Lili Hall Sharp finds fulfillment at the intersection of conservation, bookbinding and printmaking
February 21, 2019
Lili Hall Sharp has known she wanted to be a bookbinder from a young age. As a teenager, she taught herself how to make paper. Shortly after completing high school, she was influenced by her sister who produced some simple books. Inspired, Sharp took the idea and ran with it: she checked out craft encyclopedias from her local library and started mass-producing little books.
In the beginning, Sharp improvised. “I would laminate cereal boxes together or cut the boards out of binders to make book boards,” she said in a 2009 interview with Mormon Artist. “I liked it so much that I started to wonder if it was just a hobby or if it was something that people did for a living.”
Sharp learned there were few formal training opportunities for bookbinding in the United States, and no fine binding programs at the university level. Once she discovered the American Academy of Bookbinding at the Ah Haa School for the Arts in Colorado, she enrolled for one summer course before serving an 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I loved it,” Sharp said, “and from then on it’s what I wanted to pursue.”
Upon returning from her mission, Sharp began attending BYU. She chose to major in art because it included opportunities to study bookbinding and related disciplines. “I figured that if I wanted to do bookbinding, art would be a great complement,” Sharp said. She enrolled mostly in printmaking courses, with the goal of integrating her training from the American Academy of Bookbinding with her art degree.
“I wanted to make the content of books and bind those books,” Sharp said, “and bring the art and the craft all together into hopefully fine art.”
As a university student, Sharp took advantage of several opportunities to merge the art and craft. In addition to returning to the American Academy of Bookbinding for training during the summers, she interned with a private conservator and a prominent bindery in London while studying abroad with the Art Department.
Ideally, Sharp would spend her days doing fine binding and making art. She chose conservation as a fallback skill she could use to support herself if needed. She first learned conservation through her role as a student conservator at the BYU library, where she received mentoring in bookbinding, conservation, paper repair, and the care of rare books.
As an employee, Sharp contributed to the conservation of a rare first-edition Hawaiian Book of Mormon.
“I was drawn to [conservation] because the pacing was methodical,” Sharp said. “It was amazing to have found a centuries-old craft in a contemporary career setting.”
Sharp described her BFA final show as her first successful combination of printmaking and bookbinding. For the text, Sharp pulled from self-help books she found at a used bookstore. She noted phrases readers had underlined, then curated and strung those together, separated by dingbats (typographical embellishments). She then used the shapes of the typography and dingbats to create original artwork within the book. Finally, she designed and printed the text via a letterpress. Her bindings of the book also reflect the artwork found within the book.
Following her graduation from BYU, Sharp studied conservation at West Dean College in England, where she had the opportunity to work on one-of-a-kind books and manuscripts going back as far as the sixteenth century. During the years since graduate school, Sharp has worked as a bookbinder and a freelance conservator, and she has participated in several collaborative projects with other artists. Some of those collaborations allowed her to travel to Tonga and England to create alongside other artists on projects that culminated in group shows.
Sharp is married to fellow artist and BYU graduate, Michael Sharp, and together they are the parents of three young boys. She works part-time as a conservator for the Church History Library in Salt Lake City and has recently stopped accepting private commissions in order to create more time for art making.
Sharp and her husband, who each specialize in different aspects of book art, have yet to collaborate on a project together—something they look forward to doing now that Sharp has more time for art. She has numerous additional projects in the works and is eager to apply for national and international fine binding exhibitions.