Seager Gray Gallery

Last week Oola and I did a road trip and spent some time camping with California’s biggest and hungriest mosquitoes.  Also shared coffee next to some old guys in bicycle spandex.  Happily we arrived in the Bay Area itchy but not with too much psychological damage to visit family and friends.

One highlight of the trip was to visit the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley to catch the tail end of the 13th annual Art of the Book show. This was always a special treat for us when we lived in the Bay Area.

Ascension, Tor Archer
Ascension, Tor Archer

Ascension is a kind of work I mentally associate with the gallery: mythical, magical, meditative, lyrical, both in and out of time, contemporary and ancient all at once.  And I was not disappointed.

But, as in any Artist Book related show, there were a wide variety of approaches.

You can click on any image to see an enlargement.

From this angle, Brian Dettmer’s World Books reminds Oola of the curiosity and affection of a baby pangolin focusing its gaze on Suzanne Grey at the desk. But when observed closely, the delicacy and intricacy of Brian’s cutting can only be called amazing.  Still, this brings up an issue in the Artist Book world: a book is something that one interacts with physically, intellectually, and emotionally page by page to absorb its content.  Brian’s work, from what I have observed, lives more in the camp of the artist book as pure sculpture, not to be touched, only to be admired from a distance.

Pulp Discourse, Andrew Hayes
Pulp Discourse, Andrew Hayes

Another artist, Andrew Hayes, lives in the same camp. He is not interested in conveying story or the content of the book so much as the play of iron with paper. The gestural action of the two Pulp Discourse pieces is something one feels viscerally. They certainly are beautiful and noteworthy forms, but not to be touched.

Once, while I was working as an artist in California Prisons, I brought some clay to the AIDS ward.  I put lumps out on the table for the guys who gathered around and seemed interested.  Naive as I was, I said “show me the inner man” and they got all poetic with their clay because that is what they thought I wanted.  One fellow, however, was having none of my foolishness.  At the end of the hour he presented me with his “Intestine Man”.


Prescious Capsule, Valérie Buess
Prescious Capsule, Valérie Buess
Regulations, Valérie Buess
Regulations, Valérie Buess

Valérie Buess‘s works in this show reminded me of that incident, of the hardshell-covered vulnerability of the men, and their humor even in that musty place.  At least, I want to believe that her work Prescious Capsule is about vulnerability.  Here is a case where the tactile wants to tell truth to the hand.

Valérie’s work Regulations is hilarious. It is spun from books documenting changes in the law.  In the words of the artist, they “hold/hide their meaning very tightly, shut in the words…twirled, spiky and barbed”.


Jaz Graf‘s piece, Inheritance, consists of letterpress on porcelain pages spread out on the wall by means of steel hangers.   Each pages says “nous sommes simplement de passage”, or “we are only here for a moment’s time”.  This is a reminder of the intimacy of a book in a public place.  I love the artist’s statement that a book is “the ghost limb of an author, but more importantly it becomes an extension of the reader’s body and experience.”

Traditional books by their definition need words to convey content.  Artist Books, not so much.  Lisa Kokin‘s work in this show uses words that have no semantic content.  Just thread and recycled objects and, like she says, “shpilkes” or nervous energy.

Renée Bott works to paint out the words from narratives about human cruelty.  She paints the beauty of the natural world seeking to discover a future where humans live in harmony with it.

Tamar Stone tells stories of women in their own words as they travel alone in troubled times.  Her use of traditional text in low contrast or on distracting background makes the words seem camouflaged.  The reader has to become intensely involved with unmaking, reading, then remaking the layers of the bed.  These secret stories require effort to enjoy.

In Macy Chadwick‘s Meanwhile words from A Thousand and One Nights swirl through the book like a murmuration of starlings.

While in the gallery I heard another visitor ask “What’s with all the guns?”.  Our society and culture is in the grips of a huge gun struggle and with ever-increasing frequency we convulse under the weight of a new outrage.  It is on everyone’s mind.  I think it necessary for artists to deal with the subject.

