I have never met Michelle Ray but well remember the first work of hers I saw – The Kashash and the Archivist; it is one I wish I owned. Abecedarian Gallery represents Michelle, giving me a chance to get to know her through the works she creates. My respect for her continuing growth and work deepens with each new project.
Michelle Ray describes herself as a left brained maker; a devotee of organizing, list-making and labels. She also clearly loves language, research, storytelling and vast open spaces. Her level of craft is high, her writing skills well-honed and her evolving conceptual development is sophisticated enough to effectively translate multiple elements into objects so that they live in a state of complex harmony. Yet these works are not cumbersome or crowded; rich though they are, with words, imagery, reference and structure, they remain elegant and almost sparse.
This week I’m focusing on three of Ray’s limited edition book works – those that reference the sea:
Admeasure, Three Ships and God Created the Sea and Painted it Blue so We’d Feel Good On It . . .
Admeasure, the earliest of the three, was published in 2011 while Ray was an MFA candidate in the Book Arts Program at the University of Alabama.
Admeasure is structurally simple (an accordion book with pamphlet stitched pages in two sections housed in a paper wrapper) produced by uncomplicated procedures (letterpress, die cut, folding and stitching). Closed it measures 8 x 3 x .25 inches.
The soft paper cover is printed in gray ink on a sand colored paper with a line drawing of waves that are turbulent and seem to be crashing off a rocky shore. There is no land in sight, only the horizon line of the endless sea.
Charmingly, the tab/slot mechanism that holds the cover closed is printed with the words
“I had a dream that I built a small boat & set out to sea in it.”
On opening the book, we learn that Admeasure is a nautical term and refers to the act of measuring the dimensions and capacity of a vessel for official registration. Later in the book, the silhouetted forms of a bird and boat alongside upward and downward pointing arrows, illustrate how a vessel’s height and depth impact the spaces of the sky and sea.
The accordion pages are printed front and back, in the lower third, with more images of the roiling sea; a two sail boat rocked but upright appears on the fourth (of ten) panels. This panel also serves as the first page of a pamphlet, stitched through the accordion fold. A second pamphlet is stitched into the final fold of the accordion and goes through the book cover’s spine. This allows the book to be fixed in place in the cover, but also fully extended for a different viewing experience.
The accordion panels are printed front and back with black line work and gray blocks of color; the text varying shades of gray. The two pamphlet sections introduce various shades of orange. While startling on first encounter, the bright, warm color gives a whimsical break from the prevailing muted tones, particularly as one of the images printed in orange is that of an albatross.
The book utilizes quotes from Bas Jan Ader, a traditional pilot’s verse and draw’s from a variety of archetypal journey (including Ray’s own time spent in small boats).
It also gives clear directives: alongside the aforementioned orange albatross the words
“Now. Hold a live Albatross in your hands. Feel how hot it is. Smell its smell (dusty).
Under a cut-out of a woman’s silhouetted profile
“Go into a darkened room. Shine a flashlight through this cutout to project a silhouette on the wall.”
“Do not begin reading this book on a Friday, for it will bring you bad luck.”
And a gentle suggestion:
“You are now being directed to create marginalia related to your journey at sea. Feel free to use all of the empty space on this page.”
Admeasure presents elements later projects have clarified about Ray’s engagement in the world. An interest in presence vs. absence, a love of the vast landscapes of sea and sky, an appreciation for the quirky and whimsical and her work as a book artist to draw connections between traditional lore and our continuing present.