Some three years ago, someone came up to artist Chris Perry and said, “You’re the book guy.”
“That was telling,” Perry recalls. “It showed that I was doing something he’d never seen before.”
What Perry does is book art — an art form that is said to have originated with 18th-century poet-artist William Blake, but that really took wing in the 1970s when teaching institutions like The Center for Book Arts in Manhattan were founded.
What, pray tell, is book art? Well, it’s not a book with an artful cover and illustrations or a group of two-dimensional artworks bound into a book. Rather book art uses elements of a book — its shape, pages or text — to create a new work that cannot be “read” in a traditional or even literal sense.
“There’s some confusion about it, because it’s an art and a craft,” says Alice Walsh, another book artist.
She and Perry are here, however, to dispel that confusion for you in their new exhibit “Freed Formats: The Book Reconsidered,” which begins touring our area March 30 with shows at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists and Mark Twain Library in Redding.
The numbers are impressive — eight venues, 135 pieces and 53 artists from 17 states and two foreign countries. Though they serve as co-curators, Perry and Walsh have not put themselves in the show. Rather they want you to consider — and, perhaps, discover — an unusual but growing art form, also referred to as artists’ books, that lies at the intersection of art and design.
Some of the works closely resemble actual books. “Reading Tea Leaves” (2018) by Hartford’s Charlotte Hedlund — made of assorted papers, tea dye, digital print and beads — looks like an open book, albeit a richly layered and textured one that also suggests Asian calligraphy and tea ceremonies. “Black Book Library” (2001-18) by Katonah’s Shiela Hale evokes shadow boxes and cabinets of curiosities, along with the box assemblages of Nyack native Joseph Cornell, displayed on a bench she made herself.
Other works play off the book form and writing. “Book Jacket” (2017) by Manhattan’s Béatrice Coron is literally a jacket made of cutout Tyvek with a book cover that can hold the folded jacket. “Proverbial Threads” (2007-18) by Brooklyn’s Robbin Ami Silverberg is a series of more than 100 industrial bobbins wrapped in repeated proverbs from around the world on the subject of women’s work. (Here are a few gems: “A wife is the best piece of furniture,” from the Netherlands, but also “A household with a woman is like a flower bed; a household without one like a wasteland,” from Uzbekistan.)
These labor-intensive works are transparent about design, quite literally. “Burning Me Open” (2011) by Denver’s Alicia Bailey uses purpleheart, copper leaf and etched acrylic to create a work that suggests bound panels of stained glass.
Book art also illustrates the transcendent quality of art in other ways. “So, I became an artist late in life,” says Walsh, a Carmel resident who’s the program specialist for Workforce Development and Community Education at Westchester Community College in Valhalla. A former associate producer of August Wilson’s plays on and off-Broadway who also co-produced a musical version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” in Colorado and worked at an NPR offshoot in Anchorage, Alaska, Walsh studied paper and printmaking at the Putnam Arts Council, then turned her love of books and libraries into book art. Among her works is “Ex Libris: Found Art From a Public Library,” which used vintage catalog cards from the Mahopac Public Library.
“Alice’s work is personal about what you see inside a book,” Perry says. “I use the book volume as a way to create other things.”
Trained as a painter at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the University of Saskatchewan Emma Lake Campus and the Corcoran School of Art, Perry turned to book art in response to a book he self-published 35 years ago that was “pretty unsatisfactory.” (In between he worked at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and for a sculptor and was a cabinetmaker.) When he returned to art full time in 2007, he decided he was going to learn to make books properly. He’s been using the book’s shape in a sculptural way to explore his fascination with water.
Together, Perry and Walsh have been working on their book art show, which began at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists, since 2016. Just as the art form has transformed the book as we know it, so book art has transformed their lives.
“Freed Formats: The Book Reconsidered” will be at Ridgefield Guild of Artists and Mark Twain Library in Redding March 30 through April 28, the Putnam Arts Council and Mahopac Library May 12 through June 9, Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven June 15 through July 28 and Five Points Gallery in Torrington, Connecticut, Sept. 19 through Oct. 19. For more, visit Instagram.com/freed_formats/.