Joseph Hammer: The Words Behind the Story

Joseph Hammer, known for his colorful cut-book collage work was kind enough to take the time to answer some frequently asked questions about the medium and process that makes his work so unique.



“Goodbye Mr. Chips”, 36″ x 12″


You use book pages and printed ephemera in your work, especially in the background of your mixed media collages. Is there a pattern to what you use? Do you pick pages/words that have special meaning?

In a large sense, by being usually in the background, the printed matter represents the inside of a book. I can’t say there is always a pattern to what I choose, but there are always words and phrases that appeal to me personally–and often reiterate my fascination with history, time, books, and words themselves. Sometimes I insert surprising or odd turns of phrase. In “Hidden Meaning,” I actually baited and tempted the viewer to find a secret interpretation. I won’t tell what it was. But, like all art, the “meaning” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is what completes a work of art, don’t you think? Audience participation!

Sometimes the words are upside down.

Yes. And on purpose. In such instances, the words are treated purely as design elements: what is important are not the words, but the shapes of the letters.

And your use of handwriting samples?

That is like a human handprint added to the piece. A nod to people in the past who held these books and read them for whatever reason. I sometimes use it elegiacally, mourning the declining use of handwriting, especially cursive.

What about your use of other languages or alphabets?

I like to remind myself and the viewer that there are other languages besides English, as well as other cultures on this planet besides our own. And other alphabets—they do fascinate me. The shapes are amazing if you really look at them.

And there are often other elements in your backgrounds: numbers, graphs, flags, maps, etc.

Yes. I keep files of “Interesting Things” that I find pleasing and maybe useful someday. I insert these items as design elements, because of their shape, color, and so on. I like optical illusions, too.

Do these things inform the titles of your works?

Sometimes. Coming up with titles can be frustrating, challenging at times. I might pick a word, phrase or visual or emotional impression from a work to use as its title. Or not. One collage, “Austin’s Books,” uses books once owned by a guy named Austin. An assemblage called “Round One” employs real croquet and billiard balls.


“Austin’s Book” 14″ x 11″


So is there a special message we might find in each of your pieces?

                  Small messages usually. I rarely do art that is sending an outright political or social message. But there are exceptions. In “Are We There Yet?” I am directly commenting on human rights, using specific words, images and colors. With most other collages I’ve done, you’ll have to determine what the “meaning” is. But my message in general is always that all things are indeed ephemeral, including my art itself, filled with decaying books and papers— & words written long ago.

How can you stand to cut up good books?

I would never cut up a book in good condition! I am too much of a bibliophile to do that, ever. I use books that are on their last legs, those that are falling apart or in such bad shape they are headed to— or almost in, the trash bin. But I don’t dumpster dive, although an artist friend of mine has encouraged me more than once to “take the plunge, man!”

Where do you get the books you use?

Everywhere! From friends, strangers, at thrift shops, yard and estate sales, at Half Price Books ($1 bargain section), at the Recycled Reads store (run by the Austin Public Library), the latter a good source for really old materials. I prefer old books ideally, those that have the patina, the handprints, so to speak, of human use. Stains and spills, marks and burns, water damage, you name it.

What do you mean when you say your work is “organic”?

Authentic, no-filler (no backing or background of cardboard or new materials), no alterations. I don’t add unrelated materials to the construction. I use things as I find them. I don’t add marks or my own “patina” to them.

How long does it take to make one of your mixed media collages?

That varies quite a bit. And it seems that even I have a hard time estimating how long a piece will take; it’s invariably much longer— or much faster— than I think it’ll be. Since I do most of my work at nights and on weekends, I tend to measure time by that. So sometimes I say something will take me “5 evenings” or “two weekends and two nights”. Most of my collages have many pieces. I am pretty fast with the original layout and conceptualization. The cutting takes time, but the pasting actually takes a lot longer. But to answer your question, you could say that one of my collages takes anywhere from three to ten days to produce.


“Karntnerstrasse”, 24 x 24


Sometimes you mount your work rather than frame it behind glass. Why?

Because I like the collages “in your face” as much as possible. Or rather, at your fingertips. I want the viewer to be able to touch and feel the textures, and even the warmth or coolness of the materials (I find leather bindings cooler to the touch, for example.) That adds the tactile to the visual experience. Sometimes it’s more practical to have a piece framed with glass, but I do like to run my hand over those old books.

Tell us about your current show.

I am experimenting more with color, texture and shape in this show than in previous ones. And I’m playing with different objects & materials, such as the billiard and croquet balls, the tintypes, and paintbrushes in my newest 3-D assemblages. I’m still fascinated by the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) school of art and design from the early 20th century, and pay tribute to it in some works. One thing I want to everyone to know: I had more downright fun doing the pieces in this show than any previous group, and I hope it shows.

More of Joseph’s work can be viewed on our website, Joseph’s Facebook page, and Joseph’s instagram page @joseph.hammer. 

Be sure to come by HAMMER/HEFNER which runs through September 17th at Davis Gallery.

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