Books as Art

Posted On January 2, 2016

Books as Art, Art as Books

By Rachel Haynie

Hand-made books manifest multiple art forms, and tender evidence that creator Cynthia Colbert adores them is the respect with which she turns the delicate pages. In a lyrical voice, she explains just what the graphics convey. Bits of text – prose or poetry – hand-written phrases as well as symbols, and even plain absence of anything imbuing the sheets all are part of the artful communication. With blank pages, tactile effects speak for themselves. 

Colbert, who recently exhibited some of her books in a three-artist Vista Studios exhibition, along with fine artists Claire Farrell and Grace Rockefellow, said the finished books encompass every aspect that receives treatment, from the exterior covers, the interior pages, to the bindings and closures. 

For books she makes, backboards may be of honed wood, sometimes covered with another natural material, and other times may be left so that the grain adds its unique spin to the story. Colbert, who teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Visual Art and Design, encourages students to experiment with approaches new to them – approaches that could actually be older than recorded history. “We have used papyrus for covers, folding the whole in half.” 

Interior papers may be made from plants, even from old natural-fiber clothing which, of course, originated as plants. “I love to play with the surfaces of paper, often tea-dying my papers before deciding whether to add embellishments. Faculty members drop their used tea bags by my office, sometimes still warm; I let them dry thoroughly, and these go into the art books, so there’s some repurposing going on as well,” Colbert said.

The primal nature of making books reaches her on levels comparable to the pottery work that predated her transition into this medium. “It can be like therapy at times.” She surmises that man’s first pages were probably animal skins. “Although, we don’t know: earlier man may have turned a leaf over and inscribed something on the back.”

When she decided to explore hand-made books about seven or eight years ago, “I sought out the best intensive courses in book and paper I could find.” Colbert derived great benefits from working with bookmaker Dan Essig in nearby Asheville. “There were some good courses in Maine as well.”

“Problem solving is involved – many kinds,” said Colbert. To be decided are: what materials will respond in the desired ways, how to gather supplies, what kind of binding will hold the spines together snugly. Keeping natural dyes near her home studio often causes domestic confusion. “My husband sees something liquid in the refrigerator and asks: ‘Is this edible?’ Usually the answer is: ‘No, it’s dye for books.’”

Holes are drilled through the hard covers so she can penetrate the multi-layers with her. The binding resembles stitching used in smocking, a sewing technique she mastered when her daughter was young. Once the books are completely dry, she stows the small ones in rustic boxes she ferrets out at tag sales. Until she has a chance to take them out lovingly and show them to another rapt audience. 

Colbert finds she can’t NOT make art and therefore is passionate about teaching others the myriad techniques involved in bookmaking. 

Art for Books

Stephen Chesley added charcoal drawings to some of South Carolina’s most revered outdoor stories, written by Archibald Rutledge, the state’s first poet laureate, so named in 1934 and retaining that title through 1973. More than 50 books and countless poems were authored by Rutledge, usually about his life as a hunter, outdoorsman and conservationist – in and around Hampton Plantation.  Except for covers, those works are unadorned by art. Until Chesley, Skip Webb, Jim Casada and USC Press collaborated on re-releasing the handful available for reprint. And this time with original charcoal art to add another sensory layer to the Rutledge’s timeless narrative.

The latest in a series of a five limited editions for discerning collectors addresses a pet concern of Rutledge’s – and one amplified by Chesley. In Rutledge’s lifetime, South Carolina’s egret population was reduced dramatically by over-hunting, especially because the avian feathers were highly desirable within the American fashion industry, most notably in New York.

“That’s why I chose to start the charcoal illustrations for the story with a sophisticated woman wearing a plumed hat,” said Chesley, who in recent years also illustrated Rutledge’s stories: “Claws” and “The Doom of Ravenswood.” “The moral of Rutledge’s story is conservation. Decades ago, he discerned the same concerns we confront today with regard to certain populations of our wildlife.” Chesley points out this ecological projection makes Rutledge’s stories as timely now as they were when the poet laureate penned them. “Retelling his stories, with art to amplify the narrative, gives them a new urgency and clarity.” At press time it was not known whether “The Egret’s Plumes” would be released in time for the new literary festival. Visit www.sc.edu/USCPress/new for updated information.

People Reading

Grown-up books often are visually slighted; indeed, many books for mature readers are picture-deprived, except for cover art. Conversely, artists often are drawn to subjects who are in the reading mode, finding them worthy of painting. 

As a visual tribute to the inaugural Deckle Edge and its organizers, a small show of works depicting people reading will go on view at Michael’s Café, 1620 Main Street, on First Thursday, February, a few weeks prior to the literary festival, February 19-21. “People Reading” will feature original works by local artists and will remain on view through the month.

The concept for this February show was informed by an exhibition held at Spartanburg Art Museum in 2008. For that show, all works were on loan from renowned collectors, Donald and Patricia Oresman. The couple collected art, in many mediums, as they traveled, so the works’ myriad styles reflected international influences.  Where and what the people were reading also added great variety to that watershed exhibition.

Work was still being submitted at press time. See what was produced for “People Reading” at Michael’s during February.