(Posted February 23, 2009)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Most colleges or universities will have a course or even an entire major devoted to learning how to write a book. Juniata College offers a course on the art of making a book.

Although its title sounds like a discarded song from "Guys and Dolls," the course "The Art of Bookmaking" gives Juniata students a chance to redefine how they perceive books. "The students can play with traditional notions of what a book is, and what art is, and combine the two," says Bethany Benson, assistant professor of art at the college. "Making a book as art can break down the idea of art (existing only) on the wall, where people don't interact with it."

"The students can play with traditional notions of what a book is, and what art is, and combine the two."

Bethany Benson, assistant professor of art

Benson, who teaches most of Juniata's ceramics courses, conceived the course as an exploration of three-dimensional art that combines sculpture, papermaking, fiber art and other media.

Benson, who taught the book-making course last year, decided to concentrate on creating books in this course because she had a lot of experience at tearing books apart. Well, actually she had a lot of experience at conserving books, having worked as a book conservator at the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale. In book conservation, it's often necessary to deconstruct a book to preserve it.

So, the first project for every one of the 15-plus students is to conserve a damaged book. Benson has the students fix and repair damaged books from Juniata's Beeghly Library. "The students love ripping the books apart," Benson says. "But, putting them back together is a delicate process."

After the class learns to think deeply about how to repair a traditionally constructed book, Benson begins the process of getting the would-be bookbinders to expand their notions of what a book is.

Her first assignment asks the artists to create a 24-page book out of single sheet of paper. "It gets across the idea that a book does not have to be 300 pages long," she explains. "It can communicate an idea or a metaphor."

She then teaches the students how to make their own paper, a process that, explained simply, asks the students to tear paper into small pieces, add water, and blend in a blender. The resulting slurry of paper pulp is suspended in the water and students dip screens into the pulp and let the material dry into paper. Benson says artists can also incorporate other materials into the paper as part of the project. "One student used peanut shells in the paper for her book, which was a story of going to a baseball game," she says.

The course doesn't end with a large project, say, creating a 200-page book of Japanese calligraphy. Instead Benson has the students create a book that has a cover that suggests what the story inside is. For example, a student wrote a story about visiting McDonald's and used a Chicken McNuggets container as the cover. Another student used refrigerator-magnet letters on a metal book cover so readers could make their own covers.

Another project asks students to create a book out of a camera. Past projects include books made from a discarded Polaroid camera and a book that is read by advancing the film knob in a Kodak throwaway camera. "It allows people with many levels of artistic talent to make a book," Benson says.

In addition to the book work and papermaking, Benson asked a local printmaker, Chris Drobnock, to allow students to create more intricate designs for their paper and book cover art using Juniata's antique printing press in Beeghly Library. She's also requiring students to hand-make a box to act as a portfolio for their various book projects.

If indeed readers can't tell a book by its cover, Benson at least believes that Juniata students can communicate ideas and creativity by creating their own covers, as well as their own books. Will they be best sellers? Benson wouldn't make book on it, but she thinks students will enjoy thinking outside the dust cover.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.