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Jaime Lynn Shafer – Old Geiger Grade

It’s hard to say whether Old Geiger Grade, created by Jaime Lynn Shafer at Black Rock Press, is primarily sculptural or narrative. The letterpress-printed book is a straightforward codex, but its drum-leaf binding cleverly accommodates pages which have been excavated and built up to form a dimensional topographic map. It is among these geological features that the printed narrative resides, tracing a journey along the titular road – a stagecoach route to the famed Comstock Lode in Virginia City, (present day) Nevada. The project was created for the Black Rock Press Redfield Fellowship, which aims to link the press with other institutions at the University of Nevada, in this case the W.M. Keck Earth Science & Mineral Engineering Museum. As the colophon explains, parts of the Old Geiger Grade have morphed into modern roads and can still be traveled, part of the enduring legacy of mining in Nevada.

This historical emphasis is only a springboard; Old Geiger Grade is more contemplative than educational. To set the scene, Shafer leads the reader into the 1860s Wild West through the book’s outer elements. Upon extracting the book from its slipcase, the reader finds it folded into a paper wrap. Printed on the wrap’s inside front is a list of “Stagecoach Rules”. Presented without comment, the rules could be taken directly from some historical document, but they have a quaint charm that feels almost too good to be true. Regardless, the rules form an imposing block of text on the front flap, physically barring the reader from entry into the book. From the ominous prohibition against discussing “stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings” to lighter guidelines about gentlemanly behavior, the rules raise the stakes for the narrative inside. The reader is introduced to the Nineteenth Century with all of its implications for race and gender, not to mention a looming specter of danger.

The descriptive narrative within the book is subtle, especially in contrast to the list of rules. Two categories of text share the page: an account of nine stagecoach passengers, and some names of places along their route. The narrator and other passengers are left mostly to the reader’s imagination, a task which is aided by the characters (gentlemen, ladies, outlaws, and so forth) outlined in the preceding rules. The stagecoach is a liminal space, better suited to reflection than a conventional story arc. The reader never learns whether the travelers arrive to Virginia City and strike it rich, but instead shares in the hardships of the road and measures time as much through the rhythms and pains of the body as through their progress across the map (which fittingly provides no compass or legend).

The story’s understated style helps highlight the book’s most striking feature – the topographic layers, some hand-cut from the pages, and others built up with laser-cut shapes of paper. The choice of Rives BFK paper not only has an evocative desert color, but also an almost sandy texture and enough dimension to maximize the effect of the topography. The doubled sheets of the drum-leaf binding feel almost like a board book, but more sophisticated thanks to the printmaking paper (and, of course, the concept and content). Not all of the topographic elevations are rendered sculpturally; some are printed in a gold with enough impression to qualify as dimensional in their own right. These printed lines form a cohesive visual vocabulary with the edges and shadows of the cut paper pieces, and also integrate these landscape elements with the road itself, which is printed in a darker golden brown. This small color change is all that distinguishes the route from the land it traverses.

The marks that are built in relief, rather than printed, are planned carefully to activate the book temporally and spatially. The cut away elements allow the reader to glimpse the future and past, in turn. On the recto, the negative space reveals some future part of the trail. This preview is narrowly framed, adding to the sense of suspense.

“Our shotgun stands guard… without him, our lives would be in grave danger”.

Will the turn of the page reveal danger or some other surprise? Once a page is turned, the same space, now on the verso, sustains an earlier thread of the story, recontextualized. For instance, a description of the cramped conditions and hard wooden benches persists through three turns of the page, stretching out the narrator’s discomfort for the reader to experience. Like this temporal play, the negative and positive relief enacts in space the textual descriptions of the desert landscape. Read in scale to the printed map, a few millimeters on the page represent the “treacherous and frightening” terrain in a direct, tactile way. The extra attention these pages require from the reader seems to be its own form of navigation along a demanding road, though admittedly lower risk.

All of this succeeds because of the remarkable planning and craftsmanship that went into production. Where two layers of page are built up to form a cliff, a perfectly placed two-page hole is aligned to fit together just so, but with organic shapes and fluid placement, these relationships never feel forced. Though the reader knows that each additive form must be met with an equal subtractive counterpart for the book to close, the novelty of this sculptural mark-making never wears out. The minimalism of the blank paper, with its subtle cast shadows and delicate scorching from the laser cutter is beautiful in a way that complements, but also transcends, the book’s narrative and setting.

This beauty, freed from the utility of a proper map or atlas, is akin to highway driving through the Southwest; history is visible, tangible, in the layers of sedimentary rock, but open more to imagination than interpretation. Silver mining is a similar act of time travel. As people traverse mountains, or dig for silver, their struggles play out against the immense backdrop of geological time. The uncertain fate of the characters, now deceased for generations, against this indifferent landscape which remains today gives Old Geiger Grade a sublime edge that resonates beneath its beauty.

