Audrey Niffenegger has a porcupine near her pantry, two snow white doves behind the settee, and a rabbit on one of many bookshelves. Upstairs in her studio, the pages of The Other Husband, the sequel she is writing to her best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, are neatly spread on a desk. Nearby, flat files pull out to reveal the artwork she created for her many handmade books, some featuring the very crow that looks down, sentrylike, right now.
It’s clear that in addition to a penchant for diorama-worthy taxidermy, Niffenegger loves books: writing them, reading them, making them. So much so, that she is leading the charge to establish a new arts center called the Artists Book House (ABH). The organization is hosting a fundraising party from 1 to 4 p.m.February 9, at the Evanston Art Center, to kick things off.
ABH’s stated mission is to be a place of diversity “where artists, writers, readers, and other thoughtful people gather to learn and create,” promoting literary art and bookmaking crafts, and connecting community through education, exhibitions, and publications.
The timing is deliberate. Niffenegger cofounded the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College, which thrived for 25 years. Last year, the school shut down its Interdisciplinary Book and Paper degree program, essentially gutting the Center. ABH seeks to fill that void, maintaining Chicago’s robust role in the book arts world, but as an independent facility, that’s available to the public.
Current hopes are to house ABH in the Harley Clarke mansion, former home of the Evanston Arts Center. “We’d love to make the Clarke House our home,” says Niffenegger. “It has a long history with the community, and is easily accessible to all of Chicago.” Adjacent to Evanston’s Lighthouse Beach on Sheridan Road, Clarke House has ample room for community-friendly features.
Patterned after the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, ABH will include space for artists to work, teach, and host forums, plus a library, bookshop, and café. Efforts are already underway to raise the $5 to 10 million in funding needed for the project.
The proposal deadline for organizations vying to occupy the Clarke House is February 28th. If ABH wins approval, the project will be built out following plans drawn up by architect John Eifler. If not, ABH will find physical space elsewhere, using the funding to make a different building its home.
For those unfamiliar with artist books, the medium is one of creating one-of-a-kind books and limited editions of artist-designed books that may include handmade papers, creative typography, and original artwork, printed and bound by the artist into three-dimensional works. The art form also includes books that break boundaries— experimental expressions free of text, paper, or binding. Artist’s books may also be printed in larger editions, as political statements, or social commentary.
All put art in the hand, taking the reader on a tactile journey experienced page-by-page, coverto- cover.
Niffenegger’s first experience of art books came when she was a young girl growing up in Evanston. “In the ’60s, the Evanston Public Library used to have boxes of artists’ books that had been donated to the children’s library, lined up along the windows,” she says. “I loved looking at them. The idea lodged in my brain that even I could make a book.”
So Niffenegger started doing just that, making tiny books filled with poems and drawings. She studied art at Evanston Township High School and at the Evanston Arts Center. Pursuing her art degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Niffenegger kept at it, working on a book project called The Adventuress. To make it, she created 68 etchings, learned bookbinding, and how to hand-set type and print with a letterpress—processes she found “incredibly exciting.”
She got an MFA at Northwestern and started a letterpress and etching studio, Greenwindow Printers, with two associates.
All of this eventually coalesced into something much bigger.
“There were lots of artists who met and brainstormed,” says Niffenegger, “until it was finally suggested, “‘Let’s start a big beautiful book arts center in Chicago where we can teach community classes.’”
The Center of Book and Paper Arts officially launched in 1994, first in a satellite facility on Wabash, and then in Columbia’s Ludington Building.
With the interdisciplinary program there now gone, the art community is working hard to make ABH a reality with the potential to take Midwest book arts to a new level.
“We always wanted the center we created to be for the community. Artists Book House is a rebirth of that initial vision,” says Niffenegger. “It’s a lovely thing, that has a lot of synchronicity. Not just classes, but space where the community can gather around collaborative events.”
“There are so many things I care about that have disappeared in the world lately,” she concludes. “The Artist Book House gives us the opportunity to start something in the face of that, that is truly good.”
For more information on the Artists Book House and its fundraising party, visit artistsbookhouse.org.