An Exploration of Text
June 25th, 2018 by Lori Tobias

At right, Sarah Bean White creates sculptures from books that inspire her creativity, and then places them in individual and museum collections.

Sarah Bean White is a lifelong lover of books. She loves to read them, talk about them, explore them and ponder them.

She has taken her passion to another level: turning literature in to new art.

“I buy old used books from independent booksellers from all over the country,” says Sarah, who lives in Gold Beach, Oregon, with her jazz musician husband, Chris. “I carve them up with an Exacto knife and then I use pencil to create the shadows. Then I glue all the pages back together again so it’s a solid book again. Once the carving itself is finished, I situate it with pieces of wood and metal­—all kinds of found objects.”

Sarah came to her art fresh from the University of Chicago, where she studied literature and philosophy. She knew she didn’t want to work for someone else, but also that she wanted to work with her hands. She parlayed those desires into an apprenticeship for renowned collage artist Roderick Slater, initially by crafting the frames for his art.

“Slater didn’t really want a mentee,” Sarah says. “He was this curmudgeon. It really was a traditional apprenticeship, sort of a subsidized learning opportunity. I had no formal training with visual art. I wanted to do the frames because it was a job where I could be self-employed.

“I loved books so much. I wanted a way to share that. That was really the impetus for this work. The beautiful thing about visual art is it can be communicated in moments. You can communicate the idea to people who don’t understand your native language. It can be taken in in moments by anyone who speaks any language. It’s unique that way.”

After working with Roderick for several years, Sarah started making her own collages by combining poetry with art. Five years ago, she began exploring book carving.

“There wasn’t a first book that I cut up,” she says. “There were hundreds of practice books that I cut up that were not memorable. One has to make their mistakes and get the bad pieces out somewhere, I guess. I was cutting up books that I was buying at library book sales and thrift stores. It took me years to refine this into something that was worth seeing. Worth doing, really.”

Sarah travels around the world, collecting old books from other countries and studying their culture through the words. The Library of Congress commissions her book carvings to sell in its gift shop and even featured her work on the cover of its Christmas catalog.

Other commissions come from individuals looking for a unique piece of art, often built around a book of personal importance.

“I did a really cool project just this fall,” Sarah says. “It was for a hand surgeon. She sent me her textbook with all these images of hands. Working with my hands with a sharp blade carving into this book all about damaged hands was challenging. I really experienced the project.”

Another involved the history of American theater. Sarah worked with old playbills and the text from plays, then combined those with a variety of artifacts, including photos from staged plays and old ticket stubs.

“I’m working on a piece right now that is really challenging,” Sarah says. “The family of a pastor from Atlanta sent me his family Bible, his robe, pictures of him with Martin Luther King. It has his license for when he became a pastor. I even found an old Greyhound bus ticket from his Bible from when he went to the civil rights march. I am studying the material now to really do it justice. With sculpture, you can’t fix a mistake.”

Sarah says the cool thing about her projects is that parts of the books are still readable.

“You are able to look at the artwork and get a feel for the book,” she says. “It’s really an exploration of the whole text. I think of them as reliquaries for books that are madly loved. You take this book you love and put it in a case and people can look at it and talk about it.

“We all should be talking about books more. It’s a hard thing sometimes to spontaneously bring up in conversation. I see it every time I do a show. It starts a whole new dynamic of conversation.”

For more information on Sarah’s artwork, go to www.artandpoems.com or facebook.com/sarahbeanartist.