For Patti Fertel, life is more interesting when stories are being told.
The Asheville-based artist has long strived to communicate narratives through her creative work, particularly in her book sculptures, which have been her primary focus for the past decade.
“I really enjoy the repurposing of older things — especially things that were not in good condition,” Fertel says. “I feel as though I’ve saved the images, even if the content is no longer really in good shape.”
Select pieces from this period will be on display in the exhibition Art on the Page: Book Art by Patti Fertel at Pink Dog Gallery, which opens Friday, Nov. 26, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 2.
Paper dolls and sculpture
A native of Chicago, Fertel has made collage art since she was 6 years old and still has her first such piece, which her grandmother preserved. From there, she began a 30-year journey creating paper dolls, as well as collecting them in tandem with Victorian scrap die cuts and other images clipped from old books.
At Brandeis University, Fertel majored in art history and took studio classes focusing on ceramic sculpture, beginning with one-of-a-kind, fired terracotta pieces, and moving to plasticine, from which molds were made to produce duplicates.
“Then I realized I would prefer working with people, so I became a therapist,” she says. “My artwork really helped me as a therapist because I thought about things in a slightly different way. I didn’t know at the time that those two things would ever come together, but they really do.”
Fertel continued to create art, but as she and her husband, Rich Fertel, pursued their careers in suburban Ohio while raising two sons, the art form in which she was trained became less compatible with her schedule — and her scissors began to look even more appealing.
“For me, sculpture is very labor intensive, and it’s a big commitment of blocks of time. That really didn’t work with either my professional life as a therapist or with my family,” Fertel says. “Working with paper, I can start and stop and answer the phone in the middle of it.”
Old books, new art
One day, Fertel read an article about folded books and felt moved to combine that craft with her interest in paper cutouts. Upon taking stock of her collection of images, she realized she had a surplus of birds, taken from various dictionaries, and used St. Martin’s Press’ Birds of North America as the base from which to pair her cutouts and create her first book sculpture. She continued to find books that “called out” to her, including one on ballroom dancing, into which she incorporated a vinyl record with cutouts of people dancing atop.
“And then I began to just branch out and realized that I didn’t need to have the book actually be the subject,” she says. “It could be a kind of a book that was the same size or something similar.”
Subsequent book sculptures have featured butterflies, marine life and the phases of the moon, reflecting Fertel’s long-held love of nature. In sourcing the images, she pulls from holdings left over from her Ohio days, where she “haunted” a monthly flea market and perused multiple used bookstores, the latter of which she’s continued in Asheville as she stays on the lookout for inspiration.
“Sometimes it’s the cover of the book. Sometimes it’s the illustrations. It just has to draw me in,” Fertel says. “Somebody was asking me, ‘Well, I can find books for you.’ And I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t think so.’ They might be able to, but I think I have to see the book to know if that’s going to work.”
Fertel notes that, like most artists with their respective crafts, she initially pursued book sculptures for herself. But when others saw the work and admired it, the encouragement helped further propel her down that path. Such was the case when multiple artist friends complimented her pieces and several of the creations won awards at a faculty art show when Fertel worked at Ohio State University’s College of Medicine.
After retiring, the Fertels wanted to be closer to family. One of their sons lives in Manhattan and the other in Asheville, and though they seriously considered both places, Western North Carolina won out for the increased living space options — which have allowed Fertel to work from a home studio — and the overall lifestyle, including an enhanced relationship with nature. They moved in 2018 and, once settled, she soon felt welcomed by the community and began making connections with her fellow North Asheville artists.
“The opportunity to be part of the [Beaverdam Studio] Tour — that really pushed me to be more serious about it and to really commit to making more pieces and different pieces,” Fertel says. “That’s really been fun.”
She’s also enjoyed the challenges of preparing for the Pink Dog show, particularly thinking about the best ways to display her book sculptures, and is curious to hear what people think about her work, which she feels she’s developed on her own without copying anyone else’s style.
“I never thought at this point in my life that I would be doing what I’m doing,” Fertel says. “It was always very personal, and now it feels a little unusual to have other people look at it and like it because it was really just something I needed to do.”
WHAT: Art on the Page: Book Art by Patti Fertel
WHERE: Pink Dog Gallery, 348 Depot St. avl.mx/adl
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, Nov. 26, 6-8 p.m. On display through Sunday, Jan. 2. Free to attend.