One of the projects I’ve been working on today is an Altered Books round robin for my local chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild. As this is a collaborative long-term project that speaks to the very essence of who I am as an artist, I’ve decided to share the process. I expect it to be interesting and challenging, as, other than my own book, I will be responding to the style and theme choices of other artists. Once a month, I will blog about the month’s theme and creative process to respond to it.
For those not familiar with a round robin of this nature, here are the rules: Each book artist in the group begins altering a hard cover book of at least 50 pages on a theme of their choice. The original artist creates one two-page spread of original artwork within the book. They then send their altered book with instructions to the next person on the list, who will create their own two-page spread in the book, and then send it on to the next person on the list, and so on until each altered book has travelled around the group and returned to its home. After seven months of circulation, my book should come home to me containing six pieces of original art in addition to my own, and each of the artists in the group will own a similar book.
For my own choice of book to alter, I have to admit wandering around the choices somewhat for a couple of weeks. Yet my fingertips kept reaching for the same volume over and over again. The book in question is a hand-bound book with a soft-edged suede cover lined with leaf-green watered silk. I was hesitant to alter such a little treasure, for its bones are good and it does have some monetary value, though not great. However, its condition for general enjoyment is poor and copies in much better condition are fairly plentiful. For the sake of the $20 or $30 it could garner, in the end, it spoke to me so loudly in both appearance and theme that I relented. And so, the book I have chosen to alter is a book published by the Roycrofters of New York in 1927. The Roycrofters were a handicraft community founded in East Aurora, NY about 1895 by Elbert Hubbard. The book is called “The Man of Sorrows”, authored by Hubbard. It’s frontispiece describes the book in a description I cannot better: “Being a sincere attempt to sketch the life, times and teachings, and with truth limn the personality of Jesus of Nazareth, Judean Prophet”.
The front of the book bears the title in Art Nouveau style gold lettering in a similarly styled embossed box. The leather is badly torn and worn at head and tail, but the silk end ‘paper’ and block are pretty sound.
My first step was to piece and repair the torn leather at head and tail. I then carefully removed several pages from the stitched signatures to make room within the covers for inevitable expansion of the block when the book is altered and added to. I very carefully sanded out the words on the front cover until I was only left with the word “Sorrows” as the title of this altered book. Once that was done, and to disguise the repairs, I restained the entire cover and rubbed watered acrylic medium into the leather to seal it. The book is now ready to alter.
I would like the work in the book to preserve some of the beautiful natural features, such as the lovely border on the frontispiece, and the occasional illuminated letter. I am altering the frontispiece myself, and I will be asking the artists to try to incorporate those features into their work in the altered book wherever possible.
I was very drawn to this word – this title – of “Sorrows”. I felt it invites a wide interpretation for the variety of artists who will be responding to it. For my own page spread, I decided to utilise a technique I’ve recently used in a journaling project. It involves writing in indelible ink onto tissue paper, and then layering the tissue paper with medium onto the page to form the background. The tissue becomes translucent, and the layered words show through. Writing on the topic of sorrows puts something of the soul into the work, but the personal nature of the writing is obscured by the layering technique. There is something releasing about that knowledge, knowing that I can create content that is honest and true to my own experience of this word, but that I don’t have to expose that experience or the tender or painful feelings that go with it to the world. A sort of Pandora’s box, the content of which only I will know.
Four layers of word-filled tissue paper later, the background started to emerge. Laying in images and words gradually build the depth and complexity of the page surface. A focal point image will be needed to bring the spread together, and I need some time to contemplate the direction the pages have taken to decide on the right image to use. I like the Webster’s definition of the word ‘sorrow’, which fits the mood of my contemplations. I gradually begin to embellish the page with hints of gold and add a subtle blender pen 0ver-transfer of a reversed topographical map. I chose a quotation from Hakim Sanai’s Walled Garden of Truth:
“Take everything away and leave me alone with You. Close every door and open the one to You.”
Leaving the pages to dry overnight is an essential next step so that I can begin to age the pages in the morning. And indeed, an overnight break brought inspiration for the final stages of this piece. An image of an aged door I took in south Wales a number of years ago gives me the focal point I wanted. Final collage elements go in over that, the entire spread is aged and enhanced, and the page is finished. At some point in the progress of the artwork, the book became “Dictionary of Sorrows”. Once fully dry and with the frontispiece altered and bio and instructions added, my altered book is ready to venture out into the world to begin its seven month journey. I am excited to greet my monthly visitors while I wait for its return home to me, filled with wonders of vision from other artists.