While many of us appreciate a good book, Associate Professor of English Mark Brown has taken up a unique perspective of the book form through book arts, which he defines as “an artistic and scholarly field that asks questions about what a book is, what it does, how it’s constructed, and how its content and form together can do new things. It draws attention to the physical object of the book and tries to push the boundaries of what fits under that label. The short version of that,” he adds, “is it’s where people make fascinating, amazing artworks that use the book form as their basis.”
Mark explains his journey with book arts began as an undergraduate when he came across the book Cover to Cover by Shereen LaPlantz. He was “entranced by a book made out of metal that was shaped like a fish and the ‘pages’ hung on metal rings. I loved the tiny books that were housed in handmade boxes, poems handwritten on scrolls wound around wooden spools, and books with windows and secret compartments.” Inspired, Mark says he “immediately started trying to imitate some of what I saw with copy paper, glue, rubber bands, and other supplies on my desk.”
Later, in his MFA program, Mark took a book art class from Tom Trusky who was head of the Idaho Center for the Book, but “beyond that,” he shares, “I am largely self-taught.” In 2018, Mark attended a month-long National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah where he studied with book artists and scholars like Johanna Drucker and Charlotte Howe. “We visited rare book rooms at both University of Utah and Brigham Young University; made everything from cheap, hand-drawn zines on copy paper to electronic books programmed with Arduino circuit boards. Each participant created a final project that was part of a show at the Salt Lake City Library for four months. It was one of the most exciting, gratifying professional, creative experiences I’ve ever had.” The show was also on display in the Delta College Library for six months.
Sharing his expertise with students in the classroom, Mark’s honors composition course is “built around zines and self-publication, and the first thing we do on the first day is create an individualized, hand-made zibaldone (notebook or commonplace book). In an effort to get students to simultaneously be less self-conscious about their writing and also more purposeful, we practice different ways of presenting their writing in self-published zines. Zines are cheap and meant to be easy and accessible, but I also introduce them to artist books and the concept of book arts. Some students take their projects to elaborate, sophisticated levels, and it’s been rewarding to see how enthusiastic and ambitious some of them become.”
Outside of the classroom, Mark belongs to a group called the Broken Nose Poetry Collective with the goal for each member to make and distribute a chapbook of original poetry to the other members of the group each year. ”My goal,” Mark says, “is to use different book arts ideas and techniques every time. One year I made seven or eight tiny, one-poem books and housed them all in a metal box the size of an Altoids tin. Another year, I made a poetry machine – a board with multiple spinning wheels called volvelles that could create over 144,000 different poetry combinations. The year I attended the NEH institute, I made an accordion book with the poems I wrote in Salt Lake on one side and a running print of the Wasatch Mountains on the other side. It’s a lot of work to create an edition of anywhere from 20 to 40 handmade books, but I find it satisfying and fun.”
Still, there are some frustrations, which Mark explains, “It’s probably the same for any artistic pursuit – it’s just never as good as I want it to be. I don’t know enough. I can’t find exactly the right material or pull off the technique in the way I want. It doesn’t match what I envision in my head. I’m getting better about accepting projects as they are rather than being angry about what I wanted them to be.”
But, overall, there are more positives, “Each new project is my latest, greatest joy. I just really love making new things, and I get excited about every step of the process – daydreaming and conceptualizing, prototyping, collecting materials, figuring out the problems that arise, showing the finished product to people who care. Books are magic – not just because of what we read in them but because of what they are. Making things that highlight and hopefully augment that magic is joyful for me.”