Alisa Banks

Alisa Banks Headshot

Alisa Banks. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview conducted by Avalon Feiler (Harvey Mudd ‘21) Charlotte Ostrow (Scripps '22)

What topics you’ve explored in your books is most important to you, or which one feels most relevant to social justice topics and your relation to them?

The topics I explore most often address aspects of identity, or sense of self, in relation to the body and notions of home. From there, I believe that by virtue of my otherness, just about any topic I can come up with can have relevance as a social justice issue. Plants/agriculture = food deserts/agricultural racism; Hair culture/beauty = social stigma/commercial manipulation; body culture/science = healthcare bias. I have explored all of the above topics to some degree and continue to do so. My goal is to provide aspects of (and often reactions to) my culture that may not be upfront for members of it and those who are not. I don’t portray myself as an expert in any particular topic – only a witness to or participant in it.

In your book making process, does the structure or idea take precedence in the development of the making of the book?

In most cases, the idea takes precedence and the structure supports the book. The trick is to allow the idea time to develop or mature, if you will, in order to find a compatible structure. At any given time, I have several ideas incubating. Some may warm for months and others for years; some may need only a week or so. During that time, I collect examples, articles, write thoughts (which often appear in the work or in a related essay), and conduct interviews, if needed. Additionally, I am constantly looking at things and listening to events that take place around me. A word or image may present itself in everyday living that is perfect for inclusion in the work. All of this is research that will be distilled before production begins. At the same time, I strive to remain open to possible structures and gather materials, draw thumbnails, and sometimes make mockups. After production starts, even with all this planning, the structure, or aspects of it, can change if I believe it does not support the idea.In rare cases, I have an idea for a structure first. In these instances, I will wait for the right idea to support the structure. I never try to force an idea and structure together and sometimes it may take a while for the two – structure and idea – to come together. For example, several years ago I obtained a set of round wooden boxes. They were screaming to become a book. I had no idea what the book should be about, only that the boxes had to be an integral part of the book, not just a container of it. I’d say I had those boxes for at least 5 years before the idea presented itself.

How do you want readers or viewers of your art to interact with it?

My work is quiet. Sometimes the idea is conveyed in a very subtle manner, such as the title’s relation to the book structure. The work usually contains layers with the intent of bringing the viewer in to stay a while, and to reveal itself to them. For the viewers who want more, I often have something to take them further, if they’re interested, such as information within the work, or supporting documentation that is available where the work travels, and essays or excerpts available on my website. That may seem like a lot to ask, but I feel it important not only to provide some background (or entrée), but also to retain agency. To take the work in on a macro and then micro level, in stages - this is the best way I can hope for viewers to experience the work. The second-best way is just to have the time and space to read. Most importantly, I would like the viewer to use the information presented to add to their body of knowledge or experiences. The intent is not to lecture or to provide answers to questions, but to present a way of being or thinking or a circumstance that sparks a conversation.

How do you choose what personal experiences you want convey in your books?

I choose personal stories from everyday people that have the ability to transcend singular experiences. Sometimes they are my experiences, but most often they are others’ experiences or my reaction to them. These accounts are often situated against (or with) some broader aspect of mainstream culture. For example, a few years ago, I was in southern Louisiana to prepare for my dad’s funeral. My parents are both from the area, but I only lived there for the year my dad was stationed in Vietnam. That year was a real culture shock for me – I saw everything with new eyes. At any rate, years later, while running an errand, we passed by a vacant lot where a gas station once stood. Across the street from the station was a school where my late aunt served as the librarian for many years. Suddenly I was struck by a wave of memories of that year and of the stories my aunt shared. The name of the school was Rosenwald, which was an uncommon name for the area but common for a southern school. I went on to conduct research on the Rosenwald schools, which were prevalent throughout the South. So, the final work was a fusion of my experience of the place, my aunt’s experience, the experiences of other small Black communities throughout the South, and of educational disparity in this country.

I also look for experiences that contain aspects of the everyday that are in danger of being lost. This can occur anywhere, but often in communities that are changing – through gentrification or aging populations, for example. There’s a lot of useful knowledge that is in danger of being lost forever. I believe it is important to capture those experiences before they’re gone.

What inspired you to learn different book making skills (paper making, wood carving, book binding etc.)?

Books are in many of my earliest memories – I couldn’t wait to learn how to read! I intuited that books contained and spoke of worlds. Books communicate, they are tactile – we could touch and smell them (no electronic books back then)! During grade school, I’d carry my weight in books from the library during the summers and devoured them once I returned home. My love of books has never waned. Many years later, I visited a paper store to purchase supplies for a printmaking class and saw a flier announcing a bookbinding workshop. I was intrigued – I had never heard of book art or bookbinding, but signed up and found it to be a revelation. Since then, I could not get enough of making books. There are so many aspects of the book that can be manipulated to communicate in different ways. Each idea presents a need and sometimes that need requires me to obtain additional skills. What inspires me? The book, of course!