Brian Dettmer takes books to a new level

We’ve all experienced books, seen them shaped on paper and screen, and felt them shape us. But never like this. Haverford, prepare to experience books in a whole new way.


Sculptor and book enthusiast Brian Dettmer comes to Haverford College on October 22nd. Catch him on in the INSC Rotunda on Tuesday the 22nd and Thursday the 24th while he carves a brand new work of art out of his choice material—books. Stop by, watch him work, chat for a while.

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Dettmer will also be giving a walkthrough of his exhibition Elemental on October 25th in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. The walkthrough begins at 4:30, with a gallery opening at 5:30. Catering, as always, will be provided.

The artist gave us some insight into his work for us in a brief interview. Check it out:


Do books ever surprise you as you work with them?
I usually try to approach a book without a specific agenda—to let the book itself dictate the theme or concepts that will emerge. So, I give up the control at a specific point because of the rules I put into place. This can be very freeing, allowing me to discover the book and to make the work about the subject or about the idea of the book rather than about me or about an agenda I want to push. Since I have been working with books for over a decade, I now have a pretty good sense of what a piece might feel like before I begin, but the specifics are always a surprise and hidden themes often reveal themselves in unexpected ways.

Can you give an example of a text that offered something you were not expecting to the final sculpture – that directed your work or blocked your plan in some productive way?
The series on game books was interesting in this way. The idea of a game was a strong metaphor for the way I work. I was intrigued by the charts, matrices and images that come from game culture, but I hadn’t thought about how appropriate and elastic the language of games can be as well. In Bridge Complete, a book from the 1960’s on the popular card game Bridge, beautiful sequences of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clovers line up with other forms and letters to create a matrix of patterns as if events over time are compressed in a single image. On top of that, the language of the game became poetic and took on new meaning when isolated: “When, however, you hold a hand … RESPOND… passed the desirable partner will, of course, carry on … he will find out but he will be possibly a losing Heart.”

How has making these book sculptures changed the way you read?
I think in the same way the Internet has changed the way I read. We have trained ourselves to focus on a linear narrative over several hours in order to read books. It didn’t come naturally. It took training and patience. Now we are allowing ourselves to hunt and peck online in a mode that is much more intuitive and doesn’t require the patience and persistence. Nicholas Carr talks about this in The Shallows. I have never been a good storyteller. I remember people, objects, images and events but I have never been good at constructing them into a strong and engaging narrative. Iprefer to isolate and examine the meaning within each element or event. I suppose that’s part of what I am doing in my work. I have trouble reading for long periods on a screen or in front of a screen but I still find diving into a book without any other distractions around one of the most enjoyable and enlightening things I can do.


To see more of Dettmer’s incredible artwork, visit his gallery.
And make sure to stop by the Cantor Fitzgerald gallery from Friday, October 25th, through Sunday, December 15th to see the work up close and in person.

See you there,

Marissa Gibson
Media Assistant
Mellon Creative Residencies Program

About Tom Bonner

Mellon Tri-College Creative Residencies Coordinator
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