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Sara Langworthy Is Working On A Book That Has Something To Do With The Stars

Sara Langworthy lives and works in Iowa City, IA where she maintains a private studio and is Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Awards and honors include the Minnesota Fine Press Book Award, an Artist Book Production Grant from Women’s Studio Workshop, and an Emerging Educator Award from the College Book Art Association. Most recently, her book Naturans Naturata received the 2018 Carl Hertzog Award for Excellence in Book Design. Her artist books and broadsides are collected widely and are found in many collections including the Library of Congress, Wellesley College, and the Walker Art Center. Her work explores ways we attempt to explain and understand our place in the natural world, and often draws on scientific or philosophic writings as source material. Sara teaches workshops nationally, and is a board member of the Fine Press Book Association. To see more please visit

Tell us about an idea for a book which hasn’t yet entered the production stage.

I am making mockups and working on exploratory printing for a new book project. When people ask what I’m working on now I usually just say that it has something to do with the stars. The working title is Sidereal. I’ve been thinking a lot about our interactions with the night sky. Right now I am most interested in the “always there” quality of stars – they are in the sky at all times, whether they are visible us or obscured by light from our sun or our cities. There is also the possibility that a star has reached the end of its life cycle, that it is no longer casting the light we see. There is loneliness in a distance that great. I am interested in that sense of isolation, because it is paired with a comfort in knowing that people thousands of years ago were looking at the same clusters of stars and making stories about them. So thinking about being either connected or separated by time and distance. The idea for this project has evolved over time: from being “about” constellations, to considering ways we try to comprehend the stars, whether through myth & stories or science & technology, to what it means to be millions of light years apart.

How did this idea originate?

I was working on a broadside and wanted to include an image of the moon casting a shadow. In my research for an image to work from I found The Heavens by Amédée Guillemin (1833). The book was available from my university library, no one had checked it out from the stacks in years. I felt like I owed it more than a casual scavenging for source material.

All parts of The Heavens interested me: the translation, the various illustrations—some very thoughtfully composed prints and imaginative depictions, some very straightforward drawings of what is viewed through a telescope—the notes in the margins. I didn’t have an idea for a larger project. At this point I just enjoyed spending time with the book.

Meanwhile, my partner was preparing to teach astronomy and wanted to memorize the stars and constellations. I would join him outside at night sometimes and try to remember the locations and names of stars I’d seen in The Heavens. Translating a flat illustration to what was actually visible in the dome of the dark sky was difficult. I could feel my brain getting tangled up, flipping between my memory of the illustration clearly mapping everything out, to what I was seeing above me in the sky. It was too much to absorb all at once. That brain shift got me thinking about the ways we wrap our minds around information, how we try to make the unfathomable something that can be comprehended.

I would look at a star map in the book and think “OK, got it” and then go outside and my brain would explode again.

I say “meanwhile” but my partner had already spent half the year going outside every night to observe the stars. By the time I found The Heavens, “stars” as a topic had been in the background of my world for enough time that when I first opened the book it was “yes, of course this is the next logical step” rather than “what is this thing?” The broadside design that sent me looking for images of the moon—that text had no literal reference to space—came from what was going on around me.

What influenced you?

Early in my reading of The Heavens I came across a line that got me thinking of this book as more than just a neat collection of prints: “the ocean that deepens over our heads….” Imagining the sky as the ocean with us at the bottom flips my stomach. It made me consider perspective, orientation, multiple ways to approach the same situations. After reading that line, I knew there was something in the book I wanted to explore in depth. I had a feeling but not a concrete idea.

I was looking at two sources for star imagery: illustrations made from telescope drawings, and photos from NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. The illustrations are flat black and white, clear map-like images. Often the artist added helpful dotted lines to help you see the lion or the bear in the arrangement of stars. The NASA photos are color, wild colors, without distinct edges, and they feel boundless. The more clear and distinct depiction (illustrations) is the one that is less rooted in reality. The fantastical images are more accurate to what is really out there. This second shift in perspective got me thinking about color, not seeing the night sky as “black”, and what color could or would mean in this project.

Tracing the idea from its embryonic form from concept into the design stage, can you tell us how your idea has progressed through its various iterations?

I started without an idea. I wanted to spend time thinking about the words and images in The Heavens, and I worked on paying attention to the book without having a Big Plan. As I made my way around the book, I copied passages from The Heavens and wrote responses to the phrases. The first idea for this project was to make a companion book to The Heavens. The book covers all manner of things in the sky: comets, planets, eclipses, and I planned to include all that as well.

I had trouble imagining my notes as a book. After many drafts, thinking I’d reached a final draft of the writing (ha!), I copied all the writing to index cards and spent a month or so arranging the cards in different configurations. It was easier to imagine the words on pages when I could physically move two lines to another location on my table.

During this step I set aside much of the writing generated in the previous months. Most of the writing that I kept was from the parts of The Heavens that dealt with stars.

As my focus narrowed, the idea began to shift towards stars and specifically how people see and relate to them. I stepped away from writing to focus on print experiments. This gave me time to consider the writing in a less direct way, sort of peering at it from around the corner. I usually work starting with an image, or with an idea about how I want to print something, and the idea for the book builds around the imagemaking process. With this project I worked starting with the words, and it has been interesting to observe the things that are the same, or different in the process. The idea did not feel concrete to me until I got on the press and started messing around.

