Cutting Up Books, The Revolutionary Way

Writing. Binding. Publishing. Buying. Borrowing. Reading. Reviewing. Lending. Bending. Burning. Are we missing anything? Seems we are. Allow me to introduce you to the rebellious art of book sculpture.

you-can-do-nothing-01
You Can Do Nothing, Brian Dettmer, 2012

Forget History, Let’s Debate

“When did it start?” was the first question I scribbled into my notebook. To cut a long story short, book sculpture is a relatively modern concept, if you ignore the thousands of years of classic sculpture in ‘expected’ media, like bronze, clay and wood. Most book sculptures and artists are alive today and engaged in creating distinctly modern pieces of art. So, I’ll focus my attentions there. Next question: “What do people think of it?” This turned out to be a much more interesting avenue of research. I instinctively saw the transformation of books into art as a perfectly acceptable, progressive concept, but revolutions always attract advocates. More fascinating are the ‘people against’…

The Cutting-Up Culture Shock

Snow Queen, Su Blackwell, 2011. (Photograph by Johanna Parkin.)
Snow Queen, Su Blackwell, 2011. (Photograph by Johanna Parkin.)

“Many books were harmed in the making of this book.”

A great quote from Entertainment Weekly’s review of “Art Made from Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed” by Alyson Kuhn & Laura Heyenga – a book about book sculpting and its pioneers. And it’s a clever quote because it taps into our subconscious beliefs about the preciousness of books, the life we believe is contained within the pages of our favourites, the perceived or hoped-for similarities between our most adored characters and ourselves. Humanity places burdens on books as well as writers. Books seem to have a life and personality of their own. The tomes we cherish as important to us contain truths we live our lives by; they root out lies we’ve always wanted to root out and they make us feel, at a fundamental level, somehow safer, more human and less alone. Some messages contained within books are so groundbreaking that we question our life prior to the point at which we read them. As a result, books are psychologically incredibly powerful and, consequently, there are lots of people who take one look at a cut-up book, however beautiful or groundbreaking it has become, and let their primordial fears of change and entropy rule their overall conclusion.

According to Avi Abrams at Dark Roasted Blend some book lovers “abhor the idea of cutting up books, no matter what value the book might still have.” It’s fascinating how many sceptics describe book sculpture as “destruction” and preservation as beauty. Have they forgotten that most books are the reformed pulp of trees? Are these people all paperback-free – their environmentally-friendly eyes glued only to e-books? Do they not realise that entropy is nature’s recycling and that, in years to come, everything will turn back into the atoms from which it was formed?

Blue Books, 2013 (Photograph by Carla H. Krueger)
Blue Books, 2013 (Photograph by Carla H. Krueger)

When asked about their feelings on the practice of reshaping books into art (albeit irreversibly), people say things like, “I don’t mind the use of newer novels,” or “Only if it’s a book no one wants.” To some, older automatically means more precious; unwanted, less important. Irritating, I thought, but not incendiary – then I read this: “No. I don’t like it at all. Books are for reading and reading alone. That is their purpose.” And on reflection, it was this comment that turned my desire to disagree into action.

That we might lie to ourselves and believe limiting change and avoiding risk is healthier than trying something new is frightening. Preserving something purely because it is no longer being ‘used’ for its sole purpose is a far less attractive concept than any sliced-up book. The ‘for purpose’ argument is the dilution of talent. It’s staying put because moving involves too many surprises. In my opinion, it’s deeply misguided – because, the irony is, we are the book, if you think about it. When we read something that affects us we, too, undergo a type of destruction. We just don’t see it and so we don’t complain about it. But it’s true: the parts of our brains that absorb fresh, new information and meaning are continually being broken down, reshaped and rewired neurologically to provide us with a more balanced understanding of our complex world and a more intuitive mind that is better adapted and more resilient to deal with it. As I’ve said before, reading and writing are fundamental evolutionary tools that helped our species progress, but so is our ability to push boundaries, seed and survive change and take risks. I argue that book sculpture is the definition of progress. Today’s controversy is tomorrow’s sea change.

Worlds Within Worlds Within Worlds

The Raven, Su Blackwell, 2013. (Photograph by Jaron James.)
The Raven, Su Blackwell, 2013. (Photograph by Jaron James.)

A new wave of terrifically talented book cutting artists are proving there’s more to books than simply studying words, collecting titles, filling up shelves or throwing old copies onto scrapheaps – and because of it, consuming pages now means more than absorbing the meanings of paragraphs and chapters. Book sculpture is crafting, cutting, carving, gluing, shaping and redefining the entire concept of ‘falling prey to a book’. If you pick the right artists, whose work appeals to your personal sense of what it is to let go of convention and take an unrestricted journey, book sculpture can be even more effective than some books are to read.

