Books become canvas for contemporary artists in ‘Books Undone’ at The Gallery at Penn College

Visually stunning reinventions of the printed page will fill the Madigan Library at Pennsylvania College of Technology in two exhibitions in January and February. “Books Undone: The Art of Altered Books,” a national juried exhibition, will showcase 58 imaginative works in The Gallery at Penn College, located on the third floor of the library, 1 College Ave.

“Old Books/New Lives: The Art of Upcycling,” a display of student creations, will also be presented on the first floor of the library.

The exhibits will run through Feb. 28, with a gallery reception scheduled for Jan. 18, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Awards for “Books Undone” works will be presented at 5:30 p.m. The reception and exhibits are open and free of charge to the public.

Throughout history, books have been read, burned, banned and collected. Today, books are both valuable and disposable. Contemporary artists hold the history of books — from scrolls (c. 2400 BC) to vegetable-fiber paper (China c. 100 AD) to woodblock printing (Europe, 1418) and the Gutenberg Bible (1456) – in their hands when they choose to transform them into works of art.

The Gallery at Penn College is pleased to highlight the community of artists working in this important medium. “Books Undone: The Art of Altered Books” includes altered books, book objects, collages, sculptures, installations and more.

” ‘Books Undone’ presents a sample of the current work being produced in the medium of altered books,” said Penny Lutz, gallery director. “This national exhibition includes works that examine social issues, cultural transformations, global and economic issues, personal concerns and, of course, stories.”

The works of 27 artists will be featured in the “Books Undone” exhibit, including three Pennsylvania residents: Jamie Hannigan, of Clarks Summit, and David Stabley and Deborah Stabley, of Muncy. The Stableys are members of Penn College’s art faculty.

Seth Apter is a self-taught, mixed media artist from New York City. After experimenting in collage and painting, he took a few classes at the Center for Book Arts in New York City and was redirected toward creating mixed media books.

“The thread that runs through all my work is creating with layers and texture,” he said. “At different times, that could mean paint, art mediums, paper, fabric, metal, found objects or just about anything else.”

Apter has three artist books in the exhibition that start with dismantled parts from vintage books. The original covers are used, rebound and (over) filled with mixed media pages that include paper collage, interactive elements, ephemera, paint and ink, fabric, thread, photographs, and envelopes.

Born and raised outside of Philadelphia in Bucks County, Oakland, California artist Adele Crawford’s influences were many, beginning with her ancestors who encouraged her curiosity.

“My grandmothers and mother were all makers who sewed, stitched, knitted, quilted, and baked,” she said. “My grandfathers both had a love of ephemera, old books, pens and paper.”

“I am attracted to and continually use the circle to create new order from old books that tell us something,” Crawford said. “Both works in the show are made from 100-year-old books, one a dictionary and the other an encyclopedia.”

For “Spinning Lexicon,” Crawford carefully chose words from A to Z from a 100-year-old dictionary, mounted them onto tags, and hung them on a dowel.

“When the small knob on the end of the cylinder, which houses them, is turned they spin,” she said.

“Artifact” pays homage to the 1911 encyclopedia set which she created into another piece.

“‘Artifact’ is a paper mache bowl made from the encyclopedia pages,” she said. “Hanging from the edges are the remnants, representing the records, statistics or data.”

Connecticut artist Chris Perry graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in painting and moved to New York.

“I started making books in 2009 because of a need to present a large project to a publisher and present a finished example of the work to be published,” he said. “Book binding soon took over the studio and I moved from making single volume books with cutouts that emulated flip-books, to pieces that now can take over an entire room and incorporate many hundreds of volumes.”

Perry most often uses books that he has cut and bound himself, but also books he finds in the recycle bins at the local libraries, to create pieces that evoke images of water forms, water structures, and the effects water can have on other things.

“None of my pieces use copy within the volumes,” he said. “The ideas are presented by determining the number of volumes, the way the books are cut, or stacked, whether the piece has projecting paper parts, or if there are hanging components.”

Just as a writer employs specific words or phrases, or repeats a character from one work to another, Perry uses cut paper tendrils, hanging books, inner cut shapes – all frequently the same as in previous pieces.

“I’ve never made the same one more than the one time,” he said. “There may be multiple volumes within the work that are exactly the same, but the piece is only made once.”

Perry has two works in the show, “154 Ripples: icicle” and “170 Ripples: scudding.” “Icicle” was made in 2015 for a Featured Artist show at Center for Book Arts in New York City.

“I was asked to make a piece that addressed and filled a specific space, in this case a long wall in a narrow space,” he said. “It is composed of 85 reclaimed books that have been recovered and altered to hang from a hidden structure on the wall.”

“Scudding” was made in 2017 and is currently the largest piece made to date.

“For this show, I actually added 20 more volumes to it to fill out what I thought were thin spaces,” he said. “It too, is made of recycled books and the paper tendrils cut into the leading edge of the books, each of which are individually mounted on a bracket.”

Michigan artist Brenda Oelbaum has been interested in art from childhood, but only considers herself an artist after 9/11, when her work became more political and timely. Her strongest influence is the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

Oelbaum’s work included in this exhibition is from a much larger body of work called the Venus of Willendorf Project.

“I have spent years collecting dieting books in a hope that I will get them out of the dieter’s hands – turning them into anti-diet, body positive art, taking the diet industry down one book at a time and educating the viewer on the futility of this multibillion dollar business that thrives on our self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy,” she said.

“I am excited to be able to share these books with more people, who will be able to touch and turn all the pages at the exhibition,” Apter said. “There are fewer opportunities for the public to see shows dedicated to book arts rather than most other visual arts format, so I also hope that ‘Books Undone’ turns more people to fans of the medium.”

Crawford said she is honored to be included with this group of artists, as she has admired many from afar.

“I hope that the show is viewed by many and that the whole of the exhibition inspires young and old as well as opening up their minds to what a book can be,” she said.

Art has always been a form of expression for Apter, both for himself and to others.

“Book art resonates with me particularly, as I see it as among the most intimate of art domains,” he said. “For somebody to view a book in its most traditional form, they have to touch it, open it and become a part of it.”

For Crawford, creating and making work is a way of life for her.

“I make ‘it’ for me and it is an added bonus, honor and thrill when it gets to go out into the world for others to see,” she said. “I would hope that it might inspire some, evoke questions for others and visually please many.”

All his life, Perry has made things with his hands and has always prized the creative process more than the actual product that he created.

“For me, making something well and having it come up to the standards that I felt were necessary is probably the most important part of making art,” he said. “I want to make things that no one has even seen before — things that make them stop and really look at them and make them wonder.”

For Oelbaum, the show is another opportunity to display her work in yet another exhibition, in a different state to a different audience.

“Most of the time, the work has been shown in shows about Women’s Health, and Body Image and Self Identity shows,” she said. “But this will be the first time that these pieces have been shown in a show that features the medium as the message.”