The Written Image: Julie Chen

From the September/October 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Julie Chen’s artist’s books ( are as inventive as they are beautiful. For more than thirty years, the Berkeley, California, artist and professor of book art at Mills College has used the medium to give literal shape to the ideas that compel her, including our relationship to time, to knowledge, and to one another. In Chrysalis, shown above, an unfolding cocoon reveals a small book about the transformations of grief; Wayfinding uses textural paper casts of semaphore flags and pages that rattle to engage the senses in interpreting signs; Personal Paradigms: A Game of Human Experience, which includes a board that resembles a map and dozens of game pieces, presents life as topography to navigate.

Chrysalis by Julie Chen. (Credit: Sibila Savage)

Each new book demands a unique fabrication process, and Chen often makes several prototypes as an idea finds its form. “I love doing proof-of-concept models as well as thought experiments about what I need for a project regardless of whether I have any idea if I can come up with a feasible approach to getting something made,” says Chen. “The one guiding principle for me is to trust that at a certain point in the process the book will tell you what it needs.” She says developing the folded shape for Chrysalis was both a technical and an artistic challenge, but it’s these kinds of challenges that keep her going: “It’s always exciting to figure out if you can do something that you’ve never seen done before.”