Behind the Scenes with ps:studios
Peter Shikany Publishing a fully illustrated catalogue for a Heard Museum original exhibition is a massive undertaking months in the making that is a true team project to write, design and produce. Each publication can be different in how the final product comes together, but for two exhibitions, Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art From Indigenous North America and Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight, the Heard Museum partnered with the team at local creative agency ps:studios to fully design and coordinate the production of these world-class publications. The Heard Museum interviews Peter Shikany, the owner of ps:tudios.
Heard Museum: Do you prefer print books or e-books for art museum publications? And why?
Peter Shikany: I always prefer the printed book— art books are beautiful objects and offer an ongoing availability to spend time with the artist. Currently it seems that publishers are seeing the same trend with book sales as well, as art and photography books have seen an increase in sales in the last few years. The printed art book is far superior when it comes to images. Many e-readers just render black and white, and the size and interface is rarely an intuitive or satisfying experience. There is nothing quite like spending time with a welldesigned book—the feel of the paper, the weight and size of the book, and the detail rendered by ink on paper.
HM: What have been the biggest changes in the industry?
PS: The biggest change within the publishing industry has been the introduction of e-books and audiobooks. The demand continues to increase, and it makes sense for many types of books. I think the trend has actually increased the interest in printed art books, as they have taken on a more “treasured object” status. Of course, the biggest challenge today is COVID-19. It has severely impacted independent bookstores, interrupted supply chains and slowed production. Not to mention the impact on cultural institutions and exhibitions that are often the catalyst for many books. HM: Where do you find inspiration?
PS: There are so many things that I come in contact with that inspire me. They often fall in the realm of art, photography, architecture, design and music. In the world we are presently living in, it is more important than ever take the time to look for inspiration. Being alone in the studio every day, with all employees working from home, I’ve taken to leaving art books open on the worktables. The images, type and objects offer daily moments that can be beautiful, surprising and inspiring.
HM: Your studio is located in an Al Beadle–designed building on Third Street, not far from the Heard Museum. As a fan of modernism, this was an obvious project for you. What about this period of design appeals to you?
PS: I am so fortunate to work in such a great space every day. I am always in awe of the modular simplicity and comfort of this space. Al Beadle’s original floor plan for the building is a masterpiece of understated elegance. There is something about that clean aesthetic that defines modernism for me. It feels timeless. Originating in another time, it is just as appropriate and modern today. It feels new—but somehow rooted in the past. I think that also describes one aspect of the Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight exhibition.
AL Beadle's studio blueprint for the ps:studios building.
HM: This is the second publication you have designed for the Heard Museum. What were some of the key differences between the Larger Than Memory and Leon Polk Smith books?
PS: Larger Than Memory required a design solution that showed multiple pieces by 24 different artists. In contrast, Leon Polk Smith featured one artist, showing context and connections to Native American pieces from the Heard Museum Collection. Each book follows its own path, driven by the content, the images and the vision of the curators. Whenever we design a book for an exhibition, we are always looking for a unique approach, one that respects the work and creates an enjoyable experience for the reader. We look for the small details that make a difference or help present the work in honest ways. For instance, in the Leon Polk Smith book, the lead designer, Brad Jones, explored many font options to find a version that was easy to read, felt appropriate and had a subtle Bauhaus reference. There is always a responsibility to deliver good design while respecting the written word, the art and artist, and the curators of the exhibition. The best results always follow a process that requires collaboration, trust and attention to detail. HM: What is the most interesting thing you learned about Leon Polk Smith during this project?
PS: Not knowing much about Leon Polk Smith at the beginning of the project, it was fascinating to see how Smith’s background and identity informed his work so dramatically, while at the same time it was not referenced openly by him until late in life. That influence, vision and palette of this remarkable artist are front and center in this exhibition.
HM: What about the American Indian works featured in the exhibition?
PS: Having always been inspired and intrigued by Native American art and design, it was amazing to see that influence interpreted and brought into such a modern expression. As I started to see the connections of color and form, it reinforced just how remarkable and creatively advanced Native American cultures have always been.
HM: What is the biggest challenge in producing an art publication?
PS: Anytime you design a major publication it is a juggling act of deadline, content, budget, materials and creativity. A book capturing an exhibition as important as this one also had numerous design problems to solve—we are capturing a moment in time in a
Exterior of the ps:studios building.
publication that will live on as documentation of the exhibition—although the design happens before the exhibition actually takes place. Add in the complication of creating this book during a pandemic, with multiple press and bindery checks, oversight of all production steps, and managing all the details, and it was a unique experience for all of us involved.
HM: What excites you about this exhibition, and why do you think people should view this show?
PS: We feel so honored that we were asked to work with the museum to design this book. It is such an important exhibition, especially in this time we are living in. Not only is the work powerful and beautiful—and it illustrates a path that connects modernism to Native American cultures—but the point is clearly made how connected we all are and how important it is to respect that idea. In addition to Peter Shikany and the team at ps:sstudios, the Heard Museum would like to thank the Leon Polk Smith Foundation for their support in creating this publication, as well as the Thoma Foundation, whose generous underwriting of the book’s production allows all proceeds from its sale to support the Heard Museum’s mission of advancing American Indian art.
Learn more about ps:studios at https://psstudios.com.