The idea has moved from a literal depiction of stars, to considering ways people have tried to explain and understand stars and other heavenly bodies, to exploring a sense of isolation and distance. As humans on Earth, we do not experience “vastness” in the same way a star would. That is where I am with the idea now. I know there is more to explore and think about, and the idea isn’t resolved yet.

Could you speak a little more about the writing and textual elements? What are they about? Would you mind sending along a snippet?

That’s funny, I was worried I included too much of that information. My first response is “it’s not ready to show yet” and then I think of all the in-process images I gave you – none of those of “ready” either. It is much harder for me to talk about the writing, than to talk about the images.

As far as what the textual elements are about…. They are about stars, and distance, trying to see things that are far away, and being separated but also connected. I have been thinking a lot about how difficult it is to understand anybody, ever. Or whether it is possible. The distance of the stars is a stand-in for that feeling, of wanting to reach out and failing, maybe trying again. Most of the writing is about distance, failures of observation, trying to calculate or ascertain those distances.

Here is a snippet. In the book, this will be spread out over a number of pages:

Luminous points

strike ordinary observers

by the brightness of their light.

Half of the entire heavens, scattered on all sides –

the naked eye able to see six stars.

The ocean that deepens over our heads, a scarcely perceptible glimmer.

On a plain, or on the summit of a hill

on land, or on the open sea:

rays of light, separated by dark spaces.

Are your mock-ups for this particular project designed digitally, in analogue format, or a combination of the two?

The mock-ups are almost entirely analog. I go through a lot of tape and tracing paper, and questions I have about layout and placement are often resolved during experimental printing stages. I am on mock-up #8 now, and I will make more before production starts. When I am stuck and not sure how to proceed, I make a new mockup—the process of making a new one, starting over at the beginning, helps me see what is there. When I make a new mockup, all components are on the table, every part is disposable, until it isn’t. I catch a lot of bad decisions that way, by working through an idea for a book over and over—I may think one part is great for weeks, and then on the fifth time taping it into place I see something that isn’t working. I need the time it takes to re-make, re-do, re-write, and to think with my hands and brain at the same time.

To build the images I am printing multiple layers of collagraph blocks (dark sky), combined with pressure print templates (points of light).

It helps if the prints can dry for up to a week before adding the next ink layer.

At first I was I was impatient with having to wait between runs, but now that pause provides a built-in “hey it’s time to work on your mock-up some more now” reminder. It has been nice to have smaller bits of time, at frequent intervals, to focus on the word placement and pacing. Staggering the mock-ups with the print experiments has taken a lot of pressure off the “not knowing” part of this part of the process.

I usually do a lot of this dance between knowing and not-knowing during the production phase. It has been great to experience the dynamic think-at-the-press energy during the mock-up phase.

I am happy with how the layered textures are progressing. At first I wanted to achieve a solid black from multiple layers of texture. Now I am printing layers of color to get to a dark color that reads as black from a distance, but as colors up close. I want to keep some of the texture visible. I am trying different combinations and orders of the colors, and I have a lot of variations going at once.

I keep a few sets of process prints going, to track the layers in case I need to go back and see what steps 4 or 5 looked like.

What do you foresee as a significant challenge when transitioning from the design phase to the production phase?

It’s been a luxury to work slowly and carefully on this project. I anticipate a bit of a shock when I move into production mode. I am starting to feel that prickle of “not enough time” creeping around in the background. This past November I made a hypothetical 14-month plan for this project. I’ve been afraid to go back and look at it, I think according to what I thought last fall, it’s nearing the time to stop experimenting and start the real book.

Final paper selection is narrowed down to two favorites after starting with ten to experiment with. The question of when to use color and how it moves the story forward is something I can’t articulate yet, and I need to figure out that part. I am struggling with the middle section of the writing. And the question of what star formations show, how much significance they have, and if/when to repeat a formation is something I’ve been stuck on. So really, there is a whole lot I have no idea about, even though I feel like I have made a ton of progress since first picking up The Heavens. Both are equally true, probably.

Could you speak a little more about your paper choices? How did you narrow it down? What are you looking for in the paper? Why would one type be more suitable than another for this particular project?

Sure. This gets into the nitty gritty, and also touches on some of the things I can’t quite define.

To narrow it down, I did a lot of trial printing. I am still doing a lot of trial printing! For this project I need a paper that can accept layers and layers of ink, without pilling or breaking down. I need something that will print well, obviously, but that will also fold well and function as pages. One paper printed well but has a stiff drape that I didn’t like. Of the trial prints, my favorite “back sides of prints” are on the thinnest papers. But the thin sheets get a little beat-up after the sixth or seventh press run – dings in the image area, the print looking distended, fibers pulling loose. The thin paper is also starting to curl, almost the way a board covered only on one side will warp. So I’ve nixed those.

The color of the fiber is also playing a big part in the decision. I don’t like how the bright white papers look peeking out from the dark images. I’ve been most happy with the warmer whites, and the natural fiber colors.

What I’m looking for is that feeling of just loving the paper surface, all on its own. You know that great feeling when you look at beautifully printed type through a loupe? I want that same feeling when I look up close at the paper too.

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