Contemporary Female Book Artists

Continuing our celebration of Women’s History Month, today we are highlighting four prominent female book artists: Claire Van Vliet, Carol June Barton, Julie Chen, and Robbin Silverberg.

What is an Artist Book?

An artist book is a work of art that plays with the book in some form. Usually these artist books are either produced in limited editions or as singular works. These books are different from fine press books, high-quality books printed in limited editions, because they break away from the traditional book form to play with it in new and interesting ways. Book artists expand the boundaries of what we think a book should be and look like.

(In)Versions, a tunnel book designed by Julie Chen with drawings by David Turner, 2000.

At a time when we are doing an increasing amount of our reading through eBooks and online magazines that reduce the book to mere text, artist books make form important again, altering our reading experience in a way that cannot be digitally reproduced.

Claire Van Vliet

Claire Van Vliet, the most experienced of the artists we are featuring today, published her first artist book in 1955. Originally from Canada, Van Vliet came to California to study art and received a Master of Fine Arts from Claremont. She now runs her own press, Janus Press, out of Vermont and holds lectures and workshops throughout the world to spread her love of the art of bookmaking to others.

Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce. Designed by Claire Van Vliet, 1996.


Van Vliet’s works tend to make strong use of color, texture, pattern, and shape, often using shape and color as illustration. Below is her book Circulus Sapientiae, or Circle of Wisdom, made in celebration of the 900th birthday of abbess/composer Saint Hildegard. It contains Latin song lyrics written by Hildegard and their English translations, printed on brilliantly colored pages that fold out in an accordion style with bold pop-up shapes illustrating the work. The piece comes bound in a colorful cloth cover with an accompanying CD of Hildegard’s songs.

A page of Sanctae Hildegardis Circulus Sapientiae (Circle of Wisdom). Lyrics written by Saint Hidegard, book designed by Claire Van Vliet, 2001.

Carol June Barton

Carol June Barton is a St. Louis native and an alumni of the Washington University School of Fine Arts. She began making artist books in the early 1980s after discovering a love for pop-up books. She publishes her work through her own press, Popular Kinetics Press. Through this press, she has released a series of books called The Pocket Paper Engineer to teach people how to make their own pop-ups through hands-on experience.

A page from Five Luminous Towers: A Book to Be Read in the Dark. Designed by Carol Barton, 2001.

The image above is of Barton’s Five Luminous Towers: A Book to Be Read in the Dark and includes six poems about towers, with five white laser-cut pop-up towers illustrating the text. These towers are lit from below by a small lightbulb, integrating modern technology into the pop-up form.

Julie Chen

Julie Chen also runs her own press, Flying Fish Press, which she runs out of California. Her work tends to be highly crafted and structural, like the World Without End book pictured below. In this beautiful piece, the triangular book fans open in a circle and fastens front to back to form a diamond-shaped globe that is then suspended by a metal rod on a crescent-shaped, wooden stand. It is made of a variety of paper types, including actual maps, so each of the twenty-five pieces published in this printing is unique. As the reader rotates the globe to read the poem, the form and text work together to offer a unique reading experience.

World Without End. Designed by Julie Chen, 1999.

Julie Chen writes of the goals of her work,

“ I strive to present the reader/viewer with an object that challenges preconceived ideas of what a book is, while at the same time providing a deeply engaging and meaningful experience through the presentation of my own text and imagery in a purposefully structured format… My personal definition of the book is quite broad, with boundaries that are in constant flux. At the core of my interpretation is the act of reading, and the element of time that is essential to this act.”

Inside text of World Without End. Designed by Julie Chen, 1999.

Robbin Silverberg

Of all the female artists we have discussed, Robbin Silverberg is perhaps one of the most sculptural, truly pushing the boundary of what counts as a book. Like Chen, her work tends to be highly structural, but whereas Chen’s World Without End still features a readable text, Silverberg’s  Young Wife During the Night, Beast of Burden During the Day, while still composed of text, is almost completely unreadable. In this piece, Silverberg has used handmade paper to transform the text of a proverb about women into thread, which she has wrapped around an industrial wooden bobbin. This piece is a part of a larger series called “Staffs,” a variant of her “Proverbial Threads” series which wraps different proverbs about women’s work around over 100 wooden bobbins.

Although a careful observer might be able to pick out a word or two of the proverb, it cannot be read as a traditional text, raising questions about what makes this a book, if it can be considered a book at all. Silverberg has written of her work,

“An important focus of my work is…what words can actually communicate and their limitations. Can ideas exist without language and words? If word order defines meaning, is it the words themselves or the spaces between that contain those ideas?”

Book Arts Program

Washington University Libraries’ Book Arts Collection supports our Book Arts Program at the Sam Fox School. Classes in the book arts here at Wash U frequently visit Special Collections to view the works of established book artists like the women we have featured today. These works challenge students to stretch the limits of what they think a book is and can be, inspiring them in their own book arts projects. Whether you are an artist yourself, or just a book lover, we encourage you to visit Special Collections to check out some of these unique works today!

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.