Helen Hiebert – Cosmology

Carl Adamshick, Poet, Helen Hiebert, Maker

Isobel Morrison, © 2012

This essay originally appeared in a catalog produced by Kitty Maryatt’s Fall 2014 Core III class (all sophomores) at Scripps College for the exhibition titled CBAA Members’ Exhibition, in the Clark Humanities Museum, shown January 7 to February 17, 2015.

Cosmology is defined as “the science of the origin and development of the universe”, pertaining to great mystery and historical depth. While Helen Hiebert’s artist book Cosmology does not attempt to tackle any astronomy, theory or particle physics, it does function as an elegant tribute to the universe and its delicate mysteries. Helen Hiebert’s creamy paper and conceptual structure coupled with Carl Adamshick’s serene poem evoke the fluidity of time and inaccessibility of memory. Hiebert’s unusual book structure and the space she creates within the book helps to inject additional meaning into the book, and differentiate it from other artist books, and ultimately it is because of this creation of space that the book is so successful.

Cosmology is, at first glance, a fairly simple book. Comprised of a one-sheet book structure, it does not seem to function as anything more than a simple artist book, with beautiful Japanese inspired handiwork and a short poem inside. Upon further handling, however, the book is elevated, its presence complicated and expanded upon by Hiebert’s ingenious use of space, as

“every intention presupposes a purpose, a utility.” (Carrión)*

Essentially, the book can be expanded to create a small ‘square’ of space within the middle of the book, allowing for the intricately cut paper frame to create what looks like a window within the book. This renders the book three-dimensional, and in doing so alters its existence as simply one of a passive work of text into an active, engaging art piece that has a dynamic capability. The three-dimensionality of the book also helps to draw attention to the beautiful paper that Hiebert has made.

The poems reference looking outside windows, into the mountain air, and because the frame pops open, it draws attention to the alternating pale blue and white pulp colors on the paper behind the frame. This creates a depth; it invites the viewer to indeed see this frame as a window: into what, you yourself can decide. Hiebert mentions on her website that the frame was inspired by

“the way light filtered through traditional shoji screens in the Ryokan (Japanese Inn) where I stayed”,

and even the background story behind the geometric composition of the frame helps to instill the frame with additional meaning. It is meant to be enjoyed as a real, physical space: you can look through the frame, you can look into the frame, and you can look past the frame, and each of these distinctions help elevate the book into the realm of a distinct, unique artist book. The structure also alters the way in which the book can be viewed. It can be held like a traditional codex, between two hands, but it can also be displayed in an upright fashion, and this helps to transform it into a more permanent structure. These are important considerations when looking at artist books because they exist unlike typical books: they are supposed to incorporate dynamic viewing and Cosmology does just this.

There is a great deal of meaning that the poetry and the structure of the book add to each other, which is another example of Hiebert’s strength of vision. Within the twelve-line poem, the motif of a ‘window’ shows up twice, and this connection ultimately helps to imbue both sections with additional meaning. Adamshick’s poetry is meaningful, and as simple and complex as you desire to make of it. The opening sentence, spread over two lines describes how

Silence is a window

open to the mountain air,

and this sentence is a perfect representation of the elegance and clarity of his poem. He guides the reader through various images, images of

. . . a transparent map

of moonlight


an ocean floor

and the lost city

where your child grew tall.

His poetry is unadorned; emotion is rendered through the sense of loss and sentimentality, nostalgia for the sake of the bittersweet sadness it brings. The materials on which it is printed on, and the pale blue and sky blue and white that the book is comprised of, helps to reinforce specific imagery: that of the ocean, of mountain air, of falling water. This relationship between the structure and the content is especially important in artist books, as without it there is a decisive lacking in the book’s

“reason to be, and to be a book.” (Drucker)*

The sweetness in Adamshick’s diction, as well as the sense of discovery and contentedness that pervades the entire poem, helps point to the same creation of space that the structure does: the explicit meaning in the map, the ocean floor, the lost city and the mountain.

Aside from those more obvious references to space, he adds an additional spatial element: one that transcends tangible, physical space and instead exists as something infinite and intangible: time. The description of

the lost city

where your child grew tall,

and line that

Memory is the water

you hear falling

on the mountain

as your hand pushes

the silence close.

both point to a loss, of time and love and noise. The poem is both exceedingly simple and complex, and it is hard to take away from the poem a particular feeling: but when coupled with the structure, colors, and framing, the poem grows into something meant to be taken less literally and more figuratively: an emotion you are encouraged to feel as opposed to an emotion you are expected to decipher.

Ultimately, Helen Hiebert creates an artist book that is both simple and complex, gentle and striking. The book creates space and references space, and the integration of these unique characteristics (that are rooted in memory) help to further the poetry by Adamshick. While Cosmology does not deal with many complicated images or scientific structures, it nevertheless references things both tangible and intangible, through both content and structure. It is an evocative book, one that makes the viewer feel an emotion that is at times unidentifiable; and this is the beauty of its final form.


*references from  The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker
Essay: The New Art of Making Books by Ulises Carrión in
Artists’ Books, A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Joan Lyons

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Helen Hiebert – Cosmology

by Guest Author time to read: 4 min