Don't judge a book by its cover (or do)
What exactly is book art? I asked myself this very same question after hearing about Julie Chen. This specific field encompasses letterpress, printing, and binding, all combined with three-dimensional art. Finished pieces are one-of-a-kind sculptures that include text. Chen’s creations combine her original works of poetry with three-dimensional paper techniques to create a different kind of reading experience and an artwork that explodes with color and life.
Though her works do include the two basic components of a book (text and images), that’s where the similarities end. Her books are not two-dimensional as expected and do not behave or function in the same way as other books. Her text and images jump off the page both literally and figuratively. These aren’t just pages you can skim over or thumb through. Reading a Julie Chen book is a completely new experience for the average reader. Her work allowed me to admire her intricately artisanship and truly appreciate the process of handcrafting books. Instead of glancing at the binding without second thought, I was inspecting the piece and found myself fully engaged in the “reading” experience. By pushing the boundaries of traditional bookmaking, Chen redefines what a book truly is and lets every part of the book speak for itself.
Julie Chen currently lives in Berkley, California where her interest in book art began. After completing a degree in printmaking, Chen decided to go to graduate school because she had not yet figured out what she ultimately wanted to pursue as a career. She accidentally discovered book art while visiting her sister at Mills College after her own graduation. After reading the list of graduate courses and walking into the book art studios, she immediately felt intrigued by the equipment, language, and materials that she saw. Chen felt pulled towards this foreign bookmaking process, and even though she had no formal training or any books in her portfolio, the program still accepted her. In 1987, Chen started Flying Fish Press to publish book structures that can function as sculptures as well as traditional books. Today, she continues to spread her own passion by teaching a Book Arts course at Mills College, lecturing on her process, and teaching book art workshops throughout the country.
Chen works conceptually, allowing her ideas to establish the content and design of the book. While sometimes the text influences the design of the book, other times she begins with a specific piece of material that in turn inspires the text. Her subject matter is seemingly limitless and her works reflect a variety of concepts such as history, time, memory, and language. Each aspect of the piece coordinates with this subject and fuses together the sculptural and the literary. Her pieces include sculptures that resemble a geode, a box of chocolates, a staircase, a strand of DNA, and a map. Though the pieces cover completely varied subject matter, they all have a sense of cohesiveness because of Chen’s own personal style of bookmaking.
Her process is completely different from that of a traditional author and illustrator. Her projects require extreme precision and she uses mathematics and measuring in almost every book (much to her dismay), because the books must be proportional and have specific lengths. Each piece is well crafted and heavily detailed, showing her true dedication and devotion to her craft. Unlike the mass-produced books that dominate our culture, her books are both original and exclusive. There’s no real way to reproduce one of her works, a concept somewhat unfamiliar to the book market.
When looking Julie Chen’s pieces, it’s hard to decide whether they should belong in a studio, library, or museum. They are most definitely pieces of artwork, but they are also interactive. By doing this, Chen creates a reading experience that becomes interactive and fully stimulating and helps redefine the perception and role of a book illustrator. Her artwork is fresh and completely challenges the public perception of what is “normal,” reinforcing the old saying that you really can’t judge a book (or artist) by its cover.