I spent much of last winter contemplating the hundreds of books on the bookshelves in my mother’s foyer. I flipped through them, read passages, arranged and rearranged them on the shelves. I brought some of them to used bookstores, and made everyone who came over leave with a book. I fondled them, agonized over them, gazed at them fondly — like I might look at a doe in my driveway. I put them in the trash and an hour later removed them from the trash. I was starting the process of getting my mother’s apartment in New York City ready to sell, and I had to figure out what to do with all the books she had collected during her well-read life.
What do you do with books no one seems to want? Books by obscure authors, the books with notes in the margins, the fifth-edition hardcover copy — without dust jacket — of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”?
Luckily I ran into Edgartown resident Nancy Clarke and found out. You transform them. You turn them into pieces of art. You use them as a canvas to create sculptural collages.
For the past four years, Clarke has been repurposing discarded books that she’s found in libraries, thrift shops, and cellars. On Monday, August 6, Clarke will be spending the day at “Islanders Write” teaching her process to anyone interested.
She has a background in refurbishing and using recycled materials. After her daughter Katie, now 27, left home for college, Clarke began refurbishing furniture. “I suppose I was sort of lost without her,” admits Clarke. “I began to teach myself many things. Writing, creations, painting. All in my eclectic style.” Then four years ago, Ann Marie Eddy from Refabulous Decor in Vineyard Haven introduced her to the idea of refurbishing books.
“My mother would say you never throw a book away,” Clarke recently told me. “But I thought, You can refurbish it.”
Clarke repurposed her first book after finding her mother’s old recipes. They were “full of our favorites, and most penned in her own hand,” Clarke recalled. “I created ‘The Dining of the Dingbats,’ as it was always her dream to write a book.” Clarke transformed the covers and interior pages of these books with paint, stencils, molds, stamps, and bountiful embellishments. The pages, which are sometimes bound together, are protected by shiny gloss.
Clarke’s “Dining” has a scalloped, hinged metal plate with the title in cut-out letters glued to the cover. The inside is filled with collages of recipes and other artifacts, and adorned with stencils, buttons, miniature doors, price stickers from grocery stores, and photographs. On one page there is an advertisement clipped from a newspaper: “Getting Married? You can have the Wedding Reception of your dreams at the Chateau de Ville for as little at $13.75 per person.” On another page there is a recipe for Chewy Fudge-Nut Brownies, and a collage of images that includes a photo of a woman’s head with a drawn body, and a handwritten recipe, laid down over the original type of the book.
After a falling-out with her sister, Clarke repurposed a children’s chapter book and titled it, “Remember when we were two beautiful birds.” It is a deeply personal tribute. Turning the pages, you feel like you are entering sacred space. Clarke carved out a square from the pages at the end of the book and glued in a lacquer bird that is framed by the missive: “But one day you asked for a different song. One that I couldn’t sing. I got the melody sharp and the words all wrong. Those were the last days of spring.” Clarke, who has since reconciled with her sister, said, “Making these helps me get through the tough times.”
View Nancy Clarke’s collection of refurbished books, and try your hand at making your own, at “Islanders Write.” Go to islanderswrite.com for more information.