Arts + Scene » Book Notes

The Book as Art


"Newport Fun" by Sandy Vrem - COURTESY OF EUREKA BOOKS
  • courtesy of Eureka Books
  • "Newport Fun" by Sandy Vrem

Look around you, wherever you are now, and chances are, you will see some books, or maybe only one book -- that's enough.

What is a book? In his The Manifesto of a Book Artist, Peter Thomas answers thus: "It is everything, the physical materials, the structure and the ideas it contains."

When we say "this is a book by Jane Austen," we refer to the book's content, "the ideas it contains." Thomas' definition brings attention to two more components: physical materials and structure. Let's push this a bit further and ask, how do the physical materials, structure and ideas, the "everything" that make up a book become art? Here's Thomas again: "To be art, a book must be made without function as a primary goal. But this does not mean that it should be fragile, or sloppy, or filled with meaningless words... The book requires its artist to master many craft skills, but then so does painting (e.g. when the artist mixes their own tempera as the old masters did) and all the other arts. A book is mixed media: visual art, sculpture, literature and architecture all combined in one object."

Book as sculpture, book as architecture -- this is getting interesting, isn't it? The next step is to consider the people: book artists. When we look at a book, we think about the author, the person who wrote the content, possibly also about the person who produced the illustrations. What does a book artist do?

"Instead of treating books as containers for independent contributions -- textual, graphic and typographic -- [book artists] take full responsibility for the entire undertaking. The artist book, whether an offset multiple, a signed limited edition or one-of-a-kind volume, becomes the thing itself. Indeed, the object produced no longer functions as the conveyor of a privileged text, but as the only artifact worthy of consideration and, as such, the sole focus of attention and the treasure itself." - Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert, The Cutting Edge of Reading: Artists' Books

A visit to the fourth annual North Redwoods Book Arts Guild exhibit at Eureka Books will make what is written in the preceding paragraph clear and quite real, tangible actually. The exhibit opens on Saturday, Sept. 3, during Arts Alive! (6-9 pm). On display will be 30 works by 14 artists from Humboldt County and also from Portland (OR), Denver, Canada and the UK. Most of the books are one-of-a-kind, while a few are produced in small editions. Some of the books are available for sale. (Disclosure: a book of mine is part of the exhibit. It is not for sale.) If you miss the opening, you will have until the end of September to see the exhibit.

Artists' books are meant to be experienced and you can do that at the exhibit. With a few exceptions, the books on display are accessible to the public, so you can get up-close and personal. That, more than anything, should make you enthusiastic about artists' books. One characteristic that attracts me to book arts is the concurrent seriousness and playfulness with which book artists explore the book form and expand upon it to tell their story. Book art asks readers to become actively involved in the viewing process, to explore how not only the words (which are sometimes absent), but also the images and the physical structure of the object all contribute to the meaning.

It is difficult to summarily describe artists' books, since so many elements contribute to each one: the materials, the type of binding, the graphic techniques used for text and illustrations, the text itself, the engineering of the book construction. Depending on their interests and needs, book artists master various crafts, sometimes many of them: bookbinding, paper-making, marbling, other paper decoration techniques, graphic design, calligraphy, letterpress printing, other types of printing, paper-folding, box-making, etc. Book artists not only work with handmade and commercially produced papers, they also employ cardboard, fabric, leather, metal, wood, found objects and more. You will see examples of various materials, binding styles, printing, illustration and decorating techniques in the works included in the exhibit.

The book artists showing their work are members of the North Redwoods Book Arts Guild (NORBAG). Founded in 1995, the guild currently has 155 members, 60 percent of whom live outside Humboldt. NORBAG members receive a monthly printed newsletter and the locals meet regularly the second Saturday of each month. The meeting generally includes a book art workshop and a voluntary book exchange, based upon a theme chosen in advance.

NORBAG maintains a rotating display at the Humboldt County Library in Eureka featuring books made by members. The website includes information about the Guild and pointers to past and upcoming events including workshops and book exchanges. Photographs of end products of past workshops and other events are posted on the blog (

Where does recent talk about the demise of the book leave book arts? A visit to the exhibit will make you realize that electronic versions of artists' books would not provide the same experience as having them in your hands. An artist's book is not mere text and/or illustrations that can be moved seamlessly onto another medium, as Peter Thomas puts it, it is "the only artifact worthy of consideration and, as such, the sole focus of attention and the treasure itself."

He concludes, "As the book looses function, it can once again become an object. When computer hardware improves to the point that we have no second thought about curling up in bed with a screen, I believe this change will be complete. Then the book will be absolutely free from function and enjoyed solely as an aesthetic object: a work of art."


What: North Redwoods Book Arts Guild Exhibit

Where: Eureka Books, 426 Second St.

When: Opening Sept. 3, 6-9 p.m. during Arts Alive! with the exhibit running through Sept. 30.



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