As a middle school art teacher, Erin Keane invited a local artist to give a presentation to her classroom. The artist’s medium was bookmaking — an artform Keane was not very familiar with. While the presentation was informative for her students, the impact on Keane was much more dramatic. “She blew my world away,” Keane admits.
Three years later, Keane, now a full-time artist, pumped up the volume: she creates handmade books combining encaustic, collage and photography. “I never would have guessed I would be doing this with my life,” she says.
There were early hints, though. “I would buy spiral notebooks as a kid and just keep them — I didn’t want to write in them,” she laughs.
Later, earning Bachelors and Masters of Art Education degrees from Miami University in Ohio, she acquired her first hands-on experiences in photographic technique. She refers to her photos as “intuitive abstract landscapes.”
Working with Annie Fain Liden, the artist who came to her middle school classroom, Keane made the jump from photographic prints to multi-faceted art objects. Books from her Awe series, for instance, combine photographic imagery with paper patterns — a pale green quatrefoil pattern on the back cover of one book echoes the green leaf-like image placed on the front, which contrasts a black and white photo of a sky cut into a window-like form. Keane organizes the imagery between layers of clear encaustic — beeswax mingled with pigment — to create a sense of depth and atmosphere.
Creating the images is the most creatively taxing part of the process, says Keane, but the bookbinding is the most physically challenging. She may sew for hours on end to create the spine that holds the book together.
Even creating the blank pages holds value — the folding and tearing of paper is a meditative act that helps “refill the creative well.” “They are my hardest work, but I think it’s awesome that people get to write in them,” she says.
Keane also makes non-book pieces, typically in the form of photographic grids. The process is similar to her collaged book covers. Revive is a series of nine 8-inch photographs in a grid, all visually bound by warm red-orange-yellow hues. The patterns reveal imagery recognizable as wire or perhaps ceramic decorative tiles, while others are purely textures, barely viewable as photographic. Keane doesn’t manipulate the imagery digitally — no filters or other heavy-handedness — but allows the layers of encaustic to transform the images and unite them visually.
Visually loose as she is, Keane, however, primarily identifies as a bookmaker, exploiting the medium’s potential for “exactness.” “I love math, perpendicular edges, when things line up,” she says. “I kind of geek out on it.”
Keane’s series of Blue Ridge Mountain Books quenches the desire for precision. Forgoing photography, Keane works in soft pastel and dried botanicals to create the mountain landscape covers for blank journals. A blue spine with an intricate, detailed stich binds together imagery that fades from warm browns up into the cool blues and greens of Western North Carolina. She creates the books in a variety of sizes and shapes; the imagery of some subsets perfectly flows from one book to the other, creating a panoramic mountain landscape.
Though the middle school classroom days are behind her, Keane continues to teach, both out of her studio in her home and at 310 Art Gallery in the River Arts District. Along with book-making and encaustic, she considers visual journaling as the third major component of her artistic practice. “They aren’t diaries or sketchbooks, but I would say there is an indirect correlation between my visual journals and the rest of my work.” The imagery is flowing and intuitive — pieces of paper, photographs, drawings that chronicle a specific mindframe: “like a scent that conveys a certain nostalgia,” she says.