ALTERED: FIND A WAY TO BE HEARD

interview by CAROLYN SWARTZ

 

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“Surrounding women and our role in our society, there’s no end to the
questions we can ask and what we have to say.”
—CYNTHIA AHLSTRIN, artist

Was it clear from childhood that you wanted to be an artist?

I’ve always been drawn to art. As a child I considered myself a doodler and a maker of “creative things”—much of which was made out of macaroni. But as a young person, I didn’t consider becoming an artist as my path. I also loved science and entered college as a botany major. That lasted a year. And while science and art have lots of intersections, it took another 15 years—which included a variety of jobs, marriage, motherhood and the move to Maine—to get the courage to go back to school and earn my bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

Why didn’t you choose fine arts as your path?

As career people, my parents were dead set against my pursuing any degree that wouldn’t prepare me for a career with regular income. Interestingly, elements of their professions as police officer and registered nurse bubble up in my own work from time to time.

Did you study art in Maine?

I went to U of Maine in Augusta (UMA), which at the time seemed like a hidden jewel, and did a minor in visual bookmaking at USM (University of Southern Maine). Entering UMA in my mid-30s, I was a bit concerned about being seen as “the older student.” As it turned out, others in my classes were even older—some in their 50s and 60s. I really enjoyed working with them and watching how they translated their life experience into their work.

I also appreciated the flexibility the university offered. As a non-traditional campus, UMA allowed me to take the number of classes each semester I could handle! Just after the spring semester of my junior year, my son was born. The next the fall, I took only a couple of non-studio courses. Talk about life influencing art! But what really made the UMA program were the professors. Those that influenced me most were strong women and men who encouraged us to embrace our authentic selves.

My first drawing professor was Natasha Mayers, who has been called “the art and soul of activist art in Maine.” She used to say, “I don’t want you to draw like me, I want you to preserve your own style.” And so I have. Patricia Jenks guided me back to my love of botany and science, encouraging me to express my observations through a different lens. Jere DeWaters brought out the idea of investigating objects from many angles. Karen Adrienne stressed thought process, challenging us to examine the “why” behind our work.

Under their influence, my subject matter began to change. In printmaking class, I began to work on a series based on the experience of my first flagged mammogram: the fear I felt when being “called back in.” Suddenly my prints went from botanicals to breasts in a visual investigation of my fears about breast cancer. I began to ask other women about their own experiences, which I found in many cases to be a lot worse than mine. My work soon reflected these experiences a series of large monotypes expressing the scars, the darkness and fear associated with breast cancer and its treatment.

This led to an exploration of my feelings around other women’s issues. Uteruses began to pop up in my work. And by my second year, my output was becoming less conservative and more contemporary—imbued with a voice Natasha comically described as “hitting people over the head.” I thought I might have found my place.

You create altered books. What are they?

An altered book is a form of visual bookmaking that transforms an existing, printed book from its original form into something different. In altered books, the artist is not only changing its appearance, but also its meaning or intent, by applying paint, drawings, collage, stitching pages and so much more. You can also cut the book completely apart to create a sculptural piece that bears almost no relationship to what we think of as “book.”

I tend to cut the printed page out of the traditional printed form to create base materials, then use subtractive and additive techniques to create my work, which frees me from the original format. I also pay attention to specific words or sentences, making use of those I find relevant to what I want to my work to say. Bottom line, altered books are as varied as the artists who create them.

Where do you get your books? Do you buy them from used book sellers?

I’ve never actually paid for a book I work with. I find the books discarded at the transfer station or in “free for the taking” boxes at local libraries. I select older books (not museum quality) mostly by the feel, weight and color of the paper. Some I get from my mom, who at 92 is still an avid reader.

What got you started in altered books?

I had always wanted to take a bookmaking class. UM Augusta had only-summer intensive offerings, but the scheduling never worked out for me. After I graduated, I found out that Rebecca Goodale, professor of visual bookmaking at USM, was offering a one-day workshop at MECA in Portland. I took it and was fascinated by putting two-dimensional content into a three-dimensional format. My interest piqued, I went on to take every visual bookmaking class USM had to offer. And while I continue to take workshops at USM, MECA and the KCC Center for Book Arts in Portland, it was that first semester at USM which got me started in altered books—at a time when I was intrigued but also a little nervous.

What about it made you nervous?

Basically, my hesitancy to cut up a book … any book! I grew up in a family where books were treated with respect. Borrowing library books and handling them gently—that was so ingrained in me from an early age. But I managed to find some discarded books, forced myself to just start cutting and soon fell in love with the process of cutting pages out of the book block. I also started to notice the feel of the paper—very tactile and meditative!—and realized I had preferences.

Growing up, my grandmother—a professional seamstress—lived with us. As a little kid, I’d hang out and try to help while she laid out her patterns. Through that, I learned to appreciate the feel and strength of good-quality pattern tissue. Sifting through book boxes for class, I started to pick out books based pretty much only on the feel and weight of the paper. The books tended to be older, because at some point, publishers started to use a sizing on paper, that could make gluing pages together quite difficult.

