Thinking outside the book: The art of Julie Chen

Susan Kunimatsu May 22, 2017 0

Examples of “book art” by Flying Fish Press. • Courtesy Photo

When is a book more than just a book? What makes it a work of art? Julie Chen takes the basic elements of books—pages, covers, words and pictures—and expands them into ingeniously engineered paper structures that stretch the concept of “book” to its physical limits. A career retrospective of over 30 of her highly imaginative art books is currently on view in Every Moment of a Book: Three Decades of Work by Julie Chen at the University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections.

An Internet search of “book art” yields a lot of discussion and few definitions. Art books generally are beautiful objects, meant to be viewed as much as read. They are executed with a high level of design and craftsmanship, often by hand. Examples range from illuminated medieval manuscripts to graphic novels. Contemporary book artists write, illustrate, design, print, bind and build, working individually or collaboratively. They may take the traditional bound book as a starting point and expand its pages into three dimensions using cut-outs and pop-ups; map, accordion, and origami folding techniques.

Chen is a master of all these disciplines. What distinguishes her books is the way she integrates content, form and material to create a complete physical, aesthetic, and intellectual experience for the reader.

In an interview for Craft in America, she said: “I’m using those traditional book arts techniques to develop an object that is beautiful on some level, but it also has to have a lot of meaning. Everything that goes into the piece should contribute to the meaning of the piece.”

Chen’s books are not only to be viewed or read; each has a unique structure that may require the reader to open a box, unfold a page, slide an internal panel, turn a wheel, or set up a board game. She states: “My personal definition of the book is quite broad, with boundaries that are in constant flux. At the core of my interpretation is the act of reading, and the element of time that is essential to this act.”

The size and shape of a book, the space it occupies, and the time spent to unfurl and read it, all add to its meaning. Chen’s books are intended to evoke feelings as much as tell stories.

In the field of book arts, “Julie is one of the 10 most important people in the U.S. and the world,” according to Sandra Kroupa, Book Arts and Rare Book Curator, who brought this show and Chen’s personal archive to the UW. She cites Chen’s innovations and influence in stretching the definition of book art. But she feels the most important quality of Chen’s work is the emotional power that underlies the narrative and visual content.

Bitter Chocolate (2016) looks like a tall narrow (3.5 x 14.75 inches) accordion, but is a more complex structure called Jacob’s Ladder—the panels hinged together by strips of paper. The panels can be reversed within the hinges to reveal four different sets of images, juxtaposing the Mayan legend of the goddess of chocolate with facts about the environmental and social costs of the modern cacao industry.

Panorama (2008) is a large book, five feet wide when open, giving the impression of a broad landscape. On some pages, multi-layered pop-ups rise to evoke geographic and geologic features. On other pages, panels flip up to reveal hard facts about climate change. Chen felt that she had been avoiding the moral dilemma posed by the subject and created Panorama as a call to arms to herself as well as her readers.

Each book takes about a year to write, design, engineer, and print. Produced in editions of 50 to 100, every volume is handmade by Chen, working with a few assistants. The design of each book is completely original, the structure unique. They are beautiful to look at, but should be experienced.

On Tuesday, May 30 and Thursday, June 29, the exhibit will be open from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and hosted by curator Sandra Kroupa. The Book Arts Collection has almost every edition Chen has produced; this is an opportunity to see her work up close. Special Collections is in the basement of the Allen Library on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus. It is open to the public, but books cannot be checked out and there are special restrictions for viewing them. For rules, location, and hours, visit the Special Collections website at Chen’s recent work, including some pieces in the show, can be viewed on her website at A catalog, Reading the Object; Three Decades of Books by Julie Chen, has been published by Mills College Center for the Book and Flying Fish Press. 

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