Tuscaloosa art gallery gives a new meaning to reading

Alyssa Schubert, Contributing Writer

Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden” is spotlighted behind a glass case near the end of the room. Gold lettering stands out on the newly bound green cover, while forest-colored paint splatters the deckle-edged pages. This piece has no issue catching the eyes of spectators. 

It is one of many that occupies the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center, which recently opened its newest exhibition, “Mending,” on Friday, March 4, to run through March 25. This exhibition showcases the work of Gina Fowler, Katharine Buckley and Luke Kelly, three graduate students in the MFA Book Arts Program at The University of Alabama. 

Buckley earned her Bachelor of Arts in studio art from The University of Alabama, while Fowler earned her B.A. from Brigham Young University and Kelly earned his B.A. from Harvard University.

There are a plethora of ways to create book art. Book arts is a group of art forms encompassing both traditional and new methods of binding and papermaking to push the limits of the structure and function of books. 

Fowler, who has been practicing book arts for five years, explained the wide variety of platforms that book arts takes and the meanings behind them. 

“There is a huge range in what we do, but it really is made up of three components. One is binding, so all sorts of different structures. There are different types of styles with books that have flat spines, round spines and exposed spines. Then we also do a lot of letterpress printing and papermaking,” Fowler said. 

Fowler said that there is a papermaking mill in Tuscaloosa that a lot of people in the community do not know about. This is somewhere artists go to make paper for their projects. 

She went on to talk about her individual work and the category of her thesis project. 

“Myself and one of the other artists, [Buckley], are exhibiting artists’ books, which means we have conceptualized and designed and printed and basically assembled the books from start to finish,” Fowler said. “Sometimes it means making art that is meant to be in the book form, and sometimes it means making art that just references the idea of a book.” 

Fowler’s work, titled “An Ideal Nowhere: Finding My Utopia,” is described in the preface at the gallery as “a collection of work that explores the relationship between personal experiences and utopian societies.”

Fowler’s project “Dreamland” is a bound book, but individual pages are on display as well to better showcase singular ideas. Her pieces depict singular words and phrases decorated with colorful lines running across an otherwise blank page. Some of the phrases pose questions, while others make statements about Fowler’s “Dreamland.” 

Kelly’s work is in a different category than Fowler’s and Buckley’s. Kelly is a conservationist artist who focuses on mending and restoring older books with a decorative aspect. He explained part of his process of creating his thesis project, which features a thin, blue book with a silhouetted face on it.

“Two of these books are for my thesis. I take the backs and put them together and then glue them together with the spine. Then, I stick a piece of board upright and pair the pages very, very thinly,” Kelly said.

The pieces were set up around the outer walls of the room and were categorized by the artists. All the pieces meshed together, despite varying in style. From annotated criticisms of history textbooks, to pages decorated with quotes and color, to classic books with redesigned covers, there was much to marvel at. 

The unique gallery experienced its opening night with a reception for the artists on Friday night. Faculty of the University of Alabama Book Arts Program were in attendance, as well as students and guests wanting to check out the display. 

Ivy Borden, a junior majoring in art history and Southern studies, said the exhibition “rocked the house” and she felt grateful to be able to experience the artwork. 

“I am just incredibly thankful for the people at Book Arts, at Dinah Washington, at Flow Alabama for making it possible,” Borden said. 

Fowler said it felt special to have their work observed by the public because of how important tangibility is to the understanding of book arts.  

“It does not translate like a painting might, so this is a really special opportunity to be able to show in a public, open space,” Fowler said. 

Questions? Email the culture desk at [email protected].