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A National Artists’ Book Exhibition Opening

Outside the Margins exhibition
Outside the Margins exhibition

Smithsonian Libraries has been working to share its collection of artists’ books. One of the end products of 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 has been detailed in a previous post on Unbound. All of this led up to the opening night.

Opening at artists' book exhibition
Opening at artists’ book exhibition – courtesy Pyramid Atlantic

By that evening, the Pyramid Atlantic staff and volunteers had the exhibition set up and ready to go with all 43 artworks mounted and displayed. This was an impressive accomplishment as some of the works were only 10-12 cm tall while others hung from the ceiling or were arranged across the floor. Many were in traditional codex book form while others were more sculptural than “book-like.”

Doug Litts giving opening comments
Doug Litts giving opening comments – courtesy Pyramid Atlantic


The opening was well attended, with many of the artists featured in the exhibition present. As I was expected to give the opening comments, I wanted all the participants to realize that the inclusion of their works from the over 250 works submitted noted merit. Of course, I also had to announce the prizes and justify the reasons for my decisions. Having to discuss other people’s artwork in front of some the artists, took me back to critiques in studio classes in my undergraduate days.  The decisions were not easy, but looking both at technical skill, artistry, material mastery, physical construction and strength of message or idea made narrowing down a bit easier until I chose the grand prize winner: Paired for Life by Jo Stealey. Stealey is currently the head of the Fiber program and professor in the Department of Art at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Paired for Life, by Josephine Stealey
Paired for Life, by Josephine Stealey

I chose this artwork for many reasons. The technical and artistic expertise of the book is immediately apparent. The case or “cover” of the book is lined with pulp cast paper (paper formed by using a mold). The interior of the book is covered with tea-dyed silk organza text inscribed with phrases telling the story about how the artist and her husband met. This layer also has words hand-stitched into the surface. The focal points of the work are the two pears created from coiled fiber that represent the artist and her husband. The book also calls to mind diptychs, like hinged medieval altarpieces but also ancient two-leaved tablets used in earlier times for writing. However, the book is also like a reliquary that would house a holy relic. When closed, the viewer is still able to peer through the book through wire mesh-covered windows which both protect and reveal the precious objects inside – in this case the pears/pair.

What made this especially exciting was that once the exhibition was over, this unique book would become part of the artists’ book collection at the American Art/National Portrait Gallery Library. It is now part of the collection and we plan to have it on display in the near future. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to view the artwork during public hours.

I interviewed the artist about both this work, becoming an artist as well as a book artist, and what inspires her. That interview will be in a subsequent post.

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