Books are her Canvas

Patti Fertel is rewriting the notion of book art. Photo by Lauren Rutten

When Patti Fertel started her art studies at Brandeis University in the late 1970s, she’d just spent a summer as an intern doing social-outreach work. A career crisis began to loom.

Fertel had already chosen art history as her major; however, “I had been torn between majoring in a social-science field or in art,” she recalls. “After that summer experience doing social work, I decided on that profession for my career choice. But I never stopped making art.” 

Now retired from a 35-five year career as a therapist, and with a growing reputation for her unique book sculptures, Fertel has found those two career choices to be unexpectedly compatible. “It’s a continuation of my past work in a slightly different form,” she says. “I believe that creating art presents the opportunity to see the world in new ways, and to become refreshed in mind and spirit.”

Butterflies Book

The artist was first attracted to collage, a medium that formed the foundation for her distinctive sculptures, crafted from books that she finds at flea markets, in second-hand book stores, or deaccessioned from library collections. The books are chosen for their aesthetics, including size and the color of the binding and pages. 

Each book serves as a canvas, to which Fertel adds vintage photographs, drawings, and advertising materials from her own collection, along with silhouetted cutouts of human and animal figures she makes herself. Butterflies, which Fertel considers symbols of hope, appear frequently, as well as the birds that provided her first experience making her three-dimensional pieces.


“Several years ago, a fellow artist showed me work he had made using illustrations from dictionaries,” Fertel says. “The small line drawings were very appealing.” After building a cache of her own snipped drawings, Fertel noticed that she had unconsciously focused on birds, producing a sizable stack of the avian cutouts.

“One day I found a book about birds and thought that it would be fun to incorporate these images into [an art] book. I folded the pages, inserted the birds — and found a new medium of expression.” 

Dressing Vesalius

Soon, other books’ subjects began to inspire her. An instructional manual on ballroom dancing from the 1930s led to “Bandstand,” with vintage vinyl discs surrounded by cutouts of dancing figures. “I use different folding patterns for the pages depending on the subject,” Fertel explains. For “Siphonophores,” based on a book about the tiny marine organisms, Fertel created a reef-like background from the paper, against which the delicately shaped animals appear to float.

Her collection of paper dolls provides another creative outlet, as well as self-generated material for the book sculptures. Fertel began collecting antique and contemporary paper dolls in 1974 and was soon making original dolls based on vintage fashion magazines and catalogs. She had two books on the subject published this past summer.

“I think that telling stories and hearing stories and using stories was the basis of my professional life as a therapist,” Fertel says. “Now my art is another way of telling a story.”

Patti Fertel, North Asheville. Fertel will open her studio during the 4th Annual Beaverdam Studio Tour happening Saturday, Oct. 30 (10am-5pm) and Sunday, Oct. 31 (12-5pm) and will also have a show at Pink Dog Gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District in November (348 Depot St., For more information and a map of the tour, see For more information about the artist, including how to acquire her paper-doll books, see  

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