Upcycling Books into Art

How do you feel about altered book art? I know it’s controversial and discussions about the subject can become heated. I’ve been reading a lot of books about using books for art, and am interested to find that they all contain an explanation, with varying degrees of defensiveness, of the author’s philosophy.

My take is definitely colored by my nature as a lifelong book-lover. Growing up, the inevitable answer to my parents’ question, where’s Heidi? was “in her room, reading a book.” After early jobs in fast food joints, I started my “real” work-life in libraries after graduating with a degree in English Lit. My current law job involves constant reading, and now my answer to George’s question, where are you? is still pretty much the same.

So it probably makes sense that when I first found out about altered book art it made me squeamish. I understand other artists’ philosophies, but I still would not be comfortable tearing up, painting in, or cutting a book in good shape that someone else might want to read, for art or craft. My increasing interest in upcycling, defined by Wikipedia as “the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value” has helped clarify my personal stance.

In my recent blog post “Mail Art Pen Pal” I told you about upcycled envelopes I’ve been making. Here’s one from an old calendar of botanical drawings.

Upcycled handmade envelope

Out-of-date calendar pages are ideal for upcycling into collages and other mixed-media artwork, or to use as wrapping paper. And similarly, I’ll use books that other people would not want to read – those that are headed for landfill or downcycling because they’re unreadable, ripped and torn, scribbled in, or outdated but not historically significant.

Upcycled map envelopes

I made this set of envelopes from a 1990 Thomas Bros’ book of maps, not old enough to be valuable vintage ephemera and too old to be relied upon by the few people around who don’t use Google maps or have a smartphone or GPS!

I’ve been gathering books that fit my strict criteria at the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, 8501 Schmidt Lane, El Cerrito. Along with an award-winning recycling program, the Center houses an “Exchange Zone,” where people donate and take home “reusable and gently-used materials.” There’s a big dumpster filled with newly-dropped off books to scrounge through, and many are also shelved in a vague sort of order by volunteers. If I’m not sure I’ll hold it up and ask George “would anyone use this?” He has the final word.

Books

We’re also very lucky to live near another wonderful resource, the Bay Area Free Book Exchange, where you can take any book for free (up to 100 a day!) and also donate books. According to the Exchange’s website, they currently have “approximately 10,000 free books in [the] store, and have given away 406,010 books since May 2009. All books on all of the shelves are free for the taking. If you are interested in donating books, you are welcome to drop off during our business hours, Saturday & Sunday 9am-6pm.”  The Book Exchange is at 10520 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito.

Since my artistic focus is using my photographs and the images I create from them in my artwork, I’m just very slowly starting to use books in my mixed-media pieces.

Le petit oiseau

I found some pages from an old ripped-up French/English piano music book for children. Leafing through it, this page for “Le petit oiseau / The Warbler” jumped out at me. I chose several of my bird photographs and arranged them on a blank canvas in Photoshop Elements the same size as the sheet music, which I cut down slightly so it would fit in my printer. It went through with no problem. Printing on untreated paper doesn’t look the same as on paper that’s treated for inkjet inks, so the colors are a bit muted and the resolution isn’t as sharp, but I like the effect on the aged paper and with the musical notes running through the images.

I love the idea of honoring old books that were once loved but are now tattered and torn, by using them in artwork. And re-using old paper saves a sheet of the new.

Interested in finding out more? These are two of the books I found at the San Francisco Public Library: Book Art : Creative Ideas to Transform Your Books– Decorations, Stationery, Display Scenes, and More, by Clare Youngs and Playing with Books : the Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing, and Reimagining the Book, by Jason Thompson.

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2 comments on “Upcycling Books into Art

  1. Holle says:

    I’m with you Heidi, books in good shape are sacred to me, but I love giving new life to the rest. Thanks for the idea about printing on untreated paper, gonna try it!
    Happy New Year!

  2. Janice Adams says:

    My husband and I are both inveterate book hoarders. We have a garage full of boxes of books that we neither give away or sell. Some of them are outdated text books from college days so you can see that the thought of treating books so cruelly at first horrified me. However the examples you showed were so lovely and practical for everyday use that I now think it is a wonderful use in the hands of an artist. I am not going to offer my books up for this treatment but the pages you have used and the end results certainly have my approval.

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