contemporary collage paintings
the process
Leslie Avon Miller

My life flows when I'm in my art.

Jean De Muzio

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Art of Handmade Artist Books

Contemporary bookmaking is a wide and varied art form, and one that includes beautiful craftsmanship, artistic vision, playfulness, a message, sometimes sculpture, and always compels me to want to pick the books up and turn the pages – that is, if the book actually has pages.

I have started a list of book artist sites in the sidebar. When you visit Jody Alexander be sure to click on the link called process – it’s a fun one! Lisa Kokin makes several types of books and has an intriguing website. Robbin Ami Silverberg also runs a handmade paper mill as well as making books. Artist Shanna Leino makes artist’s book making tools by hand which are available for purchase. What a great stocking stuffer that would be! Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord has been a favorite book artist of mine for years. I especially love her series called Spirit Books. Dorothy Simpson Krause is an artist and author I have spoken of previously and has recently written a book called Book + Art Handcrafting Artists Books. Susan Collard makes books which are “architectural” and fantastic constructions. Finally on the list is the Donna Seager Gallery which features many book artists. You can see quite a selection at this site. I’ll be adding more artists to the list over time.

Each autumn I have been exchanging an artist book with an artist friend, Rita J. McNamara. Our exchange is a highlight of the year for me. First, I have a reason to stop and spend time on the concept of my own book, in an edition of two, and then I enjoy the fun of gathering my material and making the books. Although I find bookmaking to be time consuming it is a satisfying and exploratory process. Then as I package my book to ship off to Rita, I can also anticipate the fun of opening a package from her, and seeing her creation which I add to my own collection. Rita is a collage artist, a mail artist, a former weaver, and a published author, as well as a great and dear friend.

This year I am sharing our exchange with you. Following are photos of the book I received from Rita, entitled Oddments and Bagatelles. The words that follow are hers, and explain the concept of her book this year. Closed, her book measures 6.5 by 5.75 inches, and contains 10 pages, with multiple pockets, tags, and a popup page in the center. In a later post, I’ll share my book. Rita is off line, but she reads this blog on a regular basis and I know she will stop by and read your comments.

We started the Thanksgiving Book Exchange to celebrate our favorite time of year. The time when colors fade and the world strips down to its essentialness, its bones. The autumn book always feels like a distillation to me. Last year’s exchange was a Walkbook, fashioned from bits picked up along the way: feathers, ferns, twigs, a dragonfly’s wing.

This year, though, the distillation felt different. My year seemed full of jagged edges, dueling problems and conflicts, growing exhaustion. And all this played out against the larger backdrop of a long brutal winter and my ruined state, a landscape of shuttered factories and businesses, abandoned homes, and thousands of families packing up and hitting the road for some other promised land. I felt shell-shocked. Some days out in the studio I just sat there, trying to remember what I was doing and why.

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As leaves fell and days shortened, I couldn’t think of a theme for the autumn book. I couldn’t find the gate, the way in. My brain felt like a bomb site, shrapnel thoughts sifting down through the rubble. So I started there, with the chaos. I picked through the scrap box, shreds left over from other projects. I suspended judgment and tried to trust that some deeper wordless part of me knew what I was up to, what I wanted to say.

The result looked like something salvaged from a storm, picked from thorny bushes after a twister or a flood: bits of maps, old photos and stained beat up letters, fragment words like “passage” and “place” “itinerary” and “foundling,” a compass made from a labyrinth and an old watch part, a sketch showing the anatomy of bird wings, freight tags, scraps of lace.

And in the middle, the only colored page, a bright blue fold-out map of the streets of Paris. Afterwards, as I flipped through the pages, I got the message: I was lost, looking for the route, the way out, the escape hatch.

And at the center, that map of Paris. Not “real” Paris; Paris-in-my-mind. Paris-in-my-mind has nothing to do with “real” Paris. Paris-in-my-mind is an archetype, a Shambhala. In the Paris-in-my-mind there is time for everything and in late afternoon, the in-between, there is a particular peculiar violet light, la vie en mauve, and you stop for a minute, setting down the pencil or the coffee cup. You think you smell flowers, and just for the flash of a second you feel like you can really see. The life under life, all that lies between and beyond the layers of things. It glistens there like a fresh-caught fish. Rita J. McNamara


  1. Hi everyone: I know there is a bit of HTML code under one photo. I can't make it go away without loosing the image, which I do not want to do. So please, be kind, and just ignore it. All images are clickable and are copy right of Rita J. McNamara and published here with her permission. Thanks for visiting!

    We just got back from a week long family visit, and I missed you while I was away! I'll be checking in with your blogs very soon.

  2. Leslie, your list isn't complete without two very accomplished book artists in Washington: Michael Jacobs and Timothy Ely Michael got me started making my own books years ago.
    And then there's Teesha and Tracy Moore who make incredibe journals and have inspired thousands to make art journals and books: and Tracy's blog:

  3. Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for sharing links and most importantly a friend like Rita.

    Dear Rita,

    Thanks you for sharing such raw emotion so much.
    That peculiar violet light is here this time of year, the in-between where all the most important moments in life happen. I hope you move through to the brilliant light of winter and find your "Paris".


