Rare Books Reimagined



What is a book? Can a book be made from a steamer trunk, quilting that dangles from the rafters, paper made from human hair, textiles, or garbage? Must a rare book be defined in the traditional sense as leather bound, old, and secreted away in a Library?

These are the questions that come to mind as one enters the enchanting Mauro Gallery space. Lise Melhorn-Boe, the artist, challenges our 21st century notions of what a book is while exploring societal norms for gender, the family, and the politics of environmental health. In a career that spans 40 years Melhorn-Boe’s unique book art sculpture continues to engage lively conversation that resonates with contemporary audiences. In light of the recent “me too” movement, gender politics, and the rise of global environment ambassadors this exhibition has cache.

The books come to life as one experiences the experimental, textual, layered meaning as the stories unfold in a playful fashion to reveal deep, difficult topics, often buried in plain sight. This is seen in Family Baggage, a commanding presence, embodied in a large Louis Vuitton style steamer trunk. Melhorn-Boe described how the steamer trunk is a family heirloom and a status symbol of her father’s success in emigrating from Germany to Canada in 1929.

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. Family Baggage. North Bay, 2003. Collection University of Calgary. Photo: Dave Brown.

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. Family Baggage. North Bay, 2003. Collection University of Calgary. Photo: Dave Brown.

Family Baggage is arranged into themes to represent the emotional baggage that we all carry from our families of origin. The drawers contain carefully arranged familial objects that appear to be conventional at first glance. With closer inspection, the viewer will encounter, in the Drawer of Denials, the word pain “written” with sewing pins on an infant’s garment; and to the contrary, happiness and wholeness beaded to children’s bonnets. The Wardrobe of Worthiness on the left contains a leather satchel rubber-stamped as “knowledge”, emblematic of the artist’s school days. As one unpacks Family Baggage it reveals the complex and rewarding story of family life.

As one look past Family Baggage to the window sill, a book entitled Garbage is composed of stitched compartments of common household waste ranging from chicken bones and eggshells, to food wrappers. The textual component brings rapt attention to the impact of environmental refuse in Canada and the importance of the conscientious use of materials to sustain our collective future.

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. Garbage. Transformer Press, 2007. Collection University of Calgary. Photo: Dave Brown.

On a lighter note, colourful, quilted books exhibited in the fashion of mobiles create a visual symphony as they dangle playfully in juxtaposition to the roughhewn heritage wood beam structures and large scale pump machinery of the Mauro Gallery in the Water Tower. The RE Books consist of upcycled T-shirts hand sewn into words that are a play on the environmental mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

For Melhorn-Boe the book, like society, is to be constantly challenged, redefined, and reinvented. To learn more about this transformative means of artistic expression visit this eye-opening exhibition!

Ripe with Possibility: Re-Defining the book through an artist’s eyes is on view from January 16th to April 24th, 2020. https://www.stmu.ca/event/ripe-with-possibility-exhibition-27/

Blog Post Written By: Catherine Carlyle, Library Services Specialist

Catherine joined the StMU Library team in April 2018. Prior to joining StMU she managed physical and electronic collections for libraries and cultural institutions in Canada and England. Notably, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, and Harrow Libraries, London, England. Her interests lie in living cultural heritage, preservation of collections, and art history.


University of Calgary Special Collections, Private Collection, Artist’s Collection.

Photography credit: Dave Brown, University of Calgary.

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