Because I am a diehard book lover, I have always been drawn to the book arts, whether it be altered books, tunnel books, book sculptures, what have you. It never ceases to amaze me how an everyday item that we all have access to can be transformed into amazing works of art. I think one of the main draws for me is all the different ways that artists have been able to cleverly utilize the layers of pages in their works.
About two years ago, while browsing on Etsy, I came across the work of Kelly Campbell Berry of artfuliving. What immediately drew me to her book sculptures was her use of children’s books – books that I had grown up reading and loving. While I had seen other book sculptures from other artists, what really attracted me to Kelly’s works of art were her meticulousness and detail in cutting out the illustrations of the books. I could tell that like me, she loves cutting out fine details. When I finished my children’s writing course at the Institute of Children’s Literature, I decided to reward myself with one of Kelly’s book sculptures. I purchased a sculpture of one of my very favorite children’s books, Little House in the Big Woods.
I really liked how Kelly captured the essence of this children’s classic in the images she chose to use and in the way she put them together into a cohesive whole. There really is an art to doing this. It’s not just cutting out random images and sticking them together. If done correctly, like Kelly has, you almost see the story unfolding before your very eyes.
I reached out to Kelly recently and asked her for an interview, to which she graciously agreed. Here is her fascinating story.
Q: You mention in your Etsy profile about a house fire that destroyed your collection of vintage and antique books. Please tell us how that fire changed how you look at books and how it led you to creating book sculptures.
A: After a fire destroyed our home, we began the process of rebuilding. One of the hardest things to get over losing was my antique and vintage children’s book collection. I started the search for some of my favorite books. As they arrived in the mail, they were placed on brand new book shelves in our new reading room. I quickly realized that the one reason I collected the books in the first place, was for the illustrations inside. In order for me to enjoy them, I had to take them from the shelf and open them up and when finished, put them back on the shelf. I wanted a way to enjoy them on a daily basis.
From the fire, we were able to salvage two books, one being a 1923 book of fairy tales. When I started cutting out the illustrations, I had no idea what I was going to do with them once they were cut. The whole thing just seemed to evolve into my first book sculpture. Now when I look at a book, a vision of a book sculpture pops into my head.
Q: Have you always been a maker, or is making book sculptures your first foray into the handmade world? What, if any, are some of your earliest memories of creating?
A: I have been creating one thing or another for as long as I can remember. I had a very artistic mother and a grandmother who was creatively recycling, upcycling and repurposing before it was the fashionable thing to do. My earliest memories of creating were learning to sew with a needle and thread. Then painting, quilting, beading, and so on. My mother always taught me to take my time and pay close attention to the details; “never rush the details.”
Q: Where do you get your books? Are they thrifted? Discarded? Donated?
A: Most of my books are thrifted, library discards, or purchased from places like Better World Books (where you can buy used books and a portion of the proceeds fund literacy and libraries around the world).
Q: How do you decide which books to work with? Is it what you end up collecting or are given, or is it something special about the book that inspires you to turn it into a sculpture?
A: I mostly do books that I have read. That way I know how best to sculpt the characters and how they interact with each other. Throughout the last few years that I have been sculpting books, I have read a lot of books!! When I receive a custom order for a book I know nothing about, I have to read (or at least carefully scan) the book, so I know what characters are important to the story. It has been a wonderful challenge.
Q: How do you approach each project? How do you begin each sculpture when you first sit down? Please describe your process.
A: First I read or thoroughly scan the book to get to know the story and the characters. Study the order and layout of the illustrations. Some illustrations are then cut around (leaving them in the book) and some are removed completely from the book. All details are cut away, leaving only the illustrations and all background removed. The pages are then torn away to create a cavity around the illustrations. The pages are glued down using acid-free adhesives. The loose illustrations are them secured back into the book to create the layered sculpture. Once the sculpture is complete my husband takes over the framing process.
Q: You mention in your profile that you work full time as a sculptor. In addition to Etsy, do you sell your works of art elsewhere? If so, where, and do you get the bulk of your business through Etsy or elsewhere?
