Entering an Artist’s World by Activating an Artist’s Book

August 12, 2021
Sha Towers

For many, the isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was socially challenging. However, it wasn’t long before people across the world began to fill their time with hobbies, new and old. For Baylor Libraries’ Associate Dean Sha Towers, the pandemic provided time and space for him to focus on his artistic endeavors.

During the pandemic, Sha used his spare time at home to make over a dozen artist books. According to Smithsonian Libraries, an artist’s book is a “medium of artistic expression that uses the structure or function of a book as inspiration.” This work of art in book form is what many artists, like Sha, use as their choice of medium. Some artists may use paint and canvas, others use the intricate details of an artist’s book for creative expression.

Out of the books Sha created, eight books are juried pieces that got into six exhibitions. Similar to an article that has been accepted to an academic conference, juried exhibitions show artwork that has been selected through a competitive process. Books must meet the criteria of each exhibition and demonstrate a unique artistic vision to be juried.

On the outside, some artist books appear to be normal books, simple, brown and leather bound. However, it’s the intricate work that lay within the inside pages of the book that make it incredible. An artist’s intent comes to life in the book through the careful selection of materials, specially made paper, hand-drawn and hand-painted illustrations, design and layout.

For Sha, style and design vary from book to book. Since artist books focus so heavily on the materials and mediums used, Sha is constantly on the lookout for materials he finds unique and eye catching. He has sourced many materials from favorite places like MC Art Supplies in Waco, Jerry’s Artarama in Austin and Artisan in Santa Fe. When it comes to structure, Sha tends to enjoy an accordion and flag book structure most.

“What makes an artist’s book different from other forms of art is you have to activate the experience yourself,” Sha said. “Artist's books draw on the physical properties of books or concepts common to books. You have to tangibly move through the piece and use your senses to feel, listen and smell the art. You control the experience and are more than an observer,” he continued.

Sha is the associate dean of Research and Engagement and librarian at Baylor Libraries. He joined the Baylor faculty in 2003, serving as the head of the fine arts library for nine years before taking on a series of administrative leadership roles in the University Libraries. In his current position, Sha deals primarily in the fine arts. He is the curator of the Baylor Book Arts Collection (BBAC) and serves as the liaison librarian to the departments of Art and Art History and Theatre. Spending so much time in the art world at work, it’s no wonder Sha pursues artistic hobbies at home too.

It was actually his position at the library that initially got Sha into artists books. In his role as the arts librarian, Sha is surrounded by all sorts of fine arts. He was approached by art professors who wanted to use artist's books to teach seminars about making books. Eventually, Sha started spending more and more time with those art classes, artists, professors and collections that he himself began to dive in the world of book arts.

Sha has been creating his own artist's books since 2015. He founded the Baylor Book Arts Collection in 2007, with the acquisition of work by book artist Maddy Rosenberg. Sha has since grown it to a nationally recognized collection of over 1700 works representing artists and presses from all over the world.

Sha says one of his favorite parts about overseeing the BBAC is the reaction he gets from students. “When I meet with students about the collection there are usually two categories of responses. One is, ‘What is this? I’ve never seen anything like it!’ The other is, ‘I saw this with a class last year and I can’t wait to see more!’” Sha said. “I love that moment to see that whatever students are dealing with, it all seems to vanish when they step into this magical world,” he continued.

Sha continues to create artist books outside of work, and uses his passion for the art to curate the BBAC as a rich resource for all disciplines.

Learn more about the Baylor Book Arts Collection and visit the online catalog at: www.baylor.edu/library/bookarts