Library’s Fourth Floor book exhibit turns tradition on its dust jacket
Sometimes a book is just a book. But that can’t be said of the artist books on display through June 28 at the Public Library downtown. In an explosion of compelling creativity, “Renaissance” presents about 40 pieces from Chattanooga and North Carolina artists—all related conceptually to books—running the gamut from fairly traditional prints to whimsical or serious three-dimensional constructions.
On the whimsical side? A collection of Trivial Pursuit cards is strung together with waxed linen thread by Chattanooga artist Hollie Berry; this rectangular blue Slinky drapes over a shelf like a cascade of dominoes trapped in time. The title of the board game “haunted my every stitch, reminding me over and over again of my existing struggles with the book arts,” writes the artist, who is co-director of Book Arts @ The Open Press, one of the exhibit’s sponsors.
“Why make books in a digital age?” continues Berry. “Why make anything by hand? Yet I kept on binding card to trivial card in a seemingly endless pursuit of something more—beauty? Strangeness? Newness? Rebirth? We all keep on creating in the face of triviality.”
“Renaissance” encapsulates the exhibit’s spirit in a word: rebirth of old forms, ideas, and materials. Scraps of cardboard, plant parts, even relics of deceased saints are meticulously interwoven or superimposed. Stories and words flow together with snippets from the natural world, made larger or smaller than life to invite the viewer to a new viewpoint.
Synesthesia abounds. An oversized book cover—a giant red velvet tongue—binds up pages of surreal Escher-like drawings showing food swirling into a bowl of turtle soup along with a handwritten passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Laurie Corral created this “Eat Me Drink Me” piece out of a deep childhood love for books, combined with an adult’s artistic playfulness. “I began with a two-dimensional image (of the tongue), carving it with enlarged taste buds—sort of weird—and then going to the structure and then the text of the book,” says Corral.
Asheville Bookworks is Corral’s studio in North Carolina, where she and collaborators do printmaking, letterpress printing, and artist books—very similar in mission to The Open Press and its affiliate Book Arts in Chattanooga. A third partner, Triangle Book Arts Collaborative in Raleigh, NC, rounds out the studios contributing to this first-of-its-kind exhibit on the Fourth Floor of the library.
“What’s next?” asks Corral. “I’d love to see the conversation continue as artists in the three cities make connections, working in similar processes, admiring what others have done, and connecting personally with these other artists.”
Life experience provides the raw material for several intriguing creations. Chattanooga artist Anna Carll represents seven stages of human experience, from infant to elder, using discarded sandpaper fragments in a book titled “WEAVE (Live).” Lisa Gilbert of North Carolina constructs a volume “Day Silent Retreat” about a meditation experience, infusing “chapters” with objects relating to the letters “re” again and again: retreat, renounce, refocus, release, redefine, reconnect, renew, and ultimately, relic.
Ellen Simak, formerly chief curator at the Hunter Museum, explores the concept of her recent retirement as a personal “renaissance” in a book of woven and stitched materials. “Some books and other creations here look very much like sculptures,” Simak says. “An artist may use unconventional materials in a three-dimensional way, but within it is embedded something of a book, whether narrative or text.”
As a co-director of Book Arts @ The Open Press here, Simak “would like to see more collaboration of writers and artists, getting poets to put their poetry into book form” through the workshops and facilities of The Open Press. “I’d love to see artists getting into book arts–we’re offering classes off and on, beginning to explore in communities how we can interest artists and get those collaborations going.”
Heather Hietala of Asheville creates a metaphor in movement and form: a tiny book fragment bound tightly at the bottom of a fan handle—representing the repression of the medieval church—while on top, the fanned-out slivers of pages express the creative flowering of the historical Renaissance itself.
Irony is ubiquitous. A few feet away from these quirky handicrafts, the 3D printer in the Library’s Fourth Floor maker space whirs away.
Mary Barnett, public relations manager of the Public Library’s Fourth Floor operations, comments on the juxtaposition of technology beside these excruciatingly humanistic handmade objects. “We are a community space for making and creating, and we encourage all mediums, not just high-tech next-generation tools like 3D printers and laser cutters. When you get artists and technologists sharing the same space, you never know what sort of new collisions might occur.”