This show presents two artists who talk about this obsession in two different ways.  The first is Brian Singer (above) who presents the guns of historical assassinations.  He prints images of the guns of specific events on pages of books about the event.  He cuts the paper into blocks which he turns on their sides.  The images of guns appear as delicate drawings on obscured lines of text (as in the detail image above).  I did not see it, but evidently with each image comes an indexing of the name of the person killed, the type of gun, and the name of the shooter. I have a couple of thoughts on this series.  I think the artist misses the mark here. The “how” outweighs the “what”.  I am not a fan of ambiguity in social/historical art like this. I am disappointed in this series in that it does not address the horror and helplessness we felt when we heard that the President or Martin or Bobby was shot.

Further, having worked (as an artist) in California prisons, I have learned that there is a social ranking among criminals as to who is the baddest outlaw of all.  There are people who do terrible things with the goal of fame in mind.  I have met them, made art in the same room as them.  Other prisoners cluster around them as though they were movie stars from whom some of the fame might rub off.  So I take issue with the parts of this series that names the shooter — thus, inadvertently we hope, glorifying them.  The best (worst) thing that can happen to these individuals is that they, as persons, become utterly forgotten and unnamed in the world.

Shooting Range, Audrey Wilson
Shooting Range, Audrey Wilson

The second artist in the show to speak of shootings is Audrey Wilson.  Shooting Range is about the Columbine slaughter.  She puts her emphasis on the deaths of young people in school where we should be able  to expect that they are as safe as anyone can be on this planet. Shooting Range is as different as it can be from the assassination series.  It is neon, hard edged, political, urgent — and personal.


This show is closed now and I couldn’t write about all the wonderful work.  You can see the show catalog on line.

But, if you are in the area, take heart!

Chris Gwaltney: And Another Thing…

June 1 – July 1, 2018
Reception for the artist:
Saturday, June 9, 5:30 – 7:30 pm

It looks like a show well worth seeing.

SeagerGray Gallery
108 Throckmorton Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Tuesday through Saturday,
11am – 5:00pm, Sunday 12 – 5pm

Oola and birds
The drive home was uneventful, but Oola did enjoy meeting a couple from San Bernardino.


Trip to Bellingham and the Whatcom Museum, Part two

There are as many ways to define Artist Books as there are people (artists, curators, collectors, critics, librarians, lovers of art…) involved in the Artist Book phenomenon.  Rules — there are probably a lot fewer rules than there are definitions because frankly, my dear, the artists don’t give a damn.  Sandra Kroupa, Book Arts & Rare Book Curator at the University of Washington, said in her lecture — “Breaking Boundaries: the Hand as the Cutting Edge of the Mind” — that she refuses to define “Artist Books”.  Smart lady.

The current show at the Whatcom Museum “Unhinged, Book Art on the Cutting Edge” is a curatorial effort to demonstrate the wide variety of approaches to making Artist Books.  Now one good thing about this show is that it is in a museum, giving gravitas and credibility to a movement little understood in current culture.  A bad thing about this show is that it is in a museum, with most of its items under vitrines. Only one of the offerings was touchable.  And as Sandra pointed out, most Artist Books are to be interacted with, touched, manipulated in some way.

Casey Curran "Test Drive"
Casey Curran “Test Drive”

To grasp the meaning of Casey’s book, it is essential to turn the crank to activate the waves and the swimming shark.  I love Casey’s wry commentary on our current world: “It’s a big ocean out there, and we should all learn how to play nicely with each other.”  All this overlaid on books on ship protocol and “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

If you click on the names in the captions, you will be taken to pages that show more of these remarkable works.  If you click on the pictures, you will get enlargements.

A good number of the other books in the show were practically jumping off their perches begging “touch me, turn my pages”.  (Don’t worry, Oola is well trained and she resisted her inclinations.)

