The Altered Book: A Great Project for In Session Art Therapy

When I was in graduate school for art therapy, I had never heard of an altered book or seen one, and certainly it did not come up in my “Materials” class. We did not get assigned any kind of Altered Book in any class, whereas now I am hearing from grad students that in some class or other, one of their assignments involves an altered book, which is usually assigned to do outside of class.

I think my first experience of an altered book may have been at the Outsider Art Fair. I distinctly remember going to this Fair years ago when it was always in the lovely Puck Building, which is still there, located on Lafayette near Houston St. in Soho, downtown NYC. In fact years before that, I had some of my graduate art therapy classes in the Puck Building and we organized the student art show on one of the floors of this building. It is certainly a beautiful building. The last time I was there for an art event was the comic book graphic novel fair a few years ago when I met one of my favorite graphic novel authors/artists, Lynda Barry. It must have been back in 2008 when she had just published this beautiful book about her art making process, called “What It Is”. Anyway I think I saw an altered book years before that encounter in the same building. It was made by a female outsider artist and I remember the book being very thick and beautiful and having a lot of glue on all the pages. It was very inspiring and I wish I could remember the artist and find a photo of it.

I made my first “altered book” years before that without knowing it was an “altered book”. It was not quite what we tend to think of these days when thinking of Altered Books. I took all the pages out of this strange pretty bad dramatic novel I did not read and altered the cover completely to the point where it was not recognizable as having been a book. I put a lot of plaster of paris on it and then mod podged tissue paper collage. Then I somehow found part of a cardboard box and attached the book to it so the top opened up as the cover. I think I used the pages to rip up and glue inside the box. I will take a photo of it. Strangely it was a gift for a close friend, but she was a close enough friend that she told me she found the box to be too disturbing to use or look at, so I took it to my studio, where it has been more appreciated! It inspired one person to make something like it with me, and she ended up taking a dislike to the project and left it with me when she left town after we went through her art that she had done in art therapy with me. I still have that rejeccted box in my studio as well. (It inspires me to write a whole post about “ugly” and “rejected” art work and how it is therapeutic in art therapy!)

More recently, a few years ago I stumbled on an online class about altered books, and in fact I have now taken 3 online classes about it, each class covering different aspects of the art making process involved in altering books. I have been making them with patients for a while now, and by making, I really mean inviting patients to try it out and see if they like it. The first part of the process involves the explanation of what it involves, which is, basically, you choose a book and then you can start anywhere in the book or with the cover or back cover and start picking art materials to use on the book. The first steps also often involve ripping out pages from the book, either to use in the book or to throw out. It is usually good to do this at the beginning as a way to give yourself permission to “alter” the book. We all have pretty fixed notions about the sacredness of books, which I think still exists despite the internet, reading on tablets and other devices, or perhaps, the tablets have made books seem even more precious. Jumping in to starting an altered book project requires a certain amount of adventurousness, ability to tolerate anxiety about the unkonwn and anxiety about trespassing a boundary and destroying something in some way in order to create something completely new. It also involves changing ones mind in framing the idea of that book, from something to be read and kept intact, to an object just like any other “found object” to transform and make your own through your own creative expression.

There are many different aspects to altered books as part of the art therapy session that are quite fascinating, so this post will only touch on the first part, the beginning. Once invited the interested patient will next be introduced to the random assortment of books I have to choose from and pick something that speaks to them to alter. Usually Hardback books are more inviting as it is easier to treat the cover like a canvas, but lately I have seen a few people pick soft cover books, becasue I have a few that are an interesting size, kind of square and with a lot of photos, and a cover that is more sturdy than the usual paperback. So far, nobody has decided to go home and pick out one of their own books. Part of this I think is the therapeutic value of taking a book that’s in my studio already taking up space as a book waiting to be chosen, so the process of accepting this odd art project is made easier as you are not “ruining” one of your own books. And I really have a strange random assortment of everything from dictionaries/thesauruses to cookbooks to spiritual meditation type books. Included is a thick hard back Italian novel and some other random novels as well as several books with pictures about fashion or the styles of certain decades. I have a travel guide. I had a guide for artists about materials and how to use them.