A: Most of my business goes through Etsy. I get some sales from Facebook, but those are processed through Etsy as well. I do a few art shows throughout the year and I sell pieces to art galleries.
This year I am showing 4 pieces at the International Wizard of Oz Club Convention 2014 and commissioned to do 3 pieces for the International Jewish Film Festival in Brazil, all of which have come through my Etsy shop.
Q: Do you do commissioned work? Do customers come to you with a favorite book that they would like to have turned into a sculpture?
A: Yes, I do commissioned work. Most of my sales are commissioned. My customers let me know the book they want sculpted. I get as much detail as possible from them, such as, the year of publication, the illustrator and the description of the cover (if they know and if it is important).
Q: What has been the response to your work? Do you find that your customers tend to be book lovers themselves?
A: The response has been wonderful and encouraging. My customers are mostly book lovers or at least once in their lives were affected by a book they read. A few seemed disturbed by the fact the book must be destroyed in order to create the sculpture.
I am surprised by some of the questions I get at art shows. Do you use real books? Can I still turn the pages if I take it out of the frame? Did you draw those illustrations? Where do you get your illustrations? I have to keep repeating myself, “I use the original illustrations and the original book.”
Q: With the advent of electronic readers and all the doom and gloom about the health of the traditional publishing industry, many people seem to believe that traditional publishing is a dying industry. How do you think that has affected what you do and why you do what you do? Do you feel an extra responsibility as a book sculptor to elevate and preserve the physical book in order to perhaps change how people feel about it? Are most of your customers older, or have you found that there are younger readers/customers who appreciate what you do?
A: It is a sad thought that someday it will not be possible to hold a book and turn the pages. I, myself, find it difficult to read on a Kindle. My dyslexia, maybe, but I enjoy the feel and smell of the pages. It seems to be a part of the story for me.
I think what I do is let the viewer know what the book holds in store for their imagination, or it evokes the memory of the story you once read as a child. Such as, Stuart Little. Every time I sculpt Stuart Little it takes me back to second grade, listening to the teacher read of the little mouse’s adventures.
My customers are of all ages from all over the world. I’ve had a young woman purchase a Little House on the Prairie and an older gentleman purchase a graphic novel sculpture of the Walking Dead.
Q: As a book collector and artist yourself, what, if anything, would you like to say to the publishing industry? What would you like to say to your fellow book lovers and book artists?
A: To the publishing industry: Keep producing actual books and more books with illustrations please. To book lovers: Never stop appreciating the “feel” of a good book. To my fellow book artists: Keep enjoying the sound of someone uttering, “Wow,” when they see your creations.
Q: You seem to have mastered book sculpting, as your work is among the very best I’ve seen. Do you teach what you do, or plan to? If so, where can people take your classes?
A: I have been asked that many times, and I have been seriously thinking about it. If I did a class series on book sculpting, it would probably be at our local museum or Vo-Tech Center. Who knows, I may someday decide to do a video class series online. 🙂
Q: Other than Etsy, do you have a website and/or social media accounts where customers can see more of your work, or contact you with any questions?
A: www.facebook.com/ArtfulivingByKelly (Note: Only one “L” in ArtfuLiving)
I would like to thank you, Kelly, for taking time out of what must be a busy schedule to do this interview. Congratulations on getting your work picked up by the International Wizard of Oz Club Convention. That must be such an honor to get that kind of recognition.
What is especially heartening to hear is how Kelly took a personally tragic situation and was able to create something both beautiful and meaningful out of it for so many people. As a fellow book lover myself, I especially appreciate what artists like her have done to perhaps change people’s perception of the book as just something that is merely read for enjoyment and then put away and forgotten. Hopefully book artists like Kelly will continue doing what they do to help spread the word about how important the book is in its physical form, and the book industry as a whole will start to take notice.
Are you a book lover? What are some of your favorite illustrated books? Please share in the comments.
Please note: I have not been compensated in any way, nor will I be, for mentioning Etsy, Kelly, her work, or the Institute of Children’s Literature.