Rare Books: Beautiful Books Made from Everyday Materials



I'm in constant awe at the inventiveness of book artists and bookmakers. I love seeing stunning juxtapositions of materials and text; there's such joy in many artists' books, and seeing that embodied, exuberant sense of play gives me the nudge I often need to experiment and play more in my own creative work. This week, I'd like to share four stunning artist's books from the Poetry Center's collection that use everyday materials in unusual and really beautiful ways. 

The work that first got me thinking along these lines was a collaboration between poet Diane Gage and  artist Bhavna Mehta titled What the South Wind Says. This collection of six chapbooks, housed in a custom box, uses cut and folded paper, embroidery, and vivid color contrast to evoke landscapes and illuminate text:

Photo of What the South Wind Says, an artist's book in a custom box covered in blue cloth, with the title spelled out in cut white paper.

A page from What the South Wind Says, featuring purple and yellow paper and yellow embroidery.

The joyful, energetic color combinations shift with each chapbook in the box, often changing from page to page.

A view of What the South Wind Says spread out, showing page layouts in several color combinations.

Playing House, a collaboration between poet Carly Gomez and artist Levi Sherman, also makes innovative use of colored paper: this unbound artist's book is housed in a clear plastic box full of playing-card-sized pieces of paper. Each piece has a collage created from fragments of wallpaper on one side and text on the other.

Photo of a clear plastic box containing playing cards made from scraps of wallpaper.

The unbound nature of the book corresponds to its structure: the text consists of "a non-linear collection of moments from the life of the protagonist as he struggles to reconcile his past--a failed marriage, a complicated childhood, and the necessity of keeping up appearances--with his new life as an openly gay man in a tumultous relationship...The collages...are created from wallpaper fragments to further reference the facade of domesticity and the fragmented patchwork of identity" (Artists' statement). 

Photo of text side of playing cards from "Playing House."

Photo of wallpaper collage side of playing cards from "Playing House," spread out.

Brian Foley's book Totem, from Fact-Simile Editions, re-imagines the medieval form of the girdle book for  a contemporary audience. Girdle books were often Bibles or devotional books, carried in the reader's belt for easy reference; this modern girdle book is made with recycled blue jeans in a physically tough, environmentally friendly structure.

Photo of Totem, a girdle book with a blue-jean cover and leather handle.

Photo of Totem open to its title page.

Finally, no discussion of books made from everyday materials in the Poetry Center's collection could omit the Hugo Ball. This beach ball, lovingly covered in gesso and Sharpie by Charles Alexander of Chax Press and artist Cynthia Miller, combines text from both Alexander and the Dadaist poet Hugo Ball. The Hugo Ball was created for a 2009 Poetry Center exhibition titled "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine."

Photo of the Hugo Ball, an inflated beach ball covered in gesso, with text written on it in red and black permanent marker.