Crafting the page: Book art exhibit tours Fairfield County

When thinking about books, people typically think of them in terms of where books can take us. They act as a global passport to knowledge, to adventure or simply an escape. We read them, we doodle in the margins but some artists use them to convey beauty. Such is the case with the “Freed Formats: The Book Reconsidered” exhibit that will open at both the Mark Twain Library in Redding and the Ridgefield Guild of Artists on March 30.

“Freed Formats” is a traveling exhibit, curated by two stylistically different book artists, Chris Perry of Ridgefield and Alice Walsh of Carmel, N.Y., who wanted to raise the profile of book art in the area. In the fall of 2016 they met at the Ridgefield Guild of Artists at a juried show and while talking about their work they discovered they were both book artists.

A varied medium

“Book art can also be an object that resembles a book, it can be an altered book, it can be something that tells a story that is not in a traditional book format,” Walsh said. “That was one of the reasons why we wanted to do the show, there are so many interpretations of book art and we wanted to bring a lot of them together in one place.”
Their conversation planted the germ of an idea to create a show to educate people about the diversity of book art as a medium. Originally the duo planned to have a small show at the Guild, but after two and a half years of planning, Perry said the show grew into the traveling show which will exhibit at six locations in the Fairfield/Putnam County area.
“When we realized how many talented artists there are and how much wonderful artwork there is to display it grew to the larger show and the traveling show was born,” Walsh said.

While both Perry and Walsh are book artists, they chose not to display their own works in the exhibit as they both had previously shown their work in the area. “We just want to showcase the work all the other artists that we’ve discovered.” Walsh said. “It was never supposed to be about us, we were tapping into our love for book arts and knowledge of book arts.”
Perry’s art uses recycled books as a sculptural medium for his art, which typically invokes some sort of water image.
“I use books as units to make my pieces, sort of like building blocks. A painter would use paint or a sculptor would use a block of stone or steel, ceramicists would use clay. I use the books as objects,” he said.
To create his art Perry takes the unwanted books from libraries, noting that he doesn’t use books that are older or might have some sort of value.

“People give all kinds of books to libraries, and libraries don’t really want them or not really all of them so they recycle them. I started to fill up my car with old books and repurposing them,” he said.
Walsh described Perry’s works as architectural and said she works as a mixed media artist and that her art is driven by emotional and personal narratives. “I use books as inspiration for collages and handmade unique books that tell a story,” she said. Like Perry, Walsh said she has a good relationship with libraries as she uses old catalogue cards in her art. “Librarians will call me and tell me that they’ve set something aside for me because they know that I make book art,” Walsh said.
When asked if either artist has ever encountered resistance to their chosen medium from book lovers, Walsh said she had never had any issues. Perry, a self-proclaimed book lover who always travels with a book, said he had never personally had any issues but that he does know artists who have received negative commentary about using books to create their art.

The curation

Perry and Walsh spent the better part of a year researching and finding artists whose works they wanted to incorporate into the show. Together they hand picked each piece to ensure “Freed Formats” would provide the public to introduce people to the assortment of book art styles.
“Chris’s world and my world overlap like a venn diagram so there’s some artists that we both knew, either personally or were aware of their work and then each of us had artists that the other didn’t know,” Walsh said.
The exhibit features 135 works in a variety of formats including sculptural books, altered books, scrolls, assemblages and handmade books from 53 artists across the country as well as a few pieces from Sweden and Egypt.
“During our curation process we tried very hard to present as many different types of book art as we could...It’s really any attempt to show the audience what book art is,” Perry said. “We could have kept curating, we could have had 500 pieces in the show, all unique, but we only have so much room.”
The co-curators said they hope “Freed Formats” will educate the public on the little known medium. “People are used to seeing paintings and sculptures and drawings and photographs and prints and etchings and what not, but book art is a new thing for many people,” Perry said.

The exhibits in Ridgefield and Redding run through April 28. After their local run “Freed Formats” relocates to the Putnam Arts Council and the Mahopac Public Library in Mahopac, N.Y. from May 12 to June 9, before heading to the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven from June 15 to July 28. The exhibit will complete its tour at the Five Points Gallery in Torrington, running from Sept. 19 to Oct. 19. In an effort to provide the public with additional information about book art “Freed Formats” will offer workshops and talks at each of the show’s locations. Details about the talks and workshops are available on each of the venue’s websites.
Perry said he hopes that people will come to hear the artists speak or try out one of the workshops.
“We want people to enjoy the variety of book arts, to discover something new, to experience something unexpected,” Walsh said.