Altered Artist's Book
Updated: May 9, 2020
For this project, we were required to take a discarded book and alter it in a way that considered both the cover and the content. Our lecturer, Jazmina, had brought in a whole slew of old, out of print Lithuanian books from a local organisation, and the class had a field day rummaging through the pages in search of ‘the right one’. I had originally chosen a book of poetry for the colours of the cover and the beautiful illustrations in the book; however, I found that the Lithuanian text (which I, of course, could not decode) threw me off a bit. After a week or two of trying to ‘find my voice’ within the pages, I decided to give another book a chance. It had just so happened that Jazmina had brought in another batch of books a couple weeks later. I had a sift through and found one that was ‘just right’. I’ve been collecting vintage, out-of-print children’s books for quite some time now, and the one I found in this new lot was one called ‘The Blue Arrow’ by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari (the English version is actually known as ‘The Befana’s Toyshop’ and I think this Lithuanian title translates as ‘The Blue Train’s Journey’). I was struck by the lively illustrations and I could tell that the book was filled with magic and adventure. What I hadn’t known - until I did some research - were the political themes that are riddled throughout the story. The overarching theme focusses on children in poverty and the injustices of class division.
The story revolves around a boy named Francesco, and takes place during the epiphany in Italy. Every day, Francesco walks past the local toyshop, owned by a ‘good’ witch - known as the ‘Befana’ in European folklore. The Befana traditionally flies around the town during the epiphany distributing toys to children while they sleep. Every year, the children write to the Befana requesting gifts (much like what children do during Christmas with Santa Claus); however, the Befana only distributes gifts to children whose parents pay for them (akin to the ‘real’ Santa Claus). One day, Francesco walks by the shop window and discovers a new toy - the Blue Arrow train set - and falls in love with the toy. He rushes in to the toyshop and asks the Befana if he could have it for epiphany, but the Befana reminds Francesco that his mother hasn’t paid for toys for the past two years, and so he will not get anything this year. Francesco leaves, despondent and sad. The toys notice Francesco’s sorrow and are deeply moved by it. They feel so sorry for him that they decide to rebel against the Befana - proclaiming that they do not like being controlled by her and allowing her to determine their destinies. The little rag dog, Cuscuo, decides that they should try to find Francesco, and that he could use his nose to try and track him. Led by Cuscuo, the toys organise themselves and use the Blue Arrow to escape from the toyshop to try and find Francesco. The toys encounter many adventures along the way (and some casualties) and many end up in homes with children that haven’t any toys. At one point, Cusco loses Francesco’s scent due to a snowstorm, and he begins to despair. In the meantime, Francesco’s story is told and the reader discovers that during the year, his father had passed away and Francesco is forced to work in a cinema in the evenings while going to school during the day. He is often too tired for his studies and he hasn’t much of a childhood to speak of. One day, the Befana discovers the toys during their journey and they explain that they are searching for Francesco. They also demand the list of rejected children from the Befana as they have decided, in the true spirit of the epiphany, to give themselves to children who have no toys. She also discovers the situation with his father and has sympathy for him - deciding that she will give him a job in the toyshop. Francesco and Cusco find each other, eventually, and Cusco magically transforms into a real dog. So the ending of the story is a happy one, but the reader is reminded throughout the Blue Arrow’s journey of the injustices surrounding children in poverty - including not only the loss of childhood, but the loneliness, suffering and discrimination the goes along with being poor. I had quite a time trying to find an English version of this story, however, I was able to find a summary of it in English online, and a short stop-motion animation with English subtitles. All language versions of this book are out of print, but after getting the ‘jist’ of the story, I was able to visualise how the images could be collaged into a pop-up book. Initially, I was going to just do one pop-up (thinking that that alone would take up an awful lot of time). However, after cutting out the illustrations and playing around with a couple of mock-ups, I realised that I could probably do a couple more and join the pages together with a little train track winding its way around the pages - giving the viewer a visual journey and inviting them to create their own narratives from the work. Also, as the book is about the adventure of toys, I thought it befitting to create something that could be used or seen as a toy in itself (I thought I could find a little toy train to place on the tracks as I ran out of illustrations of the train - and didn’t have any that were appropriately sized for the tracks). The invitation to ‘play’ is hopefully inherently present in the work. I began by measuring the interior dimensions of the book to determine how large the open spread pages should be before doing a few mock ups. I also though I could add mini pop ups along the edges of the pages to add another dimension to the work. At this point, I wasn’t sure how I would collage the images, I just wanted to work out the type of pop up structures I would use and how large or small they should be so they would fit neatly in the page folds. Only after that did I start playing around with collage possibilities.
I also knew that I wanted a few windows in the larger main pop ups so that images could show through. I decided that the featured pop-ups should be simple v-folds. More complex pop-ups don’t really suit the ‘collage’ style as they need to be sculpted with to too many moveable parts. The v-fold is also easy to build on and are suitable to make windows.
As the work developed, I realised that there was enough space along the edges to build the mini pop-ups. I also had a look at some of Duncan Birmingham’s video tutorials, which really helped generate a few ideas. For example, he had a couple of tutorials demonstrating how to make a pop-up house and boat. It just so happened that there was a little station house and boats illustrated throughout the book! It was quite good luck that I was able to take them and add these to the edges of the pages. After doing a couple of practice mock ups, I made templates for both structures and collaged them onto the paper.
The paper I used was actually quite inexpensive Saunders watercolour paper, 190gsm. It was light enough to use for collage, build on and fold, and heavy enough for a pop up. Even though the book paper is not archival, I thought I’d give the pop up a ‘chance at life’ and used it anyway. It’s also much stronger than regular card - which was quite necessary as I ended up making a million mistakes and had to try and repair or cover them up. Not too much (noticeable) damage was done in the process, thank goodness! One of the mistakes I had made in the beginning was using the wrong stencil knife to cut out the images from the book. Even though I used brand new blades, the paper tore roughly - no matter how gently I tried to cut the paper! I ended up using a Japanese wood carving knife in the end - it was razor sharp (and I could sharpen it with a stone), but the fragile condition of the paper required either a very sharp knife or sharp pair of little scissors (which I also used). Here are a few process photos. I would love to do something like this again. It was an awful lot of fun.
Here are the final photos: