Visiting the bookmobile every week as a child—returning one stack, leaving with another—Austin artist Karen Hawkins has always loved books. "In my childhood they were my escape. I traveled the world through books. I still love to touch them and smell them."
Today Hawkins continues to surround herself with books—decommissioned ones, pulled from shelves and discarded. Here she finds the materials and inspiration for her three- dimensional sculpted forms. "In creating small and large-scale sculptures from the pages of [these] old, forgotten books," notes Chris Cowden (executive director, Women and Their Work), "Hawkins deconstructs and re-purposes the meaning originally found there. The authority and significance of the printed page—harkening back to the first mass printed book, the Gutenberg Bible—is becoming obsolete in the digital age. In Hawkins' work, the page assumes a different role, becoming a vehicle for nostalgia conveyed through form. Her process (like reading) illustrates the passage of time but meaning is perceived as visceral rather than cerebral."
As viewers, we marvel at the transformation, the structural elements and the forms that emerge. For Hawkins, though, it is the process that drives her artistic focus. "I begin by changing the book's structure—folding, cutting and excavating it—and rendering each page largely unreadable. Each book shape shifts into an object, not of literature or science or history any longer, but an object of art. As the meaning of each book is subjugated to [this] objectification process, a shifting beauty transpires, aside from any language or text or etching held between the endpapers. . . I like seeing the type transform, from a recognizable symbol to a simple visual mark, no longer referencing a known cue, but introducing a new language. It can only be created by absolute perfection in repetition, and that appeals to me. There's something very meditative to me about this motion."
Beyond the form, the marks on the page—printed text or graphic imagery—create lines and patterns allowing a visual language to surface. The process began one day as Hawkins was exploring the textural elements of a small, German book purchased at a flea market. Running her fingers over the pages, she began folding each one and suddenly saw the sculptural aspects of the hand-sewn vintage book. As an object it had taken on new form, leading her to explore more.
In this manner, Hawkins creates totems, towering constructs from the sewn pages of old books. Turning the book inside out, the intricately folded pages become undulating, cylindrical structures having the appearance of lathe-turned spindles. Stacked, they reference what the artist sees as cultural icons which speak to society's move from print to digital.
For a May exhibition at Gallery Shoal Creek, Hawkins has created a room installation of hanging totems. Forms vary in size and shapes and are spaced to allow the viewer to walk through the installation. "One's first reaction," says Hawkins, "is to reach out and touch the forms. These pieces ask you to do that. People want to know what they are."
Another installation exhibits a lively flair and showcases what the artist calls Jellyrolls, referencing not the sweet treat but the coordinated fabric squares her grandmother, a quilter, would assemble and roll in preparation for creating quilt tops. Rather than selecting fabrics, Hawkins gathers pages with colored edges from vintage paperbacks, mostly fiction and romance novels. Traditionally, the colored edges served to protect the book from dust, dirt and handling. In Hawkins' work, these edges take on an aesthetic quality.
Starting with a small dowel, Hawkins begins winding, adding pages one at a time to create wheels in varying diameter and depth. Here, too, a decidedly rhythmic movement takes hold. She has made thousands of these which she uses to create site-specific wall installations that embrace improvisation and melodic freedom as she works with the module forms. Looking straight on, the wall sings in period colors; from the side, the printed page reveals the paper source.
Moving beyond the folded and rolled pages, Hawkins integrates other parts of the book in her work. Her Epilogues, for example, emphasize module constructs, which are of particular interest to the artist. She removes the books' covers to expose the stitching along the spine and the original craftsmanship, and then cuts what remains into blocks and preserves them in beeswax. From these honeyed bricks, she constructs wall reliefs with rich texture and subtle pattern from the natural colorations of the aged books. The honey aroma blends with the old book smell, giving the multi-sensory assemblage a vintage presence yet contemporary composition. Once again, there is a desire to reach out and touch the work.
"[By] changing the book structure, what I'm really doing is taking out the referential use of the book and pushing the object of the book, which is where we are in today's [technological] world. We don't use books as reference anymore; they are in so many ways just objects. I am pushing that [idea]. Some people have had negative reactions to my destroying books, but I don't see it that way. They were headed to the dump, you know? I am just preserving them in a different way."
Hawkins has storage units and garages full of discarded books. Among the inventory is a complete law library bequeathed to her when a large law firm went digital. Her plans for it? She is not yet sure, but will someday create a piece referencing the law. Given the number of volumes, it is certain to be a monumental work.
Also on her "to do" list is the search for a bookmobile. Of course, it has to be authentic; she is on the hunt for a 1960s vintage vehicle which she can restore and transform the interior into a book inspired traveling art installation. Perhaps when it becomes a reality, the creative energy it generates will inspire young people to use their imaginations much as the bookmobile of her youth inspired her.