  4. It's a fascinating art form. Your's is fabulous, Leslie. I must check out the links to the other artists. Thank you! :)

  5. missed you, leslie a m...what a touching story. i am moved by the sharing that you and your friend have created, annual giving of the heart at thanksgiving. and moved by rita's words, my. goodness. and her images connecting them. a treasure. as are books like this, deep friendships, sensitive people who are deeply moved by life's conditions, and your posting. thank you.

  6. what a touching post and beautiful handmade books!

  7. wonderful post - your friend is a fabulous writer - so enjoyed reading her thoughts and OMG! the snow is falling here again - I'm tempted to let it fall on mine also, but I think it was bad luck last year, so I'll just enjoy it here :)

  8. a haunting book - sifting through is a common theme for me the last few years..and the violet time of Paris in my mind is a place I go often. Thank you both for sharing your intimate exchange. Will look forward to seeing your book Leslie.

    (p.s. - so glad that others commented on the 'snow' - thought I might be the only one seeing it - whew!)


  9. Leslie, Welcome home from your Thanksgiving travels and with a greeting of snow!
    What a wonderful keepsake! Rita this book is a true work of art making...your words rich and true and your Paris-in-my-mind is a place we would all gladly find and meet and savor.

  10. Oh I love your wonderful descriptive and poetic writing and your lovely book! Born from instinct, no wonder it's such a highlight for you!
    Thanks for all those links too, right up my alley and I will have to come back a few times to check them all out!

  11. I do not know where to start.

    I am also speechless and that simple does not happen to often.

    First I wish to say thank you for the list of book artists, as i am very much into this kind of art and have been collecting material for the creation of my own book.

    What i like about Rita J. McNamara's book is that it resembles something I might do. I also like the clean design of it and that the elements feel like they belong together.

    Above all, it feel contemporary and not a throw back to Victorian times which Somerset Magazines seems to push in their publications.

    The book also does not feel 'feminine' and more gender neutral.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Warmest regards

  12. It snowed in Dallas this morning, so why not in the blogs!

    A very special post,,, filled to the brim with amazing links. I've only visited one so far, but will continue.
    Rita's book is a delight, as is her thought progression to the 'other' Paris, the "life under life" that we all seek.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this Leslie, I often make books myself, and I'm going to have a great time working thru all those links you provided!
    Your book collab is fabulous, what a fantastic idea.

  14. I missed you Leslie!
    What a beautiful touching post. The book is priceless and I loved reading Rita's thoughts. I'm sure many of us can relate to that lost feeling as we search for the route or the escape hatch.
    Off to follow the links. Thanks Leslie....I can't wait to see your book.

  15. Leslie, thank you so much for this post. Artist book is my great LOVE! Thanks for sharing the fantastic artists!

  16. Hi Leslie,

    You are lucky to have such an arrangement with Rita. Looking forward to seeing your own book too. And snow - how quickly the time passes. This is where I came in to the blogging world!

  17. Thank you Leslie for this inspiring blog and particularly for the list of book artists, I will spend a very happy hour or two going through them.

  18. Love this post and LOVE the snow!!! Will be coming back to have another look soon. When might we catch a glimpse of your book?

  19. A great post, Leslie - I'm in awe of book artists, as it requires a real commitment, requires a lot of skill on many levels, and isn't always the easiest artform to share with the public.

    I'm a big fan of Dorothy Simpson Krause as well, since the days she published Digital Art Studio. I'm always impressed by the richness and inventiveness of her work. I can see why you'd be a fan as well.

  20. Another FEAST for my eyes-- and I just spent a long time checking out all your links-- the creativity and wonderful books and more is astonishing and I loved every minute checking them all out.

  21. Endless thanks for this list of book artists. I look forward to taking the time to explore each and every one. And Rita's book and accompanying text -- just magical!

  22. But utterly fascinating and richer for the difficulties encounter on your book-journey.
    Somehow things that rise out of hardship have a patina that easy glossy things don't.
    (That's why it's so easy to write Buster's happy little world --not too much nuance.....!)

    My friends Elizabeth Bunsen and Leslie (snip and snails...on buster side bar

    are very involved in book making too

    all best wishes

  23. yes, this type of sharing - trading capable artistic intimacy -really would be a highlight for me.

    I am trying to see past hem being indivudal panes - and I can see how in a book there is a cohesion stronger than just a series.

    Sorry I meander....

  24. (I love that your blog is snowing!)

    How beautiful to be part of such an exchange. I will definitely have to check out some of the links you posted soon, thanks :)

  25. Thank you for the list. I love this artform. Your books are wonderful.

  26. Rita what a beautiful book you have made and what lovely words you use to describe your process. I too have a Paris in my mind, having never been there but hving created a mythic place of creativity and excitement, history and art in my visions.

    A wonderful exchange you both do. May the year ahead bring you much love, laughter and creativity.

    PS Leslie thanks for the book sites. I adore making handmade/bound books even though i am very awkward at sewing and binding.

  27. PS I met Shanna Leino several yrs ago at an artist open studio event here in NH. I bought two small bone carved pieces she had made but not a bone folder.

  28. She's exceptionally gifted in explaining her work and making it matter to others. Intense. I was drawn in.

  29. What a fascinating look into your book exchange journeys, the process and thoughts that make up your books and your exchanges. Creative, inspirational and love the intricate meaning of the items you've included- down to the Japanese bell attached to each book! They have a peaceful solitude which reflects the "stillness" moment which you so long to be in.

  30. Wonderful inspirations- thanks for sharing!


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