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Cody Geiselman – Endless, Ceaseless

Endless, Ceaseless is a yearning for something that was never really possessed, in this case artist Cody Gieselman’s family home and land. Prior rights by a coal company, whether they were sold or taken through eminent domain is unclear, has created this uneasy situation. Through the use of memory, as well as analogies with family photographs and art history, the reader realizes this poignant and impenetrable distance between connection and separation.

The small book is made of paper, hand-stitched binding, and stone colored pages and outer cover, with flecks of texture from the paper itself. These features lend to the overarching themes within the book itself, specifically referencing nature and the natural. When the reader opens the front cover, they find what appears to be soot (or possibly coal smears) on the edges. It is easy to read this part of the cover as burnt, although its identity becomes apparent as one progresses through the book. On the outside of the cover are little spots printed in a blocky, monochromatic manner; the reader will soon realize is a depiction of coal. The pages have a lined tooth, and the book alternates pages mostly with blocky, printed images that are small, with monochromatic/toned ink that merely darkens the stone paper except in certain cases, and letterpress text on the opposing pages.

Gieselman sets the scene with a block reproduction of a painting of Pan and text about panic. The first line, “(Panic and the loss of the wild),” tells us the state of mind and impending grief the author will explore. Using metaphor with the death of Pan, there is an attempt to rationalize what is to come as clearing the old for the new, though it seems like cold comfort. The reader is introduced to the artist’s family via a  mildly distorted family photograph on the ensuing pages. It is mostly unremarkable, a simple group portrait typical of the era, with a patterned frame around the image that could date it from between the 1930s to perhaps no later than the 1960s. We are informed on the opposite page that her family had lived in the house she grew up in for multiple generations. Before we can contemplate the strength of that bond, Gieselman recounts her family receiving a letter about “active operation status,” which results in their departure that summer. The matter-of-factness belies what has clearly been a trauma, and this will continue to unfold throughout the book.

Next, the artist describes the wildlife and nature of the surrounding land; we are meant to feel this loss the more we understand what it was and what it represented. It is now we learn who sent this active status letter—a coal company. Gieselman rues the irony of this entity bringing “life” with jobs but immediately follows with the destruction inherent to coal mining to the earth: “Later remain the desolate abandoned sites, rocky with pits full of water, opaque and green as jade.” The illustrations opposite these pages underscore this unnatural transformation, showing an image of the land, then a close-up of a honeycomb, followed by the honeycomb-like structure of strands of chemical bonds of coal.

The succeeding pairs of pages turn the focus to the personal even more so. Black silhouettes of circling predatory birds appear on the left, and the opposing text notes “So common we would hardly notice. First the sound, then the ground shaking. Cracked windows, crumbled chimney.” Here, we see the changes slowly effected on the house, which is the same as the earth itself. However, because we know of her family’s history with the home and our own emotional ties to family homes, the reader feels this kind of death as sharply. Throughout the book, the artist jumps back and forth in time: before, during, and after the coal company has destroyed this ancestral place. The following sets of pages bring the apparatus of change, the shovel machinery. It is “as imposing as a city” to her youthful eyes, and Gieselman places an illustration of it digging into the darker ground to let us know that it is the coal it is excavating. The opposing page’s text underlines dramatically, as only a child can, what this means: “Buzzards circling while I lie on the ground very still, trying to convince them I’m dead to lure them closer.” The arrival of the coal company is the death of innocence and childhood wrapped together tightly.

It is here that we are informed that even before Gieselman’s birth, her family knew the house’s fate and chose to move in anyways. This quiet revelation is followed on the next page with the first non-monochromatic color scheme. We see a coyote in an ochre-red looking upwards, howling while spewing little bits of coal from its mouth. This stream starts small and grows into a large portion of the page, and for the first time, it intrudes into the text page on the other side.

Gieselman here links her family’s displacement to that of Native Americans that had been driven away before her family’s arrival. This mention perhaps hints at how governments, companies, and other entities are prioritized before the land and the people who live on it. The coal flecks continue on the next page, mimicking the cover. We have come to the penultimate page with Gieselman’s attempt to return to her home at an unspecified time in adulthood, long after her family has left and the coal company stripped the area. There is a particularly melancholy as she notes “but all my familiar indicators were gone.” Musing that perhaps someday far into the future, the landscape will reappear, the audience understands the gravity and long-term effects these companies and our energy choices make on the land.

