Craft and Creativity on Display at Student Exhibition
By Robin Davis/ Staff writer
For centuries, books have been vehicles for meaning beyond their literary content. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, producing a book was a labor intensive and highly skilled craft. These books often included elaborate illustrations relating to the book’s subject matter or the person the book was intended for. Full of symbolism and layered intertextuality, they were a feast for the mind and eye. The art of bespoke bookmaking is alive and well at USM’s Kate Cheney Chappell ’83 Center for Book Arts, which recently held its Summer Book Arts Workshop. According to the Center’s website, the participants studied “skills and techniques that give them insights into design, history and aesthetics specific to Book Arts.” Courses ranged from “Essentials of Book and Paper Sculpting” to “Playful Books: A Short Introduction to Independent Publishing and Risograph Printing,” amongst others.
An exhibition featuring the student’s work is currently on display on the sixth floor of Glickman Family Library. One of the workshop instructors, Cynthia Ahlstrin, gave a presentation of her own work during the opening reception on September sixth. Ahlstrin’s practice challenges conventional ideas of what a book is and can become, with many of her pieces bringing form and content together in playful but poignant ways. Some of them are traditional artist books with elaborately illustrated pages and folded components; some are intricate sculptures fashioned out of repurposed book pages and hand made paper. All speak to the power of words, but also the mutability of a creative practice concerned with conveying meaning to the viewer.
The integrative processes intrinsic to book arts is in full evidence at the student exhibition. For her book faces, student Lillian Duda used star folds, hexagonal folds, and a pamphlet binding. She incorporated a mirror into the cover, which is fashioned out of silk. The book opens up to reveal a series of hand-painted frames and faces meant to illustrate her experience with mental illness and “depressive episodes that distort your sense of self.” Symbolism is a recurrent theme in her work, and she has discovered that the book format provides a powerful way for her to engage a wider audience and “bring light to issues such as self-esteem and mental health.”
Duda, an Art Education major with a minor in Book Arts, was introduced to the discipline in her freshman year and “instantly fell in love with [the] process.” This process now informs all aspects of her artistic practice.
While she learned new techniques, Duda notes that the workshop was approachable for beginners. It was Art Education major Luna Barrionuevo’s first experience with book arts. She describes the workshop as “intensive,” and as having given her a new respect for the book as a multi-faceted object. Despite the rigors of formal training, she still found that she could “investigate” her own creativity throughout the process.
The book form also allowed Barrionuevo a layered symbolism in her book, The Messenger Red Cardinal. “The color red and cardinals have always caught my attention,” she explains. Her belief in the “spiritual meaning” of animals comes through in brilliantly hued illustrations and decorative script. The idea of the bird as a messenger in turn becomes the message of Barrionuevo’s book itself.
Rooted in tradition yet ever-evolving, book making gives artists a dynamic framework for both self-reflection and engagement with the world. Similarly, the form provides a unique level of multi-sensory engagement for the viewer-reader. There are perhaps as many ways to look through a book as there are people to do so; meanings collapse into each other as the book opens and shuts. It reveals as well as conceals.
The Summer Book Arts Student Exhibition is on view now through September 30, 2023, on the 6th floor of the Glickman Family Library.