Jacqueline Rush Lee: The Skeletons and Fossils That Books Leave Behind

Confronted with Unfurled, a sculpture by Jacqueline Rush Lee, it is difficult to know exactly what we are looking at. Delicate yet durable, its white striations blossom forth like the remains of some heretofore unknown sea creature or perhaps a fossilized fungi. It is neither of these. It is a book, fired in a potter’s kiln at high temperatures until, instead of disintegrating, it reached a brittle, “petrified” state.

Lee, a Hawaiian artist most known for her book art, uses a variety of experimental techniques to transform books. Lee says she tries to “obscure the nature of the material,” and by hiding the fact that these are books she changes our expectations about what a book is, forcing us to look anew at these volumes that surround us.

In Unfurled and the other kiln-fired books in her Ex Libris series, the books’ own materiality becomes palpable. Lee seems less to have changed the books than to have uncovered a physical state, as if books, like shells and bones, left behind a calcified framework. We are reminded that books are, in some ways, natural; composed of wood pulp and leather, their condition as books is just one stage in the cycle of creation and decay. In Absolute Depth, another work from Ex Libris, the process is taken one step further: a petrified periodical is placed in a glass tank of water and allowed to decay, “shedding text” in Lee’s words. The disintegrating particles dissolve in the water, changing state but remaining enclosed within the work: a complete ecosystem, a model of transformation.

A lifelong book lover, Lee haunts her local Oahu Friends of the Library book sales hunting for intriguing volumes to transform into art. At Kaneohe, her favorite, the books cost 25 cents and the volunteers keep an eye out for the old, worn books that Lee buys in bulk. “They picked up on the fact that I wasn’t the usual book purchaser—that I was buying lots and lots of books for ulterior reasons,” she says.

While some viewers are quick to criticize art that “destroys” or “desecrates” books, Lee points out that these books have been given another life. By reshaping their narratives she explores our own expectations of books. “I am interested primarily in how materials have their own voice, or how society understands materials to have their own voice [and] expanding upon that vocabulary—and the assumptions we bring to materials.”

Essential to Lee’s explorations is the innate fragility of something made of paper and leather. Developing a method to petrify books without incinerating them was slow and meticulous—it took hundreds of firings for her to perfect her technique. Complicating matters is the fact that when kiln-firing she must monitor not only the temperature of the kiln but also the particular book: each book will fire differently. (For the record, books from the 1940s and 1950s have a higher quality of paper that holds up better in heat.) Painstaking, but, as she says, “process is the world of the visual artist.”

So how does the fact that these are books influence our understanding of the works? Could Lee have used any other object just the same? “Some artists can work with a blank canvas,” she says, “but for me the material or the object has to resonate with me, and that is my canvas.” In these sculptures books are both transmitters of cultural knowledge and common objects that surround us every day. Sometimes they last for a thousand years, other times they fall apart after a few readings, and Lee explores both that frailty and the strength, the passing of time and what is left behind.

In addition to Ex Libris Lee has two other book-related series. For Volumes she soaked books then wound the resulting matter into large, wheel-like shapes. Her most recent book series is Epic, which takes the her work in a different direction. Lee imprinted book covers, fore edges, and spines in gypsum cement—essentially making a kind of plaster cast. In the process, the cover dyes bled into the cement. As with Ex Libris, when seeing the works for the first time it is not immediately clear what we are looking at. From a distance, Cloudscape for Anonymous looks like a painting of a sunset with softly modulating billows of pink hovering over the brown line of the spine, but this impression is soon complicated by the fraying threads of the binding and the embossed letters of the book’s title. Lee titled the panels “imprescoes,” a word she coined to describe both the imprint and the fresco-like color transfer.

While Ex Libris invokes a recognition of change on a geological scale, Epic is like the fossil record, marking the fleeting, anonymous impact of individual organisms. Lee started this series after the death of her mother and it has an unmistakably elegiac quality. Each panel in the exhibition represents an anonymous book owner, transferring focus from the books themselves to the people who read them. The haunting Ode to Atsuo is an imprint of a Japanese dictionary owned by a man named Atsuo who had carefully taped the cover together. It is an homage to these attempts to delay decay, to the small marks that people leave in the world.

When choosing books for her art, Lee is attracted not so much by content but by the relationship between the object and the reader/owner, the residues each reader leaves on the volume. She explains:

I am drawn to the aesthetic of a hand-worn book—say the way that a book has been taped lovingly together, or one that speaks of someone having handled it for a very long time as a precious object. I am also attracted to the marginalia in books and how there is this whole other intimacy and world within books that go beyond the story and the work of the original author. And then, you know, you see that these intimate precious objects are then dumped at a used library space and you wonder about the lives of who these people were who had owned the books.

One suspects that Atsuo, who went to such pains to preserve his dictionary, did not give it to the library book sale during his own lifetime. This suggests another aspect of the work. Viewed from a distance, the shape of Ode to Atsuo resembles not just an open book but also a single, fragile, human vertebra. As Marcia Morse pointed out in a 2005 essay for the Contemporary Museum Biennial of Hawaii Artists Exhibition, the spine is “one of several ways in which book structure and human anatomy overlap.” Mortality is very much present in this work, but as epitaph, not tragedy.

I started by saying that Lee’s sculptures were books; in truth, they are no longer books but the shells of books, the skeletons of dictionaryies and the fossils of novels. Their original text is no longer accessible, but new meanings can be discovered within their whorls. In Lee’s words, “I see my book works as being like transformed books in which the viewer constructs a story of their own making.”

Elizabeth Wadell is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation


Jacqueline Rush Lee