When Lara Unger was a young girl, her grandmother gifted her a small porcelain doll that she had dressed in knitted clothes and a blanket.
Unger was gracious upon receiving it but noted it didn’t have anything to sleep in.
Right away, her grandmother fashioned a cradle made from an empty toothpaste box that had fabric and lace sewn on it and even wood legs her grandfather cut out of scrap wood for it.
“All I could think is, she’s magic,” Unger said. “That magic is something we shared.”
Unger tries to capture that magic in the many artist’s books she makes, and the dozens of recipients of those pieces of art would no doubt say she’s successful.
Unger, digital conversion supervisor at the U-M Library, has made more than 50 books over the years. The first was a miniature hollow book for her grandmother, whom Unger said was a driving force behind her creativity.
“She taught me a lot of different crafts. She loved miniatures, so I wanted to make her a miniature book,” Unger said. “I made the book and cut out the center and put little things inside it, like a shell and a little bottle. She was always delighted with anything I made her.”
Unger’s books run anywhere from miniature size — less than 3-by-3 inches — to her largest of 9-by-12, but many are about 4½-by-5 inches. She said the larger books can take a month to make — much of that time Unger admits is her wrangling over the content and look rather than the actual process of sewing it. She employs exposed sewing on her books, so the spines of many of them have an embroidered look.
One of the more complicated and visually stunning books she’s made is Ebook, which has two computer motherboards as its cover, is equipped with a working USB and has many related computer parts and media inside including a floppy disk, hard drive disk, and memory.
“I liked the Ebook because it was an interesting concept and I loved the idea of it,” she said. “I really like that I put a USB in it. You can actually plug the book into a computer. I just have fun with stuff. That’s one of the big takeaways for me is to enjoy having fun with it.”
She made the Ebook for a long-serving desktop support services leader who was retiring.
“There’s very much a personal element in each of the books that I make or there’s something challenging about them,” she said. “I like that challenge of being able to put something visceral in my books. (When people receive a book), it just makes me feel really good. My heart expands a little bit.”
She also made a book that resembled a movie camera, complete with a working crank that allows the recipient to scroll through messages on a roll of paper. She used thick paper book boards to build the outside of the Moving Picture Book and different pieces of hardware for the crank and lens.
“That was challenging in a different way because I had to figure out the mechanics of how to make it work and make it work to my satisfaction,” she said. “And that’s one of those times I had that artist mentality of being very particular about how something looks at the end.”
Unger actually thinks of herself more as a craftswoman than an artist enjoying many different creative outlets in addition to bookbinding. She embraces the freedom of expression that is allowed with her creations, often inspired by materials she has worked on during her career. She’s been with the library for 22 years, managing the day-to-day operations of the library’s book digitization laboratory.
“If you’re a conservator, you have all these rules you have to follow, and I just didn’t want to do that (with the artist’s books),” she said. “I wanted to do my own thing in my own time and in my own way.”
With each book, she delights in including elements that would make it difficult to scan by her Digital Conversion Unit or be represented online, preferring instead for the creation to be experienced firsthand. That includes textures, pop-ups, moving parts and 3D objects.
When she first wanted to try her hand at creating books, she approached a conservator at the time who taught Unger her methods of sewing and making books. The conservator, who retired a few years ago, had come to the United States from Germany and gave Unger some advice.
“She told me when I started sewing things to make sure I took photos of everything I made,” said Unger, who gives away all of the books she makes. “She didn’t do that, so when she applied for a job as a book binder here in the U.S., she didn’t have any sort of portfolio to show the work she had done. On her next visit to Germany, she had a party and invited everyone she had given books to and made them bring their books so she could take photos of them.”
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Unger takes photos of her creations and has even started making duplicates of books, keeping one for herself and gifting the other. One of those was a book she made after a trip she took to New Orleans with a friend. Inside, along with New Orleans travel keepsakes, she used an empty Altoids tin to replicate a small voodoo shrine.
She gave one retiring conservator a book that had a box that opens to reveal several miniature books in it, calling it Crazy Kit & Caboodle. Another retiring conservator received Tom’s Treasure Chest, a treasure chest with little books inside it that acknowledged their shared love of pirates.
She plans to eventually finish a book she started about five years ago after a trip to France, keeping that one for herself.
“Artist’s books can be anything from something very simple and may look like a traditional book to anything that’s sculptural that looks nothing like a book yet is still considered a book,” she said. “It’s hard to explain the very huge variety of things you can get in an artist’s book.”