Photographer Betsy Karel’s colorful new collection Conjuring Paradise from Santa Fe-based Radius Books engages more than just the eyes. Inside are photos of the resorts and tropical pleasures of Hawaii, taken with a 5-ounce digital camera. One is of a woman in a patterned bathing suit, wearing a translucent blue shower cap, half submerged in a swirling paint pot of pool water. Another shows a dachshund standing watch, front and center, on a schooner with relaxed young people in swimsuits and elderly people in the unfocused distance behind them. In a more cryptic picture, tanned arms extend from a tropical-themed Hawaiian shirt to deal Tarot cards. The photo series began as a document of Karel’s trip to Waikiki with her husband after it was discovered that he had cancer. The volume is prefaced by a poem from Kay Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate, which includes the line — “the randomness of loss” — that seems to speak to the notion of paradise as well as to Karel’s ill-fated husband. The book’s dust jacket is sea-blue acetate, a soft plastic that gives the volume the feel and smell of an inflatable pool toy. Taken as a whole — poem, pictures, dust jacket — the publication creates an experience that transcends the usual art book.
Karel is one of 50-some artists scheduled to attend the publisher’s sixth-year celebration at the Santa Fe Farmers Market Pavilion in the Railyard on Saturday, Sept. 21. Others who will be there include Charles Arnoldi, Sam Abell, Barbara Bosworth, Ed Moses, Judy Tuwaletstiwa, and Mark Klett. The event features a pop-up bookstore for purchasing Radius titles, short video presentations of the artists discussing their work, and a silent auction of artists’ hand-made books. Design often sets Radius publications apart from the usual illustrated books. They almost always bring together words and images in unique ways and occasionally come in unusual packages. A collection of work by Arnoldi is housed in a wooden box and has a foreword by architect Frank Gehry. Justin Kimball’s Pieces of String, a book of photos of still lifes found or assembled from estate-auction items, comes in a hinged, three-sided, fold-open cover held together with a thick rubber band. The cover contains a pamphlet with an essay titled “stuff” on the value and meaning of personal possessions written by Kimball’s brother Douglas, an estate auctioneer. Sharon Harper’s oversized From Above and Below, featuring images of the sun, moon, and stars, peers into space through time-lapse photography and magnification, its black-of-night cover smeared with intersecting patches of color dotted with starry orbs and moon phases. The two essays that front the collection discuss the transmission of reality, as suggested by poet Paul Valéry, through photography and the way photos can capture visions that we might otherwise be incapable of seeing.
“We’re creating a world for the reader to explore,” said David Chickey, Radius’ publisher and creative director. “As a designer, I like to push boundaries and make things that are different. But I don’t believe in design for design’s sake. What we do has to make sense with what the artist makes. Books give us an amazing opportunity to do something really interesting and complementary to help the reader understand the artist better. It’s a great platform for experimenting and expanding, illuminating the work.” Text is often an important part of the package. “I come to this as a reader, someone who loves and appreciates great writing. Specifically with art books, if we can work creatively with a living artist and a writer to express an artist’s vision, what they’re trying to say with their work in book form, combining really interesting text with the content of the work, then we’ve brought the reader closer to enjoying and understanding it.”
Designing and selling attractive books that highlight the work of exceptional artists isn’t the only way Radius spreads an understanding and appreciation of art. It also endeavors to circulate its books to art colleges and universities, public schools, and libraries, including the Albuquerque Bernalillo County public libraries and the Distribution to Underserved Communities Library Program. Radius is a New Mexico 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. It gives away some 300 copies of each of its publications to deserving institutions, roughly 25,000 over its six-year history, according to Chickey. “We place books all over the country. It’s a wonderful way to get very specific, specialized books on art to a very broad audience.” Placing the books in the right hands is not as easy as just giving them away. “We’ve built a network of places that receive our books, and we continue to refine the list. It’s a real mix of local and regional public libraries, as well as colleges and school programs, some 500 different institutions. The list is larger than our ability to give to every one of them. And you have to build a relationship with them, to find out what they want and what works well with them. For example, not every one of our books is appropriate for younger students. But we have a number of books that work great for grammar-school aged kids.”
Chickey studied art history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and followed up at the University of Sussex in England. He worked at Sotheby’s in London briefly before coming to Santa Fe, where he spent time at Allene Lapides Gallery and as the board chair for the Center for Contemporary Arts. Along with book designer David Skolkin, Chickey founded Skolkin + Chickey design studio in 2003 (Skolkin also assists in production for Radius). They’ve done design work for a variety of publishers and organizations including Abrams, Verso Editions, the Museum of New Mexico Press, and Aperture. As their design business grew, they also wanted to find a way to make art that, as Radius’ mission statement says, “creates and promotes an ongoing dialogue among writers, thinkers, artists, and all members of society.” Skolkin said that “it’s a certain publishing philosophy, both in who you choose to publish and how you present their work. The design is unique and high quality. Then the idea is to get the work to an audience that might not otherwise see it.”
Working as a nonprofit gives Radius certain advantages, Chickey said. “A for-profit publisher, of course, has to be concerned with the bottom line. The economics of that means that publishers are always trying to find the biggest market they can find, do what they can to go beyond the usual art market to find as broad an audience as possible. That’s not consistent with what we do. If artists are doing something more out of the box, something really interesting and engaging with their work, that may present a risk that for-profit publishers can’t take. It might work well, but it might be disastrous. I’d rather take that risk not dependent on the sale of the book to survive.” So far, those risks have paid off. Radius Books has twice made the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ “50 Books/50 Covers” list, and sales of out-of-print editions, according to Chickey, are going for “ridiculous amounts.”
“Radius is the convergence of a couple ideas,” Chickey said. “Yes, we do unique book design. But the biggest element of our work is the donation program. Having the books in the right hands is important to us.” ◀
▼ Radius Books artists party
▼ 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21
▼ Santa Fe Farmers Market Pavilion, 1607 Paseo de Peralta
▼ No charge; 983-4068