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What is an Artist Book?

The First Writing edition spread

What is an artist book?

An artist book will ask you the same question.

It is that most common of objects, a book, that you can hold in your hands and see every part of it – its content, its form, its function –  as the artist’s personal expression of ”bookness.”

I published my first artist book in 2004, composed my own text, wrote it on painted pages and folded it into board covers. Later I scanned the pages and made a limited edition of it. The First Writing expressed something important to me: a time in European prehistory when the development of symbolic marks evolved alongside the creation of a vast number of clay figures, most of them female and some of them etched with signs that might be seen as the ancestors of our modern western alphabet. I wrote my book using the rune-like letters I invented from those long ago marks incised on ritual vessels, spindle weights, and figurines. With this book, I made an object that used all my artistic skills: lettering, painting, poetry, book design, and research. I poured my heart into it.

In an artist book, everything is the choice of the maker. The idea or concept. The text or content. The form or structure or materials. The color, texture, imagery or size. The functionality or the experience. The singularity or the number in an edition.

Spelling Words 3 alphabet x Artist books are devilishly hard to define, let alone name. The debate lingers on: artist book, artist’s book, artists’ books. This has left many of us preferring to use the term book art for our work. But book art is also a term that describes the associated craft disciplines used to make books, such as typography, paper making, printing, bookbinding, even foredge gilding. These are called book arts. In the singular, one would say calligraphy is a book art. So there are times when a noun is needed apart from book art. I have settled on artist book, dispensing with the apostrophe altogether, taking my cue from Mark Diminution, the longtime curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Library of Congress. Still, the term is remarkably fluid and all of these terms are used interchangeably by curators, collectors and artists alike.

When I think about making a list of what artist books are, I need to begin with what they are not. They are not picture books. Books with illustrated pages are sadly relegated mostly to children’s book shelves, more’s the pity. They are not a blank book or a diary, no matter how prettily made. They are not art books, like exhibit catalogs or a collection of glossy reproductions. Instead of being about art, they are the art itself.

You will notice that as soon as I pin down a definition, I often include its opposite.

  1. Artist books convey information, with words or without words. But there is a message, a narrative or an idea.
  2. Artist books have parts that fasten together somehow. There is sequencing, therefore discovery, therefore, intimacy and surprise.
  3. Artist books are multi-media. A book artist will make use of different disciplines, calling on not only one craft but many.
  4. Artist books are interactive. They require something of the viewer or reader. Essentially they are a conversation between the artist and whoever picks up or looks at the book.
  5. Artist books are portable, except when they’re not. Most have a special wrapper or case for transporting them or even displaying them.
  6. Artist books are democratic and economically made. Or artist books are made with the finest and most rare materials.
  7. Artist books are one-of-a-kind. Or artist books may be reproduced in small editions. But they are not mass produced.
  8. Artist books are self-published. They may be collaborations, or the work of only one person. They became easier to produce with arrival of the photocopier and later, desktop publishing. Because of this freedom, artist books are adventurous. Sometimes they no are made to shake things up.
  9. Artist books break all the rules.

It is universally agreed among book artists that the best way to begin defining an artist book is to look at one. You may want to visit my Gallery page where you may look to your heart’s content at images of the many I have made. It is not the same as holding them, and for that I can only refer you to my listing in WorldCat where you might find one of them in a library’s special collection near you or in a place you might visit.

A Beautiful Mother her blue bodyMy books belong to a particular corner of the artist book world called manuscript books, that is, written by hand. For me, it is always about the words. I trained in the classic book arts of calligraphy, illumination and gilding, and spent many hours studying facsimile pages of splendid devotional masterpieces like The Book of Kells and The Trés Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry. Studying these medieval manuscript pages, embellished with painted gardens and lit with gold, planted the dream in me of wanting to make prayer books for the modern age, celebrating our connection to each other and our beloved earth.

After years of polishing my scribal skills, weaving words from the wise into calligraphic art to hang on the wall, one day I discovered that binding these together made a book and therefore an art object and therefore collectible.

