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Artist never judges a book by its cover

Mike Stilkey can't stand to see books discarded. Instead, he aims to "give them a new life" by creating works of art out of them.

First, Stilkey, 40, heads to local libraries to find books that are about to be thrown out. Then he stacks them on top of one another to make a sculpture of sorts and glues them together. Each ends up looking "like a giant Lego puzzle," he said.

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Then he paints on the collection of bindings. Often he doesn't know what he's going to paint until his brush touches the surface.

With each sculpture made up of 100 to 3,000 whole books, he has the potential to create massive portraits.

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"I drive people crazy because I work really organically and the books are very organic themselves," said Stilkey, who lives in Los Angeles.

He said he tries to keep colorful covers in the center of a piece because they add a vibrancy even through the paint.

Stilkey's pieces, which generally feature animals or people's faces, have been on display in galleries around the world. He said he breaks each piece into segments for crating and transporting.

He once shipped 10,000 pounds of books to Hong Kong.

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Through April 10, Stilkey's works will fill a gallery closer to home — at the Palm Court Arts Complex at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine in a show called "Anthology."

Stilkey, who in his early 20s quit his job as a picture framer and sold his car to get money so he could become a full-time artist, said the book artwork has become a "big recycling project," since he uses only used books from libraries and thrift stores.

"Librarians love me because I take discarded books off their hands," he said, laughing.

When he started painting books 10 years ago, instead of the bindings he focused on the insides. He would paint over the text because he never liked painting on white paper, he said.

"I'm giving these books a second life and painting these stories on them," Stilkey said. "I love the idea of a narrative over a narrative. I love that somebody wrote this book, so there's a story there. Then, there's the story of the person who had the book, and then that book goes to a thrift store or library. Then it comes to me, and I put this story on top of that story. It's just kind of fascinating to me."

He said he tries not to be picky about the books he uses because there are so many in a variety of sizes.

But one book that Stilkey refuses to paint on is "The Stranger" by Albert Camus, his favorite.

"I probably wouldn't paint over it because I would want to give it to someone," said Stilkey, who added that books fill his home, studio and two storage units as part of his personal reading collection and as material for future art projects.

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He has also painted on record covers, canvas and panels.

Megan Clarke, who is co-curating the Great Park exhibit with Kevin Staniec, said she studied Stilkey while in college and said his pieces are perfect for the gallery's audiences.

"A lot of the people who come here are people wanting to visit the park, not specifically the gallery," she said. "We were really trying to find really high-brow, interesting art that also appeals to people who have never stepped into an art gallery before and be that kind of introduction to the fine-art world.

"Kids love this stuff, parents love it, people who already know about art love it, people who have never heard of it walk in and go, 'Books!' This definitely fits in here."

Stilkey sees himself eventually moving away from the book sculptures to a new venture. For now, he's happy.

"The books are dying," he said. "There are so many that go to the garbage. It's crazy. If I can paint on them, I'm giving them a second chance."

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If You Go

What: "Anthology"

Where: Great Park Gallery at the Palm Court Arts Complex, 6990 Marine Way in Irvine

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 10

Cost: Free

Information: ocgp.org

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