“It’s hard at first to start ripping and drawing and painting in a book,” says Oak Park artist Polly Smith. “But once you get past that first rip, it’s easy.” Since she began incorporating text, photos, paintings, and collages into the pages of existing tomes–mostly used hardbacks–two years ago, she’s completed about 100 “altered” books. “It’s a wonderful way to take things that aren’t being used and turn them into something people can look at and enjoy,” she says.

Although Smith has taken a few classes in bookbinding, printmaking, and other paper arts, she considers herself a self-taught artist. A classically trained cellist with a degree from Carnegie Mellon, she had a brief music career subbing in the orchestras of the Pittsburgh Opera and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. But three weeks after she and her husband, a mechanical engineer, moved to Oak Park in 1993, she got pregnant; at seven months she was too big to play cello. To pass the time she started drawing and doodling, and stuck with it after giving birth to the first of her two sons. “I was home with this baby all of a sudden,” she says, “and started doing art when I had a few minutes here or there, making a card or a little book or something.”

About five years ago Smith got into art journaling–creating handmade books of collage and painting as a means of self-expression–but she didn’t discover altered books until 2001, when a friend sent her a round-robin project with a religious theme (an “altared” book, they called it) and suggested she add a page. “I knew from the Internet that there were a lot of people doing this, but I don’t think I’d actually held one in my hands until that time,” says Smith. She wound up contributing five pages to the book, including one inspired by her son’s first communion.

“There’s a need when you have children to document their lives in the tiniest detail,” she says. “I would find myself saving all these things and wanting to use them, wanting to put them someplace.” Other work includes a book designed to hold Pokemon cards, an elaborate suede-covered book-cum-treasure map inspired by Harry Potter, and an altered copy of a special issue of Newsweek on anxiety–a reaction to both the war in Iraq and her younger son’s abdominal surgeries. A book documenting her life as a stay-at-home mom, which features drawings of a diaper bin and a baby’s shape-sorter toy, was included in the 2002 biennial exhibition at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts.

Anything from religious medals and scraps of vintage paper to fruit stickers and junk mail can wind up in her pieces. “I even accepted literature from Jehovah’s Witnesses once, because I knew there could be something interesting in there,” she says. “But now I’m marked, and they keep coming back.”

Smith says she likes making altered books because she gets bored easily and the process “is totally open. There are no rules.

“There’s this sort of anxiety about the blank page or canvas,” she adds. “When you work with altered books, there’s already something to work with–there are words that might catch your eye or an illustration that might be useful or something.”

These days the only time she pulls out the cello is to perform for her younger son’s preschool class or to play duets with her older son, who’s taken up the bass. But he doesn’t have much interest in following in her other artistic footsteps.

“He won’t do it,” she says. “They must train them really early in school not to write in books. I had also been telling him, ‘Don’t rip the book, don’t scribble in it.’ Now I say, ‘Come on, why don’t you cut this up or do some drawings?’ But he can’t make himself do it.”

Smith will lead a workshop on altered books on Sunday, January 4, from 12:30 to 4 at the Paper Source, 919 W. Armitage. It’s $50; to register call 773-525-7300. She’ll lead another on art journaling on January 18 at the Paper Source at 1109 Lake in Oak Park. It’s $60; call 708-445-7700. For more on Smith’s work see pollymade.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvete Marie Dostatni.