Artists' Books From the Inside Out

"Books are the ultimate interdisciplinary art form. This class is a nontraditional approach to making one-of-a-kind books with the emphasison unifying form and content. In a lively interactive group process weexplore metaphor and symbolism, free associate with words and objects,investigate narrative, and learn mixed media techniques. We willcomplete several books. No experience is necessary." Info ph:1-800-822-7183; email:

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For the Love of Books

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month: Is Nothing Sacred? The Book as Art Object and Metaphor -- Guest columnist and book artist Sas Colby shares
Changing attitudes about the printed paper book are directly related to the accelerated rate of change in our culture. Books that are the latest information on any number of subjects can be outdated even before publication. Visual styles change just as rapidly. The book is now freed for other functions beyond traditional information transmittal.

When I teach classes on the "Altered Book", there are many students who simply cannot allow themselves to cut into the book, because they believe that books are inviolable. Others have no difficulty cutting into an old novel or reference book and making it the basis for their own visual investigations. Co-opting the past as a post-modern art technique?? Nothing is off-limits to most artists. The meaning of these transformed books exists as much in their being, their appearance, and the evidence of obsession they exude. These books are imbued with a power, sometimes erotically charged, which cannot be easily explained. The investment of obsessive work, the aura of compulsion about them intrigues the viewer, who may actually experience a body sensation akin to a wound, upon viewing a book that has been sliced into. For some, the sacred aura of books is that powerful. Susan Wick, now living in Denver, was the first artist I met who "had her way" with books. It was in 1979, and she had nailed a Shakespeare volume shut, then poured paint all over it. I was horrified. I had the sense then that being an artist meant doing everything your parents and teachers told you not to do. Implicit in this was the importance of transgressing societal boundaries.

In my series, Books of Uncommon Prayer (1996), based on found prayer books, the books are sealed shut, some are wrapped with gauze, one has a tiny light bulb emerging from the pages, and another has a glass eye embedded in the cover. The prayers are wordless but the books communicate through the combination of their materials. There is a psychological engagement and palpable emotional energy visible in these transformed books. When it's clear that the making of the book/object completed whatever life experience it is based on, the book then rises to the level of a fetish object. The viewer feels the passion and thrill of creation and instinctively knows that nothing could have prevented its birth. This is going to be a highly successful work of art!

What is Book Art? Today many artists adapt the form and materials of the book to communicate their content. There are traditional letterpress books with beautiful typography, fine bookbindings, artists' books, and sculptural bookworks. Click here for an introduction courtesy of the Center for Book Arts in New York City.

I have a notion that some who make books are SHY ARTISTS. A book is usually a private experience, its contents hidden. Many beginning artists take to the book form because it offers them a private space, one more easily controlled than a painting or drawing on the wall. Some go even further with the notion of privacy by substituting a fake script for actual text. It may look like writing, but actually can't be read. Often this fake text will imitate the look of a text block or handwriting. The artist has refused to be completely revealing. This is part of a game-like quality some employ in books, offering puzzles to solve and instructions to follow to solve the riddle of the book. Some of my books from the late 70's had this quality. As my book making progressed, however, and I understood better the theatrical nature of the experience, I preferred to provide the reader/viewer with more drama. My painted book titled, The Book No One Wants To Read (1992), ends with a confessional rant that leaves the reader speechless. (Could a nice girl like me actually MEAN what I wrote there? Damn right. Did Anais Nin really have sex with her father?) One concept explored by some contemporary book artists is the notion of books as architecture. Anyone who has ever folded paper into a book form immediately understands the room-like quality of the page. And since that page is most likely a right-angled rectangle, it will stand like a building. If a square is cut out, it is a window into the next page. If the book is stood up and the pages fanned out, a space with many rooms is created and it is natural to cut doors and windows leading from room to room. Related to this idea of space in the book is the notion of book as theater. When the cover is opened, the curtain goes up, and the play develops as the pages are turned. The audience/reader is being directed by the book. A blank page is an intermission and the reader must stay for the final act to know what happens.

The relationship of the book to the body is another concept frequently explored by artists. Reflecting on the enclosed interior quality of books, I think the body metaphor is apt. Imagine some of the terms used to describe books, the primary one being the spine. The way a book feels when it is held is referred to as its "hand," and paper has "tooth."

HAND IN GLOVE (1999) by Mare Blocker - Hand-shaped painted pages bound into a concertina with Ladies' glove covers. One side of the glove describes the action of the glove, the other side tells the message the action sends. Text from a Victorian etiquette handbook.

It is usually necessary to hold a book in order to read it, bringing the sense of touch into play. My books are made in relationship to the body and they embrace my interest in sound and touch. One way to think of it is:
The book is the word,
the word is the voice,
the voice is the body,
the body is the book -- a circular notion that unites the senses in the reading process.

As human beings we are multi-layered and complex, rather like books themselves, transforming from moment to moment, from page to page. My books emerge from the impulse to make an idea visible and to synthesize word and image, to replicate the whole of an experience.


Summer Book Arts Classes with Sas Colby

Artists' Books From the Inside Out -- July 9--13, 2001, Taos Institute of Art, Taos, NM; 1-800-822-7183;

Books are the ultimate interdisciplinary art form. This class is a nontraditional approach to making one-of-a-kind books with the emphasis on unifying form and content. In a lively interactive group process we explore metaphor and symbolism, free associate with words and objects, investigate narrative, and learn mixed media techniques. We will complete several books. No experience is necessary.

July 22-27, and July 29-August 3 -- I am also teaching two mixed media classes at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Information 1-800-846-2235. Many students make books here, as well as small constructions, collages, Drawing, and painting. Actually, I teach the same thing, with different emphasis, in all of my classes. I encourage students to look within for authentic expression and to rely on their own obsessions as guides to art-making.

- Sas Colby


To read Sas Colby's first installment to this column, search the archives with sas colby. Search for all previous Book Arts columns with book arts.