Thursday, March 14, 2019

Old Books for New Art

This week I've been tearing up books. Lots of them. Not because I have anything against books (no!), or have a particular fondness for the sound of tearing paper, but because sometimes the best thing to do with a dog-eared, multi-read, falling-apart old paperback is to turn it into, you guessed it: collage! Or, better yet, an altered book of its own.

My love of using books as the basis for collage or as backgrounds for artwork started several years ago when I tried using a second-hand volume of architectural renderings as an art journal. At the time, I was so new to the process I thought you had to gesso, paint, and alter every single page of a book to have it qualify as an "altered book." I hadn't yet learned that the established technique most book-altering artists use is to glue or gesso several pages of an old book together in such a way that you end up with about a dozen or so very stiff, very solid "boards" to work on. Instead, I water colored, drew, pasted, and wrote on every single page of my altered journal, back and front. It took months (years) to complete and I still see room on the pages for more I can do. The end result was a monstrosity so thick it has to be held together with the kind of rubber band used to bind a bundle of asparagus or broccoli crowns.

Despite the enormity of my task, or maybe because of it, I learned an enormous amount from that first effort, mainly that one of the best collage materials available were the pages of other old books. Torn or cut up, the pages yielded all sorts of treasures, from weird illustrations to bizarre snippets of text just right for the type of mood or atmosphere I was trying to evoke. And I haven't stopped.

My method for  choosing which books to tear up is most often related to the age of the book, e.g.:
  • The book is at least 50 years old, but is in no way a collector's edition. This especially applies to books printed on acidic paper and that (unfortunately) are disintegrating on their own with no help from me.
  • If I do use a newer book, such as a mass-market paperback from the '90s, it's amazing how even a 20-year-old book can age to the point of having a broken spine, dog-eared and brittle pages, and the entire thing has yellowed to an unattractive yuck-color. No one could possibly enjoy reading the book in its current state of decay, and that's why it's on the "please take me away" free shelf at the library or similar.
  • Sometimes, just sometimes, a brand new book can also be a total disaster due to an accident of some kind: the cover is missing as are several key sections or pages, the remaining pages are beverage-stained, mud-smeared, and/or water-logged,  and the whole thing is destined for the trash.
  • Mass-produced nonfiction books, regardless of age, often have amazing illustrations and photographs, but contain very little informative text, especially if the research or covered topics are hopelessly out-of-date, or the quality of the writing is below par. Ho-hum cookbooks, history texts, and how-to books you find on bookstore bargain shelves are all good examples.
  • Finally, magazines of all ages are always a good stand-by if you just can't bring yourself to tear up a beloved book, no matter how bad the condition.
Next step: what to do with all this paper madness. How about
  1. Pasting the torn strips and pieces of text into a random pattern on top of another kind of support, e.g., a journal page, a Masonite board, or Bristol board, etc. 
  2. Turning chapter titles, lines of text, and individual words into found poetry.
  3. Covering the text with thinned gesso, acrylic paint, clear gel medium, or even watercolors. I like to vary the thickness of this coating, sometimes like it to be completely clear, or quite heavy to just leave the faintest amount of ghost text in the background.
  4. Drawing on complete pages that have been torn from the binding, but not cut up in any way.
  5. Cutting, folding, and gluing the pages into decorative shapes or small envelopes to paste throughout my journal.
  6. Photocopying the various pages to create different sizes, distortions, or stronger backgrounds to then color or paint upon.
  7. Label or title an existing collage or mixed-media piece.
The best part of tearing up books for me has been discovering the perfect piece of text through the happy accidents of randomness. For example, I might find in my pile of shreds a passage about the beauty of gardening. Matching and pasting these lines on to a scene of urban decay creates a tension that I don't think I could express any other way. It's magic!

Tip of the Day:  Book lovers, please don't despair. I realize how painful the idea of tearing up books can be for some of you, but look at it this way: when you tear up an old book, you're actually saving it (or at least the best parts). What would normally end up in the trash can now be a serious creative tool.