Books and Their Covers: Students Create Handmade Works of Art at UCLA’s Clark Library

UCLA Lab School, UCLA Community School, and 24th Street Elementary School students drew inspiration from the library's collections.

This summer, students from UCLA Lab School, UCLA Community School, and 24th Street Elementary School participated in a unique workshop titled, “Inside the Atelier – Book Arts Program.” Held at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the historic West Adams district, the weeklong seminar celebrated the art of handmade books. The students, who ranged from second to fifth graders, gained skills that are a vital part of art education, including planning and organization, critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, the students, who represent a broad diversity of neighborhoods and backgrounds, came together over two things that all children have in common: curiosity and creativity.

Nauria James, a student at 24th Street Elementary School, captures the grandeur of the Clark Library’s grounds. Photo by Sharon Gerstel

“Inside the Atelier” was funded by a $14,000 UCLA Arts Initiative Grant, written by Barbara Drucker, associate dean of academic affairs and director of arts education, UCLA Arts and Architecture, and Sharon Gerstel, professor of Byzantine art history and archaeology. The program was facilitated by UCLA Lab School teachers Mayra Carrasco and Chris Wilson with teaching support from undergraduate students in the Visual and Performing Arts Education (VAPAE) minor program and mindfulness experts from the Los Angeles community.

Carrasco and Wilson spent a year developing the program curriculum and attended a hands-on training for teachers at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City for several days in July, as the first participants in the program who did not teach in New York City public schools. The training included an investigation of global trade and book production in the Middle Ages. The UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and GSE&IS supported their travel to the program at the Morgan Library and Museum. Eager to continue the collaboration with Carrasco and Wilson’s after their visit, The Morgan Library and Museum provided some of the more exotic materials for the “Atelier” program and has followed the West Coast curriculum with great interest.

Beija Sayeed, a UCLA Lab School student, plans her handmade book with the help of Mayra Carrasco, a demonstration teacher at UCLA Lab School. Photo by Sharon Gerstel

Carrasco, a 1st and 2nd grade demonstration teacher at UCLA Lab School, says that she and Wilson look forward to incorporating the Book Arts program into their regular classroom curriculum. She noted that the hands-on creation of books has made the students realize the value of handmade objects over those that are manufactured.

“It’s been a great experience for me as a teacher to see it come alive with the children and see the excitement in their eyes,” said Carrasco toward the end of the Book Arts workshop. “I just had a student ask if we are going to do this next year. The kids are really excited, and they’re valuing their work even more because they know how much is behind it.”

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, visited the Clark Library during the Book Arts workshop and was treated to a glimpse of the week’s work: lessons on bookmaking processes that date back to medieval times, including the creation of pigments from plant and animal materials, applying gold leaf to pages, and constructing book covers. He also was given a guided tour of the Clark by the students, who over the course of the workshop, became proud and eager “docents” of the precious archive.

Barbara Drucker, UCLA Arts’ associate dean of academic affairs and director, Visual and Performing Arts Education Minor (VAPAE) program, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, GSE&IS dean, observe UCLA Lab School students learning the art of book making at the William Andrews Clark Library.

“This is a marvelous initiative because it crosses multiple boundaries: kids from three different communities, kids from three different schools, are coming together and really working and constructing jointly,” Suárez-Orozco said. “The making of books with organic materials from everyday life really engages them in powerful and transformative ways. And in the process, [they are] discovering the magic of books, of libraries, of myths, of the ways in which we as a society encode our traditions, our differences, our cultures, in ways that are enriching and that are fundamental for the crafting of identities. The children see a continuity in the stories they tell themselves about the making of books, about myths… and about the importance of books as living organisms.”

“Into the Atelier” is the first such activity that has joined students from UCLA Lab School and UCLA Community School. Gerstel, who lives in West Adams and whose daughter Maggie attends UCLA Lab School, said that bringing together children from different Los Angeles communities – especially the students of 24th Street Elementary, the first “parent trigger” school in LAUSD – encouraged an innovative, collaborative learning experience between public and private school students in a neighborhood that has an extremely diverse population.

Elodia Lunn, UCLA Lab School student, shares her finished book with her family at the end of the Book Arts Program. Photo by Sharon Gerstel

“Children who live in West Adams know the Clark Library by its high brick walls and closed gate,” said Gerstel. “The opening of the library and its ‘secret’ grounds stimulated their imagination.

“Seeing the collaboration of children from three different schools and completely different worlds was inspirational,” she said. “One of the most thrilling moments was to see their pride in displaying their work – gold-leafed and illuminated books –  to their families and to the principals of the three partner schools.”

Drucker, who oversees the VAPAE program, says that UCLA is uniquely positioned in the School of the Arts and Architecture “to engage with local artistic and educational communities by initiating and implementing meaningful collaborations within the Los Angeles area.”

UCLA Lab School student Maggie Gerstel displays her tiny handmade journal, inspired by the collection of miniature books at the Clark Library. Photo by Sharon Gerstel

“The curriculum for the Book Arts Workshop was developed based on the growing body of research demonstrating that the essentials of artistic expression – creativity, curiosity, positive risk-taking, empathy, and inspiration – are exactly what our young students need for future success in school and life,” she said. “By creating connections between elementary school students from different neighborhoods, and increasing awareness of the incredible resources available in traditionally underserved communities, we were able to provide the participating students and families with a unique approach to arts education and an expanded awareness of the city in which they live.”

For a video of “Inside the Atelier – Book Arts Program,” click here.


Above: Students from UCLA Lab School, UCLA Community School, and 24th Street Elementary School spent a week at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library in the historic West Adams district. Photo by Sharon Gerstel