15 Jan 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

“What is content?” Some might argue that content is simply the use of text and/or images to tell a story in a book. Perhaps. This past fall, I talked a lot about the idea of “structural content” in relationship to book making. The form of a book is the first place to see how we can give and possibly derive meaning beyond the story inside. The need is straightforward. A binding structure should protect the pages within, so that someone can read the story and then preserve it for others to read as well. The formula for such a book is quite simple. 1. Stick pages together. 2. Put a protective cover around pages. That is the way machines think about book making. Yet, when making a book by hand, we have so many things to consider. Choices have to be made. By making those choices, you begin to add meaning to the work, for me, that is content. Possibly at its most basic, but content nonetheless.

Content can be quite ordinary. In the 17th Century, artists turned their brushes to the ordinary elements of daily life. Still life paintings, or Genre paintings, are credited with bringing the viewer’s eye to the meaning/beauty/spirituality of the everyday. Just by painting a subject, the artist made the subject meaningful. I think this reverberates through the art practice of the last 400 years. For me this allows one to see the beauty of the object as content in and of itself. It is meaningful to make a beautiful book. Its content is beauty, skill, process, and materials.

Journals, diaries and sketchbooks, beautifully made books, can be quite meaningful before a pen ever fills their pages with the stories and dreams of their owners. Content as it is defined here is the result of all the choices, structural and material, visual and tactile, that have gone into the creation of the such a book. The exterior of a book might be written off as decoration; however, the cover surely is not merely decoration or protection—it reveals something about the artist who made it and to an extent the person who ultimately uses the book. The best analogy, for me, is from the musical Oklahoma! There is a boxed lunch auction in the story that has the ladies making picnic lunches and dressing the baskets in finery and bows. The men are to bid on the “anonymous” lunches and as a bonus the ladies are obliged to have lunch with the winning bidder. Of course, cheating goes on, intrigues fly, and there is a bit of drama. Laurie doesn’t fare too well and has to have lunch with Jud instead of Curly. But I digress. The moral of that story is that through all that finery, frills, and bows, the hand of the maker can distinctly shine through. And likewise, all the finery that might be used in the creation of a book is not simply pretty decoration, but meaningful choices that fill the blankest of books with content.

David Nees is an adjunct, book artist, and book designer. He is currently working at the University of Alabama Press, and teaching at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, where he lives with his fiancé, and their dog Henley. A selection of his portfolio can be seen here:

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