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The Altered States Of Altered Art

Selena Kimball Altered Art PieceSooner or later it had to happen.  I’ve been flirting with the idea of altered art for quite sometime, toying with moving past the concept and coveting into the actual doing. The recent May/June issue of Fine Books & Collections, featuring Brian Dettmer as “The Cut-Up Artist”, was the final straw on this camel’s back.  I don’t know that I’d ever be able to take an X-ACTO to the body of a book and perform the surgery Dettmer does, but I have to start somewhere…

This past weekend I took the plunge. But not alone. Like ‘misery’, the insecure like company; so it was easy to take a rainy Saturday and turn it into a family project day.

First things first, we needed to make sure the kids (ages 8 and 12) understood that altered art projects are limited to materials predesignated to such acts.

As book and ephemera collectors, neither Derek nor I wished to have kids yanking works off our shelves or plucking items from boxes as art supplies.  So we decided that the best thing to do was to head to a local thrift store and have us all purchase items specifically for this purpose.  This way each item would be checked and OK’d by us before any harm could befall it.

We proceeded to do as we always do, giving the kids a large (nearly lecture-sized) over-view of the day’s projects.  We began by showing them the Fine Books & Collections issue along with Derek’s Pennsylvania Report Scrapbook and telling them that we were going to create new books from old ones — blah, blah, blah.  (I say that because that’s about all they really heard anyway, busy as they were flipping through the publications we gave them.)

Having sold them on the idea, we headed out for supplies.

With a budget of $5 per person, we each of selected a large hardcover book (mainly modern book club editions in non-pristine conditions, but with a sound-enough overall character to hold our as-yet-to-be-created works), a few magazines (circa late 90s to early this century), and some children’s books (library discards in moderate condition and other non-valuable titles).

Then it was time to return home and set-up the creation zone. I protected our 100+ year old table by covering it with a vinyl holiday tablecloth, spread the books and magazines out on the top, passed out scissors and glue, and even brought out watercolors, colored pencils, crayons and other craft supplies. Everyone eagerly began to pour through the magazines and books.

Kids Working On Altered Art Books

And then, one by one, we each stopped to receive or offer reassurance.

“Can I really cut out of this book?” Hunter asked.  (Destiny said nothing, but she was holding her breath, awaiting the answer.)  “Yes, that’s the idea,” I said.  “OK…” he replied with arched eyebrows & a tone that indicated I might have ‘lost it’ & that we all might regret this in a few minutes.  “It’s alright to cut these things up, that’s what we got them for,” Derek said.

Then, a few minutes later, “What are we doing exactly? I mean, can I make it funny?” Hunter asked. “You can make it anything you want — funny, scary, whatever,” I said. “Best day ever!” was his reply.

But he still hadn’t taken a scissor to anything yet.

It took a few more reassuring rounds of such Q & A before the cutting began.  Good to know the kids really do respect books and paper!

Destiny & Hunter Working On Altered Art Books

Eventually everyone but me was cutting.

I lifted my scissors… took them near the page… and felt a wave of dizziness hit me.  “Is it hot in here?” I asked, “I think I may pass-out.” Everyone laughed; but I was serious.  I turned up the air conditioning and then returned to make my first cut.  I didn’t pass-out. I continued, growing in confidence.

Then Derek began to rip the binding in one of the hardcover books he was going to take images from.

I thought I would die from my heart beating in my chest like that.

Again every one laughed at my expense, and for a while there was a bit of competition to see who could make me cringe the most; but eventually we just all settled down into our individual work.

We learned that selecting things to cut-out is easier than arranging them — and that the books will take a long time to fill.  And we reaffirmed that while we all have different styles, interests and approaches, we all enjoy sharing the experience of creating as a group, laughing and calling out, “Hey, look at this!” so that everyone would look at what we made.

Hunter, a typical boy, is mixing cars and sports for his funny book.

Hunter's Altered Art Book

Destiny, our pre-teen rocker, is focusing on the photos of rock icons with some “goth” mixed in to make a “dark” book.

Destiny's Altered Art Book

Derek selects text passages from Green Grass of Wyoming by Mary O’Hara (People’s Book Club edition), illustrates them with his own art, and is creating his own altered art story book, Dinosaurs of Wyoming.

Dinosaurs Of Wyoming

Me?  I still am not sure what I’m doing… Slow to start, I guess I’m just making it piece by piece, page by page. Each piece has a title and is a work unto itself.  This is Sailor Iris. (Apparently I had little imagination left over for naming that one.)

Sailor Iris, Altered Art

I did learn that my book wasn’t large enough for the pieces I was creating.  So I had to head to our boxes and find a larger tome.  I selected a 1943 copy of Outlines Of Internal Medicine by C.J. Watson; of no real collector value & written in, but with a sound enough binding & large enough pages to hold my works.

So far, I have to credit the following works for my altered art: Children’s Guide To Knowledge (Parents’ Magazine Press, 70′s), Indy & Mr. Lincoln (by Natalia M. Belting, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher, 1960), Scuttle The Stowaway Mouse (by Jean & Nancy Soule, pictures by Barbara Remington, 1969), Smithsonian Magazine, and — believe it or not! — that issue of Fine Books & Collections magazine.  (There’s double irony in that for sure, because we save all our back issues of that magazine.)

And with my love of old illustrations, I am toying with scanning in pages I like from more valuable books & papers & using my printer to make paper I can cut-up.  Is that fair to do?  I think so.  If you are allowed to add ink-stamps and whatnot, why not new printed copies of the old illustrations? It certainly is more fair to the old items of value anyway.  And that’s the only way I can make peace with altered arts.

And I have.

My Huge Tome For Altered ArtSo much so, that should Barbara Young (owner of The Old Book Shop, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about Fine Books & Collections feature article) or another similarly upset bibliophile contact me, I am prepared to defend myself.  I know what I’m doing — at least as far as what not to destroy.

And I love, love, love doing this!

I’m certainly not ready to sell my works at handcrafted fairs or even online outlets. Yet.  First I’d have to get over loving them like my babies (something which was eventually done during my charcoal sketch years, so it is possible).  And, second, I’d have to get better at it. Practice should help with both those things. And now that the table is covered with all this stuff, the temptation to fritter away the hours in artistic pursuit seems more than probable…

So if you’re looking for me, I’ll be at my dining room table, cutting & pasting, coloring and arranging, and making altered art like a crazy person.


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Val Ubell

Val Ubell That sounds like a fun-filled day! Bet the kids loved doing something unexpected since they surely know how you and Derek must love your books. Cute kids too! June 30th, 2008 at 8:33 AM

Collin David Another GREAT source for cut-able images is old encyclopedia sets - I have a big ol' collection of dissected images from those things. Maybe I'm desensitized to book destruction, working at a library that actively discards many books, but I love the altered art thing. I'm teaching 2 classes on it over the summer! http://www.collectorsquest.com/blog/2007/08/01/i-desecrated-a-book-but-it%e2%80%99ll-look-great-in-my-kitchen/ June 30th, 2008 at 9:41 AM

Derek Dahlsad We talked about dissecting encyclopaedias, but unfortunately the antique encyclopedia sets (yes, plural) we own are MINE -- one is a "Teachers and Pupils Cyclopaedia" set that I actually refer to from time to time to look for things that were important enough to Victorians to write about but has little value to Wikipedia to include. The other is an incomplete set, but has some neat images, which I don't want cut up. The collection wins again! This is part of what we wanted to teach the kids, though: if you want to cut things up, don't start slicing up your collection when you can go find damaged or forlorn stuff at thriftshops and rummage sales that are worth dismembering. July 2nd, 2008 at 11:01 PM

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