Art: The secret lives of books

Light Relief

Light Relief - Credit: Archant

St Albans-based visual artist Jo Howe transforms the pages of books into sculptural artworks that give new expression to the medium. She talks to Caroline Foster about reinventing the written word


Memory - Credit: Archant

Anyone who has read Marcus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief or watched last year’s film adaptation of it, may have difficulty in coming to terms with the destruction of books. Visual artist Jo Howe takes another approach. By using the pages of books within her art, she believes they can be reincarnated as an alternative means of expressing ideas.

In a heartfelt, emotive way, her often fragile, elegant sculptures are an extension of her own voice, a concept she says comes from ‘How we communicate as human beings.’ She adds, ‘Communication is at the very heart of my work. But it’s also about miscommunication; not being heard, not listening or not speaking in a way other people understand.’

While studying for an MA in Graphic Design at the University of Hertfordshire, Jo realised this particular career choice didn’t fit her creative ideas. Instead, a path of discovery has taken her in a different direction.

‘I love books,’ she says. ‘They come with a history; with stains, folded and torn. It’s the thought of the human interaction with the book that excites me, as well as the quality of the text and its contents.

Can You Hear Me Now

Can You Hear Me Now - Credit: Archant

‘So many books are read, then stored on bookshelves without being read again. I want to invite readers in, in a different way, and give a book its next life.’

Jo’s alternative works transform the pages (she doesn’t use the covers - and says she would never touch a first edition) with cuts, folds, rolls and burns. And her inspirational designs materialise in her mind and then she sets out to find the right book to create her vision.

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Charity shops, Oxfam Online and donated books are Jo’s sources. And the more battered, tattered and torn the book, the more exciting Jo finds it.

The artist has a special book in her collection; a dictionary belonging to the grandfather of one of her clients, but Jo hasn’t used it yet as she says she understands the book is precious. She feels the need to create something special with it, and for that she is waiting until inspiration strikes.

Those who are interested in contemporary styles of work, and particularly fascinated by the use of paper, can enjoy some of Jo’s work this month alongside three other paper artists: Janie Graham, Caroline Lumb and Hilary Taylor. Paper, Scissors, Stone – Taking Paper Beyond is showing at the Parndon Mill gallery in Harlow, Essex, before going on display at Space 2 in Watford in July and August, and then on to East Yorkshire and Warwickshire. The show bring together an eclectic collection of thought-provoking and playful sculptures that represent a vision of craftsmanship, precision and attention to detail.

‘This is really exciting for us as artists, as we spend to so much time preparing for a show,’ Jo explains. ‘Each display will be adapted to suit the environment, and in each location our work will be received in a different way.’

Jo is no stranger to exhibiting as she has taken part in a number of group shows in Hertfordshire and beyond. She also exhibited as a solo artist at the Trestle Art Base in St Albans last year and the Brent Civic Centre.

Jo’s work was recognised by the Hertfordshire artists support group, the Digswell Arts Trust, who awarded her a fellowship between 2008 and 2012, and for whom she is now a trustee. Jo was also a finalist in the Outstanding Contribution to the Arts (over 25) category in the 2014 Creative Hertfordshire Flame Awards.

With the Paper, Scissors, Stone tour followed by a Turn the Page 2015 exhibition at The Forum in Norwich in May, her art is set to reach even more people.


Paper, Scissors, Stone – Taking Paper Beyond is on until April 5 at Parndon Mill gallery, Harlow. Visit for opening times.

For details of other shows and more on Jo Howe’s work visit

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