For many avid readers, a good book is a treasured work of art, but Jeannette Lazarus has taken that concept to a whole new level.
Lazarus is using her considerable artistic talents painting still lifes and landscapes on the covers of vintage, cloth-bound books, and offering them for sale as a fundraising effort for Salisbury Public Library's Building Fund.
"They're just beautiful," said Salisbury library director Terry Kyrios. "They're $100, and we've already sold three."
Lazarus is the founder of the East Boston Artists Group, with paintings that sell from $300 to $3,000. After moving to Salisbury from East Boston when she and her husband, Peter Edwards, retired, she immediately became a volunteer at the library. She was recently elected to its Board of Trustees.
But the kind of painting Lazarus now does in her retirement is considerably different from the type that earned her a living for decades.
"My husband and I are retired from the painters' union; that's where we met," Lazarus said, and smiled. "Local 51 of Roslindale's Painters and Allied Trades Union. I was the second woman allowed to join the painters union. I worked for 20 years for M.L. McDonald of Watertown."
A major painting contractor, the company did work on many Boston landmarks over the years. Lazarus and Edwards were part of those crews.
"We gold leafed the Statehouse dome," Lazarus said. "We painted the interiors of the Wang Center and Old South Church (during renovations). We did the lounge at the Westin Hotel, and so many more."
Lazarus' painting expertise is in stylized work, such as marbleizing and other forms of faux painting. She also specializes in the rare art form known as trompe l'oeil. Literally translated, trompe l'oeil means "to fool the eye." It is a technique that began in the 17th century in Rome and depicts objects on flat surfaces in a way that gives the optical illusion of three dimensions.
Mostly self-taught, Lazarus always loved art and has painted artistically ever since she can remember, as a way to express her feelings. She fell into contract painting as a way to support her four children, she said, but in retirement, her former career has given her the financial freedom to pursue her first love.
"I'm lucky, I don't need to make a living, so I can give away my art," she said. "I'm very community-oriented. Helping the library with my work seemed natural."
Turning the covers of old books into art became part of Lazarus' way of helping the library and honoring the father of a dear friend and neighbor, Ann Campanella.
"Ann's father died and she got the job of emptying his house," Lazarus said. "He loved poetry, and she offered me his books."
After looking over the books — some of which go back to the early 1900s — Lazarus shelved those she wanted to keep and got a brainstorm on how to handle the others.
She noticed many were cloth-covered, with a texture similar to an artist's canvas. After priming the books, she realized she could paint on them.
"Nothing's safe up in my studio, everything gets painted on," she said, laughing. "My husband says he's surprised I haven't painted him when he comes up here to have a cup of coffee with me."
Lazarus said the art-covered books can aesthetically fill a needed niche in people's homes.
"You know, when you have tons of books in a bookcase, it's fun to have an art object placed here and there to brighten it up," Lazarus said.
So, out of her artist's eye came gems painted on small books currently on display at the town library. There are Salisbury landscapes, still lifes of eggs, fruit, flowers, even three rolls of toilet paper, for a whimsical piece of bathroom art.
"She's a character," Kyrios said. "And she'll do anything for the library."
For more information on the fundraiser, contact the Salisbury Public Library Monday through Thursday at 978-465-5071.