Cherry Fork, Ohio

Emma Whorley, who worked as a librarian for forty-seven years, began painting and drawing on book pages on her 75th birthday, April 1, 1982. She later described this as “against both my nature and my training.”

The previous year she had found a copy of the novel Bought and Sold among the possessions of her younger sister Helen, who had died of leukemia.
The book told the story of two college co-eds seeking adventure and romance as they traveled cross country to San Francisco. Emma felt that Margorie, the protagonist in the novel, had a remarkable resemblance to her sister as a younger woman.

As Emma Whorley read the yellowed, brittle book, the binding broke and it fell apart in her hands. While the archivist in her considered having the volume restored, another part of her had a epiphany about doing something quite different to the fragile object. Using black enamel paint, Emma began to apply simple, abstract floral patterns on each page of the book. She completed the designs with watercolors and colored pencil. This was her first of many series of book paintings. The designs recall textile patterns from Cambodia where Whorley had spent two years doing missionary work. Her style is also informed by her practice of doing needlepoint since she was a young girl.

While the alteration of books has precedence among Modern artists, particularly the Surrealists, Emma Whorley’s transformation of books was not a rebellious act but one of reverence for the meaning of the original text. By making visual images out of books, she hoped to compete with color television, which she believed was a cause of illiteracy.

Emma Whorley‘s best known work is her rendition on Herman Melville’s 19th century novel Moby Dick, now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. She died at the age of ninety-one on June 3, 1998.