Tuscaloosa Art Gallery Gives New Meaning to Reading

The book “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau is displayed behind a glass case near the back of the room. Gold letters stand out against the newly bound green cover, while forest-colored paint splashes across the fringed-edged pages. This piece has no problem catching the attention of viewers.

It’s one of many that occupies the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center, which recently opened its new exhibit, “Mending,” on Friday, March 4, through March 25. This exhibition features the work of Gina Fowler, Katharine Buckley, and Luke Kelly, three graduate students from the MFA Book Arts program at the University of Alabama.

Buckley received his Bachelor of Arts in studio art from the University of Alabama, while Fowler received his BA from Brigham Young University and Kelly received his BA 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 bookbinding and papermaking to push the boundaries of book structure and function.

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

“There’s a huge range in what we do, but it’s really made up of three components. One is binding, so all kinds 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 there’s a paper mill in Tuscaloosa that many people in the community don’t know about. This is a place where artists go to make paper for their projects.

She then talked about her individual work and the category of her thesis project.

“Myself and one of the other artists, [Buckley], exhibit artist books, which means we conceptualized, designed, printed, and basically assembled the books from start to finish,” Fowler said. “Sometimes that means making art that’s supposed to be in book form, and sometimes that 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 gallery’s preface as “a collection of work that explores the relationship between personal experiences and utopian societies”.

Fowler’s project “Dreamland” is a hardcover book, but individual pages are also exhibited to better showcase singular ideas. His pieces depict singular words and phrases decorated with colored lines across an otherwise blank page. Some of the sentences pose questions, while others make statements about Fowler’s “Dreamland”.

Kelly’s work is in a different category than that of Fowler and Buckley. Kelly is an environmental artist who focuses on repairing and restoring antique books with a decorative aspect. He explained part of his process for creating his thesis project, which features a thin, blue book with a face silhouette on it.

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

The pieces were installed around the exterior walls of the room and were filed by the artists. All the pieces fit together, despite different styles. From annotated reviews of history textbooks with pages adorned with quotes and colors, to classic books with redesigned covers, there was plenty to marvel at.

The unique gallery experienced its opening night with a reception for the artists on Friday evening. Faculty from the University of Alabama’s Book Arts program were in attendance, along with students and guests interested in viewing the exhibit.

Ivy Borden, a junior art history and southern studies student, said the exhibit “shook the house” and she was grateful to be able to see the artwork.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the folks at Book Arts, Dinah Washington, Flow Alabama for making this possible,” Borden said.

Fowler said it was special to see their work observed by the public because of the importance of tangibility to understanding the arts of the book.

“It doesn’t translate like a painting might, so it’s a really special opportunity to be able to show in a public, open space,” Fowler said.

Questions? Email the Culture Office at culture@cw.ua.edu.

William E. Bennett