My personal relationship with book art started when I saw my first piece back in 1998 during a tour of the Pump House Gallery in Battersea gardens, central London. I was 18. Since then, I’ve seen the occasional installation made from books stacked up together (not carved individually) in venues like Tate Britain, but never anything as intricate or complex or skilful as the first Su Blackwell I spotted earlier this year during research for my own work. I was immediately struck by the beauty and surreality of each of her pieces and by the seemingly controversial nature of book sculpture in general, with its so-called ‘wrongs and rights’ – a concept very close to a fictional story I was developing at the time.

Little Red Riding Hood (Detail), Su Blackwell, 2010
Little Red Riding Hood (Detail), Su Blackwell, 2010

Su is a UK artist and leader in her field. Her painstakingly delicate sculptures bring shadow, light, mystery and new life to old books, adding extra dimensions, textures and surprises to well-thumbed copies that have already been read and loved. Adventurous, feathery figures slip between trees and through buildings. Birds sit in bookish treetops or fly in suspended animation above landscapes. Some are still and waiting, like a stage at midnight. Others are full of movement. One even gives rise to a cloud of dancing paper butterflies. Layer upon layer of fresh perspective elevates the flat page into something as evocative and telling as a well-written story – and equally as extraordinary.

Boundary-Breaking Book Art

The Household Physicians, Brian Dettmer, 2008
The Household Physicians, Brian Dettmer, 2008

New York-based artist, Brian Dettmer, is a slightly different kind of book sculptor. In my eyes, he’s more of a book dissector. Spend a moment with his masterpiece, The Household Physicians. At first glance, it’s almost possible to miss the fact that this is a book, such is the power of the artist’s vision for the piece and the subtle smoothness and intricacy of its physical appearance. The subject and sense of ‘drilling down’ ever closer to what makes the sculpture ‘tick’ (and, perhaps, us, as we ‘read’ it) initially reminded me of the feeling I got when I visited Gunther Van Hagen’s Body Worlds Exhibition – an incredibly moving, out-of-body experience; a chance to languish in the fascinating space between art and anatomy. Brian Dettmer is credited with pioneering his art-form, as one of the early proponents. Not all of his works contain human imagery, of course, but each certainly catches and holds the attention using his trademark intimacy, intricacy and vibrancy. His work has an unmissable appeal. Like Hagen’s body sculptures, there’s a sort of challenge to the observer – a dare, if you like – and, for me, that’s art at its most inspiring.

Both Dettmer and Blackwell prove that book cutting, as an art form, is the complete opposite of breakage or violation – it’s progressive, brave and skilful; the essence of true creativity. Some pieces, like Su Blackwell’s enchanting Little Red Riding Hood, might even entice younger readers to embark on a new, bookish journey and that is another wonderful knock-on effect of redesigning and repurposing old books.

The Banksys Of Book Sculptors

Tam O Shanter at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Anonymous, 2012
Tam O Shanter at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Anonymous, 2012

You guessed it. There are book carvers who remain secret, creating the same mystery surrounding their art and intentions as the now infamous graffiti artist, Banksy. Back in 2012, when a nameless female artist’s sculptures began appearing in libraries and other ‘special places’ around literature-rich Edinburgh (with the support of acclaimed novelist Ian Rankin), Claudia Massie, writing for The Spectator’s Coffee House Blog, described the movement as “Intrigue and literature, bound up by art…” – still a fitting insight two years on. Each piece was a symbol of the artist’s love of books, learning and libraries and a tribute to the timeless, nameless freedom of the written word, in all its forms. An excellent portfolio of images taken of the works can be viewed here on Flickr.

A Fun Time With Knowledge, Anonymous, 2012
A Fun Time With Knowledge, Anonymous, 2012

I also stumbled upon the brilliantly-titled A Fun Time With Knowledge – a particularly playful example of one of these anonymous forays into book sculpture (and later discovered it was also ‘found’ in Scotland). I warmed to it immediately, revelling in the crafty idea that whoever created it had the knowledge we didn’t – that he or she made it and we’re all just sat here gazing at it, wondering. Interpretation is an art form of its own when it comes to describing what each of us thinks of a painting or sculpture, but I like to imagine that those laid-back skeletons, smoking and listening to music, represent the race against time between the artist and us, as we try to find out who we are.

