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Fusing words and art, she creates books of boundless imagination

Angela Lorenz is trying to remember how many artist's books she made while she was an undergraduate at Brown University. There were the five she did there and at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she also took courses.

But there was a sixth. . . . What was it? Of course. The one made of ice.

"Entropy" was her statement about how information gradually breaks down over time. The book consisted of four blocks of ice, each an inch thick. She photocopied text from newspapers onto acetate and then encased each piece in a block. The first block eventually melted around columns of print; the second around paragraphs of print; the third, sentences; and the fourth, words.

"She is an original, a quirky genius," says Sinclair Hitchings, keeper of prints at the Boston Public Library, who has bought 15 of Lorenz's works for the BPL's permanent collection. "She doesn't remind me of anybody."

Other connoisseurs of this unusual art form have reached the same conclusion. Lorenz has created 50 artist's books, many of which inhabit the public collections of some of the most prestigious libraries and art museums in the world: the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, the British Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Gallery, Harvard's Fogg Museum and Houghton Library, the Boston Public Library, the Biblioteca Nationale di Firenze in Italy, the Victoria and Albert Museum. That's for starters.

You can ruin a dinner party over the definition of an artist's book, by the way, right down to the punctuation. (Lorenz notes that some call the form "artists' book," others "artist book," or her version, "artist's book.") It is a maddeningly broad term to describe any combination of the written word with any number of visual materials.

Such a book is usually the vision of one person, is often portable, and may include painting, photography, prints, film, textiles, and text.

Lorenz confects these limited-edition hybrids using a staggering array of physical materials. She made one book out of latex, another out of embossed paper sewn together with yarn that replicates the look and feel of a Kurdish rug.

In "Paper Plates," she made six faux ceramic plates, along the lines of those popular in the Renaissance as idealized portraits of women. In hers, the faces are outlined in spaghettini and capellini.

She puts quotes from Ovid on the ice cream sticks her husband, Gianni, uses at his gelateria in Bologna, the Italian university town where they live most of the year with their 7-year-old daughter, Emilia. She puts Taoist aphorisms on chewing gum.

Oh, she writes most of her text in rhyming poetry.

Lorenz has been on her own tangent from day one. She was born Angela Stone 38 years ago in the back seat of a Plymouth station wagon on the Beverly exit of Route 128, a cub of old Yankee stock -- Greenoughs and Thorndikes -- whose fortunes faded with their rugs. Raised on the North Shore, she attended Phillips Academy in Andover on a scholarship and then Brown, where she majored in art and semiotics.

What sets her apart from others in that field, says Eleanor Garvey, former curator of printing and graphic arts at Harvard's Houghton Library, is the strength of her conceptual approach combined with elegance of execution. If her work can be ironic and witty, there is nothing insouciant about its foundation.

"The idea to her is completely compelling," adds Hitchings. "Her work is labor intensive, often with help from printers and seamstresses. The difference between her and others who make artist's books is that her vision and humor never get lost in the execution."

In an utterly original work called "Bologna Sample," Lorenz matches the exterior colors of 179 houses in the city in small rectangles resembling paint samples, accompanied with appropriate addresses, such as the ruddy orange of Via Montegrappa, 11.

In "A Riddle," she explores the use of wallpaper in history. Several centuries ago in England, censored texts were recycled to become the back of wallpaper. Lorenz reproduces a scrap of wallpaper housed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum behind which is printed some of the banned text from Hobbes's "Leviathan."

"What I like to do is to make a facsimile of something in another material," she says, ensconced in a room at the St. Botolph Club. "It's more challenging to reproduce material that relates somehow to the book."

Exhibit A is her latest effort, "The Strength of Denham: Sir John Denham Jeans and Imitation Denims," which plays off of "denim." It will include 10 pairs of life-size, faux-denim jeans to honor the life and work of Sir John Denham, a 17th-century British poet who influenced Pope and Dryden. The jeans are made from Japanese paper and feel like the real thing. In the back pocket of each pair will be a book, written in rhyming verse in the style of Denham, known for his heroic couplets. Each one will resemble a deck of cards, a poke at Denham's disastrous gambling.

So what is it with artist's books? Why not simply go with flat surface art or straight text?

"I do artist's books because of my inability to choose any one discipline," she explains. "This way I'm allowed to combine different talents. I want to communicate an idea, and a single image doesn't allow me to do so in a layered way. For me, text is very important. I'm naturally inclined to book art because I don't privilege image over the word. They grow together."

The woman is small, dark, intense -- a force of nature. "What Angela wants, Angela gets," Hitchings says with great affection. Indeed, a blue-blood face masks megawatts of coiled energy. What Lorenz is not is a team player. She remains instead an intellectual blur, scuttling among projects and then descending into each one like a spelunker. A glance at her website -- www.angelalorenzartists

books.com -- reveals an astonishing mind. Lorenz spends months, sometimes years, doing research before producing a confection marbled with bizarre sophistication and wit. She made nine copies by hand of "The Theater of Nature or Curiosity Filled the Cabinet," a book about the history of museums from the Greek Empire to the Enlightenment. She uses sheets of purple mica on the cover, 11 copper etchings drawn backward through a thin layer of beeswax, and nine watercolors. (In all, she painted 81 watercolors, true to old manuscripts -- a fish with a clown's collar, a lobster claw flute -- and then separated nine into each of the nine books.)

The book unfolds on both sides like an accordion, with etchings on the front and rhyming text and watercolors on the back of the paper. It has a vellum cover that secures the volume with magnets. The etching paper is dyed with boiled calendula plant so that, along with the velum and mica, the work is made of animal, vegetable, and mineral.

What put her on the map was an undergraduate endeavor at Brown called "Wetatonmi," a letterpress edition of four copies built around excerpts of an eloquent speech given by Wetatonmi, the sister-in-law of Chief Joseph, after the Nez Perce had been defeated in battle by the US Army in 1877.

Lorenz wrote it on a long sheet of folded earth-colored paper, cut with animal and figured silhouettes suggesting tribal images. The cover was constructed from paper made to resemble the antelope rawhide used by the Plains Indians to carry dried meat. Brown's John Hay Library bought it along with her four other non-ice books. Later, Lorenz arrived unannounced with a copy of "Wetatonmi" at Garvey's Houghton office. "I bought it on the spot," she recalls. "I recognized right away that she has a quality we should follow."

Lorenz has not grown rich off her limited editions, largely because there are so few of each one. The nine copies of her museum book, for example, sold for $5,000 each -- a relative pittance for more than four years of work. She lives modestly with her family in a rented apartment in Bologna, invulnerable thus far to the allure of filthy lucre.

It never ends. By the end of the year, Lorenz will have produced a limited edition board game based on the 325th anniversary of "The Pilgrim's Progress." What do you suppose she'd do with "Ulysses"?

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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