Embodied Books

Experiencing the Health Humanities through Artists’ Books

by Darian Goldin Stahl (Author)
©2024 Monographs XII, 204 Pages


«We often speak of the body of text, and Darian Goldin Stahl’s excellent and timely book deals with sister-inspired texts of the body. Stahl makes the case, beautifully and powerfully, for the value of artists’ books to open us up (like a laparotomy) to illness experience.»
(Paul Crawford, Professor of Health Humanities, University of Nottingham, UK)
This book investigates how handmade artists’ books excite the senses to communicate lived experiences of illness and disability. The combination of text, image, materials, and form, along with the gesture of turning pages, make artists’ books a powerful source of expressive potential. These works of art not only enable patients to create meaning from their medical experiences, but also invite healthcare learners to an uncensored read of critiques on Western medicine.
Artists’ books are increasingly popular among medical institutions in an age of digital screens because of their intimate handheld, multi-sensory expressions of bodily phenomena that may be difficult or impossible to communicate through words alone. By applying a phenomenological practice of sensing and meaning-making, the author provides step-by-step instructions for creating new artists’ books as part of health humanities pedagogies. In this way, Embodied Books serves as a philosophical and pragmatic example of why and how experiencing artists’ books in healthcare contexts is so important.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • book About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Embodied Books
  • Chapter 1 How to Read Artists’ Books
  • Chapter 2 An Unsettled Medium: The Turbulent Taxonomy and Collection of Printed Matter on Illness
  • Chapter 3 The Artist’s Challenge to Medical Paradigms
  • Chapter 4 Research-Creation in Patients’ Artists’ Books
  • Chapter 5 Artists’ Books in the Clinic and Classroom
  • Chapter 6 “Book as Body” Workshops: A Case Study of Health Humanities Pedagogies
  • Conclusions and Future
  • Bibliography
  • Index


There are many people who provided their guidance in the pursuit of this unusual intersection of handmade books and health research. I must thank my PhD supervisory team who gave their enduring support for over five years and ultimately shaped the outcomes of this research-creation project. First, Dr. Kim Sawchuk, who deftly mentored the development of my methodology, invited me to raid her library, and always pushed me to think through the process of making. To Dr. Kathleen Vaughan and Ingrid Bachmann for challenging my pedagogical methods, technical skills, and writing. Lastly, to Dr. David Howes for supporting the vital international fieldwork that comprised much of this book. I must also acknowledge the support of Peter Lang International Academic Publishers editor Dr. Laurel Plapp, the peer reviewers, and the Medical Humanities: Criticism & Creativity series editors Kimberly R. Myers and Maria Vaccarella, who fine-tuned the direction and scope of Embodied Books. I am eternally grateful for the brilliant critiques and reflections on my work from each of these scholars.

Embodied Books is comprised of numerous collaborators who generously lent their voices and expertise to this research. Scientists Karen Carvalho, Dr. Sofia Granados, and Dr. Hugh Clark trusted an artist to reside within the McGill University Fertility Research Laboratory, and invited me to witness the creativity and motivation present in this space. The scholars I interviewed provided generative perspectives into the concept of art and health that would not have been possible otherwise: Joanna Baines, Christine Borland, Veronique Chance, Egidija Ciricaite, Paul Crawford, Melanie Grant, Fiona Johnstone, Claire Jones, Chisomo Kalinga, Jane Macnaughton, Ariane Mildenburg, Cathleen Miller, Eleanor Perry, Katherine Rawling, Rutherford, Curie Scott, Charlotte Sleigh, and Maria Vaccarella. Dr. Stella Bolaki supervised and partnered with me to conduct the UK fieldwork that shaped this research, and with whom I share a passion for artists’ books. Her efforts to assemble the Prescriptions Collection of artists’ books set the stage for this investigation.

For the imagery within Embodied Books, I am especially grateful for the artists who allowed me to reproduce images of their books, including Veronique Chance, Amanda Couch, Tangy Duff, Jenny Lin, Joan Lyons, Mary Rouncefield, Erin K. Schmidt, and Alan Hall, who represents the eternal artwork of his late wife, Martha Hall. Further, the “Book as Body” workshop participants generously bought into the idea that they could express their symptoms within artists’ books. It was the analysis from these group critiques that generated the most vital evidence for Embodied Books. Most of all, I acknowledge the long-standing collaboration with my sister, Dr. Devan Stahl, who invites me to use her medical scans within artwork. The generosity of sharing her stories and medicalized body not only motivates this research but also continues to build community with all those who have lived experiences of illness.

I also extend my sincere gratitude to SSHRC Vanier, Mitacs, Hexagram, Milieux, the Carolyn and Richard Renaud endowment, the Rose and Leon Zitner endowment, and the Concordia University Humanities PhD program for funding and supporting wonderfully unconventional interdisciplinary research-creation like mine. These programs prove there is space for the thinking that occurs during artful making and play within academic scholarship.

Finally, I give my deepest gratitude to my friends and family who never questioned my pursuit of the arts, even when they have taken my far away from home. And to my husband Julien Pestiaux, who did not baulk, even for a second, as I turned our entire small apartment into a make-shift art studio so I could complete my artist’s book, Field Notes: How to Be With, during the Covid-19 shutdowns. I am eternally grateful for your unending enthusiasm and love that buoys my dreams.

