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The Story Behind the Altered Books

I thought I'd take you behind this scenes this week and share with you how the altered books came to be as part of my artistic path.

I realized today that I've been creating them for a little over nine years now. I've kept track of each one and have now made exactly 30 books. I can never answer how long it takes to make them. Though that's often the first question that comes up. There are many steps involved and I definitely don't keep track. I often have to wait for glue or paint to dry so there's that. And then life sometimes just takes over and I won't sit down for a while, one waited patiently for over a year, having lost inspiration for that particular one, or having gotten distracted by other projects and pieces.

Before I ever created an altered book I must have seen them somewhere. I was vaguely aware of the concept. Of gluing pages, carving out niches, and painting and decorating them, usually for practical purposes though. Like as a treasure or keepsake box. Or as a little storage cubby for collectibles. It wasn't until later that I found artists who carve out intricate details of each and every single page, saving images and original text within the book to highlight them in the final piece.

Mine aren't quite like either of those, though I have incorporated both styles into the pieces I have created.

Books in process.

But do I remember why I made the first one, just not how I came up with the idea exactly. It was absolutely that kind of inspiration that was channeled from the great mysterious source of all creativity, hard to explain, and impossible to trace. I've learned to recognize that spark of intuitive brilliance over the years, and truly believe it's something we can all tap into, if we're called to. And if we pay attention.

My mother's death was the inspiration for the first ever book. She had volunteered at Hospice for the ten years before and leading up to her death. It was a deeply touching experience then to have Hospice there at her side as she was preparing to leave this planet. The summer after she passed, Hospice reached out to me to see if I would be interested, as an artist, to donate a piece of art to their annual art show fundraiser and dinner. I of course said yes and and was honored to contribute in some way, both as a local artist, but more importantly, as a way to thank them for all they did for my mom.

It was then, that summer, that the idea for a book came to me pretty much fully formed ~ as an altered book called the Book of Life, it would have the Tree of Life on the cover and an ankh on the inside (an Egyptian hieroglyphic symbolizing eternal life). That was all I knew. The rest formed itself as I went along. Though I did have to look to the internet for instructions on how to make an altered book. The materials needed. The tools I'd have to gather. How to do each step. But it seemed easy enough to me at the time. So I sat down and got to work.

Book of Life, 2015

But something surprised me. I discovered it straight away while working on that first book. I was mesmerized! I loved each and every step. I was able to get lost in the process and lose track of time. My thoughts quieted, the inner gremlins took a break, and the joy of creating each part of the book as it took shape was an amazing experience. As a painter, painting on canvas, which I had been doing for about seven or eight years at that point, I had always felt, and continue to feel to this day, a subtle pressure to "make it good." That there are right ways and wrong ways of painting. That people will judge my paintings, that jurors will accept or reject them, that people will buy them, or not, and that there is a much larger world and culture of art that my paintings will either fit into, or not. I have often had the experience of them not fitting it. But with the books? They were outside of that arena. I didn't care. They weren't for a gallery, or for anyone's juried approval. They were for me, for my own personal creative path. There was zero pressure to make them fit into some preconceived notion of what "art" is or is supposed to be. So entirely freeing! And that beautiful relationship with my books to my own creativity continues to this day. I turn to them again and again and can't ever imagine not making them.

After that first book, I knew I had to also make a companion piece, The Book of Death. I had read two different books when I was in my late 20's, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Robert Thurman. They both opened my eyes to a very different perspective of living and dying at that point in my life. Death, after all, is just the other side of the coin of life. Though in our popular culture there is a lot of fear around the subject of death. We don't like to talk about it. We've collectively moved away from even the practicalities of someone dying. There are people to come in and take care of the details, very sanitized and impersonal. In this we've lost the rituals of death and of grieving, of personal goodbyes, of collective goodbyes, of being connected to this extremely powerful moment that is part of life. Each and every one of our lives. We all are born. We live. We all die. Hence, my second altered book that needed to be created in response to the first.

Book of Death, 2015

After that, the ideas just flooded in. I had more ideas than books and I started asking around to friends and family if they had any old books they were going to throw away, to please put them aside for me. Now, there is of course the question, how could you possibly destroy books? Isn't that some kind of sacrilicious kind of act? Akin to book burning even? Fear ye not! When I first started, I insisted on only using books that were damaged, beyond repair, and were going to be thrown away. But I came to learn pretty quickly that there are a LOT of books out there that no one wants anymore. They get donated to thrift stores and to library programs. Yet still they sit. Collecting dust. They get put on $1 sale tables and in freebie boxes. And still they sit. No one wants them. Then eventually, they get tossed. And this is where I learned to step in. I bring them home, to give them new life, and to keep them out of the landfill. But at this point? Just FYI, I'm good on books. I have more books right now than I'll probably ever be able use in my lifetime. But thanks for thinking of me. Grin.

Book of Hope, 2015; Book of Love, 2017

House of Goth, 2022; The Seedling, 2019

So as I mentioned, the creative ideas are endless! And I have no shortage of books nor inspiration. I do however have one remaining challenge: finding just the right carving tool. I started with and still use an exacto blade/knife for cutting out the glued pages. But my fingers get tired and sore after too many hours of trying to carve them out. I've tried a variety of other tools to varying degrees of success, a Dremel, a small hand saw, someone gifted me a gorgeous mini table saw, they all work, somewhat, sometimes, for different steps, but I'm still searching for just that right tool. I came across something online once that seemed like it would be perfect, sort of like an electric exacto blade, but it was over $300 and there were no reviews and the company seemed highly suspect and I couldn't learn anything else about them. And I haven't come across anything like that since. So the search continues. If you ever hear of anything, please let me know!

Zen State of Mind, 2017; There's a Monster at the End of the Book, 2019.

So, there you have it. A little backstory to the books. Aside from the photos in this post, you can check out a much larger gallery of them over on my website HERE. I also sell them locally at Gallery 10, so if you're in the area, stop on by! I try to list them in my SHOP too when I have the chance.

If you have any questions, reach out! I'd love to share more about them!


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