Making Art Out Of Books

Expat artist Jacqueline Rush Lee on sculpting a career from an obsession with bibliography

Hello Jacqueline. How would you describe yourself as an artist?

I'm a process-oriented artist interested in investigating materials and transforming them beyond their usual physical and cultural expectations.

Where did you study?

In Glengormley High, then Dundonald Girls High ending in Comber High. But it was not until much later that I decided to follow through formally with art training at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu after many years of travel. I did not take a conventional path to formal training, so I think that has contributed to a uniqueness in my work.


When did you move to Hawaii and why?

For purely circumstantial reasons. My husband's relatives are from Hawaii. After many years of travelling and living in different areas we decided to move here in 1993.

When did you start working with books as materials?

In 1997 as a visual artist. However, as a child I had a collection of books that I made, where I wrote my own stories and illustrated them. I suppose I continue to be the author that I was as a child.

How did you come across the idea?

Through investigative process and enquiry. I fired a book in a kiln to see what would happen and was intrigued by the poetic transformation of the object because it did not look burnt, but like a ghost version of itself.

Have you observed a growth in book art over the years?

When I started out 16 years ago, there was no book art trend, no internet presence in this field to be inspired by, and I had not actually seen any art made from books other than from artists who hand-crafted books. Many people found it unusual then that I would make art out of books.

But book and paper art is really popular now and becoming more well known as a genre with universities incorporating it into their courses. Many budding artists look to the internet and find work like my own as sources of inspiration, and pick up ideas.


What kind of books are best to use: Bibles with thin pages, hardbacks with large pages, ancient papyrus tomes that you really shouldn't be using to make sculptures with...

I don't use ancient tomes. I would keep those for collection purposes, if I found any. But I doubt that many of us would find any. Let's not forget that books are multiples, even Bibles, there are thousands and thousands of copies to go around.

Here in Hawaii we have Friends of the Library, where discarded books are sold for 25 or 50 cents, or dumped in their free pile. That's where I get most of my books. Often in my work the meaning of the book is not paramount anyway, it's just my canvas.

What other materials do you work with?

My background is in ceramics, so I work with form and surface much like a ceramist would, except that I've always been interested in pushing a material to see what it can do as opposed to what we expect it to. For instance in clay, I made an installation of six long roots, because I wanted to push the material to the extreme and question the nature of what clay objects are supposed to look like – i.e., this is not a vase.

My attention to form and surface can be seen in my Paintures series, and my Made in China series, where I build forms with units of paper, which, contrary to their fragility, look like porcelain. I enjoy that dichotomy. To me it's conceptually and visually intriguing to toy with.


Are there any other sculptural artists that you particularly enjoy?

Absolutely. I love everything through folk art to conceptual craft, but often I'm inspired outside of sculpture. Some artists I really respond to are Iza Gensken and Sarah Sze for their approach to seemingly chaotic sculptural design, and the incomparable potters George Ohr and Lucie Rie. I love great graphic and industrial design, beautifully crafted installation art in the style of Tara Donovan and Japanese Ukiyo-e prints.

Do you have a favourite piece that you've created?

That's a hard one, but I have to say my Ex Libris works are up there as my favourite artworks, along with my inked series and new works that look skeletal. Often I prefer the challenging pieces.

How can people see your work?

I do show my work in exhibits and museums on the mainland US. I suppose if people from Northern Ireland would like to see my work, maybe a gallery or museum will invite me to show. I'm due for a solo show, with the amount of work I have. You can check out my website in the meantime.

What would you say to the traditionalist who thinks that art should involve paint, a canvas and a frame, and that's it, thank you very much?

I would say keep on making the art that is true to your soul. Artists in the 21st century are free to work however they choose, and we should embrace that diversity. Only, try to be open and respectful to all artforms that differ from your own. We all start out on the traditional path. Some of us just choose to expand on traditions, and it's okay to take the road less travelled.