Book Artist Candace Hicks Reimagines Notebook Paper with Needle and Thread

Posted inDesigner Profiles

The world of book arts offers an infinite portal for innovation, creativity, and self-expression. I haven’t been shy about my adoration of the artform and continue to come upon inspiring book artists who reveal new and exciting ways of interpreting what a book can be. Candace Hicks is one such book artist, and she’s been exploring the intersection of her love of reading and embroidery within her book arts practice for decades. 

Hicks is based in Nacogdoches, Texas where she teaches Foundations at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary art practice includes recreating classic composition notebooks in cloth form, embroidering text into their fabric pages. The text is mostly composed of collected snippets that she finds recurring in the different books she’s reading. This poignant series entitled “Common Threads” has been an ongoing project of Hicks’ for nearly 20 years.

“Sewing every line, letter, and illustration in the books enhances their status as objects,” Hicks reflects on the website for Booklyn, a Brooklyn-based book arts nonprofit. “By laboring over a dime store composition book, painstakingly recreating it by hand, I have found a way to express the insignificant as potentially philosophical.”

Hicks continues to actively mine these ideas and this form, recently reimagining typical notebook pages in immersive embroidered patterns in a series she calls “String Theory” and working through an installation called “Cloud Storage” that serves as a commentary on the surveillance state. I was completely captivated by the tactility of her work and the ideas she’s dissecting, so I reached out to Hicks directly to learn more.

What’s your background in art, and how has that led you to where you are now?

As a book artist, I pursued a degree in printmaking. I’ve always identified primarily as a reader of books, especially fiction. Regardless of the materials or form I’m using, it’s always bookish.

Where does your love of embroidery and cloth materials as a medium come from?

I learned the basics of sewing as a kid, but I taught myself embroidery for the sake of a pun. I wanted a medium for creating an artist’s book about coincidence, and I settled on embroidering cloth pages and calling it “Common Threads.” At the same time, fabric suited the tactile quality that I was looking for. The text, cover, and illustration are all stitched in embroidery floss on fabric. Each volume is unique. 

Lastly, I like that fabric books are associated with young children and early child development. The textual content of my books doesn’t always touch on motherhood or feminism— however, the choice of materials evokes a sense of domesticity.

What doors has the world of book arts opened for you as an artist? 

I was interested in making books before I realized it was an art form. Books allow for direct communication with the reader. Unlike painting or sculpture, they are experienced intimately and privately. Making books allows me to reach readers/viewers wholly one-to-one.

Where did the idea for your “String Theory” series originate? What experience do you hope viewers of the series have? 

Most of my work is text-based. Even my interactive installations include copious text and/or accompanying books. During COVID-19 isolation, I started finding it harder to write, or even read. Playing around with a way to make a drawing of a sheet of blank paper, I discovered that I could stretch the embroidered canvas like a painting over a shaped panel. Suddenly, so many variations occurred to me. I’ve made hundreds of these drawings. They share the trompe l’oeil effect of the notebooks in that viewers sometimes do a double take, at first not placing the texture as stitching.

Previously, I made a series of large scale artist’s books called “String Theory: Understanding Coincidence in the Multiverse,” and I like to think of the Notes as precursors. Even though they came after String Theory chronologically, these distinctions don’t matter in the multiverse, and it affords me another cherished punny title. The many permutations warp the space of the picture plane in all the ways I can imagine. Seeing the distorted pages, viewers have the experience of seeing something quotidian in an unfamiliar way.

Can you explain the themes behind your “Common Threads” series? 

I’ve been working on this series for almost 20 years! It’s held my interest for a long time. Reading books, especially fiction, is as necessary as sleeping, exercise, food, and water. Some artists make work because they feel compelled, but that’s how I feel about stories. So I read a lot, and I notice that sometimes a word, phrase, or character name appears in two or more books in a row. I find unexpected phrases like “black currant lozenge” or “antique dental instrument” in two unrelated books read in succession. Good writers of fiction know that a chance encounter or coincidence convinces the reader of the believability of a plot. We basically only tell stories of serendipity, and we suspend our disbelief when we know the coincidences have been orchestrated by the author of fiction. 

In the books I’m reading, another intertextual story emerges, fueled by my own random selections. No one else is reading the same books as me in the same order, so in a way, my reading is my life’s work. The hand-stitched notebooks that I make recording the coincidences I uncover are a by-product of that process.

Occasionally, I indulge in cultural or literary criticism within the pages of “Common Threads.” I’m interested in conspiratorial thinking and the ways that we form meaning from pattern and repetition. I workshop ideas for larger projects in my books, including my latest installation, “Cloud Storage.” Inspired by conspiracy theories and government secrets, “Cloud Storage” places a fluffy cumulus cloud as the main character at the center of an inept plot of surveillance, cover-up, and violence. An installation consisting of kinetic paintings, optical sculptures, and onsite construction, it will create an immersive, engaging environment ideally viewed by groups of visitors. The installation encourages and incentivizes visitors to work together to fully explore the enigmas within. Designed to help visitors question the sources of their news and information, the work uses parody to educate audiences about rampant conspiracies that thrive online in isolated internet communities. 

A unique approach to installation, “Cloud Storage” offers a reevaluation of engagement that de-centers interactivity and focuses on optical phenomena that can only be experienced firsthand. A cloud is the protagonist and star of the exhibition as a stand-in for UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena), the preferred nomenclature that has replaced UFO. The cloud is the subject of scrutiny in a world where conspiracy theories abound, and we are made ever more aware of the gaps in our understanding.