Introduction: Embodied Books

A book is a body. Even the very language used to describe books reveals our bodily relations with them. Books contain a head, headers, and headbands; footers, joints, a spine, face, and back. The materials bookmakers employ have parallel corporeal significance: signatures, guillotines, scalpels, and bone folders. Books are enveloped in leather or cloth, then placed within jackets to keep them protected. Engaging with a book is then an activation of bodies. Far from an inert activity, reading a book is an embodied performance of cracking its spine, skimming pages, skipping over sections, flipping through chapters, or diving into a good read. Our bodies leave an impression on the books that we hold dear. Our oily fingerprints yellow the corners of pages, creating a pallor and texture like an aging complexion; and the well-worn creases we impart to our most beloved books evoke the wrinkles inscribed on the surface of skin.

As shareable objects, books join bodies together through time and space. Books capture a time of the author, require time from the reader, and yet, resist time entirely as an archival medium. They mediate the wide spaces between the writer and reader as they entangle the perception and imaginations of both parties. Books then take on a life of their own. They seem to possess a self-determined quality as they pass from hand to hand or journey to reside in far-reaching collections. From any distance, books intermingle the consciousnesses of the author with every subsequent reader—a connection that is made all the more meaningful and significant if that book was carefully and lovingly crafted by hand.

My first artist’s book, that is, fine art that takes on the format and concept of a book, was an attempt to understand another person’s body better—that of my sister, Devan. Six years after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2009, Devan procured and shared with me several complete sets of her MRI scans that her neurologist copied onto a CD. Devan thought, since I was a printmaker studying the medium’s connection to medical history, that I could somehow use these biomedical images in my work. Eagerly scrolling through the black and white digitization of her body, I was first struck by how alien these scans felt. Grotesque slices of Devan’s face revealing her nasal cavities, cutting through her eyes, and exposing her brain tissue ensured I could not recognize my own sister’s face. Although abstract portraiture can similarly evoke a sense of alienation, the artist’s hand imbues emotion, storytelling, and context to their visual choices while also inviting viewers into an open-ended interpretation to the work’s personal significance. These images, on the other hand, have a singular purpose: to alert Devan’s neurologist to the lesions along her brain and spine. I felt a sense of injustice that these scans could only confirm a diagnosis while communicating absolutely nothing about the life-altering consequences of her prognosis, the impact on Devan’s sense of identity, nor what it felt like to live daily with the symptoms of MS. I longed for these medical portraits to communicate more.

I was then struck by the seeming pagination of Devan’s body within this digital format. As I scrolled my cursor up or down, layers of her anatomy were stacked or peeled away. I imagined that every minute slice of her MRI scans was a piece of paper that could be compiled, bound, and then pulled across my thumb to form the animated illusion of a flip book. With that thought, I felt compelled to materialize these digital scans into an artist’s book (see Figure 0.1). Devan’s illness narrative could then be printed alongside the images of the body to rectify the absence of identity and voice in her original MRI scans. We could then share these artist’s books with others as a dispersed edition in the hopes of giving support to others who have felt similarly diminished by medical scans, as well as educating physicians on the impact medical scans can have on the patient’s sense of self.

Figure 0.1:Darian Goldin Stahl, The Importance of Dualism, Photo-intaglio on waxed silk tissue Gampi paper, 6″ × 5.5″, 2014.

Figure 0.1:Darian Goldin Stahl, The Importance of Dualism, Photo-intaglio on waxed silk tissue Gampi paper, 6″ × 5.5″, 2014.

Our collaboration bloomed into a rich, reciprocal practice of making and reflection. We began to interweave our respective interdisciplinary backgrounds in medical ethics, religion, printmaking, art education, and communication studies into the meaning of these creations, and how each of these disciplines affords us lenses through which to view the artist’s books. It is also a collaboration that enables us to speak more directly to each other about difficult topics like illness when there is an artist’s book between us. Ultimately, I understand the labor required to transform Devan’s body into a book to be a gesture of my care: to let her know I am deeply considering the impacts of a diagnosis on her life and, in a small way, bending the world she moves through toward more empathetic understandings of what it is like to live with illness—one artist’s book at a time.


XII, 204
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2024 (April)
Artists’ Books Health Humanities Education
Oxford, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, New York, 2024. XII, 204 pp., 22 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Darian Goldin Stahl (Author)

Darian Goldin Stahl is an interdisciplinary printmaker, bookmaker, and health humanities scholar. After receiving an MFA in Printmaking from the University of Alberta, she was awarded a SSHRC Vanier Scholarship to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in Humanities from Concordia University in Montreal. Situated at the intersection of fine art, communication studies, and art education, her research–creation investigates how making and reading artists’ books communicate lived experiences of illness and disability. Dr. Stahl is now a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Northern British Columbia’s Medical Program, where she facilitates the creation of new artists’ books with diverse patient groups. She is also a practicing artist whose work has been exhibited in numerous local and international solo exhibitions. Most notably, all of her artist’s books were acquired by the Wellcome Collection Trust in London in 2019, where they continue to evoke health discourses with public audiences.


Title: Embodied Books