Smithsonian Libraries has been working to share its collection of artists’ books. One of the end products of the this initiative has been the creation of a new Smithsonian Libraries artists’ book collection portal where visitors can explore the many artworks in the collection and learn more about the medium.
As part of my interest and research into the medium of artists’ books as and as the branch librarian for the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library (AA/PG), my participation as the juror for a national artist book exhibition held at Pyramid Atlantic resulted in the first prize being awarded to Jo Stealey for her work Paired for Life which has now been added to the AA/PG artists’ book collection. You can read more about my experience as a judge for the show here and here.
After the exhibit, I took the opportunity to talk to Jo about her work and becoming an artist. Jo stated that she came from a family of seamstresses and wanted to become an artist when she was quite young. She majored in art in college with an interest in both ceramics and weaving. After taking classes in papermaking and basket making she decided to combine these crafts into a unified body of work. She sees artists’ books as another vehicle for her artwork, and indeed Paired for Life reflects many craft elements including papermaking, sewing, and weaving.
Jo is the head of the Fiber Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia and in addition to teaching fiber classes, she also taught papermaking to students there. It was during that time that she got to know a poet with whom she would collaborate, and together they took a letterpress class. The collaboration in turn resulted in a series of four books, and ultimately Jo began making artist books while incorporating a variety of mixed media. Narration of a story often is what leads her to create an artist book, and the book she constructs is specific to the story. The stories are personal and in the case of Paired for Life, it tells the story of how she and her husband met. The text is embedded on the pages, but the narrative details are not important. Some of the words are stitched on the surface of the page and they are chosen specifically and provide hints of the story. What is important to the artist is the entire theme of the book which focuses on a lifelong union of two coming together.
Long term relationships is a recurring theme in Jo’s work and this is also reflected in the shape of the book which is meant to recall the shape of her and her husband’s house. Additionally, pebbles suspended in the metal mesh of the windows of the “house” are from the creek below their actual house and impart a “placeness” of the actual environment of their home. When asked what she would like the viewer to take away from Paired for Life, Jo responded that she’s less concerned with the specifics of the background of the story but instead the viewer/reader should “read” themes of coming together in a union, commitment for a lifetime, and a sense of celebration and joy.
The AA/PG Library is delighted to add this artist book to its collection and plans to have it on display in the near future. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to view the artwork during public hours.