“Paper Alchemist” Bel Mills on the Magic of Making Books by Hand

Posted inDesigner Interviews

In college, I took a life-changing class called The Art of the Book, an intensive workshop held in the basement of my university’s oldest library where we learned how to make books by hand. I’d always had an affinity for handcraft and beautiful handheld objects, and book arts proved to be the ultimate expression of that sort of limitless, analog art. 

Despite the rapid digitization of pretty much everything, the book arts community is small but mighty. In an increasingly virtual, screen-obsessed world, there’s an equal and opposite thirst for the tangible. Art forms like book arts serve as a refreshing reminder that we are, in fact, real; that we can make real things that we can touch, that take up space. In the face of AI, Web3, the Metaverse, NFTs and whatever other acronym we need to learn next, we can still make something magnificent with a found piece of paper and glue.

I’m not alone in this romantic outlook on the power of book arts. Virginia-based book artist and teacher Bel Mills is right there with me, running an upcycled book arts studio out of her home called Scrap Paper Circus. Since 2016, Mills has been making bespoke, one-of-a-kind books and journals out of salvaged paper and using online workshops to teach students how to do the same.

Naturally, I was immediately captivated by Mills’s mission when I came upon her work, so I reached out to learn more.

On your website, you say you started taking book arts classes at your local university in 2015, but what inspired you to start taking those classes in the first place?

Sometimes I lose track of the reason I start doing something, especially if it’s different from the reason I keep doing it. But I happen to recall when I took my first book arts class in 2015, I wanted to write a children’s book. I wanted to create a book about fine art for children and I wanted to illustrate and design the structure of the book myself. (And I did, in fact, create my 3D children’s book about art as the final project for that class). But my reason for making books changed during the class. Since this was a college-level class, we learned about the history of book arts. That’s when I was exposed to the ingenious book designs of artist Hedi Kyle, as well the Fluxus Artists of the 1960s and 70s, who liked to use inexpensive found materials like envelopes and photocopies in their artist books. Their work is what really hooked me and led me down the path I’m on today.

What is it about upcycling and using found paper that you find so inspiring as an artist?

There’s a kind of creativity with upcycling that absolutely thrills me. It isn’t just about being thrifty and resourceful— that’s part of it, but it’s also about imagination and possibility and adventure. Upcycling is seeing things not just as they are, but as they could be. There is so much freedom and joy in that— in taking an item that was meant to be thrown away and reimagining it as something permanent and beautiful. It’s like magic, like paper alchemy. 

Upcycling also reverses the design process in a way I find very satisfying. Instead of imagining a book, and then buying materials at the store, I start with the materials I already have—envelopes, file folders and cardboard boxes—and imagine what sort of book they could become. I get to figure out how to leverage their inherent qualities for maximum effect. Though I’m constrained in some ways by the materials, I’m also free to use them in a way the manufacturer never intended, which is liberating and inventive and fun. 

On a more practical side, upcycled book arts is more affordable, more environmental, more sustainable, and it allows you to experiment and take risks in a way you probably wouldn’t with expensive, purchased papers.

From where do you source most of your found materials?

Most of my favorite materials show up, free of charge, in the natural course of my life as a suburban wife and mother of two teenage boys. These include cereal boxes, business reply envelopes, paper bags, unused notebook paper, and so on. I offer a free guide illustrating how I incorporate 17 household paper items into my books.

My second source for paper is Goodwill or other second-hand stores, but I don’t refuse to buy new papers or materials if a project requires it. If I develop a book structure using a certain envelope and then I run out of it, I won’t hesitate to purchase more if they’re not available second-hand. I don’t believe materials have to be “found” to qualify as upcycled. Anytime I purchase a single-use paper product and incorporate it into a book, it removes that paper from the waste stream, which is where it would have gone eventually had anyone else bought it.

What is your studio set-up like?

My studio occupies half of our basement in Northern Virginia. It’s a finished space with ivory walls, beige industrial carpet, and a large standing desk. I also have loads of shelves and drawers units. On one side of my work table are bookcases filled with books. Some of these are my reference books about bookbinding, but most are old books I take apart and use in my work. On the other side of my table are metal supply shelves. They are loaded with cardboard boxes and plastic tubs, all sporting labels describing their contents: “cereal boxes,” “ephemera” “old office supplies,” “paper punches,” etc.

I also have two typewriters (one of them an electric Smith Corona I used to complete my college applications back in 1991), also a sewing machine (which I bought 20 years ago when I was a quilter), a guillotine paper cutter, and a book press. Oh, also a treadmill! 

What’s your favorite part about teaching your upcycling book arts classes?

There are two main things I love about teaching upcycled book arts. One is being able to share that moment when a student’s book comes together for the first time. The moment when the pages meet the cover, and they’re holding an actual book that they made themselves in their hands. Because if you are a book lover, making your own book feels like a superpower, and I love being a part of that. 

The second thing is just being able to spend time with a community of upcyclers— whether seasoned or aspiring. In the regular course of my life, I don’t come across many people who understand or appreciate what I do. So having a room— or a Zoom screen— populated by my people is a great feeling. 

In a time when so much art and design is digital and virtual, do you find more people rebelling against this and gravitating back toward the handmade, old-world trades, and tangible handcraft practices like book arts?

Yes, I think this is true, especially for those of use who are sensitive. Sensitive people, being attuned to all things sensory, have a particular appreciation for the tactile and the real. And I do think the more two-dimensional and digital the world becomes, the more that sensitive people will gravitate toward the analog and the handmade. 

On the other hand, I can tell you that my son, Isaac, a young computer whiz, is sincerely befuddled by my preference for physical objects over digital replacements. But as a sensitive person, I connect to things I can touch in a way I cannot connect to an image on a screen, and that will never change. I will never truly love a book I read on my Kindle. In order to really have a deep relationship with a book, I have to hold it.