Altered Book Art – Art & Recycling Join Forces

Garden #1 - fused board book - recycled Barney book
Garden #1 – fused board book – recycled Barney book

Art Girl

By Kimberly J.B. Smith
Contributing Writer


Blue Heron - altered book 2 sided sculpture made from a recycled book about China.
Blue Heron – altered book 2 sided sculpture made from a recycled book about China.

Having taught art to all ages for decades, I have dabbled in just about every art medium that exists. Then came the idea of altering discarded books – along with a deluge of “how to” books on the subject. It seemed interesting enough so I gave it a try. I was immediately hooked.
Altering books – what exactly is this? This concept doesn’t easily conjure up a mental image like a drawing or a painting. Hearing this idea for the first time can really confuse first timers to this idea. I have witnessed people taking one of my fused books and trying to open it. After all, don’t books open up? If art wasn’t already a language that not everyone understood, here comes some art books that have become book art!
It may come as a surprise to know that book altering is actually a very old practice. Back in the 11th Century, Italian monks recycled old manuscripts that were written on vellum (animal skin parchment). They would scrape off ink and add new text and illustrations. This was called Palimpsest. Later on in the 19th Century, people recycled old books into scrapbooks. The title for this practice was Grangerism, the Victorian practice of illustrating a book with family photos, recipes and images from other books.
The concept of book altering can sound unsettling to bibliophiles. It seems contrary to lovers of the written word – perhaps even destructive. But no, in fact it is very constructive! Old or discarded volumes can be recycled and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Altered books can be flat, fused shut and used as a substrate, carved into or sculpted. There is no shortage of books that are destined for the circular file and for so many reasons. Out of date atlases are a great example, worn or tattered children’s board books are another (and two of my favorite kinds to use).
You might wonder how book altering differs from the popular pastime of scrapbooking. In fact, the intent of

each is quite different. A scrapbook documents an event or family memory. A plethora of materials are produced and for sale to assist in the aesthetic & color choices. The result is an act of love for the recipient. There are whole groups engaged in this practice and history is made within the pages for future generations.
Now comes book altering. The goal here is to create a work of art and fine art techniques and mediums are employed in the process.

A board book sculpture - 5 sided artistic depiction of the life of notorious serial killer - H.H. Holmes.
A board book sculpture – 5 sided artistic depiction of the life of notorious serial killer – H.H. Holmes.

Many mixed media applications are used and the entire creation from idea to execution comes from the mind of the artist. Each altered book is one of a kind and is indeed a work of art. Some altered books are inspired by the title of the original but not always. I recently selected a book on China – due to the shape and color of the exterior. It was a bright blue-green tall vertical hard cover volume. However, this time I did a two sided shrine to the blue heron. Go figure…
If this article has peaked your interest, do a google search (or check my website and let your imagination get to work. Select a book, use the materials to tell a story, tell that story in a unique way and celebrate the happy accident!

Kimberly J.B. Smith is an artist and art educator. You can see more of her work at her website and also on display at the Lakes Region Art Association Gallery at the Tanger Outlet in Tilton.