To me there is nothing sadder than finding a book that has seen better days, picking it up, and then having to admit to yourself that as much as you might want to, you’ll never fix it or do anything with it. Oh yes, you might try and tape the spine and glue the pages back in, or perhaps if you’re more adventurous, turn it into a secret hiding spot on your bookshelf, but in reality the chances are more likely that this poor book, once loved and adored, will now end up in the trash can. Yours, or somebody else’s. I have no idea on the statistics, but I imagine that literally thousands of books are thrown away or pulped every year. It’s terribly tragic, but this is precisely where Kelly Campbell Berry comes in, turning old and forgotten books into beautiful paper sculptures, rebinding and resurrecting these once discarded lost beauties, and giving them a new lease on life.
I first stumbled across Kelly’s literary artworks quite by wonderful accident, having been looking for an image to accompany an article I was writing about bringing written characters to life. I had fallen down the proverbial internet rabbit hole and somehow ended up in the land of book sculpture. Kelly’s amazing pieces really stood out for me because of the loving way she brings old books back from the dead, painstakingly re-telling their stories through layers and layers of illustrations, carefully cut and pasted into position. As a writer, this devotion to detail really spoke to me. Kelly’s artworks are so much more than bits of paper stuck together. They are inspiring, and I was instantly struck with a strong desire to go back and read some of my old favourites like Frankenstein, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (my mother had an amazing leather bound edition), and Charlotte’s Web.
Kelly lives in a small town in Oklahoma named Bethel Acres, where the cows outnumber the human population, which as a writer sounds amazing. I can just picture the serenity now. “I think I prefer it that way,” agrees Kelly, “we also share the community with goats, horses, and even a camel. When I take my morning tea on the front porch I often see deer and turkey graze across my property. The relaxing sight is great inspiration to start my day.”
Aside from being a wife, mother and grandmother Kelly also describes herself as a lover of all things art. “I better be! My husband is a high school art teacher,” Kelly muses before adding, “now that my children are all grown, I consider my hobby my career. I work in my studio more than 40 hours a week, and my 'paper-cutting' and books resurrection is a family endeavor. My daughter-in-law Ashley, who started out as my apprentice, is now starting to develop her own techniques and style, and will soon be starting her own line of sculptures. My husband Bob is an artist, and has been for decades. He is a sculptor, and also creates beautiful displays and accent pieces for me to use during shows and exhibitions.”
Listening to Kelly describe her home, and home town, I am instantly jealous. It sounds like the perfect place to hide yourself away and devote yourself to creating amazing things. “Living in a small farm community is very inspiring for an artist,” says Kelly, “I live only a mile and a half from the lake, and there are not only farm animals, but also lots of wild life. The views are beautiful and the weather (except for an occasional tornado) is perfect. We have cold winters with a few beautiful snow storms each year, turbulent springs (but the storm clouds are breathtaking), hot summers and colorful autumns. It’s hard not to weave the seasons into our art. We also have a large Native American population, with a strong cultural presence, and making art a big part of our community.”
Being married to an artist, Kelly tells us, made it easier for her when she finally decided to make the leap from weekend passion to career with her sculptures, and she now receives requests for custom orders from all over the world. “It was about 2011 that my husband and I decided that I would make book sculpting my full time career,’ she says, “it wasn’t a difficult choice. Thankfully, I'm married to an artist, so he understands that passion. Since all our children were grown, married or off to college, it seemed like the perfect time.”
As picturesque as her life sounds today however, Kelly’s love for giving books a new lease on life actually transpired from a devastating, personal catastrophe. The loss of her family home to fire in 2006. “It was a total loss,” Kelly explains, “I had a collection of antique and vintage children's books. I had been collecting them for the beautiful illustrations. Of them all, only two book were salvageable after the fire, and I struggled to find a way to preserve the illustrations inside. One day I began to cut away all the pieces but the illustrations, while still keeping them attached to the book. One week later, I had my first sculpture. This was my first resurrection. It was a bit rough, but it was the beginning of a new passion. That first book was Haans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales and the second was Moby Dick. The Moby Dick sculpture was donated to an auction for The Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art.”