The coal dots thin on the final page set, and Gieselman ends with a poetic coda that begins with listening to coyotes howl until their sudden silence. She ties this to her own connection with a place that was “always tenuous and fleeting;” she is filled with nostalgia for something she only slightly had and now is vanished. We as the reader cannot help but share her sorrow at this severed connection and the distress at what has been wrought on the earth. A cautionary tale of humans wrecking havoc on the earth and an elegiac monument to her family home, Endless, Ceaseless leaves us with much to consider as we persist down a path of devastation for our energy needs.

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Sue Carrie Drummond – Vestige

Vestige by Sue Carrie Drummond is an offset printed bound concertina that examines the artist’s relationship to clothing she has kept for sentimental reasons. The book is printed monochrome in a rich, warm brown. The darkest browns are in the sizable negative spaces, while text and imagery are knocked out to varying degrees of lightness. On warm off-white paper, even the brightest elements feel soft and delicate. The limited palette and minimalistic images make Vestige cohesive and immersive.

Vestige is driven by its text; lyrical prose written in first person. Via worn out articles of clothing, the narrative covers the writer’s relationship with her father, mother, friends and lovers. The book culminates with one romantic relationship, but the earlier ones help introduce the narrator and provide the context for that relationship. The narrator’s relationship with her parents seems to foreshadow and impact her romantic life, but is interesting and relatable in its own right. More than any specific relationship, Vestige is about the narrator’s way of relating to her own past and the people who shaped it.

Text and image are sparse. Meaning is found in subtlety: pacing, composition and juxtaposition of text and image. Passages employ metonymy and double entendre to slow down the reader, complicate the narrative, and reconcile the book’s lyrical delicacy with its charged confessional content.

One such page reads,

“We drifted for miles / while I adapted to their fit, / breaking them in.”

Pertaining to hand-me-down clothes as well as ex-lovers, the double reading is reinforced by the background imagery, which has transitioned from the fabrics of old clothing to what appear to be bed sheets. As the metonymy becomes more obvious in these middle pages, the reader is encouraged to reread the more ambiguous beginning of the book, which now takes on new depth.

Structural and compositional clues help readers navigate these ambiguities without resolving them, which would rob the book of its richness. Pages without text serve as transitions between trains of thought. The result is a book with three loosely demarcated sections and a conclusion, all of which blend fluidly together. As one reads, the book is unified and the narrative progresses naturally in chronological order. On a second reading, one begins to note correlations between text and image, pacing and composition, which signal shifts in tone and subject. For example, in the opening section of the book the images of a sweater hem stretch the full width of each spread and the text sits just above this horizon line. These compositions feel stable, calm and strong; the narrator talks about her parents. As the book continues into the tension and confusion of romantic relationships, the text sinks to the bottom of the page and the images are angular and unstable. Even the relative sharpness or softness of the imagery fluctuates throughout the book and influences how the text reads.

The book’s strength is in the way that gradual shifts in mood and increasingly loaded figurative language effectively expand the narrative. This gradual departure from the literal requires a reappraisal of what has already been read, and poses multiple readings of the content to come. In this way familiar symbols, like clothing and domestic spaces, elicit explorations of deep psychological territory like memory, relationships, and the body. The depth of these topics transcend the narrator’s specificity, which allows readers to contemplate their own relationship with the past, and the objects and places that define it. Vestige encourages introspection, but also empathy.

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AB Gorham – Whipstock

Americans have been parasitically entwined with the Western landscape through oil for over a century, developing in time to its own mythology. Whipstock by AB Gorham is a curious puzzle devoted to this lore. A considered experimental piece, it lyrically examines the way oil has seeped into our land, our economy, our history, and our lives.

Roughly the size of a CD outside its outer casing, Whipstock unfolds with booklet flaps left and right; each booklet is connected at the middle and unfolds both horizontally and vertically. Within the handsome outer case, there is a series of numbers 1-36 that snake through in rows (reading let to right, right to left), punctuated with small holes. These holes pepper the booklets at various points, almost mimicking a drill piercing through the dirt. “Oil,” or rather small blobs of brown ink, are interspersed throughout, much like a miniature spill soaking into various pages. The numbers appear again within the booklets, and they are a guide for reading Whipstock in an order, although one could easily read without that direction. Finally, the case cover contains imprints of imagery that repeats later in the book without color, appearing to be linked to drilling.

These numbers force the reader to “dig” through the work; one might start right and discover the next number is on the opposing booklet. One could also flip the pages like a traditional book, but then be flummoxed by the next number disappearing—or rather, this trail pushes the reader to alter how they have read thus far by unfolding vertically. Gorham is quite strategic in this layout, deploying a metaphor of burrowing and uncovering while engaging with the work.

