An artist’s book is meant to be touched, the pages turned slowly, and the contents savored. Both decorative and functional, such books can serve as showcases for poems, photographs, or drawings, or as journals for dreams, memories, or favorite quotes. They are more than scrapbooks or sketchpads, more than basic bound objects meant to hold words inside.
“The books are sculptures. They’re architecture. They’re buildings, paintings. The only thing they don’t do is make music — although, with today’s technology, we could probably make them do that, too,” said Cynthia West, a Santa Fe-based artist, said. West’s The New Sun, a collection of nine artists’ books in a collaged shadow box, appears in Speaking to the Imagination: The Contemporary Artist’s Book, a group show opening at Peters Projects on Friday, June 21.
The books in The New Sun have a certain heft to them: They are neither too light nor too heavy in the hands. They are small without being preciously miniature. The poems they contain are connected to nature, reassuring in their brevity, limited to just a few lines per page. On pale orange paper, in bold black type, West writes:
In The New Sun — as with other artists’ works in the show — it as if West has attempted to make material a concept that exists only in the mind. In words, images, texture, and color, she has tried to capture the idea of what poetry is by translating it into a solid object of comforting weight that you can hold. The artist’s book is just a bit more ... well, artful than the action of reading a poem in a regular book.
Speaking to the Imagination is curated by John Macker, a poet who has managed the bookstore at Peters Projects for almost 20 years. This is his first curatorial effort. He is interested in alternatives to the standard idea of what a book is, and in exploring how an artist’s book is often the result of a collaboration between an artist and a writer. The medium is difficult to pin down because it is so broad, Macker conceded. For him, the appeal of the books comes partially from their lack of similarity. He appreciates the impulse behind them, which he said borders on the ephemeral.
An artist’s book is solid, he said. “It’s compact, but it’s paper. The only thing all the books in the show have in common is words.”
The exhibition features individual and group works by 15 contemporary artists and writers from New Mexico and beyond. Additionally, a section of the exhibition is dedicated to historical books, including a long poem by the Beat poet Gregory Corso that the poet and critic Michael Andre made into a book in 1974. The vintage pieces are behind glass, while some books hang on the wall, and others stand upright and fanned out, accordion style. Some are on tables, available for perusal. The gallery will supply white gloves so the artwork won’t be damaged — but the books are so tactile that Macker wanted people to be able to handle them.
“It’s a different way to experience art,” he said.
West, 76, began making artist’s books in the mid-1990s after doctors told her she had to give up oil painting because the paint’s toxic chemicals were making her sick. She turned to digital photography, pottery, poetry, and book arts. She works in a studio in her Northside home, where she has lived with her husband since 1973. She has written several self-published and small press books of poetry, including A Clear Drop, Poems (Sunstone Press, 2015). She paints and illustrates by hand, as well as on the computer, where she also does most of her lettering. She then prints onto handmade paper and uses whatever binding techniques suit her needs. Common bookbinding techniques include long stitch, Coptic stitch, stab, piano hinge, and compound. West has also been known to bind her books by folding and sewing paper over a stick.
Her shelves are filled with the books she’s made, from the incredibly finished and precise — like The New Sun — to more casual pieces that include records of travels, dreams, and a daily haiku practice. West doesn’t usually sell the books unless someone makes her an offer. For her, they are a way of navigating and marking the different eras and pieces of her life.
“Books are containers,” she said. “If you have something you want to save in a container, you find just the right one.”
West belongs to the Santa Fe Book Arts Group, a very active organization that holds workshops and whose members get together to learn from each other. Another member of the group is Dale Harris, 76, an Albuquerque artist who has several pieces in Speaking to the Imagination. Harris also belongs to Libros, the New Mexico Book Arts Guild, in Albuquerque. The retired nurse practitioner said that although she creates art on her own, she considers many aspects of book arts to be social and she really enjoys learning from and getting inspired byother artists.
Harris designed and fabricated A Book of Cranes, a 2012 collaboration between a dozen New Mexico artists and poets, work that is included in the Peters Projects show. Cranes is based on poems written about the annual migration of Sandhill cranes that can be seen in the Albuquerque area each fall. It is a large, accordion-style folding screen book that measures 32 x 24 inches, and unfolds to be 16 feet long. The book is entirely handmade. Its 10 pages are bound by book-cloth hinges and bamboo posts. The pages include silk paintings, watercolors, and woodcut prints, as well as renga poetry rendered in brush calligraphy. The traditional Japanese poetry form is collaborative: Harris and the other artists and poets wrote together via email over a year’s time. They went to see the cranes feed in fields at Albuquerque’s Open Space Visitor Center and roost along the Río Grande.
“We became crane groupies,” Harris said. Crane imagery adorns nearly every portion of the book, from its covers and end pages to the large clamshell box it is stored in when it isn’t standing on display.
Cranes is an important, impressive work that feels almost religious in its presentation. The artistry is rooted in a sense of antiquity and the large format gives it the gravitas of an illuminated manuscript. It resembles the sort of book you might expect to run across at The Met Cloisters, the museum of medieval art in New York where the famous Unicorn Tapestries are displayed.
Other artists in Speaking to the Imagination include local Santa Fe writer and educator Miriam Sagan, who collaborated with her daughter, Isabel Winson-Sagan, a multimedia artist; Colorado paper maker Helen Hieber; the pop artist Jim Dine; and Susan Myo On Linnell, a Buddhist monk.
“The books go from the fragile to the tough, from the gargantuan to the intimate,” Macker said. ◀
▼ Speaking to the Imagination: The Contemporary Artist’s Book
▼ Opening reception: 5-7 p.m. Friday, June 21; through Oct. 24
▼ Artists’ reception and talk: 2 p.m. Saturday, July 20
▼ Peters Projects, 1011 Paseo de Peralta, 505-954-5800, petersprojects.com