Reading rainbow

Book Arts: Fusing Words and Visual Imagination

Bookworms Bob Blesse and Katy Govan get excited during a visit to UNR’s special collections.

Bookworms Bob Blesse and Katy Govan get excited during a visit to UNR’s special collections.


Here in the digital age, when there are innumerable ways of obtaining information, to read a book is an aesthetic choice. We read books not just for the textual or visual information, but for the smell of paper, the feel of the page between thumb and forefinger. The University of Nevada, Reno’s month-long, four-part event Book Art: Fusing Words and Visual Imagination is a celebration of the form, rather than the function, of the book. It’s a celebration of the book as art object.

The four parts of the event are as follows: “Experiments in Navigation,” a retrospective exhibition of works by renowned San Francisco book artist Charles Hobson. Second is a wide-ranging display of book arts from the UNR special collections department. Third is the “Black Rock Press Book Arts Student Exhibit” on display in the UNR Church Fine Arts Building. And the final component is a series of book arts events—including a demonstration of bookbinding techniques and an artist’s lecture by Hobson—held all over the UNR campus on Monday, July 6.

“The artist book is essentially hard to define,” says Bob Blesse, a UNR art professor and director of the Black Rock Press. “It’s whenever an artist uses the book format as a means of creative expression.”

Blesse started acquiring books for the university’s Book Arts Collection more than 25 years ago when he was the head of the Special Collections Department. Highlights from this collection are on display on the UNR Knowledge Center’s third floor.

The books range from traditional-looking but beautifully illustrated books to sculptural objects, made using only the basic elements of the book.

“It’s mind-boggling!” says Blesse with infectious enthusiasm. “Not just the creative process, but the skill involved with actually making some of this stuff.”

He points out works by Berkeley, Calif., artist Julie Chen, whose fine, delicate books are stunning in their attention to detail. For example, World Without End looks like some sort of astronomical map, and Ode to Grand Staircase is a tribute to the composer Erik Satie with pages and graphics that unfold with the pleasant but surprising logic of a carefully constructed musical composition.

The artists’ books are products of what Blesse calls “paper engineering”—the book artists, most of whom create their books from top to bottom—is a printer, designer, book-binder and chemist. Some artists’ books are reminiscent of origami, but the most recognizable artistic connection is to a beloved childhood object: the pop-up book.

“Pop-up books!” says Blesse. “Some of the commercial ones are awesome. That Star Wars one is just amazing!”

The line between book arts and sculpture can be blurry, but there’s one important distinction of book arts: Even if the work is displayed behind glass, it’s still intended to be held in the hands and read. Sculpture is viewed, books are read.

“[There’s] not a single artist here that wouldn’t want you to touch their book,” says book artist Katy Govan, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in the university Art Department’s MFA program. She has work on display in the student show at the McNamara Gallery. “The book is an extension of the body. It requires that moment of handling for activation. And every reader will have a unique experience.”