Yes, judge these books by their covers
With LitARTure, Heather Cook re-purposes old editions into art
When Heather Cook looks at the spine of an old book, she is reminded about her love of literature. Yet she doesn’t simply see a binding with yellowing pages. Instead, she envisions the potential to create a piece of lasting art.
Cook, 30, is working toward a master’s degree in English at the University at Buffalo. With an assist from her husband, Sam, her free time revolves around creating unique dioramas from old books, bringing them to life in three-dimensional form.
“The narrative of the book will drive the piece,” Cook said. “First I read the book to draw inspiration. Then I ask myself, ‘If I was to bring this text alive, what will it look like?’ I usually sketch out something first, laying it out and thinking about what I want to do before creating. After that, I start manipulating it.”
Growing up in Western New York, Cook toyed with scrapbooking, card making, and origami. When she discovered “book art” by a British artist named Su Blackwell on Facebook, Cook was curious.
“I didn’t know book art was a thing,” she said. “I saw it and found it fascinating. I thought, oh my gosh, I have to try this. I’m really self-taught.”
There was a learning curve — Cook discovered what would and would not work. Four years later, she has honed her skills.
“I use several different glues,” she said. “My favorite is Mod Podge. It’s really good at sealing and protecting the paper. I build the shape out of wire first, then cover it in cotton. I use glue to put book pages on, then seal it so it’s easy to dust. I layer [glue] on once the piece is created. The pieces aren’t as fragile as they look. If you tried to pull a tree out of the book, I don’t think you’d be able to.”
Depending on the detail, creating a sculpture may take anywhere between eight and 60 hours.
“Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books,” Cook noted. “I made a tree and had the two main characters kissing underneath. It was a thrill just to bring part of that book alive.”
Cook sells her work at local art shows like Allentown, Lewiston, and Letchworth. It is also available on Etsy, a website devoted to custom arts and crafts. Prices range between $300-$1200, depending on the sculpture’s intricacy.
Her husband, Sam, has even gotten involved. The couple makes book clocks, with Sam handling the mechanical work.
The first time Cook displayed her work in an art show, she was unsure what to expect.
“I wasn’t able to attend,” said Sam. “So she texted me every time she sold something. She got more and more excited that people appreciated what she was showing them. Typically, at art shows, there is jewelry and pottery. We’re not the same old thing. When people see our table, they’re shocked that somebody was able to create something so different. Most people say the work is unique and they’ve never seen anything like it before.”
By day, Cook works as a data analyst in health care. Her side business, which she has dubbed “LitARTure,” fills her free time. Her reputation is beginning to spread. She has shipped pieces all over the United States, and business continues to grow.
“Sometimes after I make a sculpture, I’ll post it and say this is sold but I can recreate it,” she said. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a popular one. I have a tree coming out of the book, and birds flying above with a lamp that lights up. The character is walking through the park. Once I make one a couple of times, I’m able to work a little faster.”
Cook’s work has garnered national attention. When an art director noticed her sculptures at the Western New York Book Center, Cook was commissioned to create 16 origami shapes that are displayed in a bookstore at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“Recently I got a message on Etsy from a woman saying she worked for Netflix and would like to commission me to make a few pieces,” Cook said. “I thought it had to be a scam. Netflix wouldn’t message people on Etsy.”
It was no scam. Leslie DeGeorge is involved with the Netflix show “No Good Nick.” She posted a testimonial online.
“This was a custom order,” DeGeorge wrote. “I sent LitARTure all the paper we wanted the cake to be made from. The director wanted it to be made from all the character’s legal documents. Everyone who sees it comments on how beautiful it is.”
Cook is pleased that her work has been met with such a positive response.
“I love everything about bringing a book back to life,” she reflected. “Sometimes the physical book is forgotten with e-readers and reading online, so it’s good to give it a new life form. Some people are taken aback because I cut into a book. But I see it as giving the book a second chance at life.”
When people view her work, conversations ensue about literature.
“My favorite moments happen at craft shows when somebody notices my work with a friend,” Cook said. “They’ll see a sculpture and say, ‘I remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved that book. Hey, what’s your favorite book?’”
© 2019 by Jeff Schober
Click here for Heather Cook's Etsy page
The story behind
Dave Boals, an old friend from high school, posted a link to Buffalo Tales on his Facebook page last fall. (Feel free to do that… we always welcome free advertising!) One of Dave’s friends, Ted Gibson of Colorado, emailed me with a suggestion to write about his niece, Heather Cook, and her book art.
This is exactly what I hoped would happen — story ideas would flow from our readers. As a writer, I’ve learned that each story leads to the next. Please contact me if you have suggestions.
Thanks to everyone like Dave and Ted who are making Buffalo Tales a success. And most importantly, thanks to our readers. Please help spread the word.