“By the Book: A Tribute to Dolph Smith” at the Brooks. 

Jessie and Dolph Smith

Jessie and Dolph Smith

Veteran artist Dolph Smith constructs books from scratch. His son, Ben Smith, chef/owner of Tsunami restaurant, constructs culinary dishes from scratch.

Their creations are similar.

"He can make the most elaborate scallop dish and present it beautifully and all," Dolph says. "But it's not done. It's not complete until you devour it."

The pages in most of Dolph's books are blank. "I hope whoever would get them would finish them for me by using them. In any way."

Examples of Dolph's one-of-a-kind artists books are featured in "By the Book: A Tribute to Dolph Smith," which is on view through November 26th at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Also included in the show curated by Marina Pacini are books made by 11 artists Dolph has worked with.

Dolph, 84, who taught drawing and painting for 30 years at Memphis College of Art, has made at least 100 books. "I started out on watercolor on paper. And then I learned to make paper. And then paper becomes books. So, it's all tied together."

click to enlarge Smith’s Buoyk
  • Smith’s Buoyk

Constructing books is "moving away from that craft cloud that hangs over things like that," Dolph says. "It's moving away from it being a craft to really being an art form. And I support that. It's an object. It's interactive. You're drawn to use it rather than just stare at it. And it has moving parts. You pick up a book with 30 pages. I see that as 30 moving parts."

Dolph has used paper he's made to construct his books, but he usually buys "archival" (designed not to deteriorate or yellow over time) paper from a German mill.

He never knows what size or shape the book will be until he begins folding the paper. "You fold it until it tells you what size to make the book. You don't tell it what to do."

Dolph makes several sections or "signatures" of pages, which he then sews onto cloth tapes before adding the book cover.

He uses archival thread. "It's waxed so you can sew and it moves nicely through the pages. The sewing is a perfect example of that old saw we have about form meeting function. Because it's a beautiful pattern of thread, and yet it holds the book together. So, that's beauty holding the book together."

Dolph constantly makes books. "I finish one, and I start another. Some of them take up to a week 'cause I have to think it out. You know, making a book is like reading a book. You begin with the paper telling you what size it's to be. And then you improvise out of that. And you begin a conversation with the book."

He taught himself how to make books. "If I had gone to England to learn to be a professional book binder I would have been there seven years, and I would have learned to build a book completely."

click to enlarge Smith’s ladder-themed Highques
  • Smith’s ladder-themed Highques

Dolph makes all types of books, including some he uses. "I make my date book. I make my to-do list book. I always carry a handmade book."

And, he says, "I make crazy books. Ladders are uplifting to me, so I have a book in there that's lifted up on ladders. It's an uplifting book.'"

Inside the book are haikus, but, in keeping with the ladder theme, Dolph calls them "highques."

Dolph also makes books for friends. Describing one of those gifts, he says, "I did a glass cover in the shape of a bottle. And I etched three marks on it to show it was liquor."

He collected "a lot of hair from our dog," which he added to the book. He titled it Hair of the Dog.

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