Strolling through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, thoughts of medieval Ireland drift through the mind. Not because there's anything musty or antique at MCBA; it's a sleekly modern place that even has a great coffee shop. It's the center's extraordinary love of words that links it to those legendary Dark Ages when Irish monks, scrivening away in their cloisters and scriptoriums, preserved the written word in a hostile world.
"Marking Time," the center's new show, features 50 contemporary books on the theme of time, all handmade by members of the Guild of Book Workers. They are amazing books bound in leather or linen, printed on handmade paper, etched, bejeweled, hand-drawn, festooned with ribbons, bits of metal and even eggshell mosaics. Fashioned with excruciating patience, they are made by people who obviously care deeply about words and how they come to have meaning.
It's not just words alone that matter here, but the way they're arranged on the page -- their size and thickness and the space between them, the choice of shiny or matte ink, and how they're woven into images. All printed matter does this, but seldom with such meditative -- even obsessive -- attention to detail.
At a moment when the printed word is again under assault, albeit by economics and new technology rather than barbarian hordes, "Marking Time" has a special resonance for anyone who loves not just the meaning of words, but their look and texture.
Founded in 1906 in New York, the Guild of Book Workers is an association of 850 binders, restorers, conservators, artists and others in the book trades. More than 150 volumes were submitted for this show, 50 of which were chosen by three jurors.
Their picks fall loosely into two categories: traditional volumes bound in embossed and gilded leather or fabric, and novelty volumes that include Kathy Strother's miniature book encased in a doll's torso, Deborah Kogan's hip-hop flip book, Susan Collard's wooden book containing a raceway for marbles, Karen Hanmer's triangular book that unfolds into a celestial navigation chart and Todd Pattison's "Little Library," which is a hollowed-out 19th century volume turned into a cabinet containing 72 tiny handmade books.
Time -- the show's rich and recurrent motif -- is referenced in scientific terms, philosophical musings and traditional formats, including a contemporary version of that staple of medieval religious life, a book of hours. The more traditional bindings are often of previously published texts such as Deborah Howe's handsome black-leather treatment of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 classic "A Wrinkle in Time," or David Esslemont's elegant Nigerian goatskin cover on George Daniels' autobiography "All in Good Time: Reflections of a Watchmaker."
Elsewhere, time is evident in autobiographical riffs, dream diaries and even the years involved in making a book. The personal tomes seem to have inspired the most innovative designs. For example, Ellen Knudson's memories of graduate school are tenderly printed on cotton rag paper made from clothes once worn by her family. Genie Shenk's intriguing little fan of folded images is a visual diary of dreams she's been recording since 1982.
Bridget O'Malley, one of three Minnesota artists included, took one photo per day for a year of the Mississippi River and bridges to Boom and Nicollet Islands. They're printed and bound into a book whose spine is a lacy cutout of a bridge.
Sarah Smith gets the prize for drollery for her "Fire Extinguisher Family Reunion," a collection of hilariously bitter vignettes about demented relatives whom she aptly personifies as fire extinguishers. Intense and disarmingly candid, she claims to have printed the book "under duress," after writing it "during a prolonged sulk" from 1994 to 2009.
The show's most affecting piece is not a book at all, but a single-sheet broadside designed by Bonnie Thompson Norman to commemorate a street of booksellers in Baghdad destroyed by bombing during the Iraq War. Printed in five shades of black, gray and gold, it includes a sketchy design that suggests a rushing figure. In the figure's wake hovers a poignant poem by Dunya Mikhail, "I Was in a Hurry," that begins with these words:
Yesterday I lost a country.
I was in a hurry,
And didn't notice when it fell from me
like a branch from a
An emigré's lament, the poem is a powerful indictment of the world's brutal indifference to the destruction of civilizations and the words in which they've "marked time," over the centuries. Read it and weep.
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