The Codex Offers Unusual Depths to Explore

I create books in a most common historic form — the Codex. Of course there are many forms which can be bracketed between the earliest gatherings of written material to something written last month. But this is the form which reaches me as a maker.

One of my sketches of the codex form.

The primeval forms of scrolls and stones and tablets remain venerable and inspiring. They can provide stimulus for so-termed book artists. Yet the codex remains uniquely compelling for me — a fit basis of my life’s work.

Certainly the physical machine of this book is an incredible evolution — starting from a core in the sewn or fabricated spine, expanding outward to covers and by linking folded sections. But the opportunity with the Codex goes beyond that. 

Within the Codex, folios marked with signatures become my canvas or panel. On these I draw, paint, print or tool. It is on this canvas I develop and create and work — typically over a period of months. And, with an extensive catalog of inspiration from medieval forms as well as Victorian or English versions, there is always plenty to work from.

So when asked what I do, my response is that “I make books.”


Because I am also an artist, many quickly conclude I make “artist books.” But I do not see what I do as making “artist books.” And I am not a book artist anymore than I am a paint artist or bead artist or metal artist or food artist.

A deeper truth is that I do not find tremendous personal interest in the so called artist book. Inherent to the things shown as “artist books” is the notion of “pushing the form” — a goal which ends up with something that, to me, doesn’t smell and feel like a book.

One type of work called book art.

Decades ago I was one of three artists shown together — we all made books. At the show many attendees were approaching the making of “book things” for the first time.

Observing the action, it became clear the other artist’s contributions could be viewed in the round and the essential nature of these works was evident on a pedestal in a gallery. In truth, these works needed to NOT be handled. 

At this show, though, my works were not seen as the books I created. Propped open on a pedestal, a visitor would see only one span and the binding — they become a type of sculpture. Visitors enjoyed them. Yet there was layer after layer untapped by the viewing experience. 

Truly seeing and experiencing my books requires something more intimate — where an observer holds the book and turns the pages at their own pace. As with any book, it is only this interaction which offers a complete sense of the work.


Today I sit in my library. Snow is falling lightly and I am surrounded by books on subjects that attract me. These books all have unique ways in which they have touched deeply within my synapses. Merely sitting among them I am reinforced by how they have led to what I make and even to this writing.

Inherent in the idea of a book — especially one of codex form — is that it carries information which is transformative. We go to books for information and, as the physicists say, information is that of which the universe is made. 

So when I make a book, I seek to make a work with the type of transformative experience we expect from books. This transformation is needed in anything I call a book. 

In this vein, it is worth considering maps. Maps have a similar dynamic to the codex — they transmit a rare channel of data specific to a task. Maps transform us in so many ways — even if merely leading us to decide how to travel or what we will find on arrival. 

Maps helped supply my earliest vision of what information carrying (or containing) images could be and I want my books to register a similar sensibility. 


An artist book.

Inherent to the things shown as artist books is the art world’s notion of “pushing the form.” I struggle with this idea.

I see no inherent value in “pushing the form.” Non-codex book forms can lead to interesting and engaging works, but those works don’t transform in the way we’ve come to expect from a book.

Outside of codex form, especially with the paintings or small paper sculptures we see in “book arts” shows, there is for me no invitation to look up a question on astronomy or cookery or blood pressure or to peruse the pages as an exploration.

From what I have observed, a desire to push the form often happens out of frustration and is hoped to be a solution to a problem. Where does the frustration come from? A small sample of binders that I am aware of feel strongly that tradition has a look about it which they don’t like. So they digress into a new visual or some structural change. Sometimes this works for them and I enjoy it when this results in an object I find compelling.

Folio from my work “Trajections” which can be viewed in Special Collections at the Reed College Library, Portland, Oregon.

As culture constantly flays away the skin of convention it’s intriguing for me to see when boredom kicks in among the makers. At those times, and out of that frustration, sometimes a useful innovation shows up — a bit of novelty or a skewing in how materials are treated. 

Yet I still believe in a solid foundation of skilled making. When works driven to “push the form” have been interesting to me, they meet a waterline of astonishing techniques and moves.


Working a book’s cover.

In the studio, my focus remains on making rather than high conceptual ideas like “inspiration” or “creativity.”

By making — simply making — we build an inventory of effects. Our inventory includes images and mechanicals and ways of making that are riffs we create (or sometimes even nick). Once a work is made, its essence continues within our inventory. (This inventory notion is, I believe, something I recall and have always liked from Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan.)

Building the inventory is an active process, like practicing music, so it has a remarkable cumulative set of effects. As with a musician who puts in sufficient rehearsal time and is open to the result, an artist focused on making will one afternoon realize that style has set in and they can be identified by their inventory.

Sewing the binding of a book.

Even more, because we are all different there is no possible way that makers can be even remotely similar. Distinctiveness comes to individuals who are making.


Sketch for adding a headband.

I’ve often wondered whether some pressure to “move beyond” the codex is driven by the truth that building the skills and vision to bind books is a serious challenge.

I travelled to England to learn binding techniques from venerable experts in the English and Victorian tradition. It took some matter of years before I could create my own binding which was of acceptable quality — both in construction and in visual essence. And I have continued to explore binding throughout my career seeking ways to achieve a new gestalt in the total work.

“Water” from “The Four Elements” by Daniel Kelm and Timothy C. Ely

Some artists who work in Codex team with partners who will bind their work. I don’t think this is wrong. This approach isn’t right for for me. Wanting my books to capture my particular vision, I have found it critical to bind them myself so that the works on pages are created with intimate knowledge of how they will respond once sewn and bound.

That said, I have created some work in partnership with Daniel Kelm in order to join my vision of imagery with his unique binding, metal work, and 3-dimensional structures.


Choosing to make within the Codex form has been richly rewarding. It allows me to explore binding methods, gilding and cover constructions while adding effects from drawing, painting, and print making — all leading to new discoveries that could have only been arrived at by refusing to discard the Codex form.

The result, for me, has been books as diverse as Insectorium, Bones of the Book, and Score. (See samples above.)

The continued search for something unexpected in this form with which I am so familiar motivates me knowing it is also a source of great mystery. There is yet so much unexplored in this form. 

That said, working in the Codex form is also challenging and difficult. The wide range of skills which must be absorbed is unusual among artists. The depth with which each work must be developed is also far different than that of a painting.

And, yet, for those who will take on this challenge, the Codex offers an entirely unique world of exploration — one with unbounded possibilities.

©2020 — Timothy C. Ely — All Rights Reserved

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