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The Art Of The Book

Through the eyes of Cathy DeForest, a baby shoe, bird's nest, antique toaster and lace doily all become pages in a story.

"Everything I look at is a book," says the Ashland resident.

These found objects don't just inspire DeForest to write. They join her poetry, prose and illustrations — rendered in hand-set type on fine paper — for mixed-media presentations known as artists' books.

"Artists' books are original works of art created as a book," says DeForest. "It calls to people from different mediums."

Writers, calligraphers, painters, photographers, sculptors and found-object artists all are represented this month in a single exhibit of books at Ashland's Illahe Studios & Gallery.

DeForest, 62, plans to explain the influences and disciplines within the genre of artists' books during a free lecture Thursday at the gallery, followed by a guided tour with seven of the nine participating artists, all but one of whom are local residents.

"I dream about my books in the morning, and then I get up and make them," says Sabina Nies, a 55-year-old Ashland artist who specializes in book-binding.

Displaying three of her own books at Illahe, Nies also has a hand in other artists' work. She bound DeForest's "The Call of the Village" and "On Wings of Song," both in the show. The juried exhibit of more than 30 individual pieces is Illahe's first to feature artists' books and one of the first among local galleries.

"It was very surprising that they wanted these books," says 90-year-old Charu Colorado, who produced hers more than a decade ago in the course of 71 years as a professional artist.

Hand-sewn, collaged and "almost childlike," Colorado's books usually are part of a larger painting or sculpture. But as she focused more on writing over the past 10 years, the Ashland resident says books seemed like the perfect "playground and study place" to express herself.

"That's just a very obvious branch of creativity," says Colorado.

Book artists typically cite Englishman William Blake as the father of their craft. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Blake wrote, illustrated, printed and bound his own work. However, it wasn't until the dawn of the digital age that artists' books came into their own.

"These are ultra-retro," says Michael Holstein, a retired English professor who's been creating books over three years as vessels for his travel memoirs and poetry.

"This is basically a medieval craft," the Ashland resident says. "There are probably four or five professions that one has to master."

Now that he's proficient in calligraphy and book-binding, Holstein must learn to speak Italian and Spanish. Each of his books will attain their highest purpose, Holstein says, when he can read them aloud in cities that inspired them in the language of the land.

"We are looking for fit audience but few," he says, paraphrasing writer John Milton.

Artists' books, Holstein says, appeal to collectors, as well as anyone who appreciates the sensory experience of reading not only printed pages but the written word in its most beautiful form. His least expensive book among the 13 at Illahe costs $120. Some artists' handcrafted books sell for thousands, DeForest says.

And while some artists' books are true originals, many are produced in editions. DeForest has made about 30 artists' books over the past 17 years. In the past three years, she's chipped away at 100 editions of "On Wings of Song."

Printed in single turns on DeForest's letterpress, the book is a "classic" tale of motherhood expressed through her original drawings of birds, nests and eggs, all hand-tinted in watercolor. Folded like an accordion, the book stands up for display or compresses into a custom box.

Another accordion book is held fast by the gossamer sachet bag DeForest found on a trip to Florence, Italy. Intrigued by the intricacy of hand-sewing, DeForest wrote a story about those who listen to "the rhythm of thread." She bought 10 bags, but decided only after she returned home in September that the book should be an edition of 40. She's since scoured antique shops and flea markets for other examples of fine embroidery.

Antique toasters popped up on the Internet when DeForest's 19-year-old son, Derek Pyle, produced "Toaster Story," a satire of American politics, during the 2008 election. The slots of a circa-1930s chrome toaster perfectly present the two tomes printed on golden-brown paper. The book sold 15 copies, complete with toasters.

DeForest says she finds it fascinating that her "screen-age" son isn't just a poet but a partner in her printing business, Jubilation Press. While the duo hand-sets type to produce "broadsides," DeForest relies on computer programs to lay out her books and generate polymer plates for printing.

The finished products are promoted on her website, www.gallerydeforest.com, and the online social network Facebook. The irony doesn't escape DeForest, nor does it convince her that books may already be a lost art.

"I'm even more resolute in my commitment to making these kinds of books."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Cathy DeForest hand-inks an original etching for her artist's book, 'The Call of the Village,' on display at Illahe Studios & Gallery. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell