Return to Articles






Beth Thielen, "Lettuce Talk About
Biotechnology," organically grown
lettuce/steel letter stamps, 2000.

Jacqueline Ricard eating her
Fish Book, made of Tunisian
pastry dough/pasta/
painted with food coloring
at event in Montreuil, France.
The ebb and flow of artist books has paralleled the eccentric art scene with its fits and starts, its movements and non-movements and its eclecticism. Certainly the artist book is not a mainstream art form, but it has held its own on many continents, since there is always a group of artists who seem to gravitate to the book form as their means of expression. This group has been attracted to the medium by technological improvements and a far richer book art with more content than we have seen in the past 25 years.

Many of the new bookworks deal with journeys, travel, sojourns and impressions of those experiences. From Ireland to New York, Iceland to Cuba, the Arctic Circle to the fictitious Free State, there are passports, journals, interviews and CDs; the mind as well as the body travels through space and time to another place. Our ability to do this through the book is age-old and confirms the value of the book form as a means of ‘escape’ or documentation of actual travel.

Modern technology ranging from the telephone, to video and the information revolution in general have forever altered the way we bank, we drive, we leave messages, we exchange documents, we even write and speak (with a new vocabulary of terms never before conceived even 10 years ago). But the current cyber-revolution is changing the immediate future in whays we can still only imagine. This has led several artists to experiment with new technologies as art forms and advocate a different approach to ‘books’ and ‘bookworks.’ These works are only written for an electronic medium and for an electronic community.

Two curators who work in major libraries with large artist book collections, Doro Boehme of the Flasch Artists Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Anne Britton at the Museum of Modern Art’s vast artist book collection, have worked together to try to find out how many artists are making ‘virtual books.’ As a result of their being on a panel “Real or Not?: Virtual Artists Books” held at the ARLIS/NA Annual Conference in March 2000 in Pittsburgh, PA, they have compiled a rather sizable list including a compilation of artworks, such as Ars Electronica, Artswire, Channel, Mediamatic, Turbulence, The Thing and Walker Art Center’s Gallery 9. They have archived individual artworks from across the globe; as well a History, Theory and Criticism that exist only on the Web. In addition, they reference aids for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of such digital documents.

Sean Kernan, photograph from "The Secret Books," published by Leetes Island Books, 1999.
(note--no full screen version of this image)
They even have cited five archives of conceptual and intermedial art online. So something is really happening, something different, something paperless, and something indicative of a change of terminology, of concept and of technical media to archive such work. You can see the list at

In a wondrous combination of hard copy book and a promo of it using electronic techniques, The Secret Books by Sean Kernan (featured in the Gallery Section of Colophon Page-- )is an animated spiritual voyage through the meaning of “book” using the words of Borges. “A book has a life of its own, a fate of its own, maybe a heaven or hell, for all I know?” Published by Leetes Island Books [1999] and distributed by Independent Publishers Group in Chicago, IL, these collected words of Borges enhanced by the most dramatic photographs of books in black and white will stir your soul and change your attitude about cyber-books, I am sure.

And from electronic to edible, we relate a story: A group of book artists and I partook of a great Thanksgiving feast in November 1999, when talk led to food and books, as is wont to happen on such occasions. One thing led to another, and the concept for an Edible Books High/Low Tea evolved in about 20 minutes. We progressed from envisioning an edible book tea to a global event that would take place on April 1st. Starting with an exhibition of the books from 2 - 4 p.m. in the designated time zone, an eating frenzy of books at 4 p.m would follow.

A believer in the Internet, I sent out the message to the Book Arts List-Serv, the Art Libraries Society List-Serv and the FluxList, hoping that a group of people would pick it up. One of our wonderful cohorts in crime was Béatrice Coron, located in New York, who volunteered to post the information and the subsequent “happenings” online after or during April Fools’ Day. We had hoped to do simultaneous broadcasting, but that was still too sophisticated for most of the book arts centers. Currently you can go to:
and see the result of her labors. She posted as many photos in the photo albums as she could, and there are still more to come. In fact, as I write this, the photos from France have arrived, and they are hilarious!

When the call went out for the world tea event we received a great number of responses. As the first of April approached, we asked that all venues document the event either with photographs (which could be sent on-line to the aforementioned Béatrice Coron) for immediate viewing, or as a subsequent transmission for later updating. Some of the venues also proposed to use the event as a fund-raiser; others just celebrated, knowing full well that they had company from Australia to France. Two venues in Southern California participated: Los Angeles, with a showing at the Crossroads School Gallery in Santa Monica; and in San Diego, at the home of the president of the San Diego Book Arts group.

In Santa Monica, we had sent out calls for the Tea to as many book artists and artists as we could find in our immediate area. We served tea, coffee and waters, and the books started arriving. We had no idea what to expect, and we were happily surprised to see the variety. One bookwork was made by 16 members of the Book Arts Course at New Roads High School. Entitled Feed the World it was an accordion-fold book made of matzo and royal icing. It’s 16 pages served as a plea for the hungry of the world. Katherine Ng’s My First Book of Shapes was made of Rice Krispies, marshmallows, butter and food coloring.

