Book Artist Wants to Re-Plot How Viewers Consume Content

“I needed somewhere to put my emotions,” says Kristy Higby of Mountain TEA studios. Book art was the answer. Photo by Karin Strickland

Growing up in the 1950s, Kristy Higby witnessed Brown v. Board of Education overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. She saw Jim Crow incite race riots and second-wave feminism shake Washington. Like so many her age, she watched progress happen. “Then I watched it get dismantled,” Higby says, referring to the 2016 presidential election.

In the wake of immense political dissension, Higby carried a heavy heart. “I had all these emotions and needed somewhere to put them,” she shares. Naturally, the lifelong artist leaned into her medium — meditative and brooding artists’ books. Also called book art, bookwork, and book objects, artists’ books use the traditional hardcover as a jumping off point, reinterpreting text in very visual, and, at times, literal ways.

Case in point: Apostrophe to My Mother. Culling candid imagery — flesh-colored palettes, hand-shaped clasps, fingertips photographed in sepia hues — Higby responds to poet Liz Huntington’s bracing lines, “And I take your hands in mine/And ask them to teach me.” In doing so, she invites onlookers to peer inside and take away what they will. “My primary goal is that readers consume content in a measured way,” she says. “I want them to turn the page and digest.”

With her art books,Kristy Higby abstracts poems (some from family or friends) in ways where the pertinent verses confront the viewer. Photo by Karin Strickland

Since moving to Western North Carolina in 2014, Higby and husband Mark Flowers have shared Mountain TEA Studios, a creative space in Alexander. Despite both being contemporary visual artists, they approach making in distinctive ways. Flowers “dives deep,” having majored in mixed-media painting for several decades. His wife, on the other hand, prefers breadth. She is, of course, known for her artists’ books. But as a self-described “addict for new processes,” Higby has also produced sobering documentaries that follow strippers, estranged brothers, aging makers, and other compelling characters.

For her most recent endeavor, Persons of Privilege, she uses junk metal and old photographic plates to create jewelry. Scrappy yet refined, the pieces feature copper trinkets and grainy images of posh individuals. “I wanted to make jewelry for everyone but white, upper-class men,” she says briskly.

A new series, Persons of Privilege, uses images of posh individuals from the past to make contemporary political statements. Photo by Karin Strickland

Though the three mediums appear disjointed, there’s a common motif: “human frailty,” says Higby. A work in progress, her latest artist’s book concretizes America’s Tin, a poem written by Joel Chace following the 2016 election. In a particularly shocking excerpt, two middle-school-age boys spear a frog, laughing as the creature dies. It’s a distressing scene. “The propensity of little boys to be entertained by violence struck me,” says Higby.

That discomfort comes across in visually interesting ways: piano keys, mercury glass, wooden accents. She has also casted grape vines in metal.

“I carried them around for days, knowing they would become something,” she says. Binding together eight chapters of politically infused imagery, the tendrils act as twine, affording all kinds of closure.

Kristy Higby, Alexander, studio hours by appointment. For more information, see mountainteastudios.com.

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