And now, the content of the pages: Whipstock is a mostly linear yet stream of consciousness/poetic rendering of the history of oil production, from the geologic to more intimate human-scale concerns. Even within pages, it can be challenging to know what to read first, and each reading can be unique. Words are placed in a circular fashion, as lists, diagonal, upside down, and sometimes as shapes. They are as much words as pattern, and the reader needs to turn and move the book to really be able to read in full. Whipstock is not a passive engagement to say the least!

This language encompasses all aspects of oil, such as legalese on the vagaries of oil production detailed in #13.


There are two columns side by side with the right repeating the left column’s words but crossing out sections, leaving the reader to ponder the significance of this directed act of partial removal.


Elsewhere, the penetration of the ground is vividly described as in #19:

“weave a rope of mudstone, fetter the drill bit’s grind/denture toothed gnash & gnaw, gizzard’s work.”


In #29, we get a brief but incisive list of uses for oil besides heating and transportation; mundane items like nail polish, footballs, and the “ink on these pages” occur. This crucial inventory shows how interconnected we are to oil in every facet of modern life, whether we are aware or not.


Prior to this is entry #28, which details a pipe bursting and leaking into farmland soil; Gorham seems to be demonstrating the dependence of oil in this country is not without ecological consequences.

Continuing through the book, the destruction inherent to oil production is pursued further in #32:

“oil leaches into soil into water chemical water leaches into ground seeps into.”

Oil is everywhere, and despite its origination in the deep earth from dinosaur bodies and ancient flora, the toxic outcomes are far from natural. We see this accentuated in oil daubs such as #33, which also spreads over small grids. Are these fences? Or perhaps farms? A muted, earthy color palette of dulled greens and browns compliment the focus of land, and the shapes within these printed imagery shift between abstract and exact, much in the same way language is used throughout Whipstock.

As a climax of all this flowing rumination on oil in the West, the very instrument of removing oil from the earth is at last displayed: a brightly colored oil derrick, prominent and direct in pages #34 and #36.


There are wheat plants printed over sections, suggesting a relationship: rising wheat, rising derrick, with wheat superseding and overlaying the derrick, signifying its dominant importance. The interplay underlines our manipulation of the earth towards our own ends, regardless of cost. AB Gorham has created an interrogative work on the depth of human intervention in the land, leaving the readers questioning their complicity in this and just how much the oil industry’s positives outweigh some disastrous negatives.

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Macy Chadwick – Cell Memory

Rachel Fredericks

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.


Many people base their identities on the kind of thinking they use, which leads them to the kind of subjects they’re interested in. For example, someone who thinks very logically and who likes to problem-solve might see herself becoming an engineer or a scientist, and one who is more interested in picking out the beauty in words and the world in general might become a poet. Of course, there is beauty in science and logic to poetry, but not many people realize the extent to which all the disciplines really inform and support one another. Macy Chadwick addresses this disconnect in her artist book Cell Memory, which presents an ethereal, artistic version of a cell with translucent pages of poetry and pages reminiscent of actual cell parts. The book is meant not only to call to mind a cell itself, but also that of which cells are capable.

The book is only about three by four inches when closed, plus it is comprised of thin, translucent paper, so it requires delicate handling. It comes in a round, thin case made of the same kind of paper, in which it is possible to see some stringy fabric and another piece of paper with the book’s basic information on it. This establishes the book as something to be protected, or even revered. There are multiple patterns printed on the pages, all with abstract images and organic colors. The pages’ translucency allows for the images to slightly show through to surrounding pages, which lends itself to a sense of connectedness throughout the book. Usually artists get to make each page its own entity, but each page in this book necessarily affects the next. The pages are also different sizes and have differently shaped edges, which combines with the patterns to make each seem like a different part of the cell body. This literal connectedness finds a parallel in and is explained by the text itself, a poem with a few lines per page.

The poetry addresses the idea that cells can hold memories. This is not in specific, informational ways but likely in a manner similar to muscle memory, in which bodies automatically move in a certain way because of how habits have been ingrained in them. Cell memory, as Chadwick presents it, seems to include the relatively short history that might have occurred within one cell as it existed in the larger form of which it was a part, but also the possible ways the cell could exist as well. Chadwick writes of the cell’s possibilities in a few lines:

in the core/ of ourselves/ the cells remember/ Past and potential.

Since cells have the potential to participate in so many organic functions and entities, each cell and cell part resonates with a sense of etherealness, the ability to transcend the present and become a part of something significant. Of course, a side effect of this is the cell’s transformation into something significant all on its own, simply because of its potential. Chadwick certainly makes it clear that the cell is something to be appreciated, even revered. The book even comes in a thin translucent case that adds to its importance.

