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Beyond Words

At new L.A. arts center, it's OK to judge a book by its cover


Ann Marie Hovie's book "Naked Haiku" is a series of poems she composed while working as a figure model, transferred onto fabric scrolls. Miriam Schaer's "Mo(u)rning Prayer" is an altered corset that opens to reveal a small book in the shape of a Star of David. Katherine Ng's book "Spirit Vessel" is strips of letterpress-printed paper woven into the shape of a vase.

None of these would ever find their way onto shelves at Barnes & Noble or a neighborhood library, but they are books--artists' books and art objects in themselves. The book as art may take on sculptural forms, looking nothing like a conventional book, having no covers, or covers made of metal, glass, clay or fabric. Pages may be cut apart or come tumbling out, telling a story or constructing a narrative with images and words, or sometimes without words at all. These books may incorporate painting, photography or letterpress printing. Existing books may be altered or deconstructed and in the transformation take on new meaning.

While cities such as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Minneapolis have established book arts centers offering exhibitions, education programs and workshops in bookbinding, artists' books and printing, Los Angeles has gone without. But that is changing with the creation of the Los Angeles Book Arts Center.

Lisa Deutsch and other local book artists had been talking about starting a center for years, but a few months ago Deutsch e-mailed friends about drawing up formal plans and found everyone more than willing to rally to the cause. As the center's first president, she envisions it as "an umbrella to encompass all things--books, letterpress, paper arts, the book as sculpture. Book arts encompasses so many different areas, so it's important to be a resource for all these artists to come together and show their work. These disciplines are largely ignored or pooh-poohed as not being fine art, and they don't get the recognition they deserve."

Deutsch herself is used to people being confused about her occupation. "They usually say, 'So, you're a book illustrator,' or, 'Oh, you mean you're a graphic artist.' "

In addition to such workshops as "22 Accordion Folds" and "The Altered Page," the center is sponsoring a book arts exhibit at the Christine Willis Gallery through October and plans a sale of artists' books in November. Deutsch and others are looking for a permanent venue and applying for nonprofit status. Funding so far has come from membership dues, class fees and some donations.

Aspiring book artists have had access to an increasing number of classes in recent years around Southern California, ranging from basic bookbinding to creating artistic journals. But they've been in scattered locations, from rubber-stamp stores to private studios to high schools, art colleges and museums, and advanced classes are often difficult to find. The California Center for the Book, headquartered at UCLA, is affiliated with the Library of Congress and offers programs relating to reading, writing and literacy. Some events are book arts related but incorporate lectures and discussions, not hands-on workshops.

"Students in my classes would ask, 'Where can I sell my books? Where can I teach? Can I show my book somewhere?'" says Deutsch, a former attorney who now owns Artistic License Unlimited, a custom bookbinding studio. "There was nothing for them, and I couldn't guide them; I couldn't put them anywhere."

Book artist and curator Gloria Helfgott, who has been working with Deutsch in establishing the center, found a welcoming community when she moved here from New York several years ago. What was missing, she says, "was a center. I loved having a place to go in New York and being able to see exhibitions every month. You were exposed to what was going on around the world. The workshops I've been running in my studio have helped a lot to centralize the book arts community a little bit."

Helfgott curated the recent "SO CALled Books" exhibit at UCLA of works by Southern California artists, including Ng, Susan King, Ed Ruscha, Lezley Saar and Sue Ann Robinson, and produced the center's first show. She'll also teach classes through the center. Her wish is for "a viable organization that keeps to its mission to stress artists' books and books as an art form, as well as educate the public and open it up to outreach programs in schools."

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