I made my first handmade book in college. I took a great, year-long course at Brown taught by the artist Walter Feldman that was half of the year paper-making, half of the year book-making. We had the use of the John Hay Rare Books library, just next door to the art building, and we made books in editions of three or more. I concentrated in my art major on printmaking, and so this theme of multiples in my work begins here. Learning to repeat something that interests me, to see where it leads, began with that printmaking practice and the creation of multiples. I made paper with symbolic content to it, like fibers from my mother's nightgown, dried flowers from her room, and then experimented too with things like coffee grounds, tea staining, lots of sentimental ephemera. Most of the paper I made was white, and I still have a lot of it today.
Bookmaking in the course was formal, and I don't love the books I made in the class. They looked like most handmade books you see at a fancy store, elegant and formal. I did make a final piece which I still value: a sagey green book box, with two smaller booklets inside. One side had a floral handmade paper and photographs of my deceased grandmother, who died when my mothers was five years old. On the other side were delicate reproductions of her medical papers, describing her cancer, her visits, and her autopsy.
After college, I made and sketched in journals, and began making very experimental books out of things like bed sheet pages, with wool blanket covers, one book with blank pages whose covers were made from a journal whose pages had all been pasted together and were illegible, inspired by the way traditional book board is made.
I've always loved papers: collecting them into groupings by color, folding them, piercing them, dipping and staining them, and of course drawing on them. So many of these books explore and share paper. They are generally not for writing in, not for reading, not for using really at all. They are just little nuggets or facts in and of themselves, and I still value them immensely.
I enjoy the work of making a book, and I have a box that has book materials in it: the wax for waxing the book thread, stacks of papers and half finished projects, things that would work as book board, etc. My recent books have been to formalize the Death Book project, by making books from the papers of my dear friend Ron who died last March, and my grandmother who died in 2005. The two books are very different, in part reflecting the different scope of material I had for each. My grandmother's papers range all over the place, all her studies, her journal entries, letters and lists. Ron's papers almost all relate to courses he took and independent studies of Buddhist writings and practices.
These books exist in multiples of maybe one or two. I made one smaller one of my grandmother's materials, but it has yet to get a cover. I also have another book in progress, made from the pink tissue paper backings of a whole series of plastic gloves, an old way of packaging them. The plastic gloves are attached and they are quite something. I have also made books out of carbon paper, paper towel, junk mail, old insurance papers, books of unused tickets, and similar.
I have been to the North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End, where bookmaking as a craft is extremely exacting, alongside the craft of building violins, guitars and fine furniture. This is not my grade of book, and I'm relieved to say so. I don't know if I would have made any of these books if they had had to be perfect. I am glad they exist. It's funny to me that I then went out and made self and other published books - artist books of a different sort, and that these have become central to what I share in the world. These larger scale production books can be shared much more easily and affordably, handled by everyone, and reproduced easily and yet it's nice to share here the other end of the spectrum of book I have made.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.