Norwich library starts conversation on art of altered books

11/17/08 7:34AM By Steve Zind
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Jeff Doyle
(Host) Some books are treasured for a lifetime. Others fall out of favor because they're damaged or outdated.  

But in recent years artists have found a new use for books that the artists say have lost their value to readers. 

Altered book art has been gaining in popularity - but not without raising a few eyebrows.   

VPR's Steve Zind visited an exhibit of altered books made by Upper Valley artists.

(Zind)  We've all altered a book inadvertently - by spilling coffee on it or accidentally tearing a page. But altering books as a visual art is something more intentional - and more extreme.  Cut, shredded, painted or soaked in water, a book can be turned into piece of art that often bears no resemblance to a book.   

(Tobiasson) "Well, they're each so individualistic and creative!"

(Zind) Elizabeth Tobiasson of Etna, New Hampshire, has stopped by the Norwich Public Library just to see the exhibit called "Uncovered:  The Art of Altered Books."  The library invited local artists to choose an unwanted book and make it into a piece of art. Tobiasson likes the idea, but not everyone reacts so favorably. 

Lucinda Walker is library director.

(Walker) "We've had people who come in and at first are actually astonished and a little ‘freaked out' at what we've done to the books."

(Zind) Freaked out, perhaps, by a book cover that's been used to make a thong.  Astonished that one artist used a book to make a Victorian-era woman's paper mache face, with curly hair made from strips of pages and a hat constructed from the cover.

Tracy Smith teaches art at the elementary school in Norwich.  She had reservations about destroying a book to make art until she considered where they could end up.   

(Smith)  "The thing that really freed me up was the fact that you could go to the dump and see many, many, many books being just pitched."

(Zind) For her altered book project, Smith took an old book about chairs and gave it another life by using its pages to upholster a chair. 

Illustrator and author David Macaulay is also an altered book artist.  The Norwich resident is the author of the globally popular ``The Way Things Work,'' and many other books.  

He chose to make a statement by altering a book by the late political writer Molly Ivins. 

Macaulay thought about government documents he's seen with many of the passages blacked out. He says he imagined how the Bush White House might alter the liberal Ivins' book.  

(Macaulay) "Where there was nothing left but three or four words.  Everything else was marker."

(Zind) Other artists have taken their alterations in whimsical and sometimes puzzling directions.

Mccauley says he'd draw the line at altering a beautifully produced book.  Other people might feel a religious text like a Bible shouldn't be altered, no matter what the book's quality or condition. 

Mccauley says the idea might be controversial but shouldn't automatically be off limits. 

(Mccaulay) "And in fact you might produce something that was quite beautiful and in a way supportive."

(Zind)  The books in the Norwich exhibit are mostly obscure titles whose subjects often provided the artists' inspiration.  For example a book about snakes has been turned into series of paper squares arranged in a coil. 

Altering books has a growing following among artists.  There's now an International Society of Altered Book Artists.

For VPR News, I'm Steve Zind.

Note: There will be a panel discussion on the art of altered books Monday at 7 at the Norwich Public Library.  The books will be auctioned off on Thursday evening.

Photo: Jeff Doyle






Related Links

Altered Books Photo Gallery Norwich Public Library Art of Altered Books
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