Artist Warren Lehrer Transforms Traditional Book Into Illuminated Medium

As an undergraduate student, artist Warren Lehrer approached a college professor and described his vision to combine words and visual arts. The professor quickly shot down his idea, remarking that words and images are separate entities; it is impossible to combine them. 

In his work as an artist, Lehrer has succeeded in what he was told was impossible three decades ago.

This artist, designer, writer, storyteller, and performer has created a modern take on literature and visual arts by using colors, fonts, and words to form pictures and express tone. More broadly, he combines words and images to convey messages. Drawing from his studies in visual arts, and writing on the side, Lehrer is changing the modern conception of the physical book. 

Lehrer was brought to Scripps College on Feb. 22 to lead the Goudy Lecture and Workshop, a program that occurs annually in partnership with the Scripps College Press.

Lehrer, a professor at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a founding faculty member of the Designer As Author graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, has created a new genre, which he is calling “illuminated” novels. 

Lehrer’s most recent illuminated novel is called A Life In Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley. The book describes the life of the fictional character Bleu Mobley, who is reflecting on his life after going to prison. Before his imprisonment, Bleu wrote 101 books. 

Lehrer’s is a real book about these 101 fictional books; it includes all 101 book covers, titles of all the books, and excerpts from them. 

In his presentations, Lehrer acts as Bleu’s editor, displaying an overview of the character’s life and projections of the book’s cover designs and illustrations. Also featured are filmed excerpts from bands, beatbox poets, and other artists performing excerpts from A Life in Books. 

Lehrer said that the illustrated book implies a more direct relationship between the narrative and corresponding pictures. In our culture, the illustrated novel is the basis for one’s understanding of literature: The process begins with vibrant picture books, moves to easy abridged stories, and then leads to more complicated narratives. 

However, the illuminated work’s images and words are increasingly intertwined, creating an entirely new medium for storytelling. 

“Growing out of the tradition of the illuminated manuscript where it’s not just columns of text on a white page, but rather word and image that is combined, this book is illuminated by the pictures, the catalogue descriptions, and the excerpts,” Lehrer said. “So you get this sort of back-and-forth between the person’s own narrative portrayal of his life—why he ended up in prison and his life in books—and the actual works that he created.” 

“I tend to find that more interesting,” he added.

Lehrer’s work presents typography as a truly versatile art form. He uses colors and fonts to convey emotions, or even to distinguish one character from another in a play. 

In his Goudy Lecture, he showed images from some of his prior works. One striking piece of his displays the word “woahhhhh” in a flowing font that gradually grows bigger in size. This crescendo gives the viewer the sense that the character’s voice, if their line were to be acted out, would get louder and louder as they said the word and as their fascination grew with whatever they were seeing.

Lehrer’s process for
developing all 101 books, as well as Bleu’s story, was far from conventional. While the initial idea for a story is a traditional first step, followed by the creation of a title and book cover, Lehrer begins the creative process much differently. 

“I come up
with book titles first and then design book covers and write excerpts, which is backward,” Lehrer said. “I’ve found this to
be a very useful way for me to find out who my character was, to find out what
these books were that he wrote.”

Lehrer’s
Goudy Workshop was entitled “Unblankness:
101 Books.” Participants were able to create their own books in an out-of-order
fashion.

“I call it ‘Unblankness’ because sometimes you get writer’s block or you’re
not sure what you want your next project to be, and this is a way to develop a
lot of ideas and come into contact with things that you really care about,” he said. 

Lehrer began his nationwide tour as the keystone speaker at the New York Art Book Fair. Since then, he has performed in 11 cities, and will conclude his tour in New York City later this spring.

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