Before the invention of the printing press, all books were made by hand. After Gutenberg, books went from handmade objects to mass produced media capable of fueling the spread of knowledge to populations in which literacy was continually on the rise. Few thought of going back to the time of handmade books until the Dadaists began to remake the book as part of their project of deconstructing everything considered of cultural value by a civilization that was tearing itself apart during the time of the World Wars.
Art books or artists’ books – handmade or limited edition books – have been a mode of creative expression during periods in which artists question the authenticity of those who put themselves up as authorities. In the 1960s, for example, members of the arts group Fluxus began to make artists’ books with a vengeance.
The art form has continued to develop since that time. Books made by members of groups like Puget Sound Book Artists (PSBA) are not really tokens of cultural iconoclasm that call into question the authority of the printed word in favor of more folksy wisdom – though there is still something of that in their genetic code. Rather, the artists’ books made these days hearken back to the beautifully hand crafted objects of the pre-printing press era. Book artists are apt be trained in fine techniques of book binding and paper making, draftsmanship and printmaking.
So it is with the artists of PSBA, whose eighth annual exhibit just opened at University of Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library. The show runs through July 27. Housed in the entry area, the exhibit features 57 unique and original books made by 36 artists who are members of PSBA. As visitors gaze at the books housed in glass cases, they are invited to question what a book is. A repository of information? A collection of images and literary compositions? An object that contains subsidiary objects that are related to each other? In one sense, each human life is a book and each of our days is a page in that book.
Every year, the members of PSBA display works by its members at the Collins Library. I find many of the works to be magically inspirational. Kathy Dickerson’s “Random Idea Generator in a Box,” for example, consists of slips of paper, each with a red thread tied to it. Instead of a book cover, there is a tiny box made of the same paper and stitched together with the same red thread as the individual slips of paper. Each slip of paper is printed with a phrase that suggests an image or action like “falling off a horse” or “fast asleep.” The artist’s instructions state that the book is meant to generate new ideas and stimulate creativity. The user is told to focus on a task, draw three slips from the box and to study the images or thoughts until new ideas that can be applied to the problem are found. This “book” is both fun and practical as well as inventive.
I found Lynn Skordal’s altered book, entitled “38,” to be an object of great beauty. A vintage textbook on shorthand writing is altered with painting, drawing and collage on its pages. There are 38 of these abstract, compelling art works in the pages of the 1947 book that the artist has taken and made into a thing of mysterious power and jewel-like value.
Three of the books in the exhibit were singled out to receive awards. Juror sweet pea Flaherty, of King’s Books, bestowed the Award of Excellence on Isabel Duffy’s book “Unpacking.” This consists of a little grey box full of small, square pages that are all hinged together. When they are all opened, they spread over the surface so that all of the pages can be seen at once. There are lovely little poetic writings and abstract images in circular frames. The writing reveals “intimate snippets of life, quotidian lists and beautiful images” that invite the reader into an intimate experience of the artist’s world and life.
The Collins Memorial Library Award went to Bonnie Halfpenny for her well-crafted book made of cloth and stitchery called “With a Compass, Without a Map.” The soft pages, made using materials and techniques that are associated with traditionally female crafts, are used to celebrate four women of the past who did not follow a culturally prescribed gender role. These were individuals who charted their own courses: Nellie Bly, the investigative journalist; Annie Oakley, the sharpshooter; Annie Turnbo Malone, the inventor and entrepreneur and Lucy Burns the suffrage leader are the subjects of this book.
The Curator’s Choice Award was given to Jan Dove’s “The Horsemen,” a book that features an enigmatic poem about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The poem is accompanied by crabbed, scribbly drawings of horses and humans. The lines are difficult to decipher since they are superimposed upon one another. The drawings look like loosey-goosey doodles, but they were actually done using digital technology.
In conjunction with the exhibit, PSBA artists will be present at an Artists’ Conversation on June 21, 5:30-7:30 p.m. in Collins Library’s Archives Seminar Room. On July 12 – at the same hours and location as the above event – there will be a panel discussion of some of the PSBA artists.
The annual PSBA exhibit is always a delight and I never go away without having been inspired. For more on PSBA and the exhibit, visit blogs.pugetsound.edu/pugetsoundbookartists or the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/Puget-Sound-Book-Artists-155129164522826.