Mark Lander, "The Story of 6 Loops",
mixed media edible book, 2000.

New Roads High School students,
"Feed the World", mixed
media edible book, 2000.

Katherine Ng, "My First
Book of Shapes", mixed
media edible book, 2000.

Linda Aiello, "Letters from the
Grave. . .for Nourishment",
mixed media edible book, 2000.

Deborah Paulson, "The
Chocolate Stories", mixed
media edible book, 2000.

Linda Dare, "The Holy Tortilla",
mixed media edible book, 2000.
The most beautiful book was by Linda Aiello. Entitled Letters from the Grave. . .for Nourishment, made of homemade gingerbread, shoestring licorice, royal icing, daikon vases filled with edible violets, and ‘paint’ consisting of yolk, food coloring, and gold lusterdust which was edible too! It was dedicated to friends and relatives who have passed on. It was so beautiful, no one wanted to eat it.

Still, one of the most original books in all the venues was by Beth Thielen. Lettuce Talk about Biotechnology was inspired Chris Desser’s essay, Unnatural Section or Bad Choice from Wild Duck Review (Summer 1999). The argument spoke for human ingenuity and creativity in concert with a deep respect for the natural world. With heirloom Four Seasons and Buttercrunch lettuce grown from seed in organically fertilized soil, Thielen used a set of steel 1/8 inch letter stamps made to cut text into metal surfaces. When the lettuce had up to 8 true leaves, she began to experiment. Observing the techniques of leaf cutter bees on her roses, she realized they could cut a perfectly round wafer of roseleaf without harming the integrity of the plant, so she used their method. Choosing the phrases from the text that could enlighten as well as fit on the leaves, each morning Thielen would sit among the lettuce plants with her copy of Wild Duck Review and choose sentences according to the leaf growth before her. As the leaves grew, the sentences changed shape. She realized that what was growing was a kind of word salad of biotechnology sound bites gone wild.

On the morning of the exhibition, she spaded those lettuce plants, earth and all into a wooded garden flat. She exhibited the lettuce in the flat flanked by the article which inspired it. At 4 p.m., she picked the lettuce, washed it and dressed it in a light balsamic vinaigrette. As people ate the salad, they picked out individual leaves and read the words before eating them. Bits of text floated in the air. Hearing people read out “Flounder genes in strawberries” and “the worst combination of mad scientist and unrestrained capitalist” caused crowds to gather around the leaf to see the text before the words were eaten. She also took snow peas and incised them for me with “Books2Eat” to remember the day. The two bowls of lettuce went fast. As people moved on to eat the sweeter books, Thielen noticed a few leaves left at the bottom of the bowl and popped them into her mouth. What was revelation to Beth was how complex the flavor and texture of the salad was in her mouth. She knew the lettuces would be good but she was unprepared for the actual encounter.

Some of the sweeter books included Deborah Paulsen’s The Chocolate Stories, made with bittersweet chocolate, white chocolate and vanilla wafers, and The Holy Tortilla by Linda Dare. Mary Crest, in her writer’s cottage in Oceanside, California created Heart is Memory, depicting a home surrounded by asparagus and parsley simulating natural trees and bushes.

Participants throughout the world included the Argyle-Zebra Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota, which used the exhibition as a fund-raiser. They have their own website exhibiting some very imaginative books made of turkey, seaweed, eggs, toast, jello, grain, artichokes, caviar, etc. Among them were Pillow Book, Crackers in Bed and Fruit Folio. Notable among the San Diego Book Arts group’s creations were It Tolls for Thee, an homage to Taco Bell by Al Rodriguez, and Gail Buteau’s Tears for Madama (Butterfly).

New York’s Center for Book Arts hosted a wonderful benefit that included a Toasted Alphabet where letters were incised in toast and the binding was toothpicks ending with cheese, Martha Carothers’ 24 Books: Crack Barrel Tales, and Alice Simpson’s Tango Book. Emily Martin, teaching that day in Iowa City at the University, created a pop-up menu for the occasion.

Other venues included Arizona State University, where John Risseau and other book artists created everything from the Nuremberg Chronicle Cake to Free the Books by Risseau himself. In Melbourne, Australia books sweet and savory were enjoyed; in Findlay, Ohio, printer Michael Phillips printed Eat my Words as well as Short History of Fast Food, and had a Thompson caster retrofitted with a stainless steel pot to cast chocolate caps with Cooper characters for the event. Just arrived at this writing is a series of photographs of the delicious event in France at Montreuil near Paris that was hosted by Shirley Sharoff, an American book artist who has been living in France for many years. She writes: “As it was Paris, we cheated a bit--as you can see in the photos--and drank wine and champagne as well as tea.” There are wonderful photos of some of the artists actually eating their books! One of my favorite aong these was Annick Butré’s lasagna book with the binding etched and colored in saffron and tomato sauce. For dessert, a hefty volume made by Boris Tissot of white chocolate with cream filling--it was encyclopedic!

As Francis Bacon wrote: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. . .” The Edible Books High/Low Tea will continue as an annual event, so be sure to mark your calendar.