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Gene Epstein carves old books into unique works of art

Gene Epstein has been altering books into works of art for nearly 20 years.  [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media /  ]
Gene Epstein has been altering books into works of art for nearly 20 years. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media / ]

Gene Epstein has been altering books for nearly 20 years, cutting through the pages and folding them into unique shapes and designs.

“My method of working is I don’t preplan anything,” she said. “I try to ask myself a question: ‘What would happen if I tried thus and so, what would happen if I folded the books in a certain way, if I made a cut and made two folds in the book?’”

The Cleveland Heights artist first began altering books when a friend offered her and several other artists old books a local library no longer needed, which they all repurposed into art.

“The group of us met every month, and we still do, this is like 17, 18 years later, we still meet every month and do something with books and make art out of them,” Epstein said.

While many of Gene Epstein's carvings are spontaneous, this rendering of Mother Earth is intentional.  [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

Her main tools for altering books are her hands and a knife. On a recent afternoon, she carved through an old travel book, exposing different layers of the colorful images.

“I cut out parts of the pictures and then layer down to other pictures and other pictures in the book and get a palette of color coming through and use the shapes that are in the in the pictures themselves as a starting point,” she said.

The daughter of two artists, Epstein received her master’s in Fine Arts from Kent State University, and she has worked in a variety of mediums throughout her life. In addition to altering books into works of art that can hang on walls or display as sculpture, she also she creates handmade books.

“The difference between book art and other forms of visual art is that you have the ability to make a sequence of things,” she said. “It's something that you experience in time.”

Gene Epstein has been altering books into works of art for nearly 20 years.  [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

Some of her creations are currently on view at the Heights Arts Gallery as part of “Impagination,” an exhibition highlighting the many different ways local artists create one-of-a-kind book art. The show runs through Oct. 16.

As a member of another artist group, Art Books Cleveland, Epstein said she develops new ideas, often around a theme the group explores together.

“People think artists … they can do anything they want. They have this expansive list of possibilities. But when you have an unlimited amount of possibilities, it's very hard to do anything,” she said. “Having a focus, like a topic to work toward, is really helpful.

Whether creating new books or designing something new from old books, she said her artistic process is similar to music improvisation, a realm she also enjoys as a jazz musician.

“I get surprised all the time,” she said. “That's the fun of it.”

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