Sad Mag writer Grant Hurley first met Emma Lehto in October at the Alcuin Society’s biennial Wayzgoose, an event that brings together fine press printers, book artists, bookbinders, typographers and designers to celebrate the beauty of the book. Utterly impressed with her work, Hurley caught up with Lehto a couple months after the event to chat about her artworks and creative process.
Sad Mag: Who are you?
I’m Emma Lehto. I am a book artist. I work predominately with books and typography.
SM: When I first encountered your works at the Wayzgoose, I was really interested in the contrast between your work and that of others at the event. Many of the exhibitors there were working to create new books, whereas your pieces subtract from preexisting books to create something new. Can you describe a few of your artworks and the processes you took to make them?
EL: I was so pleased that the Alcuin Wayzgoose invited me back this year to the exhibition. I was invited the previous year too, and my work was definitely a juxtaposition to the majority of the work exhibited. I think it’s healthy to be able to see contrasting creations/ideas in the similar topics. Everyone can draw from each other’s work, regardless if it’s appreciated or not.
Most of my projects start with a very simple question, “What if I did __________ to a book? What would happen, and what would it look like?” All of my projects stem from my curiosity, and from there I just run with it. I can try to imagine what might happen as a result – but that doesn’t mean it will turn out that way. Assumptions never work.
What can I do without having the book fall apart? How can I alter the book form without removing the familiarity of it?
SM: Where do you begin in your process?
EL: If I have an idea for a book, I’ll test it out first. I usually begin by doing different test/experiments/variations of the same idea on different books. Not all books are made the same, so oftentimes the possibilities are endless, including cutting up pages, removing text (which alters layout of pages), breaking the spine, and folding pages, to name a few. It’s a constant science experiment. I still have one book sitting in a block of ice in my freezer – it’s been there for the past 3 years. Some experiments evidently last longer than others.
I just see it as problem solving, trying to find different solutions. Usually, I end up discovering new ideas this way as well. The story/topic of the book is never the focus: I’m far more interested in the aesthetic of the end result. It’s one big treasure hunt with a few paper cuts along the way.
SM: Can you describe one of your recent projects?
EL: In one of my book artworks, Amended, I started with the question: “What would it look like if I cut out all of the words from a book and then put all of the words in alphabetical order?” I really thought I would end up with 26 pages of words and two cut up books. Was I ever wrong. I had more questions than I did answers. I had 48 pages of words, and almost 2 pages each of the words “and” & “the” and a blank page for the letter x. (There weren’t any words that started with the letter x in this book).
During my time working on Amended, the process was very surreal as the words took new form. Seeing the words taken out of context and placed in alphabetical order, the individual meanings of the words were eliminated. I had removed the original intention of the purpose of the words. They were now isolated from the story.
However, on the flip side of this, the book was still intact, and everything was there except the text. The majority of the anatomy of the book was untouched: the binding, the pages, and front and back cover. The layouts of each page were present. You could tell when there was a beginning of a new paragraph, where the page numbers were, and most of the punctuation was left. By maintaining the anatomy of the books it kept the familiarity of what makes a book a book. Also by leaving those elements intact, it allows for a “safer” environment for an audience to approach the work and engage with it.
SM: One of the most memorable pieces of yours for me is the edition of War and Peace that you shot through with a gun. What was its genesis?
EL: It was a very basic “What would happen if I… Shot some books? Which came from the idea that “a telephone book can stop a bullet.” I thought, would it? How do I know a telephone book can do that? I’ve never seen it, just heard about it.
I had some books of folded up paper, twisted, and tied up. I just wanted to see what it would look like. As a result, some bullets lodged in the spine and it was interesting to see the paper that was folded suddenly juxtaposed with a path piercing right through it. You can see the entry of the bullet, and the direction of the bullet.
The books I chose to shoot were romance novels. There seems to be an abundance of them everywhere at any given moment. These books are cheaply made, thick, cheap and if I needed more of them I wouldn’t be scrambling to find them.
SM: It seems like you’re interested in some of the tactile aspects of books; I find your work really encourages an audience to note the physical nature of books before their content. What are some other projects that you’ve completed that contrast this approach?
EL: I had a book sitting in Coca Cola for over a few months (similar to the tooth sitting in Coke test) wondering would the book disintegrate? Well, not exactly. It turned into a sponge there wasn’t any liquid left after a few months and the book is now green and fuzzy.
Another book is sitting in hair relaxer. The book looks like it’s turned a few shades darker, the relaxer looks like it hasn’t changed since.
SM: Almost the opposite of something I’d like to hold in my hands! Any future projects planned?
EL: I always seem to have a few ideas brewing in my head. It’s just a matter of which idea to pick while its still fresh in my mind. Currently, I’ve been quite fascinated with paper construction and different layouts of text and mostly playing with the idea of introducing negative space into the book form without losing the familiarity or readability of it. If anything, I’m really looking forward just to where these ideas go and how I can play around with them.
Check out Emma’s work in the Mezzanine Gallery of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until January 19 as part of the group show Final Project. Also featuring the work of Kat Cortes, Tara Hach, Talent Pun, Carlo Sayo.