Since then, Kelly’s skills have only continued to evolve, as she develops her style through new techniques. “I am constantly learning. Over the years I have discovered that no two books are alike, and the paper is ever-changing. I get a lot of custom orders for books that have many editions, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There are editions from 1864 to 2018. Each year, each edition, each publisher comes with different types and qualities of paper, so I have to take into account that each 'old' book has experienced different conditions that effect the paper's aging process. Cutting into paper from the 1800's has a beautiful smooth feel. That is, if it’s not brittle. Trying to cut brittle paper is a nightmare. Since I don’t coat my pages with anything, I have to account for the continued aging process (which is beautiful by the way) and adjust my detail and cuts accordingly. When cutting new and current books, I have to use twice as many blades than with the older books. Modern paper does not have the same 'grain' and dulls the blades twice as fast. It’s the quality of paper that makes all the difference.”
This was a huge surprise for me, and one of those things that you just never think about until it affects you I guess. I mean, I knew paper had changed over time, naturally of course it would as the machinery and techniques for making it were refined, but I honestly didn’t think it had changed that much. Boy, was I wrong. “I’ve actually come to prefer the older books due to the quality of paper,” says Kelly, “when I get a custom order for a book, I try to purchase an older edition for two reasons. First, I think the older illustrations have more character and detail. Second, the quality of paper used. Newer books have a cross-grain, preventing the pages from tearing easily. I suppose that’s great for the book readers, but if you’re like me, and plan to cut them up, it's not so great.”
Kelly’s favourite works are changing all the time too, which is totally understandable. I’d find it hard to have a favourite as well! “At the moment, I would have to say, a first edition Mark Twain. Before you gasp in horror at the thought of my cutting up a first edition, let me assure you it had no monetary value. The book was missing its covers and the signatures (page sections) were completely separated and most importantly, the title page was missing. My husband rebound the book, and created hard covers to match what was missing. It was at that time that I then started cutting and resurrecting the book. My second favorite book was The Divine Comedy. The 1800's edition! The Gustave Dore' plate engravings are amazingly detailed.”
Despite the intricate nature of her sculptures however, the tools Kelly uses are delightfully simple. “I use a cutting mat to slide between the pages, detail scissors, scalpel, and Excel blades,” she tells me, “I also use a magnifying visor and spot light.”
Given the literally endless inspiration books provide, I was curious to find out the weirdest book Kelly had used in her sculptures. “This is a much more difficult question to answer than I thought it would be,” admits Kelly, “I guess the weirdest books are children's picture books. They’re strange because they have illustrations on both sides of the page, so they’re the only book I actually have to plan out. I usually order two copies of the same book so that I don’t have to eliminate great illustrations from the sculpture simple because they are on the 'wrong' side of the page.”
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of her work, Kelly finds bit of paper following her all over the house. “YES! Everywhere!” Kelly laughs, “on my studio floor, down the stairs, and on my living room floor. We were rearranging furniture one weekend and found a Wizard of Oz illustration under the sofa. Not sure how it got there, but I remember looking for it.”
As we draw to the end of our chat, I ask Kelly if she has any famous last words, which only serve to take my admiration of her craft up a notch. “I’ve had many angry people lecture me about destroying good books for the sake of art. Well, my response to that is... when looking for books to sculpt, I try to find damaged and/or neglected books that would otherwise be trashed. I spend time repairing and rebinding them before sculpting them. The words within the book are an art form and illustrations are 'telling' the story as well. I take an unwanted book and give it a new way of telling its story. Instead of going into the trash bin, I resurrect it and create a piece of art that will remind the viewer of the words that were once on the pages. A quick glance, and a written quote will emerge from memory.
Kelly has also started creating illustration sculptures. Love it!