James Allen – Book Excavator

In a city known for its literary community, it’s not surprising that artist James Allen and his book excavations have been so warmly welcomed.

“Ever since I moved here, there’s been a lot of interest in my work”, Allen says. “When I lived in Seattle, people were inter- ested, but now that I’m here it’s just really something that fits with the Portland aesthetic and what people are into, which feels good. So I’ve been focusing on the book art. It’s fun to push it into different directions.”

Allen himself has been pulled in different directions since he graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 2000. He spent five years in New York’s art world, first as an artist’s assistant. Then he worked in art galleries and saw how the gallery world worked. “Working in galleries, I get to see what they expect from artists,… which artists are being pushed, and how the relationship works between the artist and the gallery”, Allen says. He still works within the art world in Portland, finding it valuable to witness what goes on behind the scenes.

Regarding his own work, Allen is currently putting together a collection for a show at the University of Puget Sound in March 2016, which will showcase a “man and nature” theme. One of the pieces that will be in the show is an elaborate installation involving sixteen science and art encyclopedias he discovered on the side of a street in a “free” box.

Depending on the project, Allen’s goal is to complete two or three book excavations a month, but it is intense and intricate work. Allen takes a surgical scalpel and cuts into the book covers. Then, page by page, he extracts pieces to create a beautiful vignette that gives each book a new meaning with its own content. He likes the idea of the book’s authors being “unwitting collaborators” of his, their work and energy given new life by his scalpel.Allen’s carvings uncover something that had always been there, waiting to be revealed.


“That’s sort of a recurring theme: I’m excavating things that are lost in time because they’re from the past, but then I’m pulling them back into the present by carving into them,” he says.

Creating something from forgotten or discarded items does not stop with the book art. Allen also has a woodshop where he builds the frames and displays for his book excavations, rummaging through the bins at the Rebuilding Center for wood scraps.

“I like altering found things”, Allen says. “Most of the books I cut up, I’m rescuing… and giving… a new life. I am trying to make beautiful objects, but I want them to have a lot of layers where people can go to whatever place they want it to take them. Some people relate to the subject matter of the book, but maybe the more you look at it, it brings you to one place. Then depending on the context of another day, you look at it that day and say ‘Oh, I never noticed that!’”


About The Author: Kori Hirano