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Artists’ Books and Earth Optimism: A Conservation Conversation

‘Site and Spirit.’ Mary Ellen Long, 1985. In the Smithsonian American Art & Portrait Gallery Library collection.

This Earth Day, the Smithsonian celebrates the Earth Optimism movement, which aims to shift the conservation conversation from one of doom & gloom to hope, optimism and positive action. While there are a number of voices adding to the conversation, the Smithsonian also has a unique contribution. Because of our breadth and depth, the Smithsonian can use our collections and expertise in science, art, history, and culture. Using the Smithsonian art libraries’ collections, wcan also explore conservation and sustainability through a different lens: that of artists’ books. 

Artists’ books are essentially artworks in the form of the book, often a blend of visual arts, printmaking, photography, and publishing, experimental narrative, poetry, and graphic design. They can be a unique object or created in large editions of many copies. The Smithsonian Libraries owns more than one thousand artists’ books, and many explore aspects of the natural environment, from confronting environmental abuse to incorporating materials sourced directly from the environment, re-using natural materials in surprising or beautiful ways.

‘Site and Spirit.’ Mary Ellen Long, 1985.

The artist Mary Ellen Long uses the forests and mountains near her home as inspiration for her photography and artists’ books, and as the actual material for her earthworks and outdoor installations. Among a few examples, the Smithsonian Libraries owns Long’s artist’s book Site and Spirit. The pages are loose black and white photographs documenting the artist’s paper sculptures that she has inserted into the natural environment. Each installation was intentionally ephemeral, and with the act of natural decay, the photographs are both the documentation of the work, and the work itself in book form, as the artist planned them in tandem. The loose pages allow the reader to change the order and create their own path through the environment. Each set of photographs is encased in a handmade paper wrapping, with a small twig embedded as closure, evoking the experience of the artist’s installations in a tangible form. 

‘Hypotenuse.’ Kurt Allerslev, 1999. In the Smithsonian American Art & Portrait Gallery Library collection.

Kurt Allerslev’s Hypotenuse is an example of using natural materials. It is a small book, only 7” on its long end, and its pages are made with beet juice, turmeric, and flower pigments mixed with plant and seaweed particles to create what the artist called lush underwater landscapes and starry nebulas. The artist’s day job is as a scientist and botanistso as an artwork he is exploring his field in a distinctly creative way and finding inspiration in the tools of his trade. Hypotenuse is an experiment in using organic materials to evoke the natural world, and the result is delicate and evocative, with each page a different tactile and visual experience from the incorporated flowers, leaves, and pigments as well as the texture and patterns of the papers.  

‘Hypotenuse.’ Kurt Allerslev, 1999.

Another example that serves as a beautiful reminder to conserve and respect the earth is Amy Richard’s The Mollusk. This work was inspired by Richard’s research and study of natural history and rare books on Floridian mollusks during an artist residency at the University of Florida in 2018. Her sculptural work is based on the Atrina rigidaalso called the pen shell mollusk, which as a filter-feeder, is an important part of the ecosystemThe artwork is both rigid and fragile, with a bumpy, hard brown shell for a book cover, made entirely of handmade paper using natural fibers, such as flax and kozo bark. Large enough to be cradled in both hands, The Mollusk has wispy pages in bright red, blue and purple that make up the animal’s filtering gills. In the center, there is a small white letterpress book, like a pearl, bound with string, that reads a small poem. According to the artist, the piece is “intended to be held and read as a celebration of nature and a humble reminder of our own fragile connection with one another.” 

‘The Mollusk.’ Amy Richard, 2018. In the Smithsonian American Art & Portrait Gallery Library collection.

While one could focus on the pollution of the oceans, climate change or deforestationthese artists use aspects of nature that reflect these troubling ideas in a positive light. In the spirit of Earth Optimism, we hope this selection of artworks might inspire hope and action to conserve the natural world. Or inspire you to engage in similar ways.

‘The Mollusk.’ Amy Richard, 2018.


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