Visual storytelling: 'May You Live in Interesting Times' opens at NAU Art Museum

Visual storytelling: 'May You Live in Interesting Times' opens at NAU Art Museum

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When was the last time you took a good long look at a book—even if you didn’t read the words? When was the last time you opened a book and felt like you were diving into the pages, enveloped by the sheets of paper themselves as they unfolded into different worlds and depths? The New York Times recently published a comic showcasing the different types of readers there are, such as neglectful, picky, voracious. Here’s one they left out: aesthetic. Perhaps you prefer to experience your books as works of art, as a collector or critic.  

Visitors to book art exhibition May You Live in Interesting Times, on display through April 18 at the Northern Arizona University Art Museum, will feel like they are stepping into the pages of the author’s active imagination as they view 3D media pieces constructed from the pages of the books themselves by various artists. Think Alice in Wonderland plus your favorite baking show where books are the only ingredient. Books aren’t exactly an artifact just yet, but we are seeing them around less and less. A book itself even without alteration is becoming a work of art. Or wasn’t it always? Or won’t it forever be? 

People have been using books to create art for thousands of years dating back to ancient Egyptian papyri, Korean scrolls and Mesoamerican codices. The private correspondence of ancient Thebes—present-day Luxor, Egypt—scribe Heqanakht lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The printed word is not just something to flip through but a work of art that stands on its own. 

May You Live in Interesting Times offers a buffet of books with their hearts on the operating table, wide open and ready to be viewed. One piece resembles a cracked geode, the kind one might find at a souvenir shop at the Grand Canyon. Another looks like a fold-out map of immigration, telling the story of a family’s journey.

The NAU Art Museum asked for submissions relating to environmental challenges, politics, immigration and race, and the mostly female group of artists delivered. 

German artist Karen Baldner utilizes drum leaf binding, lithography on handmade paper, text transfer, piano hinge binding, handmade paper with stenciled text and more unique materials and binding techniques. Human and horse hair are reoccurring motifs in much of her work.

One of Baldner's submissions to May You Live in Interesting Times is a 10-foot piece made of 500 pages bound with piano binding, the kind that stretches out and unfolds like an accordion. The result, titled “Letting Go,” is a big hairy caterpillar filled with book pages, revealing an otherworldly gorgeous and tactile story. 

Michele Bury serves on the board of the Universal Human Rights Initiative. Her contribution to the NAU Art Museum exhibit is described as an interactive way for people to engage with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Marcia Cohen offers a lovely artist’s statement about color, noting that “color is omnidirectional” for her submission of “Color File #1.”

Sonia Farmer uses erasure poetry to create “A True & Exact History,” using Richard Ligon’s publication A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) as her source material.

Montana-based author and editor AB Gorham’s comprehensive website portfolio is full of clear images of work like the “Moldy Book Project.” For this piece, Gorham crafted a handmade cover for this book before dipping it into—again, homemade—deep fry batter and sealing it in a container for three weeks. She even has a piece inspired by the patterns of the carpet in a Nevada casino. “Whipstock” and “Lilt” appear in the Flagstaff exhibit.

Flagstaff’s active author and lit scene, as well as casual observers, will be well impressed with this exhibit curated by Dr. George Speer and Lisa C. Tremaine. Hopefully the work inspires a local exhibition of Flagstaff authors and northern Arizona chapbooks being made into book art. There are so many different ways to communicate the text in a book to the viewer.

This is only a quick overview of literature’s artistic potential and some of the artists who make up May You Live in Interesting Times. May your books be interesting, too. 

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