As good fiction does, Mary Uthuppuru’s Undefined Lines brings a viewer into an invented atmosphere in such a way that the physical book container drops away and the reader is for a time, transported. Unlike fiction, though, this piece brings the viewer into the present moment with no storyline other than walking on a trail. By observing simple details of a forest walk, seemingly standing right in the artist’s shoes, the overall message of this book is to be right where you are, unable to see far ahead, simply observing your immediate surroundings. The book has simple illustrations and structure yet manages to convey its message with the lyrical and warm quality of a good fairy tale.
The book is housed in a drop-spine clamshell box. There is a sense of anticipation while unfolding the outer box and then the inner covers. The box is covered with black bookcloth; the title printed in a low contrast color that allows it to disappear into the black. This lends to the feeling of wanting to discover, to find out what’s not defined. It also gives the feeling of walking into a portal of story.
Within the box, the book cover is linen painted with green watercolor, the exact mossy green of very early spring in the woods when the snow melts. There are paint splotches dropped across the printed title that seem as if the book were carried along on the walk and was splattered by upspray —perhaps from the author’s boots in the mud. Delicate lines are etched into the green paint, revealing the white linen and suggesting a marshy border. When the four outer flaps of the book are laying open, it’s something like arriving in the center of the marsh. The splatters on the paste paper flaps radiate out from the depths. The dark green end paper is heavy handmade paper, buckled as if it’s been recently wet.
The first page of content conveys a sense of arrival. There is a marked tonal difference in the warm buff Rives BFK paper. It is illustrated in a way akin to a storybook; hand drawn in pen and ink with watercolor. This page is laid out as a vertically-opening double page spread. Framing the whole outer edge of the spread are the mottled greens of the covers, giving it the feeling again of having been naturally altered, maybe by moss growing in through the outer edges of the book. The author has apparently stood in these cold, leafless woods, creating the delicate illustrations as a document of this walk that we are on. Because she has drawn exactly where she stands and because the book is the very one she carried on the walk, Ms. Uthuppuru has invited us to stand here too, feeling the cold air and seeing each detail as we turn our head from side to side. She shows you the beginning of a trail with two signposts on either side, the trail wending its way up the center of the page, winter trees and leafless shrubs standing at the top of the page as the edge of this part of the woods. The text describes the title, Undefined Lines, illustrating how the horizon offers no clear view and is always out of reach.
And then the walk begins as we turn page slowly after page, enjoying the simple view of the Indiana woods in what looks like an early spring day. The second shows a fork in the trail. The delicate lines from the cover are revealed here as the edges of the trail, the woods are still at the top of the page, beckoning us forward. The trail is beneath our feet. Because the book brings us along a trail, the woods always at the top of the page, the trail opening under our feet at the bottom of the page and continuing to the top without revealing the next step, there is a feeling of being pulled forward in anticipation. At the same time, because the color and the edges of the pages are mottled green, there is a feeling of quiet and of taking one’s time.
Ms. Uthuppuru’s delicate but sure hand lends a feeling of children’s storybook but with the simple straightforward feel of a naturalist’s diary. There are changes in the landscape, such as a tree fallen across the trail, a small stream that must be leapt, the landscape gently rolling and then flattening on either side of the page. The changes are the ones any one of us have observed in our everyday lives and walks through our environments…the ordinary, subtle gentle twists and turns in trees, ground and shrubs. In the case of the Indiana woods that Ms. Uthuppuru walks through and documents, there are heavy vines that twist up trees, similar to the Pennsylvania woods that I have known. In the end, the trail comes back to the two signs where we began, the only apparent markers of time on this journey. There is no horizon here either and we are done with our walk.
I thoroughly enjoyed this quiet walk in the woods created with a sensitive and sure hand. It brought a sense of peace and nostalgia to this fellow forest walker.