I am participating in 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 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. 

A month ago, I sent my own altered book, Dictionary of Sorrows, off on its seven-month journey around the participant artists.  I eagerly awaited my first altered book from another artist.  When it finally arrived, I was unexpectedly a little hesitant to open it – questions crowding my mind (insecurity – What if it’s so much better than mine?  What if I can’t come up with anything?).  When I finally opened the wrapping and drew out the book, all such thoughts or concerns evaporated. 

The book, chosen by my colleague Brian Queen of Castle Papers & Press, is a slim American volume from 1966 entitled “Teaching Kids to Shoot”.  In his introduction, Brian shared his own childhood interaction with firearms before becoming a vegetarian in the early 1970s.    The title intrigued Brian, not least of which because such a volume, so conspicuously titled, would be unlikely to be published in the same way in our politically correct times. 

Brian’s two-page spread is done in collage, with semi-serious references and draw-outs from the original text, including ‘bullet holes’ through the pages.  Such whimsical treatment of such a serious topic makes for a wonderfully off-kilter subject into which I have had to dive. 

With no personal experience of this type of firearm, and fighting my parental aversion to the title of the book, I wasn’t at first sure where to start.  I spent some time perusing the text, and finding (despite the alarmist title) a great deal of very sensible advice within its pages.  I also found myself drawn to the overtly sexist remarks about girls and guns which contained amusing observation about the differences between boys and girls in this context:  “Girls often learn faster and more thoroughly, because they don’t “know it all” to start with and they feel a challenge in what many consider to be a man’s game.  In match competition, they “blow up” less often than boys do after equal seasoning.  They win fewer awards only because fewer of them take up shooting.”  This text got thoughts of Emma Peel in the Avengers running through my mind. 

Amused by this valiant and condescending paragraph (I think this is the only paragraph about girls at all in the book, the entire book is addressed to boys), it got me thinking about other traditionally ‘all male’ sports and how women have moved in during my lifetime to make them their own.  I am, for example, very keen on archery and would dearly love to own a crossbow.  However, I am struggling to find one that is a good fit for a woman of my . . .  stature.  Almost all crossbows I have tried have a solid stock.  I, on the other hand, have other, ummmm . .  equipment  . . . that needs a little space accommodation at the front.  I wander the Bass Pro Shop in a state of high amusement at the pink fishing rods, etc., intended to cater to this demographic.  I quickly had a theme starting to cook, and an uncharacteristic cheek to my planned approach to it. 

The first few minutes with the first book to alter, and I was already moving outside my usually quite serious and spiritual comfort zone.  Feeling a great sense of satisfaction with the ‘outside the box’ stimulus the project was giving me, I went in search of materials to use for this piece.  As I contemplated and searched, the vast difference between the 1960s and now was driven home to me with great force.  My page has developed into a ‘then and now’ rather than the ‘us and them’ it started life as.  I was moved and made thoughtful by how this topic has become an iconic indication of the changed role of women in the 21st century.  The contrast between the lipstick-laden, bouffant hair-doed, leather-clad Emma Peel and the serious-eyed combat soldier say everything there could be to say on this topic.

 While I was preparing this piece, Great Britain announced the final overturning of a law that has been in operation for at least 700 years: male-preference primogeniture.  It was a timely piece of news for the piece I am working on, and one I never expected to hear in my lifetime. 

And so here is the finished spread.  The tongue-in-cheek concept gave way to a more serious take on the changed role of women and arms today.  I was attracted to a poem written by Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks in 1971, called “The Progress”:

And still we wear our uniforms, follow
The cracked cry of the bugles, comb and rush
Our pride and prejudice, doctor the sallow
Initial ardor, which keeps it fresh.

Still we applaud the President’s voice and face.
Still we remark on patriotism, sing,
Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice
For death of men who too saluted, sang.

But inward grows a soberness, an awe.
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate; and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again – wild.

A quote from her poem made it into my finished piece and altered the tone in a final way.  Perhaps it’s not so easy for me to move away from my contemplative mode of working after all.  “Teaching Kids to Shoot” is on its way to its next destination, and I will be looking forward to my next visitor.  Look out for my next Round Robin blog!