I made my first decorated book in 1992, a modern simulation of a medieval manuscript book in a calligraphy class called Medieval Fun.  It was a poem I had found about Mother Earth, Father Sun, Sister Rain and Brother Wind. I lettered and painted it on a heavy watercolor paper, and the spine soon fell apart, but I loved it and read it to my children when they were very young. I remember thinking at the time, If I follow this path, making books is all I will ever want to do. During the years I taught calligraphy classes to kids, I always included making a book.

I first heard the term artist book ten years later when I applied for a table at the first Book Arts Jam in 2002. Calligraphy is a “book art” so they let me in with my cards and prints. I made a teeny quick accordion book called 13 Goddesses and ran it off on my laser printer, cut some cover stock from the stationery store and used a hole punch to make a design on the minuscule cover. That same year I joined the Book Arts listserv (Book-Arts_L) and began asking lots of questions.

Sure enough, after that the books started commanding more and more of my attention, until, just as I always knew, they took over my creative life, bringing together my love of words, calligraphy, painting, stitching and making things with my hands, often using my own texts.

There came a day in my art studio when I realized I was in fact an engineer, not as the term is often understood as one who builds or maintains machines, but as one who solves problems, particularly in the making of structures. A book is a structure, among many other things, and the various decisions that must be made to build one, using differing materials or parts, can be best described as an engineering exercise. I have been surrounded by engineers my entire life. My grandfather, my father, my husband and my son have all gone by the title of engineer.

As I began to learn more about making books, I engineered them more carefully. Certainly a sculptural book required all my skill. Trials and failures abounded. Any book I made had to have pages that turned easily, and careful consideration of “show-through” when writing on both sides of the page. Workshops with experienced bookbinders and other artists helped fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Artist books move on pathways outside traditional galleries and museum environments. They are frequently acquired by special collection librarians because they are a special kind of book. Private collectors and institutions often buy them from dealers, who operate as the equivalent of a literary agent, representing the work to potential buyers. Artists and dealers alike attend and vend at the book fairs and rare book shows that also sometimes include vintage books.

Over the last decades, I have watched the evolution of books, just as I have watched the evolution of writing. As computer fonts appeared, writing by hand became more precious. As ebooks have appeared, artist books have become an art form. Twenty-five years ago, in a wide-ranging discussion on the long-running book arts listserv, there was a lot of resistance to the term “bookness.” Now many in the book arts world use exactly that word to describe what we make.

Alphabet Ancestors case with rock closure

Artist books are magic. And artist books are ordinary. Of all the concepts of bookness that a book artist borrows from books, the possibilities within the medium are vast, just as between the pages of a book we can enter a universe which is limitless. My favorite part of the many book shows I have participated in is when I can watch someone pick up one of my books and figure it out. If I witness tears or surprise or shock, I know I’ve done my job well.

What is an artist book? For an artifact that is all about its materiality, I will have to reach for metaphor. An artist book is a room you enter and find, sometimes in the furthest recesses, the heart of the maker.


Books shown on this page:
The First Writing
Spelling Words
A Beautiful Mother
Pilgrimage Song
Alphabet Ancestors

More links here:
Pagan Prayer Books
Ten Years at the Book Arts Jam
Seventeen Years of Making Books
The Size of a Book, or Dallying with Dali
Reviews of my visits to the huge Codex Book Fair in 2013, 2017, and 2019 with lots of pictures
My entry in 1000 Artists’ Books
My listing on WorldCat, the catalog of OCLC, the global organization of libraries

… which leads to other voices:

The preface to 1000 Artists’ Books by Peter and Donna Thomas

The altogether comprehensive website for Books on Books by Robert Bolick. My page on this website is here.

A thoughtful essay from Jessica Pigza, curator of the Yale University Special Collections curator

A great interview with Mark Dimunation at the Library of Congress

A nicely-done page by book artist Cherry Jeffs, lots of pictures

A pretty good history of Artist’s Books at Wikipedia

The website page of Book_Arts-L, the long-running listserv run by Peter Verheyen at Syracuse University, and the link to the 1998 conversation among its book artists

and the list goes on …

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