It is important to note that Chadwick focuses on memory instead of just potential, even though imagining that cells have memories is a much more abstract concept. She even includes the line in the core of ourselves the cells remember twice, emphasizing both the cells’ ephemeral nature and their timelessness by calling to mind their smallness and their relevance as units which form the foundations for human beings. The lines

Centrioles like tiny magnets/ tugging at all/ that cannot be recalled
further reinforce this dichotomous existence; they acknowledge that cells are not able to hold declarative information but that every part in a cell is so connected with each other and with the cell as a whole that it automatically has a sense of its history. In other words, cells’ mobility and relative transience contrasts with their role in life since life first began, so each cell might seem insignificant on its own but really reflects billions of years of history.

Johanna Drucker writes about books similar to Chadwick’s in her chapter on rare and auratic books in The Century of Artists’ Books. She brings up Barbara Fahrner’s books, which

“[extend] philosophical and poetic investigations of the book as a metaphor for the world.”

This description also adequately addresses Cell Memory, especially when she adds that Fahrner’s purpose is

“to give [the book] meaning and to give it a permanence which counteracts the transient inconsequentiality of the passage of time.”

Chadwick’s creation very surely achieves this as well, as one can see through the combination of all the elements of the book. It establishes itself as an auratic book through its translucent, small, colorful, and differently shaped pages and the inside poem’s reference to something much bigger than (but also exactly the size of) itself. It is the potential and memory that the book calls to mind, however, which really comprise the feel of the book when one views it.

Chadwick effectively brings together poetry and science in a way that artist books do so well, exploring the potential of a unit of life page by page and line by line. Again, there is a sense of connectedness created by the see-through pages and repeated imagery in the poem itself, and all elements work excellently together to achieve a general representation of both delicate transience and eternal strength.

Click here to purchase Cell Memory.

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Casey Gardner – Body of Inquiry

This review, by Sandra Kroupa, was first published by the College Art Association in on May 31, 2013 and is re-published here with their kind permission.

Casey Gardner Body of Inquiry
Limited edition of 57 letterpress printed copies.
Berkeley: Set in Motion Press/Still Wild Books, 2011. 6 pp.

(copies still available)

“What is alive anyhow?” This is one of the simple, troubling, and eternal questions posed by Casey Gardner’s artists’ book, Body of Inquiry. Her response is anything but simple. Partly inspired by the Musée des arts et meétiers, a labyrinth of scientific instruments and investigations in Paris, Gardner creates a complex multi-layered work combining the museum, her elementary science classes, technical facts, and an anatomical model called Torso Woman with her speculations on life, science, and death. The result is truly surprising.

In the colophon Gardner states that “this book has been on my mind for quite some time.” Gardner tackles an issue no less than the fundamental one—where is the break between life and death? This is a question that has troubled us all, or will, and one that as the Curator of the Book Arts Collection at the University of Washington Libraries I have tried to bring together a “body” of work to explore. That group includes artists known for explorations in this field: Susan King, Joyce Cutler-Shaw, Maureen Cummins, and Tamar Stone, among many others.

When I first saw Body of Inquiry at the College Book Art Association annual conference in February of 2012, I did not know Gardner’s work. I was struck by the piece exhibited in a vitrine and spent an hour asking everyone if they knew the artist. Charles Hobson took on the mission and emerged from the crowd with Gardner in tow. She had another copy of the book with her, and I had the opportunity to handle it for the first time.

Like many artists’ books, Body of Inquiry has the patina of whimsy with a more difficult interior of deep probing and pain. Once the reader is seduced by form and presentation, the realization of content creeps in, changing the color of the piece. The book’s full title mimics the historical texts of old, and is too long to quote in full here, but continues in part, “scientifically capricious, yet unequivocally misleading.”

The book’s shape references an elementary school science project poster session, albeit a very sophisticated one. It is a standing triptych, letterpress printed on both sides. The “body” at the central core allows the reader to explore further and further into it, moving chest, lungs, and other parts aside to get to the central point. Gardner adds the complexity of a series of six pages and eight flaps to this body, each with text. Like many books in this field, a textual description does little to convey the work, and I suggest seeing the excellent photographs of the piece here.

Many artists’ books are the antithesis of today’s technology; they are measured and slow. These books evoke the methodical practice of their making. I am sure that Gardner’s project took years to conceive and produce—perhaps since her fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, Mr. John P. Sullivan, to whom the book is dedicated, sowed the seeds long ago. His approach of making “learning an immense fantastical tale” has not yet worn off. There are at least five passes through the press on most of the sections of the book, with as many colors plus blind embossing. This small edition of fifty-seven copies explores deep and sobering issues through wit and charm, clever text, and strange, often beautiful images. But Torso Woman is at the core of the piece in more ways than one.

