Anderson’s Artist Books

Twenty-five years of using recycled items to make books of life 

WRITTEN BY SHEILA HELMBERGER | Photographs courtesy of Lea Anderson

“Hoard it all” is a saying 

that can be heard coming from Lea Anderson’s art class at Brainerd High School. Anderson, a bright and creative individual, shares with students that almost anything can go into an artist book. Mind you—this is not your average “scrapbook.” 

She encourages students to save buttons, tags from t-shirts, wire, little messages on tea bags, cardboard, concert tickets, and even fabrics from meaningful blankets, too worn out for actual use. All these things can come in handy when designing an artist book.

Anderson says she fell in love with artist books when she was a student at St. Cloud State University, over twenty-five years ago. A combination of an art project, treasured memento, and memory book, each one is unique in its appearance and composition. “I love the idea of bookmaking,” Anderson said.

One of the most popular books she teaches in her class is called an “Identity Book.” Given packets to work from, the students look at different times in their lives, from birth to the present, and highlight their lives thus far. “I have thirty-two kids in class, and each one has a different background and their own story to tell,” Anderson said. “We talk about their hopes and dreams. It is important for kids to set goals and think about their future.”

An Identity Book is just that—a book about their lives and where they want to go. Anderson gives them different writing and drawing assignments, so the students come to these conclusions independently. Beginning with a large piece of watercolor paper that they paint, each student creates a “flutter book” by folding and cutting the pages. From there, images and other embellishments are added. “It’s pretty amazing how creative each person is; you think you’ve seen it all, and every semester somebody surprises you.”

There are eight to ten different book structures that are currently popular. Each has a different theme, paper type, word type, and imagery. Each book tells a story. “I’ve done vacation books. I have a book about a trip to Mexico. I made a book for a colleague who retired,” Anderson said. It’s clear that, truly, anything can become a book. Some feature poetry and some include favorite sayings or quotes. Styles include Venetian blind books, boxed books, and altered books made by changing or embellishing an existing book.

 “They just kind of lend themselves to our current times,” Anderson said. “We are all talking about gratefulness and mindfulness.” During a time when life is slower, due to the COVID, it might be the perfect opportunity to reflect on prior memories or take the time to create a physical display of an event, hope, or a style you enjoy. “Some people might call it scrapbooking, “Anderson said. “But it is not the same. These are done very artfully, and they’re not books that you have to buy a lot of supplies to make.”

Each of the artist books created in Anderson’s Artist Books class at BHS involves mixed media, collage, composition, layout, glue and tearing, organizing… and reorganizing.  “Think about the most unique things you can find around your own home or grandma’s home to add to your book.” Silk flowers, charms, beads, wires, tags from clothing, washers from the garage, sand from a beach, and those seashells from your last vacation can all be used.

 “One reason I love artist books is that you can get started very cheaply,” Anderson said. “The biggest expense is the initial paper.” Covers and other inserts can be made from cut cardboard. Crayons, markers, paints, and chalk can all be used within the pages.

Artist bookmaking isn’t just something Anderson dreamed up herself. There is an entire school centered around creating them in the Twin Cities called the Minnesota Center of Book Arts. Anderson says this is a great place to begin learning how to make artist books, of course, when in-person classes open up again. A few classes have been offered locally at the Crossing Arts Alliance in downtown Brainerd.

At the center of creating anything is the freedom to just be in the present moment. Designing an artist book is something that can be done alone as a personal project or in groups with family and friends. It will, however, probably consume more hours than you imagine. And you might just be surprised at how enjoyable losing time to creating things can be. 

Getting Started from Home

YouTube offers many handmade artist book ideas. Lea says, even after 25 years of making them herself, she still learns from YouTube videos. Simply search “artist books” or “handmade books” and follow along with the virtual teacher’s instructions.