Alumnae Spotlight: Barbara Beisinghoff

February 19, 2014 by

Prolific German artist Barbara Beisinghoff came to WSW in 2009 to make The Angel is My Watermark, a book that meditates on Henry Miller’s story of the same name and a 17th century poem by Father Imberdis. The colorful, textural book includes handmade paper, etchings, embossings, silkscreen and elaborate watermarks.

Over her 50 year career, Barbara has produced etchings, artists’ books, handmade paper, and installations and has exhibited her work internationally. In 2011 she moved to rural Diemelstadt-Rhoden near Kassel and, inspired by the collaborative environment of WSW, began opening her studio Atelierhaus Beisinghoff to invited artists. She envisions it as a place where ideas, practices, and viewpoints converge, and offers her space for four-week summer residencies through WSW’s Beisinghoff Printmaking Residency.

As the April 1 application deadline for the summer 2014 Beisinghoff Residency looms, and as Barbara prepares for her largest exhibition to date, we chatted about her recent work, Atelierhaus Beisinghoff, and what makes a stellar residency. IMG_6337

You have a huge show coming up in a castle in Bad Arolsen! What is this show like?

The exhibition “The Law of the Star and the Formula of the Flower” will be my biggest show up to now. The title comes from a verse by the Russian poet Marina Zwetajewa included in one of my artists’ books. Each of the 11 exhibition rooms of the museum in the baroque Arolsen Castle will be named after one of my artist’s books. The book about the exhibition will have 11 essays from scientists and art historians writing about my approach to each of the artist’s books.

How have you arrived at your current practice?  

I’ve done etching since I was 17 years old. I learned the Stanley William Hayter viscosity technique in 1983. Hayter said: “Structure, structure, structure, you and your picture are the same.” My printing formats became bigger with the time. Then I wanted to “dig deeper”. Etching is sculptor’s work sometimes. You dig into the plate. The word “structure” has a double meaning: there is the structure of the surface and there is the structure in an abstract meaning which you achieve when you explore. Then I learned watermarking. I wanted to scoop watermarks over the whole sheet. When I create watermarks I penetrate the paper. I think I went the same way as the American artist Joyce Schmidt; she came from etching and ended up papermaking.

What have you been up to since your 2009 WSW residency?  Any big milestones?

In 2010 I was in China for 10 weeks. In the Province of Jianxi, I realized a “Canopy for Li Bai”, a huge roof made of perforated copper and brass plates. I drilled the poem of Li Bai and all the star pictures and names into the metal. All the Chinese words were written and drilled by Chinese Helpers. Against daylight you see the Kitora Kofun Sky Map from the late 7th/ early 8th century as a model for the four plates representing the four seasons. The middle section shows the Dunhuang star map with “asterisms” (clusters of stars), dating from the Tang Dynasty.

Is there something you’ve been working on now or are excited about that you can share with us?

Last year I finished my artist’s book Tau Blau Dew Blue. John Gerard made the paper from pure flax. I had grown flax in the Lustgarten Kunstpfad around our house. I sowed it and the whole area came to visit to see the blue blossoms in the tail end of June. We tore the flax out in autumn and dew retted it which means we laid the bundles down on the ground; dew, rain and sun let the fiber rot. The dew ret degrades the woody parts through bacterial action and destroys the natural gluey layers of the bark, and allows the separation of the bast fibers. We found an old couple in the neighboring village who still know how to break down the fiber. We got all the tools you need to prepare the flax and organized a “flax festivity.” 200 people came! After the festivity I invited Dutch artist Hiltje Talsma, who did the breaking, skutching and hackling, so that the fibers are mechanically separated from all the other plant parts.

When you were in residence at WSW in 2009, what did you see that made a lasting impression on you?

WSW showed their exhibition “Incubator” on Long Island and Tana showed her incredible books about her parents’ youth in Nazi Concentration Camps, with her parents’ [cast paper] arms with their prisoner numbers and the almost unbearable text from their diaries. I saw the results of the ArtFarm. They took me out every day to do cross country skiing. I got to know the founders and the young interns. Chris [Petrone, our studio manager] was such a helpful hand in the paper workshop.

It was inspiring. I like the “WSW Family” and the fresh spirit; this becomes an armature against indifference.

What inspired you to open up your space to other artists?

I cannot turn the wheel of my etching press every day and night. In the States people are more aware of the economic efficiency of shared spaces. I saw that WSW rented the etching studio to professional artists who needed space to do etching. I did not want to have just “somebody” here–only professionals. It should be a win-win situation; I want to benefit, too, from the visiting artists. It should be interesting and fulfilling for the guest and the host.Atelierhaus-BeisinghofEtching-Press-Plankenhorn-Atelierhaus-Beisinghof

Your studio space is beautiful! What do you think makes a good place to work?

It is not only a good press or printmaking facilities. It’s good to get outstanding artists together and share experiences– it’s the cross pollination of ideas. It’s good when we respond to the expectations of each visiting artist.

An artist-centered residency means first of all encouragement. Rachel Joy from Australia worked in the letterpress studio last year. We showed her the roman and gothic buildings in Paderborn, Bielefeld, Hildesheim….Paper Buck from California wanted to learn about runes and about the Externsteine, a place the Nazis chose as a site of identification with germanic roots. We worked well together. We did cyanography and I encouraged her to get her triptych done. Paper made tea from the mullein in the big garden and lasagne with stinging nettle which she had picked. Rachel harvested silverbeet. Every morning we went swimming in the open air pool in Rhoden in Waldeck.

What do you think is the value of residencies for working artists?

The world is so wide. We talk about global knowledge, but an artist has to develop his or her own position. Different points of view and approaches may help to find and clarify your style especially when you have left your “in-groups” and when you are alone in the unknown.

What advice would you give to emerging women artists?

To continue, which is not easy. To be an artist may include: I am alone. My work should be unique.

Barbara’s exhibition “Das Gesetz des Sterns und die Formel der Blume” (The Law of the Star and the Formula of the Flower) opens May 16 at  Museum Bad Arolsen and runs through July 27. See more of Barbara’s work at and see more about the Beisinghoff Printmaking Residency (if you read German!) here and here. Apply for the Beisinghoff Printmaking Residency!

Read Rachel Joy’s catalog essay for Tau Blau Dew Blue here.