For my first year as a graduate student in the Library and Information Science program I had the great fortune to work with the Special Collections’ archivist and rare book expert, Roger Myers, on curating his Spring 2019 exhibition featuring Artists’ Books. From this experience I was able to gain valuable insight into the great amount of work that goes into planning and executing an exhibit, from selecting the materials, organizing them to fit a narrative, to arranging and labeling, and lastly, to the digital aspect of creating the online exhibition. If you had asked me what an artists’ book was at the beginning of this adventure, my answer would have been vague and uncertain. Even six months later I find it’s still hard to articulate what they are simply because they defy our expectations of what we think a book is. They are unique creations by an artist’s re-imagining of a book as a sculptural form. They take texts, images, and photography and incorporate design with the most unlikely of materials. As UA School of Art professor Philip Zimmerman explains, “they are a work of art […] productions not reproductions [and] one of a kind.”
One of my first missions was to research current online exhibitions of artists’ books in order to gain an idea of what is out there and what has already been done. After I made a brief presentation of my findings, my next mission was to pull the initial 50+ books from the stacks, which ended up taking a full 6-hour shift (and confession: left me sore for the next two days from all the bending and lifting). Some of my favorite encounters included locating books in crates and boxes, finding special instructions of how to handle the books, and hunting down, with assistance, an elephant oversize book which took the two of us to lift because come to find out, it was made of lead.
My next step was to brush up on my bibliography skills by describing each book as a physical object, including the material used, the book’s binding and page count, as well as dimensions. And let me point out, when you consider the unique art forms that make an artists’ book, with materials that include metal, glass, and wire – and some with accordion shapes – I found that I had to get very creative when it came to deciphering things, such as the number of pages when it includes foldouts, layers of tissue, or has folds that resemble flower petals. The purpose of describing the books in this way was to aid in the decision-making process when it came to selecting which artists’ books to digitize. Twenty-three would make the final cut, but more on that later.
The biggest beast to tackle in this adventure was the task of writing the labels for the 60+ books that made it to the final list. This required brief descriptions of the book’s construction and content, which were not always available within the book itself or the finding aids, so again, having to get creative in either finding the artists’ website or coming up with my own synopsis of what the book with no text is about, or the book that features a woman’s body as an abstract landscape – just to name a couple examples. By the week of setup winter break was on the horizon. Thanks to my experience throughout the semester of creating my own showcase every month in the Reading Room, I felt familiar and comfortable with the process of arrangement, layout, and selecting which portions of the book to display – granted this exhibit consisted of 10+ showcases. Roger was always very open to any suggestions I had on what and how some of the books could be displayed, and again, some required quiet the effort and creativity when it came to their layout. I would also like to add that he was very understanding that it was the end of the semester and that finals-fatigue was setting in, so small mistakes like misspellings and crooked edges on labels were easily forgivable. For me it was worth postponing the start of my holiday because I knew this was a unique experience that not every graduate student may receive while still in school, not to mention with such an expert!
Upon returning from winter break, I had the pleasant surprise of discovering that Roger included my name with his on the Artists’ Books Exhibition poster, something I truly wasn’t expecting (I am only a graduate assistant after all). And as the second semester of graduate school comes to a close, I am putting the finishing touches on the online exhibition, another first for me. To try and summarize what I am taking away the most from this entire project feels near impossible. I have certainly learned a lot when it comes to copyright, metadata, bibliography, and label writing, not to mention the power of Excel spreadsheets and data dictionaries. But what stands out the most is learning about the art and craft that goes into creating artists’ books from the knowledgeable expert that Roger is. I learned about local, national and international artists, not to mention the amazing stories and perspectives contained within each book. Creative expressions utilizing poetry, photography, memoir, and biography are but a few examples of the subjects covered in these beautiful works.
William Blake is credited with creating the first artists’ book during the late eighteenth-century by combining text and imagery on a single page that allowed him to express himself through his poetry and artwork in a unique and original way. Obviously, with the advancement of technology and book-making the artists’ book has changed and advanced with it. From Blake’s original illuminated books, to the sometimes three-dimensional/sculptural works that I had the great opportunity to work with hands-on, which is another important aspect of these works of art: hands-on interaction which allows the “reader” to fully experience and engage with the piece. For me, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to begin my academic pilgrimage through graduate school, and I feel so fortunate that I was able to have a role from the beginning in August to the end with the online exhibition, which will remain up long after the artists’ books have been taken out of their designated showcases.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” – William Blake, Auguries of Innocence