"I am passionate about my work and, being a perfectionist, am slightly obsessive about getting the detail just right"
After many years of working with collage and mixed media, British artist Kerry Miller began exploring ways in which she could make use of old, discarded books. She experimented with dissecting and rebuilding them to produce the unique assemblages in her 'reimagining the book' series.
For each piece she works on, Kerry uses only the illustrations found within that particular book, having first removed the written word. Colour is added using inks or watercolours where she considers that they will enrich and enhance the final effect, adding a sense of depth and energy.
These intricately worked 3D books provide tantalising glimpses into a rich past, becoming miniature worlds that allow the viewer to simply tumble into them.
The books she uses are variously sourced and carefully selected for their illustrations and character, whilst taking into account her perception of how the finished piece will look. She uses only old books as they lend themselves to this treatment in a way that modern books do not.
"I enjoy the fact that I can even make use of books in a condition which most people would dismiss as unusable. For instance, I discovered an 1868 copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in a junk shop. Although complete, it was little more than a pile of loose pages held together with an elastic band. Inside, however, the lovely illustrations were revealed to be in perfect condition. The rugged and gnarled appearance of the book has been carefully preserved, which I believe greatly enhances the character of the finished piece".
Kerry views her work as a collaboration, a partnership with the past, giving new purpose to old books that may otherwise never see the light of day or simply end up in recycling.
"As technology threatens to replace the printed word, there has never been a better time to reimagine the book".
Kerry Miller’s intricate book sculptures are works of painstaking effort and unbelievable beauty. Looking like a cross between Faberge egg creations mixed with the most precious of books, her pieces turn the fairly banal texts she uses as a base, into something wondrous.
Miller’s works take a variety of styles, although each one incorporates the original book as its ‘frame’, providing a focus for the viewer as they delve into the marvelous and ‘wonderland-like’ creations that Miller creates.
Antique books are Miller’s texts of choice, and these have the added advantage of frequently containing – or being written about- the most bizarre of topics: from home-made medicine techniques, to Victorian recipe books containing the most bizarre of recipes.
No matter what the topic, however, these books have well and truly turned into art…
Kerry Miller Q & A:
Your book sculptures are reconfigurations of illustrations on a two dimensional surface into a three dimensional sculpture. When did you first start making these works?
I've been working in collage and mixed media for many years and have always been attracted to the extra dimension that 3D provides.
I inherited a passion for old books from both parents and have been an avid collector since I was a child, spending countless hours in junkshops, flea markets and secondhand bookshops throughout my whole life. I became increasingly aware that vast numbers of discarded books are being destroyed simply because they are surplus to the world's requirements, so I suppose it was a logical progression for me to introduce books into my artwork.
Five or six years ago, I began experimenting with using books as a medium in different forms, variously utilizing either the written word or the images from the books, sometimes including other media. These evolved into the work I am doing today.
Is your favorite phase the discovery of a perfect book or the end-result of seeing it transformed?
I love both phases, but for different reasons.
For me, the "perfect book" is actually an imperfect book, the images are as valid to me whether they're shabby and faded or still crisp and clear. My whole inspiration for a piece begins with a "find" that I know I can use in my work - I even get a little adrenalin rush as I leaf through the pages and visualize how I might use the book!
At the other end of the cycle, sitting back and seeing the end result gives me a huge sense of wellbeing, knowing that the book can now reach a new audience. I get great satisfaction from feeling that I've done a book justice, creating a bridge through time, bringing its past into the present.
What factors determine if you add in details with watercolor and ink and how much do you alter the original illustrations?
Adding color can be just a matter of adding emphasis, richness or depth here and there to illustrations that are already colored or it can involve coloring black and white images in their entirety.
Many of the books I use are illustrated in black and white, not necessarily because that was the preferred option, but more because color printing was prohibitively expensive in those days. I see illustrations crying out for color to breathe new life into them, particularly wildlife images - nature never intended birds, flowers and butterflies to be monochrome!
Your pieces seem to be imagination come to life off the pages of the books you’ve rescued from antique shops and dusty piles. Are your sculptures based on the stories cut out from the pages of the book or do you create any of your own story lines?
I become completely caught up in the world of the book - the characters begin to take on lives of their own as I work with their tiny detail.
My aim is for my work to be more than just a reincarnation of the book's former life. I see it as not only an opportunity for self-expression, but a chance to create a new narrative, to embark on a storytelling journey.
Are the compositions based on sketches or are they spontaneously created? How long does a sculpture take to create on average? Do you build it in stages or all at once?
I cut out and then gradually re-introduce the illustrations back into the shell of the book, layering and constantly manipulating them, until eventually the whole composition "sings ". I use the colour and form to fulfil a need to express without words. Being a perfectionist, I am slightly obsessive about getting the detail just right.
I am normally working on several books at any given time, completing each in stages. Everyone is different but, depending on the complexity and size, takes an average of around eighty hours to complete.
The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, Wisconsin
National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.