With a new award, the book arts — which involve printing and stitching and folding and binding — are getting their due.
Minnesota artists Paula McCartney and Lisa Nebenzahl have won the inaugural McKnight Book Artist Fellowship, announced Monday.
The Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation has boosted artists of many kinds, including musicians, choreographers, writers and filmmakers, for decades. But this is the first time book artists have been able to apply.
Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which is partnering with McKnight on the $25,000 fellowships, believes it is the first program to award midcareer book artists in the United States. (The center already partners with the Jerome Foundation on a program for emerging artists.)
“It’s so exciting to see book arts take what I would say is their proper place among ceramics, choreography, visual arts and writing,” said Elysa Voshell, executive director of the Center for Book Arts.
McCartney and Nebenzahl are “really pushing the edges of the field,” Voshell said, “in ways that I think are exciting both thematically and technically.”
Both artists use paper and photographs to create dreamy, book-like sculptures, toying with nature and geometry. These works beg to be opened, unfolded, handled.
Nebenzahl, of Minneapolis, manipulates images of the natural world — shadows and clouds — by folding them into crystal-like shapes.
“My constructions are meant to be held in one’s hands and examined,” she said, “much like a beautiful rock or an egg; fragile yet strong.”
Jurors appreciated how Nebenzahl’s shadowy images and faceted objects “evoke the ephemeral … a moment of light and air in a particular place.”
In addition to the cash prize, the yearlong fellowship includes studio visits and public talks with visiting critics and curators, plus a year of access to the book center’s facilities, including its Vandercook presses and papermaking equipment.
Nebenzahl plans to learn to set letterpress type, making new work with the acerbic, crackling poetry her mother wrote in the 1940s, as “a way of visiting with her.”
When she heard she had won the fellowship, she cried. Nebenzahl has nabbed State Arts Board grants before, a “wonderful” recognition. “But the McKnight is such a robust, supportive, yearlong effort.”
McCartney, who is also a photographer, fashioned a book in the book center’s studios and is excited to create there again, she said, refreshing her printing skills and learning to marble paper.
She fell in love with making books while taking a class in graduate school, earning a master of fine arts degree in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. She appreciated how books give the viewer a “tactile, intimate and slowed down interaction with my work.”
At first, “A Field Guide to Snow and Ice” looks like a typical, hardcover tome. But unfolded, it extends 28 feet, spanning an entire gallery. Its black-and-white images of frozen waterfalls and ice floes, snowbanks and falling snow play with scale and source.
After moving here from San Francisco, McCartney decided to “brave the elements and explore the snowy landscape ... ” she wrote about that monograph. “The experience of winter is central to people living in the north; we often talk about the weather.”
Her book invites viewers to see winter in a new way, “the winter of my imagination.”
The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has long been advocating for this kind of midcareer fellowship, said Voshell, who started as executive director in January 2019. It gives artists who have been at this for years, who have built a body of work, a chance to make a leap or take a chance, she said.
“All artists, no matter what stage of their career, are always juggling their artistic, creative practice with the other ways they make money,” she said. “To have a fellowship like this ... gives them time and space to explore and develop new work.
“It’s just a huge gift of time and space for them.”