and that  it is not always there.

L: How would it be an ideal situation?  How would you present your books?

W: With a separate little room for them, because the other works of mine give so much visual impression that you have to turn your back from them, to look at the books.

L: To focus.

W: Yes.

L: When you have a room, then you need focus to see the books. How do you see the people handling the books?

W: They have to have them in their hands and just see them, look at them, hold them. A really direct interaction.

Foto: Stichting ARTisBOOK

L: I was curious to hear how you would define yourself as a maker or as an artist?

W: I want to play I think. I want to play a lot. Not to be too serious, but sometimes you cannot avoid being too serious. I think that playfulness is very important to me.

L: How do you translate that playfulness in your work.

W: The use of different materials… letting crazy things go on, like painting on the wall, making art from a matchstick…

L: The unexpected.

W: Yes, by using very unusual materials.

L: I also see a lot of ‘everyday’ qualities in them.  They might be unusual for the art world, but usual for us, as humans.

W: Yes, Yes, Yes, because they are everyday objects, like the little stick over there or the little box. That is true…

L: So then it's maybe, for someone who is not necessary into the arts, easier to make a connection.

W: I always hope that, but people who are not very much into art they say: ‘’that’s not a canvas’’… So they expect art to be a canvas, which you can put above your couch with a nice colour.

L: But on the other hand, I think it's great to let them see and find out that it's not only about the canvas, and that the canvas is only the medium. So in this case your canvas is a piece of wood or a cardboard plate…’canvas’ can be anything!

W: ‘Canvas’ can be anything, true.

L: That is very nice I think, and very needed also…

Annie Silverman en Wilma Vissers, Call and Response, 2011

L: I saw that as part of a residency in 2010, you've made a collaboration with Annie Silverman.

W: We met in Donegal during my first residency. I met her only briefly, as I had to leave when  she arrived. I spoke to her maybe only one or two times, but later she emailed me and wanted to collaborate; we did that a lot. The idea was to send a book to each other and each would fill it with images we’ve got from the residency. We tried to reminisce about what that residency was and what was there in the landscape.

L: So you sent each other this book and then you reacted to each other's work. For how long did this last?

W: I think it went on for two years. There was a period where it was very bad weather in the United States and they didn’t arrive for six weeks, so… we thought they were lost! But luckily they appeared in the end!

L: How did you find this collaboration?

W: It was quite funny, because she reacted to something, which I did, and then I picked up something which she started. We had two books on going. She lives in Boston and I in Groningen. I had never done that before, it was quite inspiring as well.

L: In what sense?

W: That I would do things like this one for example (she shows one of the first pages, where there is a drawing with some holes in it, where she later on made a print over them). I did things with her images and she did things with mine. I have never done that with other artists, so that was quite something! I had to get used to it, but it was crazy at the same time to do such a thing! 

L: Do you connect to the outside world now? If so, how?

W: By speaking, by exhibiting my work, by being active on social media. Walking on the streets everyday, being on the bicycle, doing many things! Not one thing, many, many things.

L: How do you show your work to the outside world?

W: I’ve been very active always. Sometimes I will go to a place with an idea and I propose it. It’s always a bit different how it goes.

L: Would you say it's about being active, really keeping an eye out for possibilities…

W: Exactly, yes! It’s also nice to meet someone who is not necessarily active in art, and to hear what their views and opinions on art are. When you meet someone working in the arts, just to meet and to talk about their opinion, without just thinking, ‘How can Í benefit from this’.

L: Exactly, the exchange! The human exchange.

W: Yes, that interests me very much. Later on I think,  ‘Oh, I can do this or that’. Sometimes in the art world you have these big egos…we should work together and forget about the big egos. The richness of meeting other people and exchanging ideas. That can inspire you as well as an artist.

L: Thanks Wilma for this nice interview.

W: It was my pleasure.