Making an altered book, cutting out pages, you can’t help but look at the print. Many of these discarded books were pulp and romance novels. And in the process, some lines seemed to jump off of the page. I began to see intriguing—and disturbing—patterns that ultimately informed my work.

What kinds of patterns did you see?

I began to see horrible things happening to female characters. The violence against women was at once pervasive and gratuitous. It generally had nothing to do with plot, or the arc of the narrative. It seemed to be tossed in just simply to fill the pages.

Very powerful … How has your work been affected by the violence against women?

The words and phrases became inspiration for content, form and even titles—like 38 Special, A Bullet Bra, which was created from a book in which a female character was murdered with a single shot.

Then there was Repurposed Romance, a full-line girdle made from pages of romance novels, precisely cut and folded. I’m fascinated by these 1950s-style foundation and boudoir garments. They’re beautiful but cage-like and restrictive. Women are so multifaceted; our talents so expansive. But society always tries to restrict and control us. Even now.

Silk Stockings was inspired by a book about the different treatment of men and women by the medical profession, and the role of nurses in patient care. My mother worked full time as a nurse until she was around 80. As a child, I used to watch her dress for work: squeezing into the requisite girdle with those odd straps hanging down, then attaching ever so carefully her white stockings. Those stockings had to be pristine—without a snag or the hint of a run. “Seams straight, ladies!”—so they can get splattered with blood.

In my altered book, the seams are meant to be read. With overtones of violence, they speak to inequities in the experience of professional women in the “pre-pantyhose” era. These were the garments women of past generations had to wear, but and in many cases, also wanted to wear. Fortunately, most are items I don’t have to wear myself!

The altered book Something Blue is a pair of fancy garters: one that a woman might wear on her wedding day, the other that she’d toss into the crowd of single men at the reception. I had come across a book that depicted violence on a wedding night, and was struck at how this “beautiful day” could dissolve into something so horrific … So here are these two lovely, lacy garters, all made from paper, even the lace. The only part of the piece that is not paper is the internal elastic. And yes, these garters could actually be worn.

The Pink Slip, which I made last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, took a somewhat different direction. Looking like a 1950s full slip, its inspiration came in responses to an email I sent to a number of women asking if they’d ever been fired from a job and, if so, for what reasons, and how they felt about it. I also asked them to forward my request to other women.

Using the replies, I created the material for the slip from a combination of words on paper I cut by hand and related sentiments I found in printed books. I anchored all of them within layers of translucent paper, designing and cutting all the lacework trim out of paper, then hand sewing all of the stitch designs and cursive print at the base of the skirt. This piece took nine months to create. At first glance, the message is subtle. But if the viewer takes the time to read the words that make it up, they find it says a lot.

Do you always create the work from the actual book that inspired it?

Not always, but often. For the most part, there’s no connection and half the time I couldn’t even tell you the title of the book(s) I’m cutting up. Still, inspiration comes when the words start popping off the page. And serendipity can happen—as it did with a pair of 1950s boudoir slippers—the title taken from a book Without Consent … WOW, an antiquated term for rape.

Like all of my altered books, these slippers are made entirely of paper. They weigh only ounces. For the heels, I glued together layers of paper, which I then carved to get the shape I wanted, then finished with an application of selected sentences. There’s often a dichotomy between the beauty of these objects and the messages they contain. Here, on the underside of the heel: “Stop Rape.”

As I look at your delicate, intricate pieces, it’s hard to imagine that each started out as a book.

Yes, but they all did. I love working with found objects that hold so much implication and direct meaning. Part of the satisfaction is determining folds: deciding which part of the page to reveal. Paper doesn’t behave like cloth; I have to make all my own patterns and create supports to create my three-dimensional vision. And while I use traditional bookmaking techniques as much as possible to achieve movement or continuity, as I change form with intention, what I end up with is very sculptural work.

In The Fortune Catcher, the bra cups are created from a few hundred pages made into lotus folds—a common bookmaking technique. The clasp is derived from a Japanese bookmaking technique in which two folded pieces slide into each other, making it easy to open and close the back of the bra.

It’s painstaking and precision work. I truly enjoy it: Finding cast-off books and giving them new life by transforming them into something they never were intended to be, while expressing myself by what I add, invent and take away.

People have said to me, “Cynthia, you’re so process oriented,” and I suppose on some level that’s true. But for me, process is more than a means to an end. I love acquiring the different skills I need to problem solve and create my art. As the work changes and evolves, my process keeps me interested and fully invested. I get to keep challenging myself and my viewers.

Surrounding women and our role in our society, there’s no end to the questions we can ask and what we have to say.

. . .

cynthiaahlstrin.com
Instagram: @cynthiaahlstrinart 

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