We all know that books contain hidden, secret worlds, but this takes on a new meaning with Isobelle Ouzman’s Altered Book art.

Open one of her books and the pages will unfold to reveal layers of moons and stars, pathways through forests with tangled arches of leaves and flowers and overhanging branches, figures of hares and owls and deer and cats—all carved and drawn and painted on the very pages. It’s painstaking, meditative work for Ouzman: Each book takes her from one to three months to complete, and she goes through three to five blades a day. Ouzman is now based in Bratislava, Slovakia, but you can visit her on various social media platforms to watch her draw and carve, and she even has a course on her website where you can learn to make an Altered Book of your own.

Recently we asked her a few questions about her astonishing work.


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Enchanted Living: How did you first start making Altered Books?

Isobelle Ouzman: I accidently stumbled into Altered Books after finding a box of water-damaged novels some time in 2012. (Most were romance and murder mysteries.) Being a lover of books and not wanting to see them go to waste due to poor condition, I started repairing the bindings and then doodling on the inside cover of a few. Eventually I found myself carving into them too. I have spent many years continuing to experiment with discarded books in the same way and now sketchbooks as well.

EL: Can you describe your first few attempts?

IO: I didn’t have any expectations with the first few attempts, and that’s still my philosophy today. Because of this I could just let the Altered Books develop intuitively, and I’ve had a lot of fun watching them grow into what they are now. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Admittedly, I’ve been through a lot of trial and error—using the wrong types of glue, pages falling out, the covers warping, ink bleeding through thin paper, etc.—but I’ve continued to build on what I’ve learned.

EL: Were you inspired by any other book art or by books themselves?

IO: I wasn’t aware of book art at all until a couple years after I started working with physical books myself. A friend suggested the work of Brian Dettmer, which led me to discover an entire new genre of art. I was very inspired to keep going in that direction thereafter.

EL: Can you describe the pleasures of the physical book … and working with them?

IO: Many of us who love books also love the feel of them in our hands, and I get to experience that as I work. I notice all the little things—the size, the color of the stitches in the binding, the texture of the paper, the fonts used, the size of the margins, the folded corners where someone

Even if those things are no longer visible in my final piece, they contribute to the feelings I have while creating.

EL: How has your work evolved over the years?

IO: I’d say I have more of a vision with my Altered Books now, whereas before I was just experimenting and reflecting more than anything else. I needed a distraction back then. Now they’re a part of who I am. Creating these has helped me find my voice, which I’ve often struggled with, and I know exactly what it is I’m creating and what I’m trying to say.

EL: Where do you find the books you use in your art?IO: The majority of the books I use are donated. When I lived in America, I was often contacted by school librarians who had the task of throwing away or donating damaged books. (I loved these in particular because of the dated stamps in the back with everyone that had ever signed out the book.) Sometimes thrift shops contact me too, if they have novels that haven’t shifted for many years, and I still find many on the side of the street in my own neighborhood (quite often). Since moving to Slovakia I haven’t made as many connections yet, so I’ve shifted slightly to occasionally using sketchbooks in addition to novels.

EL: Have your feelings about physical books changed over the years as you’ve worked with them?

IO: I still feel the same about books. They’re my passion, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of research on the amount of books that end up in landfills, and I realized our sentiments toward them have changed overall, especially with e-books being so accessible. So in a way, I hope my work speaks to how special books are and keeps the physicality of them in view. Even if it’s in an altered way.

See more of Isobelle Ouzman’s work at isobelleouzman.com.

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Carolyn Turgeon is the author of five novels, most of them fairy tales, and the editor-in-chief and co-owner of Enchanted Living. She also penned The Faerie Handbook, The Mermaid Handbook, and The Unicorn Handbook, all from HarperCollins.