Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books Transformed


Within the last few years, I've become more aware of artists who work with books as a medium. Some people point to this as yet another sign of the waning era of books and reading. In fact, I believe such artists actually comment on and deepen our connection to the world of books.

British artist Su Blackwell cuts into books and makes them rise up into amazing sculptures. In a 2008 interview for the blog known as My Love for You is a Stampede of Horses, Ms Blackwell tells how she started as an artist working with textiles and embroidery, and then moved toward the medium of paper and old books. Many of her sculptures have fairy tale connections and are quite ethereal.

Austin artist Lance Letscher uses book covers, ledgers, old journals and other paper ephemera to make large collage compositions that are often quilt or mosaic-like. The University of Texas honored his work with a book published this year, Lance Letscher: Collages. Despite his growing fame, he is often presented as an outsider artist, working as he does with found materials. A 2004 Austin Chronicle interview remains the best websource for a peek at the reclusive artist.

Another book-related artist whose work I admire is that of the Canadian "librarian painter" Cliff Eyland. He has used small book file sized 3 x 5 card illustrations to explore his fascination with books and art. He hid many of these small painted cards in library books at the Nova Scotia College of Art and design, and more recently has painted canvases which are depictions of books and bookshelves.

Altered books
have become a wildly popular mixed media craze, perhaps spurred by or tied into the popular hobby of scrapbooking. There is even an International Society of Altered Book Artists, ISABA.

Postscript: Having retired recently, I've enjoyed having the time to sort through my bookshelves at home. Through much of my library and book reviewing career, I've been so busy reading library books and galleys, it seemed like the books I read the least were the ones I owned. Many of them were set aside for "later on" (or they are favorites I want to read again). Well, "later on" should be now, but I'm still not quite ready to indulge in most of them due to my commitment to serve on the TLA Lariat Book Award task force, which finds me plowing though many 2009 fiction titles. Still, the sight of their multi-colored spines on shelves is truly soulful, bringing to mind one of my favorite Anna Quindlen quotes: "I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

Images above:
Three People, 2004. Collage by Lance Letscher.
The Girl in the Wood by Su Blackwell.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

West to Bisbee

My old friend, poet Albert Huffstickler (Huff), used to say that his body's home was in Austin, but his soul's home was in Santa Fe. Having just returned from a trip to West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, I too am starry-eyed about the southwest. It happens every time I travel west. The mountains, clouds, and sunsets, the long horizons, gems and minerals, the artwork everywhere, the desert and its freaky cacti, yucca and palms! I don't think I'll ever live out west, but my soul surely vibrates to its beauty.

In Bisbee, Arizona, we visited the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, where I learned that Americans on average use or consume 25 pounds of copper per year. Chocolate contains copper, for one thing, so mark me down for doing my share of copper consumption that way. In college, I learned how to etch and engrave copper and would love to fool around with that method of printmaking again some day. Turquoise gets its beautiful blue and green colors from copper. The Statue of Liberty is made of Norwegian-mined copper. One of the ways we count on copper is for its conductive properties, as in electrical wiring. My husband had to drag me into the Mining Museum, but once we got there, I enjoyed browsing through the exhibits. Later we drove to the Lavender Pit, a huge inactive copper pit mine in Bisbee.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to review Going Back to Bisbee (University of Arizona Press, 1992) by Richard Shelton in a bibliographic essay for the now defunct Wilson Library Bulletin. I was delighted to see the book prominently displayed in the museum bookstore, where the employee there told me it is still considered the best book on Bisbee. Shelton structured the book's chapters to parallel a one day journey from Tucson to Bisbee, the Shangri-la of his youth.

The town might have died a slow death once copper mining shut down in 1975, but an influx of artists and counter-cultural young people helped revive the place. The commercial neighborhoods of Bisbee are testament to the now thriving cultural scene, full of interesting galleries and coffee shops, etc. If you are headed that way, be sure and eat at the Bisbee Breakfast Club, one of those wonderful restaurants where breakfast is served all day.

As for desert plant life, for some reason I found myself most enthralled with the yucca plants. They look so punkish (see photo above), with their spiky leaves and impromptu seed stalks sprouting wildly. They beg to be painted, and I took photographic notes for future artwork. We also saw plenty of prickly pear cacti abundantly blooming, and bought some jelly made from their fruit, also known as nopalitos. Then today I heard a story on NPR about nopalitos which compared their taste to okra, not a good comparison in my book... To pick the nopalitos, tongs are recommended!

As I have mentioned in previous posts, traveling is fine, but I'm a homebody at heart so it's great to return with a camera full of photos and plenty of new experiences behind me. I'm told that part of aging healthfully involves trying new things. Our brains need challenges and new input. Travelling does that for me. I've been stirred now and I'm ready to simmer away on it all for months to come. The Houston landscape can't compare to the great Southwest, but I believe in blooming where you're planted. I'm firmly planted here. And in Houston, one thing we've got is greenery year round! And... not far to the west, plenty of interesting terrain.

photo by KAO: Soaptree Yucca, Las Cruces, New Mexico

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sudden Appearance of Colorful Crosswalks


Driving to church a few weeks ago, I noticed some colorful crosswalks near the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and thought they were probably the work of art students, perhaps intended to call attention to the Museum district. In any case I thought they were lively and fantastic. I've always enjoyed art in public places, especially on sidewalks or buses, or in the form of murals, art you can't help but see, art for everyone.

I found out a bit more about the new crosswalks when I went to the MFAH last week to see the North Looks South exhibit, a show that highlights the museum's growing Latin American art collection. The crosswalks were the designed by Carlos Cruz-Diaz, a Venezuelan kinetic and op artist. The museum guard told me the sidewalks were painted by people from the Cruz-Diaz foundation. Subsequently, I began to recognize his vibrant visual style in various paintings in the exhibit.

His installation known as "Chromosaturation" (first unveiled in Paris, 1965) involves 3 inter-connected chambers, each room saturated with red, green or blue fluorescent light. As you stepped through these spaces wearing the soft protective booties supplied by the museum, the color hues, tones and relationships changed every inch along the way. I enjoyed my experience of so-called chromatic ambience. And the museum guard clearly enjoyed leading the way. I've always wondered if museum guards don't get terribly bored on the job, but at least for this show, I bet they enjoy taking turns leading viewers through the Cruz-Diaz chambers.

The show was also introduced me to to Gyula Kosice, an artist who plays with hydrokinetic forces and Martha Boto, a luminist. All in all, an exciting, impressive show I'd like to walk through a second time. It made me realize how little I knew of Latin American art beyond Frida Kahlo and David Siqueiros, who are also represented. North Looks South remains on view through September 27, 2009.