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Inventor and artist Hedi Kyle Visits Mills College


(Grace Forrest) "Aunt Sallie's Lament" by Hedi Kyle.
(Grace Forrest)
“Aunt Sallie’s Lament” by Hedi Kyle.

Out of several nondescript, narrow, cardboard boxes, world famous book artist and innovator Hedi Kyle pulled out model book after model book for students in The Moveable Book class at Mills, each with a story. Though not nearly close to her entire collection, the two boxes represent almost half a century’s worth of work and dozens of book structures that Kyle herself invented.

After retiring from teaching at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and working as a book conservator at the Philosophical Society, Kyle spent several quiet years at her home in the rural catskill mountains. But in the past year, at the age of 79, Kyle has come back into the book art world and made a trip out west for a solo exhibition at San Francisco Center for the Book that opened on Friday, April 15. 

The Mills College Book Art program director Kathleen Walkup invited Kyle to Mills for the day to meet with students from several of her classes. In honor of her visit, students in the Artists’ Book class, taught by Walkup and book art teaching fellow Keri Schroeder, co-curated an exhibit showcasing contemporary artists books influenced by Kyle’s revolutionary structures.

“She is a rockstar in the book art world,” book art professor Julie Chen said. “The whole book art community is indebted to her for her contributions and for what she has created.”

Kyle was born in Germany in 1937, but fled with her siblings, mother and grandmother after WWII erupted in 1939 while her father served. According to Kyle, her lack of toys encouraged her to innovate. She says that as a child, her parents gave her and her siblings each some money and with it, Kyle went and got her own pair of scissors, because scissors allowed her to create.

In 1968 Kyle made her first book. After moving from Berkeley, California to Manhattan, she began working on the Botanical Gardens as a conservation technician where she studied under bookbinder and conservator Laura Young.

Kyle is someone who looks at the world and finds inspiration in each experience she has. No one thing prompts her to begin creating a book — she just wants to experiment. With the uncanny ability to fold and fold again, she constantly reinvents the three-dimensional object. Kyle will sit down with a large piece of paper and hours, or sometimes days, later an intricate book will emerge deftly folded together in a way her students and contemporaries can only stare at and then slowly piece together, continuously marveling at her inventive creations.

I digest what I see. I experiment, divert, re-build and alternate.  I feel free to concoct structures that display content beyond words and images.  My concern is to keep the book alive as a mechanical object of extraordinary diversity,” Kyle wrote in her artist statement.

The legend of one of her most famous books goes that once, during an especially violent blizzard in Philadelphia, Kyle told herself that if she couldn’t get to work she wanted to see just how much she could create out of one folded piece of paper. Thus was born, “The Blizzard Book,” a unique scrapbook structure with envelopes built into the binding that can hold pieces of paper. 

(Grace Forrest) From left: "Cake of Applause" and "Women and Cars," books.
(Grace Forrest)
From left: “Cake of Applause” and “Women and Cars,” books.

Kyle has also created new sewing techniques and new ways of adhering pages into a structure. She has found ways to have the inside pages of the book move and ways to create designs within the spines of her books. As a book conservator, she has explored the holdings of libraries and paid special attention to the workings of all kinds of historical rare books. Her work constantly draws on the traditional binding techniques and looks to contain traces of the history of book binding in everything she makes.

Standing at the head of the two large binding tables, she told students of The Moveable Book class, in her German accent, that they should sign, date and make a small note on everything they make. Because decades down the road, when they open that drawer in their desk, or uncover a dusty old box, they won’t remember where or how these “sketches,” as she calls them, came to be.

Having Kyle visit the west coast, let alone Mills, is extremely rare. For the students in the Artists’ Book class, paying tribute to her work allowed them to better understand her work and the influence she has had.

“This project allowed us to work as a team,” said Juliet Weight, a second year music student in the Artists’ Books class. “I thought it was very interesting learning about all these artists and the books — this project took us away from just being in a class and gave it more depth and meaning.”

Kyle is the co­-founder of the Paper and Book Intensive, professor at the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of the Arts, and worked for 20 years as a conservator at the American Philosophical Society.
Kyle’s exhibit at San Francisco Center for the Book runs from April 15 – July 17.