The Art of the Book

From the street, it looks like a birthday party. On a recent Saturday evening, SUVs and minivans line a Chandler neighborhood, and people with large gift bags and boxes of baked goods swarm up to the door of Janet Klein.

But Klein's not a suburban soccer mom, she's a book maker. And this isn't a birthday party. It's the latest gathering of the Hard Pressed Book Club.

Move over, Oprah, there's a new book club in town -- one where the members actually create books, rather than read them.

The members of Hard Pressed meet about every three months to exchange original art books. There is a theme each time, and each member brings enough for everyone, and then explains how and why they created their books. It's kind of like those Christmas parties where everyone brings a plate of their favorite cookies, then exchanges them until they have a plate of all different cookies -- only with fewer calories.

Mesa artist and Mesa Community College instructor Barbara Burton started the group a year and a half ago to get local book artists together. "Because of my love of books, this was a wonderful creative outlet," says Burton.

Burton's not alone in her love. The art of book making, and the use of words in art, is big right now, in metropolitan Phoenix and beyond. Hard Pressed is now having its first public show, one of the latest in a series of recent word-related art exhibitions in town at venues including Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University and eye lounge.

Book making as an art form moved from the fringe to the art world's mainstream about 50 years ago. Back then, it was still a fairly esoteric medium -- with only a few dozen denizens inspired by the dabblings of Eugene Delacroix, William Blake, and members of the German Bauhaus school. But in the 1970s, the medium became more populist, leading New York artist Richard Minsky to open the Center for Book Arts in 1974. In the last 10 years, similar organizations have popped up, providing classes, archiving, and opportunities to show book art. The rise in popularity might be attributable to the slow erasure of the paper book in the digital age.

The latest Hard Pressed meeting, held last month, was a little different. Instead of creating 17 whole books, each person made 17 copies of one page, consisting of some depiction of a tree. The pages, when assembled, compose The Exquisite Tree.

The idea, proposed by member Ruth Davis (by day, a computer instructor) and modeled after the 1920s surrealist project The Exquisite Corpse, was to create a picture that could be spliced in with the top or bottom of one made by someone else -- creating a flip book of the Frankenstein parts of different trees. Most members were able to make their tree fit into the template, which required a two-inch center, but others, such as artist/teacher Darlene Swaim, opted to essentially ignore the restrictions. "When I altered the tree to fit into the two inches for this book, it looked terrible," she says. She gave up trying to make it fit the template and simply typed "2 inches" across the center of the tree. The party guests giggle, but Swaim is not trying to be funny. "I don't do well with templates," she says. "The tree is what it is."

After hole punching, cutting and assembling the pieces, each person makes his or her own book. The effect actually works, even with Swaim's renegade tree. Everyone plays with the books as the artists describe their pages for each other.

"Oooh, it's sinister and dark, it must be Mary's," says Candice Gomes about a tree with a skeleton under its roots, his bones etched with smudgy charcoal stick that tries to escape on the hands of everyone who touches it. The artist, Mary-Irene Kinsley, is a lawyer. "He died while trying to find the key to the treasure," Kinsley says, pointing to the buried chest entangled in the gnarled roots. "Landscapes always seemed inappropriate to me," she adds. "They only show what is going on above ground, never underground."

Gomes' tree is a collage of fall leaves with a trunk made from photos of the backs of cars.

"There is a story behind the leaves," says Gomes, who just moved from Phoenix to Boston to work with Americorps. "I was driving with a friend in Boston and I asked him, Is something wrong with the trees?' And he says, No, Candice, that's just fall.'" She laughs. "What do I know, I'm from Phoenix."

Gomes and Amanda Schneider, a teacher, have just graduated from college. The two took Burton's book-making class at MCC and are close friends. Schneider also moved recently, to Oregon. Both traveled back to Phoenix for the Hard Pressed meeting. "I couldn't miss this," Schneider says.

Klein has books from past exchanges on display at the meeting. They include traditional scrapbook-style pieces, illustrated storybooks, and high-concept books like Klein's own "Librotomy," a plastic baby doll whose head has been split open to reveal an accordion of paper detailing the theories of Freud and instructions for an ice-pick lobotomy. "That's baby Dougie," says Klein, who says she also has a photo album of Dougie's vacation highlights. Dougie even has his own plastic case.

When creating books, or pages of books, the members of Hard Pressed have few boundaries. But members say the notion of mass production definitely affects their decision-making.

"When you have to make 15 or so of these books, it starts affecting what you decide to do," Ruth Davis says. Most members make books that are relatively easy to replicate, but the difficulty of the process depends on the theme and the idea. "It really depends on the idea and how you go about making it," says Davis. "You can make it really time-consuming -- but that's why we only do this every few months."

The books are as varied as the personalities of the group assembled in Klein's living room. Some of the pieces are funny or ironic, like Vinnie McDaniel's "How to Read Crop Circles," which is made of various CDs with sinister titles like, "If you can read this, you're probably standing in a cornfield," and Kinsley's mock Fun-Pad of insanity; others, such as Swaim's journal-style account of her grandmother's life, are graceful and pensive.

A sampling of work from Hard Pressed themes, "The Exquisite Tree," "Losing My Mind," "How To," "Childhood" and "Windows," is on display at the Mesa Community College library through Saturday, November 15.

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Quetta Carpenter