In the book “16 Ways to Look at a Blackbird,” artist Lynn Skordal tells the tale of blackbirds in all manner of situations.
In one illustration, a monstrous bird rides a gondola. In another, a shady, feathered character perches itself on top of a man’s head and peers down at a woman.
The multi-paneled, accordion-styled book features few words, but the ones that appear are profound.
Under one illustration with a bird perched on a hand are the words: “This bird is wildness. Seemingly tame, it whispers false serenity.”
This book — or rather, work of art — is one of around 50 works that will be on display in “Tangibles: Beauty and Purpose in the Art of the Book” at The Northern Arizona University Art Museum.
The reception will be held Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibit runs through Nov. 16.
“We are very excited to be presenting the first of what will be a series of juried exhibitions on the book as art, to be offered in rotation with our already established biennial shows of ceramics and printmaking,” said Dr. George Speer, director of the NAU Art Museum. “The book as art is enjoying a sustained and vigorous level of support in the United States as well as internationally and we are proud to be a part of this phenomenon.”
“Tangibles” is a highlights the textile experiences and imaginative encounters a book can offer. According to a release from the art museum, the exhibition ranges from the traditional media of paint, ink, paper, woodcuts and engravings — to unexpected conceptions of the book as an aesthetic object.
“Everybody is connected to books,” noted David Williams, a professor of art at Northern Arizona University who teaches printmaking. “A book is often one of the first things your parents give you as a child. So, to see how people interpret what a book is and what a book can be in this exhibit is fascinating.”
Williams served as a co-juror for the show, which received 160 entries from across the country and some foreign entries. Susan kae Grant from Texas Woman’s University, who has an interest in books as art, was the other juror.
In another fascinating piece in the exhibit called “Liternature,” artist Trevor Ganske took an existing book and cut and feathered out its pages. Then, he turned those pages into flowers and branches and perched birds. The pages are painted in such a way to create a sense of the story literally bursting from the book.
“My artwork does not necessarily tell a story in the way that a book does,” Ganske shared in an email interview. “There is a pull towards being a storyteller artist when using books, but I found that using the book as a malleable object rather than a linear story was much freer, and it allowed me to expand my work into an even more three-dimensional object.”
Louisiana artist Frank Hamrick, who has a piece called “A Rabbit Runs in a Circle” in the exhibit, also shared his thoughts on how the book as an art form appears to be on the verge of liberation - in the way the advent of photography made people rethink painting and move it beyond only being representational.
Hamrick noted how photography’s arrival in the mid-1800s liberated painters to pursue impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, futurism, color field painting and abstract expressionism.
“The digitization of words is doing the same thing for books,” Hamrick said. “The book will become more and more free to be viewed as art and sculpture ... I think the book will remain even though its place in society will shift.”
He added, “The physical book will take on greater significance, just as getting a card mailed to you on your birthday via the post office means more to a person than receiving an email or text.”
Williams also shared that his love of books comes with their historic and societal context. To celebrate the book in an artistic form, he explained, is to celebrate the role of books in the grander scheme of things.
“Books have changed the world,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine how different things would be without books because they’ve educated people. They’ve changed society in that way. That’s part of my interest with books. Books are about knowledge. And knowledge is everything … Then, you have these books that are in this exhibit, and they’re just beautiful.”
The NAU Art Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and closed all university holidays. Visitation is free and open to the public with a suggested $2 per person donation.
Free parking for the opening reception is available in lots P3, P13 behind Cline Library and P7. For directions on campus, please visit nau.edu/maps.
If you go ...
What: “Tangibles: Beauty and Purpose in the Art of the Book”
Where: NAU Art Museum, Old Main Building, North Campus
When: Opening reception Thursday, Sept. 19 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Exhibit is up through Nov. 16
Cost: Free ($2 suggested donation)