Art you can touch: Mercer professor creates handcrafted book art

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Tennille Shuster stands in front of the pandemic journals she handcrafted.
Tennille Shuster, associate professor and director of graphic design, stands in front of the pandemic journals she handcrafted. Photo courtesy Tennille Shuster

For nearly two decades, a Mercer University professor has focused her research on a relatively new art form: book art.

Also known as artist’s books, book art — in which art adapts the book form — emerged in the mid-20th century.

“It can be hard to define, but a succinct way to describe it would be the book as art, rather than a book of art,” said book artist Tennille Shuster, associate professor and director of graphic design in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is the book as the art object itself.”

Shuster has made dozens of artist’s books, including the recent Three Summer Days, which she made during her three-week summer residency at Ashantilly Press in Darien.

Three Summer Days includes three flutter-fold prints that Shuster printed on a Vandercook 4 letterpress using a rotary angle chase, specialty equipment available at Ashantilly Press. The prints feature butterflies and insects, along with an excerpt from a love letter by English poet John Keats. The hardbound book is housed in a butterfly-shaped, clamshell wooden box, which Shuster custom designed and printed using the Mercer Art Department’s laser cutter.

“My brain thinks in book format,” Shuster said. “When I want to express myself creatively, that’s just where my mind goes because there’s so much variation within the form for visually articulating a concept.

“I know that when we think of a book, we think of a front cover, a spine, a back cover and a text block, but the truth is that a book can be so many more and varied things than that.”

A tangible experience

Shuster was introduced to book art when she was pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at Florida Atlantic University.

“It was the first time I had been introduced to letterpress printing, and I also started learning about nontraditional binding and fold-book formats. It really just blew my mind,” she said.

Tennille Shuster at Ashantilly Press. Photo courtesy Sara Blocker

She loved that she was able to use her graphic design skills in a piece of handcrafted art.

“Being on the computer all the time as a digital designer, you start to lose some of that tactile experience,” she said.

That tangible experience is passed on to the viewer in book art. Unlike some other works of art, people are encouraged to touch artist’s books.

“They’re meant to be handled, they’re meant to be interacted with. That’s what books are all about — a sequenced reveal,” Shuster said. “So, there’s this more intimate viewing experience with book art because of that.”

She has studied letterpress printing and other printmaking methods, as well as paper surface decoration techniques, like paste paper making and paper marbling. Both methods create patterns and texture on paper, using paste and/or paint.

Shuster is especially interested in letterpress printing and paper marbling and often incorporates them into her work.

“We’re so used to the digital production methods that we want everything spit out looking the same, but to me it’s the inconsistencies that result from handwork that can really make something look very beautiful,” she said.

International recognition

Artist’s books are often limited editions because of the amount of time invested in their creation.

Shuster’s editions have been exhibited worldwide, and a project she made during the COVID-19 pandemic gained international news coverage.

Disposable surgical masks make up the pages of Please Wear This Book, which was published in an edition of 19. Its creation was an act of catharsis for Shuster, who by the summer of 2020 had grown weary of being stuck at home.

A letterpress had recently been donated to Mercer, and she wanted a chance to use it. So, she went into the studio and printed a single word on each mask in the book to create the Max Lucado quote: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” Paper marbling is featured on the cover.

“I was just pleading basically in book art form for people to wear masks,” Shuster said. “And then the project seemed to have much greater impact that I thought it would at the time.”

The book sold out and was acquired by numerous permanent collections at rare book and manuscript libraries, including the Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery Library. Shuster donated $850 in proceeds to the Macon 30 Day Fund, which provided forgivable small business loans during the pandemic.

“It’s always exciting when a project resonates and has wider impact,” she said.

Finding inspiration

Political and social issues, as well as world events, often motivate Shuster’s work, which then provides visual commentary.

In 2021, she collaborated with artist Kandy Lopez-Moreno on the artist’s book, I Look at the World. The accordion-folded book features portraits of individuals and Langston Hughes’ poem “I look at the world.” It encourages viewers to consider people who in the artists’ opinion are not fully visible in the country’s systemically racist culture.

Artist’s books “provide a time stamp, and I think that’s what a lot of art objects do. They function as time capsules of what was happening in the world, and how people experience those events,” Shuster said.

Her personal experiences influence her art, too. Three Summer Days was inspired by her time at Ashantilly Press.

“It was a beautiful experience to feel so nurtured at that residency,” she said. “That’s a celebration and reflection of that time.”

Shuster’s artist’s books will be on display in January as part of Truth: Artist Books and Broadsides at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station, California, and in February as part of The Illustrated Accordion exhibit at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center Gallery in Michigan. You can see her work locally from Feb. 3-March 18 at Crosstown: The New Macon Open at the MacEachern Art Center in downtown Macon.

 

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Jennifer Falk is the director of digital communications at Mercer University and editor-in-chief of The Den. She creates and supervises the development of written and multimedia content for primary University web pages and e-newsletters, including The Den and This Week @ Mercer. In addition, she collaborates with schools and offices to maintain web content and examines data and analytics to drive content creation decisions. She also serves as a member of the University's social media committee.