Many of Gardner’s images of scientific instruments are taken from “late 19th and early 20th century laboratory catalogs,” which are combined with her own elaborate drawings. Her fantastical captions for the real devices are paired with factual text explaining her drawings. A strange historical object is labeled “an unaccountable injector” with the description: “Extract of inconceivability to mingle with churlish inner ducts of deep seated disenchantment.” Her delicate drawing of sperm that looks like wild strawberries is paired with text about the 3.2 billion letters in the coding of DNA.

The questions and speculations Gardner poses are ones that we, too, have had on our minds for a long time. We watch our early years of invulnerability and confidence shift to suspicion, uncertainty, and inevitability. Our hold on life switches from solid to unstable. The historical instrument image that Gardner calls one of the “Prisms of Infinite Reflection” is described in part as that which, “Refracts levels of reminiscence through interchangeable lenses of relief or regret.” The “Prophylactic Hand of Fate” is “a gauntlet for frictionless deflections of the stealthy hand of destiny.” The piece touches me without relying on predictable triggers: there is no story of the fifty-year-old teacher who goes to a conference and dies of a massive heart attack before goodbyes can be said; no heart-wrenching tale of the book artist without health insurance dying needlessly—just the seemingly unanswerable questions “how?” and “why?”

The puzzlement of how living things work has fascinated people for most of recorded history. For centuries that fascination has been put into books. Seeing in Bologna both the actual artifacts and the original wood blocks of Ulisse Aldrovandi, one of the founders of the modern study of natural history, gives Gardner’s book historical context for me. Aldrovandi tried to put the entirety of the living world into a series of books from 1574–1667; one can see both the compulsion and folly of such a task but also its inevitability. Although Aldrovandi died in 1605, this magnificent project continued to be published so that his vision would be carried into the future.

There are classic images of the twentieth century that seem to capture the moment between life and death: Eddie Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Nguyen Van Lem during the Vietnam War and Robert Capa’s famous photograph from the Spanish-American War, The Falling Soldier. Whether the latter is documentary or art, it still conveys that moment powerfully. We are fascinated by “last words”—especially of the famous. Gardner’s Body of Inquiry is not autobiographical in any obvious way but gives a sense of completion—a quest come to successful conclusion. Gardner, inspired by Torso Woman, set off into the unfamiliar country of the body and the cosmos. Here she found a reverence for the senses, the balance of truth and mystery and an understanding that science and poetry are part of the magical.

The best artists’ books resonate in the way a piece of music does at first hearing—offering a new sound but still familiar, making us nod in agreement, hearing our own internal voice in the sounds. Body of Inquiry is a text-rich piece, an entire jazz concert rather than just a simple song. Gardner’s book could just be “looked at” and be found charming and ambitious. If really read, in the end it leaves us sober and thoughtful but glad to be alive.

Sandra Kroupa
Curator of Book Arts and Rare Books, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

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Melissa Jay Craig – Manifest O


Encountering Melissa Jay Craig’s book Manifest O is like coming across a tome from an ancient world: exciting, puzzling, and intriguing, a familiar form that contains distinctly unfamiliar landscapes, inhabitants and languages. Experiencing the book for the first time put me in the position of reader-archaeologist, discovering not only an elusive narrative but an underlying culture.

Constructed from abaca and kozo, the book is large yet surprisingly light to hold. At first glance, there seem to be dozens of oversized feather-weight pages, telling what must be a long story. The cover, wrinkled and warped as if weathered over centuries, seems part tree bark, part treasure map. The pages are browns and deep yellows and occasional violets, like a bruise.

Instead of a traditional title on the spine and cover, there are tears in the paper – slits, or burns, or almost claw marks – that could indicate a title, if one could but read the language. Inside, I soon I discover the holes. These are spots where the page appears to have been worn through, as if each tiny area had been rubbed over and over again, a kind of Braille worn down to nothing. Reading like lines of text, the holes are a mysterious and unreadable script.

The holes go on for several pages, and then – and then! – a pair of eyes appears, emerging from the surface of the page. Drawn in colored pencil, they look out at me. Are they poignant? forlorn? or merely seeing? Another few pages with holes, then a drawing of a finger, touching on a spot on the page, and then a nose: sniffing, perhaps. More holes, many lines of them. Then, a mouth. And another mouth. Many mouths, speaking, forming shapes with their lips, through and around the patterns of holes. Trying to clarify, to illuminate, trying to speak to me this hidden language. Pages of mouths. Pages of holes. And yet, try as I might, I cannot receive. I cannot understand the words. I cannot translate. I cannot – hear. What’s missing? Ears. Ah, ears. The narrative continues, with pages and pages of mouths and holes explaining and articulating, yet now that I understand, I have given up trying to comprehend.

