Brian Dettmer majored in fine arts at Columbia College in Chicago, focusing mainly on painting and sculpture. In his final year of school, he began to incorporate language into his art. At the time, he held a part-time job at a sign shop. He became interested in how language is disconnected from what it represents and began incorporating textual references into his paintings.
After managing a sign shop for a spell, he worked as a graphic-shop supervisor at the Field Museum, where he designed signs and exhibits. During his off-hours, Dettmer continued creating art that incorporated codes and language systems, exploring using newspapers to create textured fields on his canvases. He would tear newspapers apart and apply the shredded pieces to the surface of his paintings with acrylic gesso, a medium used to prime canvases. From newspapers, he turned to pages torn from books which eventually led to altering the book themselves.
Some people object to Dettmer’s profiting from the work of the illustrators who originally created the images revealed in Dettmer’s book sculptures. But he claims that most of the books he works with are decades old and are of little interest to the reading public. He prefers to work with nonfiction, which tends to get dated and to have less practical value in today’s world. He also avoids selecting books that might be collectibles.