Lincoln artist wants you to judge her books by their covers

When most readers pick up a book, they think the art is all about the words on the pages.

            For Courtney Nore, there are other possibilities – the paper, the stitching and, especially, the cover. To the 41-year-old Lincoln artist, it’s all a canvas.

            Nore, who grew up a voracious reader, first learned about bookmaking as an art as student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). Now she’s part of a community working to preserve the book in a digital age of ephemeral tweets and streaming YouTube shows.

            “I love feeling books. I love smelling them. I like holding and reading them,” Nore said. “I hate seeing people read Kindles.” 

            One of Nore’s teachers at UNL was Karen Kunc, a Lincoln artist who has exhibited her books and prints around the world, including Serbia and Austria. In 2013, Kunc opened Constellation Studios in Lincoln to showcase and teach the “book arts,” which include printmaking, book binding and letterpress publishing. 

            In an interview, Kunc said that interest in the field is growing. Artists worry about “the endangered nature of the book” and are working with colors, exotic fabrics and intricate designs to enhance its appeal, she said.       

            “Let’s preserve it in this alternative form, that’s more beautiful and celebrates it and makes everybody provoked a little bit about this potential demise of the written word or the experience of reading in a certain way,” Kunc said.

            What interests Nore are all the creative choices that making a book presents. She once fashioned a cover out of an old beat up record by setting it out in the sun until it was malleable enough to bend. 

            At Nebraska, Nore learned that the paper in a book can be made from everything from seeds to dryer lint. Its color and size may depend on the message the artist is trying to convey.

            Once the sheets are selected, they get folded and separated into small sets called signatures. The bookmaker then sews them together in any number of ways, including the ancient Coptic stitch, used by Egyptian bookmakers 2,000 years ago, and (Nore’s favorite) the secret Belgian stitch, which allows a book to lie perfectly flat. 

            One book Nore sewed has an intricate web of purple string, a technique called the French link.

            Then there is the cover itself. It starts (usually) as a blank, bland rectangle. Nore, without access to equipment like a book press, takes a DIY approach. She carves designs into linoleum block and presses the ink onto the board by piling on other books and 8-pound dumbbells.

            A book is a “marriage of material, color and design,” Kunc said. 

            “It feels like you’re holding a sculpture and also like something that everybody knows,” she said. “There is a rightness to that.” 

            Constellation Studios recently exhibited the work of Nebraska book artist Bonnie O’Connell, who retired in June as a University of Nebraska at Omaha arts professor. The work includes framed sections of a book pages cut crosswise as well as elegant pamphlets of poetry produced by O’Connell’s own printing press. 

            Nore’s aesthetic is more inclined to the grotesque: “skeletons, blood, monsters, etc.” A silhouette of a man hanging sold well at a recent show, she said. But Nore says she’s happy to make sunnier designs for the “normies.”

            “I like to make the color combination and images, if I use them, interesting,” said Nore, whose personal look is goth-light crossed with rock ‘n roll chic. 

            She wore black eyeshadow, a T-shirt from the Brian Jonestown Massacre band, and a lapel pin of David Bowie holding a cat to a recent interview. 

            Among her influences, Nore counts the surrealist Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti and graphic comic books like “The Crow.”  

            This fall, she is collaborating with her friend and local writer Hillary Umland to put out as many as 20 books by the end of the year. Umland writes “flash fiction,” short pieces usually less than 1,500 words. She said she was excited to combine her talents with her friend’s.

            A book in Nore’s hands “becomes an artform instead of a means to an end,” Umland said.        

            Nore charges as much as $40 for a finished product. But this is more of a hobby than profession. The fact that she finds 15 hours to complete a book is a sign of her love for the process. She has a day job at NRC Health, which does market research for healthcare companies, and works as a bartender three nights a week at Yia Yia’s pizza place. 

            She’s also a drummer in a band, which true to her love of all things vintage, recorded an album on vinyl one recent weekend. That one probably will stay a record.

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