As an object, Manifest O is beautiful: finely crafted, rich in color and texture, a sensual pleasure to handle and to look at. Yet vastly more important is the journey that Manifest O took me on, through an experiential understanding of hearing loss and of subsequent isolation. Through her insightful choice of timeless materials, to her considered use of empty and occupied space, to her careful and measured “texts,” Craig has created a transformative experience, bringing readers like me into poignant awareness of another world.

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Sarah Bryant – Simulations on a Two-Dimensional Grid

Sarah Bryant - Simulations

Sarah Bryant’s Simulations on a Two-Dimensional grid begins with a great line – or actually, several.   One line – the conceptual basis for the book – graces the first page: “reveal that if conditions are met to destabilize the equilibrium, individuals cycle out of phase with their neighbors.” This is a portion of a spatial population model, which may not tell you much directly but implies everything you need to know before experiencing this intriguing and appealing book.


Other lines – and there are many of them – stretch horizontally and vertically across the wrapper and across the unbound pages inside, in groups of 8-10 lines drawn in orange and black. They stretch across the surfaces like so many precise warp or weft threads, knotting together somewhere off the edge but on the page presented as flat and straight. They intersect, they interact, they form small grids as they cross. If you’re fascinated by grids, as I am, the multitude of crossing lines is appealing: specific and direct, like so many telephone wires stretching across a densely peopled city.


Additional lines are created by folding, creasing the paper but then flattened out and waxed back into white lines of evenness. The folded lines often parallel the drawn ones, or echo their placement on another page, but occasionally these lines set off on their own, creating their own patterns. They provide a subtle texture, a creased braille, a treat for eyes and fingertips.
The lines are complemented by small holes, just larger than pinpricks. There are groups of them, clustered together as if in a pod, travelling tightly and (for the most part) uniformly. This is the closest literal reference to population, these individual perforations that have gathered together in neighborly communion. For most of the book, they elude structure of the gridlines, but the last page and back cover allow the satisfaction of holes and lines aligning together, delightfully “in phase” with each other.


One of the most engaging aspects of this book is the treatment of the Zerkall paper. The waxed surface is lovely to handle, weighty like an ancient map, and its translucence both reveals and obscures the pages following. The folded lines and pricked holes take on a delicate thickness due to the waxing. I found that I wanted to keep exploring Simulations, especially for the pleasure of touching the pages.


Beyond lines and holes, the book is without imagery. Beyond the title page, initial quote, and colophon, the book is without words. These choices allow simplicity to reign, undistracted. The book is clean, well-crafted, and evocative.


Ed. Note: this book was created using The Artists’ Book Ideation Deck and produced in an edition of ten copies in 2013. It measures 8.5 x 5.25 x .15 (closed). Copies are available for purchase here.


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Charlene Matthews – Through the Window

Charlene Matthews - Through the Window

Today I’m writing about one of Charlene Matthews books.

First here’s a bit about Charlene:
Charlene Matthews is a top-notch binderess working in Los Angeles. She is exceptionally skilled in traditional book craft; well versed in problem solving and working with the sometimes exotic materials her clientele demands. Happily for lovers of artists’ books, Charlene gives her imagination free reign when working on her own projects, creating books that are solidly built and full of a lighthearted whimsy. She summarizes these projects in this way:

I have been a voracious reader from early on . . . All this reading has put a lot of stories in my head, and I’ve digested them into pictures and maps. Subconsciously my book art creates some of those maps. I am drawn to words, a story and smell. The words fragment into graphics and photos, the story into maps, the smell into the materials I use.

Charlene Matthews - Through the Window

Her mixing up of materials is well-executed in Through the Window, a 2010 artists’ book. The book is housed in a lavender clam shell box that has a roughly cut, off center rectangular swatch of floral fabric affixed to the top cover. This swatch does not, however, offer an accurate clue as to what the book inside looks like or conveys. The swatch’s splash of color offers the only deviation from the otherwise neutral, muted tones used throughout the book.

The book’s exterior cover is elegant beyond the expectations set by the general demeanor of its box. Covers of natural (undyed) sheep vellum over boards with foil stamped title are lined with watered silk. The pages are bound using a six needle coptic sewn onto vellum straps laced onto the cover boards. The binding is exposed and Charlene has created a pattern over each strap by cross-linking the threads.


Charlene Matthews - Through the Window

The pages are created from nylon window mesh. This flexible, tactilely inviting  material, with its open weave and translucency, provides an appropriate stage for the unfolding of Charlene’s pictorial narrative. The narrative begins without preamble (i.e. there are no end pages nor a title page), with a collage of cut out fabric appliquéd on to nylon window screen mesh; the image of a laughing, harlequin styled face – a hole cut out in the wide open mouth’s interior. This page is followed by fifteen more; most have sewn collages of cotton and linen fabrics in muted beige and off-white tones, stitched into place with linen thread. Two of the pages are imaged entirely with thread; the white stitches creating labyrinthine marks that read as maps or aerial views.

