Every book is a mystery to artist Brian Dettmer. The 42-year-old Naperville native is never quite sure what he'll find on page 11 of that old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, let alone what awaits him on page 137.
"That's one of the things that makes it exciting for me," says Dettmer, who has created his own art genre by carving dying books into living sculptures. "I might be cutting for 20 minutes and nothing is coming up, and then BAM! The perfect phrase will come up."
The process is laborious. Sitting in his art studio at his home in the New York borough of Brooklyn, Dettmer starts by painting a coat of thick acrylic varnish over the closed book.
"This creates a skin on the edges," Dettmer says. Using a common X-ACTO knife and a standard pair of tweezers, Dettmer cuts through the cover of the book and meticulously delves into the pages, layer by layer, preserving the words and images he likes and tossing aside the rest.
"It's definitely a dissection or an excavation," Dettmer says. "I'll carve for a while and then I'll varnish and carve again."
A sculpture consisting of a single book might take him two or three days and sell for $5,000, while a piece with a series of books might require six months of work and sell for $60,000. Dettmer's book sculptures have been exhibited worldwide. Following a reception that starts at 5 p.m. at The Schingoethe Center of Aurora University, 1315 Prairie St., Dettmer will give a free talk titled "art of facts: Brian Dettmer." at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the Tapper Recital Hall. For details, visit aurora.edu/museum.
A mural of the diverse world Dettmer painted on a wall at Naperville North High as a senior still can be seen, along with signatures of the artists and other classmates who worked on it. But it's changed in the 25 years since. So has Dettmer and so have books.
"I was the artsy, weird kid. I had the long hair and made everybody wonder about me," Dettmer says of his high school days as the second of four children born to Dennis and Maurita Dettmer, who now live in Pennsylvania.
His dad was an engineer and his mom took care of their home, but "she did have some paintings in the attic that were really good," Dettmer says.
To do his art, he needs engineering skills as he often holds books in place with weights, clamps, string and pieces of foam. He uses a belt sander to fine-tune some of the contours. He alters books, but was taught from an early age to respect them.
"Books were the only way to get information," he says of growing up in a world before the internet. "It's almost like books were sacred."
You never tore out a page, drew on a cover or even folded over a page corner. Then the world of information changed, and some books became obsolete.
"Hopefully, my work will preserve them in a different way," Dettmer says, adding that in his 15 years with this medium, he doesn't work on rare books, hardly ever cuts into fiction and most often sculpts outdated reference books. "But at the same time, it's kind of a tension, a sadness, a melancholy feel. I'm trying to suggest this idea of loss."
In what has been called "conservation through destruction," Dettmer says that his work is a décollage that subtracts elements from a piece, as opposed to the more common collage made by adding new elements to a piece. Most artists have an idea of what they want to create; Dettmer only gives his books a quick glance before he starts.
"It's kind of a metaphor for reading. When I'm cutting through the first page, I don't know what's coming next," he says.
He finds books at estate sales, used-books stores and thrift shops. But fans also send him books that they can't bear to just toss in the trash.
"A lot of people just send me encyclopedias now. I probably have about 20 sets of encyclopedias," Dettmer says. "People have so much intrinsic value and history with books."
He recently spent a week-and-a-half cutting into an old dictionary when he realized the paper was too brittle and the book was too far gone to save.
"I'm literally cutting into the body of the book and exposing different elements," he says of his work, which can cause aches and pains. "My hands are usually OK, but it can go to my elbows or my neck or my lower back. It is definitely highly repetitive."
Dettmer, who graduated from Chicago's Columbia College with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Olga Serna, who works in marketing, and their daughter Isabella, 7. Just as he once couldn't imagine a world in which Encyclopaedia Britannica didn't print sets of books, he never can be sure where his art will take him. For now, he's performing delicate operations on books.
"There are thousands of tiny decisions I'm making while I'm working, and in that way, it's a metaphor for life," Dettmer says. "I can't control what's coming next."