For Art’s Sake, Don’t Throw That Out!: Altered Book Art

As a pack rat, I save virtually everything. I cannot bear to throw out anything. Old books that are falling apart, plastic game pieces and other vintage game remnants, antique lace which has long separated from the dress it once adorned, a few links in an old rhinestone bracelet, vintage magazines with water-damaged pages stuck together, scraps of old fabrics, empty old boxes with logos and descriptions, jars of buttons, photos of people long forgotten, old booklets sans covers with charming graphics…

Is this all saved for naught?

No. And I’m not the only person who says so.

Along with my fellow collector junkies who know the old wooden Monopoly houses must have value to a collector who is short a few of them, that it’s best to have old rhinestones with which to repair a vintage necklace or pin, and that someone somewhere is looking for the original packaging, there’s another group of people vying for these old items of mine: altered book artists.

The altered book artist takes an existing book and transforms it, via gluing, burning, cutting, sewing, sawing, drawing, drilling, and so on, to create a new work.

In creating these works of art, the artist may use many various means to create, including (but not limited to) folding, painting, drilling, adding gold-leaf, rebinding (including adding new books to the original book and changing the shape of the book), and folding or otherwise creating pop-ups and/or pockets, even drawers, to hold notes and ephemera and even three-dimensional objects.

Altered books are like scrapbooks on steroids, going past the idea of basic cut and pasting, rubber-stamping, and be-ribboning to become true mixed media artworks.

And of course they are to be collected.

Historically, one of the earliest forms of book altering was called palimpsest. During the medieval period, vellum and parchment were commonly reused for economic reasons, either by rubbing out, scraping off or otherwise covering up the original text.

In the late 19th century people, Victorians used old books as a sort of scrapbook, pasting inside souvenirs, notes, magazine images, personal recipes, and family pictures. The Victorian practice of illustrating a particular book with engravings torn from other books is called “Grangerism.”

In 1966, British artist Tom Phillips purchased A Human Document at a thrift store and began altering the pages. Phillips painted, typed upon, drew, or collaged on each page, leaving clusters of the original printed text as ‘new’ poetry. He named this new altered book A Humument.

Phillips is considered the father of modern altered books, and now, there’s an International Society of Altered Book Artists.

Like any artwork, altered books are created for many reasons. There are those altered books created with a clear mission from the start, and others which are like any other journal and mark or express a journey through personal issues.

There are altered books enhancing the book’s original theme, those which completely ignore the book’s original theme, and some which do a combination thereof.

There are books of serious artistic endeavor and lofty messages, books of whimsical fantasy, books that crack you up, tailor made on the most specific, or expansive, of subjects imaginable. Personal; books not made or published to profit off the multitudes which want to read them, but each a story in words and images made for an intimate audience — even an audience of one.

A collection of altered books is a rare library indeed, treasures to be displayed. Conversation pieces, if not exhibits, in galleries and museums.

One of the neatest things, at least in my opinion, is the ability of altered books to be more than solo expressions of one artist in a solitary environment. Altered book artists form groups, much like the old quilting circles, in which they gather together.

Sometimes each artist works on their own individual project, having the social fun of the group. Other times artists collaborate on projects, with each artist working on one or more pages which will be put into one group book.

Even long distance artists have round robins, in which books are sent to artists who create their own unique pages before sending on to the next artist in line, until the book is completed and sent back to its owner.

Since discovering such beautiful works of art I’ve become quite smitten with the idea of making one. The idea of such social collaboration is even more exciting.

Heaven knows I have the supplies… Plenty to share, that’s for sure. (I’ll be sure to avoid using first editions and rare items!)
In a world of mass produced copies and left behind ‘junk’ (with most of the former destined to become the latter), it’s nice to know that with a bit of creativity these bits and pieces can go on to make new stories.

More Reading:

Altered Books & Book Collectors

Making a Mini Altered Book




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Carol Hi! Thanks for featuring a picture from my aletered book (the red, white and black lingerie pages) Our Altered Book Round robin was made up of vintage clothing sellers who had met up on ebay's vintage clothing message board last year. We started out with 13 members. The main topic for the project was vintage clothing, since it was something that we all loved and had in common. Then each of us a sub-theme, mine was 'Vintage Lingerie & Loungewear from the 1920-40s' Other themes were I Love Lucy, Beach Day Gidget, Calander Girls. Silverscreen Goddesses, Flapper Age, Another Time Another Place, A Day in the Life and other. We hit a few bumps in the group here and there during the monthly mailing process, but it turned out to be a really fun project to work on, and I love the finished book that I have on display now. February 4th, 2007 at 10:09 AM

Deanna Dahlsad Hello Carol :) Your books are lovely and it's a long, cold winter here in North Dakota (this year, 80 below zero!) so I may just try my hand at this... If I do, maybe I'll contact you about a round robin for the next one? It sure sounds like fun! February 4th, 2007 at 8:38 PM

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