Artist’s Books: Opening a New World of Creativity

Natalie Draz in the Studio (June 8, 2016)

Artist’s Books are works of art that utilize the form of the book but transform it into something else. At times they are also called Altered Books, but in either event, what is produced is often an amazing visual re-imagining of the book (or books) themselves. They are mediums of artistic expression that use the structure and function of “book” as inspiration – a work of art in book form.

Although artists have been involved in the production of Artist’s Books since the medieval period, most cite William Blake as the earliest proponent of these creations. The idea truly took hold after World War II, especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the advent of the Avant-Garde, Dada and Fluxus movements. Artist’s Books exist at the intersections of printmaking, photography, poetry, experimental narrative, visual arts, graphic design and publishing.

Today, there are many organizations supporting this type of “book as art object”, including numerous public libraries, academic libraries, cultural centers and museums in the United States. Around the globe, there are institutions that support, exhibit and collect artist’s books, as well:

  •  Canada:
    • Also As Well Too is based in Winnipeg. Their primary purpose is to make artist’s books available for the public to experience.
    • Art Metropole is a non-profit group that focuses on the production, dissemination and promotion of artist’s books. The collection, comprised of some 13,000 items, is now held by the Library of the National Gallery of Canada as a special collection.
  • United Kingdom:
    • Bookartbookshop is a non-profit organization based in London and was founded in 2002 and publishes and exhibits artist’s books.
    • The London Centre for Books Arts is an artist-run, open-access studio dedicated to books arts and artist-led publishing.
    • The Tate Museum in London has a large collection of artist’s books and archival items available for research.
  • Australia:
    • The National Gallery of Australia holds the largest institutional collection of artist’s book from Australia. It is also one of the most active centers for discussion about artist’s books.
    • The State Library of Queensland holds one of the most notable collections of Australian and overseas artist’s books in Australia.

Perhaps the most unique use of artist’s books that I came across while researching this article was using this form of “altered book” as a type of art therapy. In an article from Psychology Today, the author discusses how “from an art therapy perspective, creatively altering a book can be a form of rewriting one’s life story through visual journaling”. A well-known art therapist, author and researcher, Harriet Wadeson, used this method when she was diagnosed with cancer, as a way to express her struggles with the disease. In her words, she referred to the process as “an altered book for an altered life”. The article concludes that “all art making is in some way about transformation and renewal; altered art [books] empowers the creator to restore what has been lost and make changes to what already exists through symbol and metaphor”.

In whatever way you are able to explore artist’s books – whether it be visiting a library or museum where they are on display or creating your own, each will be unique and a wonderful adventure to discover. Books fuel our imagination, not only through the words we read on the page, but when transformed into another medium, they also have the power to open new worlds and new meanings for each of us.

What are your reflections on Artist’s Books? Please share your comments via our FacebookTwitter or our LinkedIn pages.

Molly Brown, ILN Content Officer

Posted in Round 2016B, Uncategorised and tagged , .

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this interesting, well-documented post, with useful links to follow up.

    Here in South Africa the term “artist’s book” has been used for books produced in small quantities by artists, i.e. including lithographic or other prints, with the result that copies are not 100% identical. A fine example is Pippa Skotnes’s book “Sound from the thinking strings”. See http://library.si.edu/exhibition/artists-books-and-africa/sound-thinking-strings-full. Fifty copies were produced.

    This book also created legal history. Ms Skotness refused to deliver a copy of it free of charge to the National Library in terms of our Legal Deposit legislation. She claimed that it was a handmade work of art, and not a book. She also argued that having to deliver legal deposit copies (normally five in SA) would be too onerous, taking an excessive proportion of her income from the project. The case generated a lot of comment and went all the way up to the Constitutional Court. The Library won. The judges ruled that it was a published book and she was required to supply one free copy (but not five). Tough for the artist, but on the other hand this ensures that a copy is available to the general public who would otherwise not be able to see it.

    Another celebrated South African artist, Walter Battiss (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Battiss) also produced artist’s books in small print runs. He was keen to share his art and was known to bring a copy to the national library in Pretoria, where he lived, without being asked.

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