Bernahl is every librarian and book purist's worst nightmare. His offenses are much worse than bent corners, creased spines and the occasional pencil scribbling or highlighted sentence. He cuts out entire sections of books and carves designs in the pages. The thing is, librarians don't know he exists. In fact, they don't even know the "damaged" book exists. Bernahl is an artistic phantom, leaving only hidden traces of his work for the random passerby to stumble upon. He uses books that libraries have gotten rid of, alters them, and stashes them back in the stacks where they sit, gathering dust, until the day someone finds them. Finding them, as it turns out, is another story altogether.
Bernahl says he has placed a total of 21 of his creations in libraries and bookstores throughout the Northwest. His work has infiltrated the stacks in libraries in Bend, Corvallis, Eugene, Portland, Boise, Vancouver and Baker City, to name a few. Bernahl does not keep a list of which book he's placed in which library, he only archives what he's created.
"I absolutely love books and I just started collecting them with the idea of doing an art project with them," says Bernahl on why he chose such a unique artistic outlet.
Bernahl says he started out with a large collection of dictionaries that he would make prints in by pulling out select words from their pages.
"Then I just had a big collection of dictionaries and needed something to do with them," he says. Bernahl set to work creating about one book sculpture per week. With his collection of literary sculptures growing, Bernahl could only show a limited amount in galleries and coffee houses in the Bend area.
That's where Bernhahl's involvement with Artists 101 came in handy. "They have this mayhem event where you do art randomly throughout the community," says Bernahl, "This was my contribution."
Going off of what Bernahl told me about working with hardcover books and prefering dictionaries and atlases because they provide a blank slate, I pluck The Concise Dictionary of American Biography off of a top shelf and thumb through it, looking for a tree carved within the pages, or a face or a leaf. Nothing. I tear Famous Americans from its resting place since it seems old and dirty, but after blowing off a thick layer of dust, it proved to be nothing more than, well an old dirty book. I thought I found Bernhal's renegade book when I spotted Twentieth Century Authors with no reference sticker on its spine, but was disappointed. I moved on to the fiction section and after scanning the aisles for another twenty minutes, I found that there were 37 Star Wars novels in the section, 32 books by romance titan Danielle Steele and 80 copies of Dara Horn's The World To Come.
Still not ready to admit defeat, I ask a kind library employee at the reference desk if she knows whether the Dewey Decimal numbers are removed from books that are sold at the library book sales. She informs me that usually they are not and that the only change made to them is the blacking out of the barcode on the front cover.
Moving to the non-fiction section, I discover that there is in existence a New Catholic Encyclopedia, with multiple volumes (who knew?) and proceed to the art section, thinking it would be almost poetic to find it there. I flip through several fly fishing guides, a guide to bird watching in Central Oregon published in 1928 and several hardcovers by Chaucer and Milton. After an hour of searching, I'm tired, slightly dusty and discouraged. I leave the library and decide to cross "detective" off my list of potentially fun careers.
Bernahl says that he has only ever had one person contact him saying that they had found one of his creations. The finder was visiting Bend from Montreal and apparently took the book back with him to place in his local library.
If you happen to come across one of Bernahl's wordy calling cards, you will find a letter enclosed within asking you to please return the book to a library for someone else to enjoy after a year, if not before. So to the next finder of the mysterious book sculpture at the Bend Public Library, I say congratulations on your discovery and please let me know where you found it so my hour moving dust around in the reference and other less popular sections of the library won't have been completely in vain.