B.A. Szerlip: Books As Sculpture

03/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

We've come a long way since books were hand copied treasures mostly locked behind the libraries of the monastaries by the clergy before Gutenberg set them free with his printing press. Books, arguably the most revolutionary technology to hit the scene before the internet, allowed our brains to short circuit evolution, enabling us to have arguments with mostly men who died thousands of years before and allows us to put forth further ideas and stories that could be read long after we die. The internet has been no less revolutionary for transferring ideas and the fate of books, however beloved, shakes a little despite the fact that that we never have to plug them in. But Kindle sales are rising, the attention span for reading books is falling, and independent booksellers are closing almost everywhere. In her latest series, artist Barbara Alexander Szerlip uses books to make sculptures either causing us to see them as relics even further-- a tiny nail in the coffin of their ubiquity-- or as a shrine to their superiority. It all depends on how you look at it.

Over the past four years, Szerlip has hunted and collected bargain bin books to deconstruct, reconstitute, and reconstruct as her medium and subject. Her sculptures vary in size and scope--sometimes featuring the entire book still in one piece and other times featuring the book in shreds. Playing with the titles of the books and the very definition or essence of the book and knowledge itself, she takes something intended for one purpose and propels it into a different world of three-dimensionality, aesthetics, and materiality. By "destroying" she also resurrects and encourages us to ponder the ways in which books and art shape and influence our ideas in the process.

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, Knowledge/Power, 16" x 12" x 12", mixed media, 2006.

Kimberly Brooks: When was the moment that you thought you'd use books as a your medium for sculpture. I have to admit, the thought of cutting up book must resemble deconstructing a cadaver, I would be curious and squeamish at the same time. We're you at all afraid it was sacrilegious?

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip: The pieces began as a whim. In 2004, I bought a couple of 25 and 50-cent books at the flea market and began "screwing around," folding, cutting, stitching -- not without some guilt. (As a professional writer and editor, I've contributed to the creation of dozens of books.)


Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, Out of Africa, 16" x 22", mixed media, 2007.

KB: Tell us about your piece, "Out of Africa"?

BAZ: I stumbled upon two different copies of the memoir. One spine credited Karen Blixen, the other Isak Dinisen (her pen name). Eventually, I came up with a way to use them together in "Out of Africa," 2007. It's one of my larger and more ambitious sculptures and it incorporates an intriguing mix of materials. It also rotates.


Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, La Marquise, 16" x 12" x 12", mixed media, 2006.

KB: Where do you get your ideas from, how does it all begin for you?

BAZ: Sometimes I have a concept and go out looking for materials that might allow me expand on it. Other times, I find materials (and/or a book) that lead me in a particular direction. I try hard to not repeat myself. The work is part design and part problem-solving; I find both gratifying.


Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, The Story Emerges from its Pages, 15.5" x 13" x 10", mixed media, 2006. Private Collection.

B.A. Szerlip is based in San Francisco, CA. She has had two solo shows (2005 & 2007) at Goldwasser Rare Books, SF and is now represented by Warnock Fine Arts, SF. ( She was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and is currently working on a biography of maverick industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.


First Person Artist is a column by artist Kimberly Brooks in which she provides commentary on the creative process and showcases artists' work from around the world.