Camden Hills Regional High School art teacher Carolyn Brown will be spending the winter right here in Midcoast Maine, but her ongoing altered book art installation, inspired by the deaths of Iraqi civilians and other non-combatant war victims, will be traveling to the desert — not Iraq’s but America’s.

Her mixed media work “Unfinished Stories” is one of 65 pieces chosen from more than 5,000 submissions from 63 countries for exhibition at the University of Nevada’s Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery in Reno. As the show is derived from the Web site, and an ongoing conflict, many of the works will be exhibited not as finished pieces but as proposals, maquettes and Internet-connected work stations.

Brown’s work will be a mix of exhibit and proposal, as she is sending out both physical work and a drawing of a larger installation. It will be the second time she is showing this memorial work. The first was during Belfast’s “Renewables” altered book project show at the city’s library in late 2008. The books she alters are religious texts, which she said some have expressed concerns about. But like any altered book project, the books used are ones that were well worn and discarded. Some she rescued from the transfer station; others were being sold at library book sales.

Brown began “Unfinished Stories” after hearing artist Robert Shetterly speak in 2007. Best known for his series “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” Shetterly spoke about the need for artists to make meaningful work, not just “pretty pictures to hang over the sofa,” Brown recalled. She began the memorial work out of a need to respond in some way to the loss of innocent lives in the ongoing war in Iraq.

“I had initially begun this piece without any real intention of showing this artwork – it was really just a personal need to make something in response to the senseless deaths,” Brown said in her artist’s statement.

Brown cuts pages from discarded books, which include a Bible, a Koran, her college comparative religion textbook and a book by the Dalai Lama, into strips. She folds these strips mindfully, inspired perhaps by her visits to temples and shrines and to the Hiroshima memorial during the seven years she taught at a school in Tokyo, Japan. At temples and shrines, she saw prayers written on small strips of paper, then tied to a tree or fence; the belief is that when the paper blows away or dissolves in the weather, the prayer will be granted. At the Hiroshima memorial, thousands of folded paper cranes famously represent children’s wishes for peace.

“I wanted to have a hand-rendered symbol to represent each person killed,” she said of her folded texts. She also wanted to have some kind of personal connection with each victim so when she created the first piece of the installation, she said a silent prayer for the person memorialized and for the family and friends left behind while folding each strip.

“That first session took me about three weeks and it was really emotionally draining,” Brown said.

Part of that draining experience was the realization that she could not keep the mounting count in her head as she had intended.

“I lost track; I started to just think in numbers, not human beings,” she said.

The numbers are daunting; current estimates range from 800,000 to 1 million civilian deaths, she said. And her intention is to fold one strip for each civilian killed. She uses her sewing machine to sew the folded strips onto colorful ribbons, which are then sewn onto red fabric for a wall mounting. Thus far she has completed two of these mixed media works. The first, which is about 7 feet long, was exhibited at Belfast Free Library.

“After the Belfast show, where people folded some strips that I incorporated, I put it away for a while. I even thought of burning it in a ritual. But then it kind of grabbed me again,” Brown said.

In reconsidering the work, she realized that the piece was somewhat reminiscent of an adult human body in its dimensions. She decided she should make a shorter one to reflect that many civilian children are victims of the military conflict. And she ordered some body bags to house the works. Eventually, she envisions an installation that might incorporate the emptied bags on the floor below the hanging mixed media works.

Brown, who grew up in and has returned to live in Appleton, works on her memorial piece during the evenings and on weekends.

“I did a great deal during vacation week,” she said.

She folds several garbage bags full of strips at a time, then has a sewing session. She no longer prays over and counts each strip. Just the repetition of the physical act of folding strip after strip has helped her identify, she thinks, just a bit with people who serve in combat and live in a combat zone.

“You must go through the motions just to get by; you have to distance yourself in a way from the sheer numbers of it,” she said.

Although her students know she has been selected to show in a national exhibition, Brown has not talked to them about “Unfinished Stories.” She said she and the school’s other two art teachers all create personal art in a variety of media; she, for example, has become a member of Washington’s Downtown Gallery and will show paintings and pastels, among other art, there this summer. The teachers handle what each year’s course load requires. This year, for example, there has been so much demand for photography classes that Brown is teaching that medium exclusively.

“They all think I’m just a photographer,” she said.

The “ Exhibition” will run Feb. 15 through March 12. To learn more about Brown’s “Unfinished Stories: and others in the ongoing project, visit

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to