An artful book club in more ways than one

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2014 - 4:01 PM

At the Hopkins Center for the Arts, artists and nonartists meet monthly to discuss books about art.

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Artist Pam Luer led a discussion at a recent meeting of the Artful Book Club, which she helped found. The group meets at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

As an avid reader and a painter, Pam Luer sought to join a book club focused on artistic topics. Like the making of art, reading can be a solitary pursuit, so “it’s nice to be able to share and ask questions” of others, said the St. Louis Park resident, a veteran of book clubs.

Luer couldn’t find anything like that around, so she decided to start one up herself. Luer secured the gallery space at the Hopkins Center for the Arts for the club’s monthly get-togethers, which adds to the atmosphere, she said.

Right away, the Artful Book Club sparked interest, and now it’s been going strong since 2012. The club’s next meeting on Aug. 5 centers on Leonard Koren’s book “Wabi-Sabi,” about the beauty to be found in imperfection.

Each month, the club draws anywhere from six to 20 attendees, including a mix of artists and nonartists, all of whom share an interest in “what the personal challenges and rewards of being an artist feel like to other artists.” The club is somewhat more serious than many home-based book clubs, she said.

People’s interpretations of the readings run the gamut. Sometimes the least popular titles generate the most discussion. “There’s always a new perspective or something I’ve missed from my own reading that makes the experience richer,” she said.

Luer leads the club, picking out titles well in advance. She tries to find a balance between books about the creative process and philosophies about art and more biographical or fictional types of accounts. Suggestions come from all over the place. That’s another fun part, “snooping around, finding out what people want to read, thinking about who would love it and what haven’t we covered,” she said.

Making art against the odds

On Tuesday, the club discussed “Growing Pains,” an autobiography by Emily Carr. Carr was a “colorful determined woman of her time.” Luer was also interested in the artist’s native city of Victoria, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, where she and her husband honeymooned 20 years ago.

The book recounts Carr’s struggle as an artist in San Francisco, England and France before her death in 1945. Her story drives home “the privilege to be a writer or a painter. It’s never super easy, and it’s always a part of who you are,” Luer said.

Luer admires “her fierce independence and solitary pursuit of her own work despite all the expectations of the times, working against her,” including her single-minded efforts to capture native totem poles set in deep forests in Canada, she said. Now, she’d like to find “an outsider’s perspective about her work and how she fit, or did not fit, into the art movements of her time.”

Another book that made a lasting impression on her is “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking,” authored by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It speaks to creative blocks, “why we sometimes need to stop and restart,” she said, adding that she’s chronicled every time she’s read it inside the book’s cover.

The club has changed the way she thinks about art. “I’m not as hard on myself if I’m not super-productive. I feel there are seeds growing even if I’m not standing in front of an easel,” she said.

‘Chrysalis’

Marilyn Garber, the founder of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, recommended “Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis,” by Kim Todd, to the group early on. The biographical book centers on Maria Sibylla Merian, a forward-thinking Dutch scientist and artist in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

At the age of 53, after Merian had left her husband, she traveled to South America to study plants. Garber took a similar trip to a remote area of Panama at the same age. It’s hard to imagine what that must’ve been like at that time. Merian “was one very brave woman,” said Garber, who was a guest speaker to the club.

Merian’s work is recognizable thanks to the popular postage stamps several years ago that featured her paintings. But they’re more than pretty pictures, she said. At a time when women were barred from science, she led in the study of the relationship between plants and pollinators, something that “even today we’re more and more aware about.”

Every part of the process, from making oil paints — then also only available to men — to diligently observing the plants and insects, involved plenty of effort. “How many plants would she have to sit in front of for how many seasons” to produce such lifelike images, she said. It’s a process that Garber is familiar with: The botanical museum is currently working on a 10-year project to document 110 plants growing in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden.

Getting back into reading

Barbara “Babs” Shelton, a casting director, said the book club has gotten her back into reading for pleasure, something she’d moved away from, she said.

The book club is a low-pressure setting, and Luer is good at drawing people out, she said. “You get to know each person a little more each month through the book.”

In the past, some book clubs she’d belonged to read too many repetitive-type things. Here, no two books are the same and there are so many avenues to explore, she said. Also, none of the readings are too dry or academic, she said.

“A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano,” by Katie Hafner, showed how important pianos once were, how everyone used to have them. Also, before that, she had no idea who Glenn Gould was. He’s a fascinating, eccentric character, she said.

“The Girl With the Gallery” by Lindsay Pollack centers on Edith Gregor Halpert, who is said to have opened the first modern art gallery in the country, in 1926, “when people thought modern art wasn’t art,” she said.

She’s also connected with some of the book club members outside of the meetings.

Often, quite by chance, one book will relate to another in some way, maybe shedding light on a certain aspect of an era or a milieu. For example, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder,” by Lawrence Weschler, about how people in the 16th century would bring back exotic things from their travels, displaying them in curio cabinets, was fun to read right after “Chrysalis.” It kind of piggybacked on the same topics, she said.

Minnetonka resident Mary Jo Bartos said she’s also learned a lot about art history, things that never came up in school or in a textbook, she said.

It’s fun to learn about the artists’ idiosyncrasies such as in “Loving Frank,” by Nancy Horan, she said. Sometimes the artist’s work affected their lives, and not vice versa. That’s apparent in “Strapless,” by Deborah Davis. It showed the controversy that ensued when prominent American painter John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of a woman wearing a strapless gown.

“The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone,” by Mary Gabriel, was informative in a totally different way. It explained how the Cone sisters came to acquire so many Henri Matisse works. Some club members then visited the Matisse exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, she said.

As an analyst working with computers full-time, Gabriel finds that the book club is a good way to “make sure I stay connected to art. I have to be creative in how I keep art in my life.”

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.

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