Cut It Yourself

Modified Triangle Fold, Johwey Redington
Modified Triangle Fold, Johwey Redington

Want to become more than a passive viewer? Artist and former architect Johwey Redington offers the beautifully illustrated, easy-to-follow, introductory section of her Origami Book Sculpture Workshop for free at her website. The aim is to guide people through the first stages of becoming a sculptor, including basic folds used in book art, such as the “triangle fold”, and how it can be modified to create interesting variations, as the example in the photograph taken from her website shows. Using video, photo and text, she explains the terminology required to get to grips with folding, such as what a “bone folder” is, what “Calatrava” means and how to spot the subtle difference between a “spine” and a “gutter”. Later, when you feel ready, you can progress into the advanced stages of the tutorials.

Transcendental No. 1 (“Thoreau”), Johwey Redington, 2012
Transcendental No. 1 (“Thoreau”), Johwey Redington, 2012

Johwey’s passion for her art really comes through as you browse her website. Her artworks are clean and perfectly crafted, but she is not afraid to show us a book cut up, shredded or frayed. Focussing on the use of geometric shapes and repeating cutting patterns, Johwey has developed a unique style that encapsulates not only her vision, but also takes into consideration the ethos of the writers at the heart of her work. Her own description of Transcendental No. 1 best sums up this ‘collaboration’:

Named after Henry David Thoreau, this book sculpture juxtaposes a solid geometric shape with the organic form of shredded pages — symbolising the integration of nature and culture which Thoreau embraced. It is part of the Transcendental Series — a series inspired by the writings and philosophy of Thoreau, Emerson and other proponents of Transcendentalism. The series incorporates shredded pages and folded flowers in the book sculptures to represent the fragile but very important connection/relationship between nature and culture/humanity (which the book itself represents).

Trinket Series No. 4 “Hedgehog”, Johwey Redington, 2012
Trinket Series No. 4 “Hedgehog”, Johwey Redington, 2012

Playfulness, playability and enjoyment of books is core to Johwey’s art, both in the making and the sharing. Instinctively, I feel drawn to her as a person, as well as to her art, and that is a rare thing in the world of art and artists. By their very nature, they are not always approachable – not that they should be. But here we see more of the artist as a personality and I think she is a tactile person. She describes her journey into book sculpture with words like “warmth” and “playing around” and that engages me right away; it connects with my desire to know people, to know who did what, and never to lose my sense of childishness in the adult world I’m now supposed to be a part of. Like one of all-time favourites (although, as far as I am aware, not yet a book sculptor) Greyson Perry, Johwey is also an artist who shows us that stunning imagery, beautiful, contemporary design and grown-up themes and thoughts can all work together quite happily with a youthful, playful heart in art.

The Future of Book Sculpture

As the visionaries behind book sculpture establish themselves and their art is more widely recognised, books will be seen as much more than just collections of words, mere boxes of knowledge to be preserved intact at all costs. They will become canvases again, ready to be reworked and re-imagined. What has gone before will not be lost; it will be inside our minds, but the future of book sculpture is bright and it needs our time, creativity and investment.


Special thanks to Brian Dettmer, Su Blackwell and Johwey Redington for giving kind permission for me to display some of their work. For more of their outstanding art, visit their websites: Su BlackwellBrian Dettmer and Johwey Redington. Of course, there are many more book artists out there well worth discovering, as a simple ‘book sculpture’ search on the Internet will testify to. If you’re drawn to Brian Dettmer’s work, for example, you might also enjoy Georgia Russell’s “scalpel art” – an arguably more destructive, angst-ridden approach that turns books into Georgia’s trademark precision “carnage”. If you prefer to keep your books intact, try hunting out a few of Mike Stillkey’s installations. He stacks and builds and shapes and then paints intriguing figures along the edges of his book towers.

Finally, if you’re an artist and want to add your portfolio link, feel free to comment and do so.

Further Reading

Art Made from Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed” A book by Alyson Kuhn & Laura Heyenga, with a preface by Brian Dettmer, 2013.

Art Made From Books” A blogpost by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Maria picks out some fascinating quotes from Brian Dettmer.

Not Reading Kills” A blogpost written by myself illustrating the link between evolution and being able to read.

Note From the Author

The synergy of Su Blackwell’s art with my latest piece of fiction became more apparent the further into her work I went. Even the Young Can Be Warriors is the short tale of a young, imaginative girl who lives a surreally quiet life in a grand old house. She develops a love of drawing, has her passion cruelly destroyed, then finds the courage to recreate what she lost – but in a way most people would interpret as sinister and deeply wrong. I found it fascinating to delve further into the world of book art, through Su Blackwell’s work initially, and soon realised my story matches its theme: the symbolic destruction of art to make way for the new.

You can also view the book on Amazon.

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