This aspect of rejection of the project that began when I made my own rejected “too intense” book box and then an “ugly” book box with a patient is a part of the altered book project. I have had a few people pick out a book and start altering it and then by the next session ask to shelve the project until “I’m in the mood for it. It’s too daunting right now.” The Altered Book will either be seen as a great container that is continually inviting or sometimes it represents being overwhelmed and unable to make any decisions about what to do, resulting in the project getting “shelved”. One of my patients started a first session very excited about all the varied materials I had, wanting to jump right into art therapy and got going very creatively with some book that she even worked on for the first few sessions. At some point I think she started cutting pieces out of the book to create a kind of box within the book, maybe even using an exacto knife. Then in the next session she declared she no longer wanted to work on it, was not in that “headspace” anymore and went to other forms of art making. She made great use of art therapy but never went back to the book until we were terminating and she fondly remembered it as her introduction to me and our work and I think decided to take it with her. The book project just functioned as a jumping in point.

Why do some people get excited to do an altered book in the first one or two sessions of trying it out and then run away from it, shelve it, reject it? Maybe when this happens it is because I, the art therapist, am actually more excited about it than the patient and have high expectations for it being a great kind of project for long term therapy. Perhaps for some people, there is too much commitment too early and they are not really ready for it.

The other interesting thing about doing Altered Books is when people do get invested in them and go back to them every session. Lately that has been happening, probably because a few people in my supervision group randomly chose to work on altered books without my prompting them. Two people have left the group with unfinished books they have taken with them. One person brought her own book to the group to alter with materials from the studio. So that energy of the altered book I really believe was “percolating” for a while in the studio. I had another rejected altered book started about a year ago in one session and then put aside. For a while I was not really focusing on altered books in the studio, just taking these classes and thinking once in a while about it, and learning more ways to approach the Altered Book.

At this moment, my studio feels filled with Altered Books! Like anything that grows in a garden on its own, it feels like this altered book contagion has just sprung up naturally. Just this week I introduced the altered book as an option to 2 patients who got excited about it, chose their books and jumped right in using different media. Last week I had started my own altered book project in the supervision group I facilitate, thinking that now that I have so many patients working on them, I want to do one at the same time. So I chose a book that is a guide to artist’s materials for artists. It was very exciting to imagine taking this book that divides up all the materials and methods and painstakingly describes how to achieve certain effects, and how to “properly” use the different materials and media and rip up the pages and paint on it and collage ripped pieces on to the pages to start the process of making it into a book I hope will be hard to guess exactly what it was even called or to have a vague sense when looking through my book that there are a lot of pictures of how to make art and art materials terms but nothing much else kept from the original book. Synchronicity abounds in doing altered books. For me it came when I opened the book and realized it had belonged to the friend who rejected my first book box project and returned the gift to me. Of course I ripped her name out of the book first.

Anyway, at this moment there are at least 8 altered book projects that have been just begun or are in the mid stages of alteration. If I actually count how many patients have started altered books recently, excluding the person from last year who has not expressed interest in going back to the project, it would be 7, so my guess was not far from wrong, as I am the 8th and then there are one or two people in supervision doing them.

The next post would raise the question: What helps a person stay with an altered book project and continue working on it regularly? and What is it about Altered Books that some people become “blocked” or lose interest after jumping in excitedly.

The one thing true of everyone is that the beginning, that first session of being invited to make one, choosing the book and jumping into it or onto the cover and starting right away to alter it is universally exciting and stimulating. I have only seen people be intrigued and excited when they begin this process. Some express having a weird feeling about “destroying” a book but when encouraged get past that feeling. The fascinating part of the Altered Book is after the initial excitement and embarking on this without a doubt long-term project, there is a moment of remaining with it and committing to it further through getting inside the book and getting going with paint, collage, mixed media, ripping out pages and getting one’s hands dirty. It seems to require about 3-4 sessions at least to determine if one is going to get “turned off” of the project and too overwhelmed, or further jumping in and committing more and more to it. Those who find it to be a kind of safe container stay with it. Leaving it with me in the studio is a big part of that process. I will hold on to their book until they come back to it, so they don’t have to see it for a week. It is very different to work on a long term art project whether it is because the work is very large and will take a long time to finish no matter what or the project by its very nature requires time invested. It is hard to work on a lot of pages at once, especially if you are using any kind of paint or ink. Anyway, leaving the book with me allows the creator to take a break from it and not have to look at it in between sessions. This seems to help the project to become a safe container and holding environment. Even with my own altered book, I decided to try out at first just working on it during the supervision group and leaving it alone, so I also take a week off from it, in order to further get into the experience of my patients and supervisees doing this kind of project…

To be continued…

Here are some photos from my own altered book which I have worked on in different situations, first started it in the supervision group I facilitate, then worked on it alongside several patients who are doing altered books as well as in my studio the other day when I added a kind if nest into the book…

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