The free floating arrangement of the fabric cut outs leave most of the screen empty, allowing glimpses of the next page (or two, or three) before the page is turned. Many pages have entire sections cut out of the collaged shapes’ interiors, allowing unimpeded view to the following page.

Another feature of this book is that the collages appear facing first one direction then, when the page is turned, face the opposite. Matthews has not just pieced her images in place on top of each screen, she has also woven parts of the fabric appliqués through to the next page. This adds a variety to the tones and textures to the nearly monochromatic palette. It takes me a minute to realize that one reason a left facing profile reads so differently than the right facing profile on the reverse of the same page is due to the screen functioning both as substrate and as collaged element.

The individual pages are edged with cotton string, oversewn with linen thread. Most of the pages’ imagery feature aspects of the human body, depicted in simplified forms – floating heads facing front and in profile, hands spread open with  fingers extended, disembodied features such as eyes, and what could be a detached foot (or nose?) floating through the pages’ spaces. Or maybe these are creatures other than human?  The pictorial elements are comfortably familiar, but not merely derivative. It is as though Matthews has invented her own set of symbols rather than adopting those already in our cultural lexicon.

Charlene Matthews - Through the Window

Charlene has, with this series of images, floating in space, yet fixed in place, presented me with a pictorial narrative; the materials open weave a perfect parallel to the openness of the narrative. The images serve as a starting point for me to devise my own story rather than inviting me to read a narrative of another’s devising.

At the outset I recognize and accept an invitation to join Charlene on a wild ride of imagination. At the end of my first romp through these pages, I recognize that future romps through these same pages will give me a chance to invent an entirely different narrative. I vacillate between being slightly envious and slightly alarmed at what Charlene sees through her own window but end this first reading pleased to have been invited along for the ride.

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Michael Sharp – Book of Leaves

Michael Sharp Book of Leaves6Michael Sharp’s Book of Leaves is a work firmly steeped in the past, exploring scientific, photographic, and ecological histories within its pages. Using cyanotype, an old photographic process that results in a rich dark blue, Sharp placed dried leaves collected around the Utah State Arboretum at the Red Butte Gardens and created photograms once the paper was exposed. Leaving behind a ghostly outline, each leaf from specific trees tells a different story and hints at a distinctive personality.


Upon opening the small, compact box, the viewer finds what initially appears to be a modest book entitled Utah Diversity, and above this is a symbol that appears to be a beehive or perhaps a pinecone. On the box itself in diminutive type, we learn about the history of cyanotype and its use in scientific documentation of natural objects and also in blueprints. The artist also mentions a critical feature the viewer encounters when unfolding the book: bits of the cyanotype peel or flake off. This crumbling deterioration is analogous to the subjects within the pages, the fragile dried leaves, reinforcing the relationship between the subject and the book itself.



Once opened, the viewer is informed that the images following are a “representation of the (tree) populations.” It is here that the charming piece shows its true intentions. Each leaf, as if it were a separate person, appears with its Latin name and common name. No two leave are alike, and they are paired together at times because of shared or discordant characteristics. For instance, the Cully Black Birch and the European White Birch look like siblings, with a similar shape and outline. In other cases, like the Yoshino Cherry and Blacklace Elderberry, we have a very oval leaf with tiny jagged edges (Cherry) opposite a thin-leafed, smooth-textured Elderberry, which is reminiscent of a small flower plant in shape. Some leaves, like the Fairmont Ginkgo, have an almost human-like quality. One can almost see a face in profile on either side of the leaf, or perhaps even a pair of lungs, coming from this particular outline. Much like Rorschach tests, it is hard not to try and see shapes, people, or other fanciful interpretations. The more the viewer pages through the book, the more the march of quirky personalities and mysterious histories play out before them.


Book of Leaves is foremost a book of memories. From the precise curation of the trees that Sharp selected to the drying and exposure of each brittle leaf, this documentation reminds the viewer of each step in the process before them. Remembering that even the paper is an artifact of a tree turned into pulp, this piece is haunted by all aspects of ghosts concerning the humble tree.


But perhaps the most delightful feature of this work is what it transforms into. Book of Leaves can be stood upright and unfolded like a star-shaped accordion. Suddenly, it has transformed and mimics one of the many leaves found within, creating an organic pattern based on how the audience choose to unfold the pages. Each iteration and choice creates a new work in a way, reinforcing the concept of this book being about memory and adding a unique performative element. As mentioned previously, some of the cyanotype falls away as well, slowly eroding the book as much as the process of decay in nature. Sharp’s work is meant to be gently playful yet a bit fragile, referencing the subjects and the fleeting history that lies within.

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