Sandra told of her conviction that the books talk to each other.  And that points to one of the beauties of this show: that the works are chosen and arranged so that they can speak in chorus as well as individually.  And the group speak is more that the sum of the parts.  For example,

Sun Young Kang "To Find the One Way" (detail)
Sun Young Kang “To Find the One Way” (detail)
Islam Aly "The Square, Al Midan"
Islam Aly “The Square, Al Midan”

Sun Young Kang’s book/installation begins in the personal — the death of her father.  In what becomes a ritual floating in timeless light and shadow, she uses incense to burn the Korean text (Until we meet again, I will be trying to find the one way) into 1080 small pieces of Okawara paper.

Islam Aly’s work begins in the public and the political, the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.  Arabic Kufic script (The People Want to Bring down the Regime) is laser cut into each page and it has a burned look.  There are many more parallels and telling differences.  But take just one metaphor common to both — burning.  It speaks to the intensity of the underlying emotions in each case.  Additionally, in the conversation of the two books we come to hear the individual in the throng that brought down a tyrant, and we consider the universal loss of a parent.  In other words, the two books reinforce each other and lead the viewer to new considerations.

Book artists use a variety of approaches. The most common undertakings are constructing a book and altering or repurposing a book.  But some artists like to just redefine bookness.

Doug Beube "Border Crossing: in the War Room"
Doug Beube “Border Crossing: in the War Room”

In “Border Crossing: in the War Room” Doug Beube has taken pages from an atlas and sewn zippers on them.  Presumably one can adjust the book to many formations.  Further, it is a visual commentary on territorial borders and leads one to thoughts of our current immigration woes.

While Doug is creating his “versatile codex” Susan Porteus is doing something completely else.

Susan Porteus "Gandhi: A Pictorial Biography" "Gandhi on Non-violence" "The Essential Gandhi" "Lead Kindly Light: Gandhi and the Way to Peace"
Susan Porteus “Gandhi: A Pictorial Biography” “Gandhi on Non-violence” “Past Masters: Gandhi” “The Essential Gandhi” “Lead Kindly Light: Gandhi and the Way to Peace”

Susan has taken spinning as the main metaphor in the life and teachings of Gandhi.  Repurposing books about him she has spun their pages into new artist books giving specific form to his work and meditation.

Many book artists use non-traditional materials to construct their ideas.  I saw one book, by Ellen Ziegler, made of tar paper pages. (Wonderful, but too difficult to photograph adequately.  You can see it at her site-link above.)

Donald Glaister "Brooklyn Bridge: A Love Song"
Donald Glaister “Brooklyn Bridge: A Love Song”

Donald Glaister uses a fairly traditional codex form here, but the pages are made of aluminum which gives a special sheen that makes his subject matter sing.  It is visual poetry.

(Parenthetically, I read a pundit who made the rule that artist books need words.  To this both Oola and I say “poof”.  An artist book needs words only if the artist book needs words.)

It is fairly common for book artists to repurpose books into carved and scalpeled  forms.  One robust example in this show is:

Long-Bin Chen "Liszt" from "Portraits of Cultural Icons" series
Long-Bin Chen “Liszt” from “Portraits of Cultural Icons” series

This piece is remarkable for its monumental quality.  My first thoughts went to memories of the marble head of Constantine the Great.  Or Mount Rushmore.  “Liszt” is not that big, but he gives one pause.

Many Artist Book makers use their art to make personal response/public commentary on the state of our world, environmentally, politically, culturally, socially, spiritually.   A beautiful, evocative, sad example of this impulse is:

Rachel Mauser "Mountain Top Removal: The Tragedy of the Holler"
Rachel Mauser “Mountain Top Removal: The Tragedy of the Holler”

She calls it “an elegy for the mountains”.  This book is especially disturbing when you see it lie flat and mimic the ravaged earth.  There is not much more of value that one could say.

One of the qualities I enjoy in Artist Books is the delicious geometry that develops, sometimes purposefully, sometimes just as a part of the process:

Adele Outteridge "Thinking of Sol II: Stuff of Dreams"
Adele Outteridge “Thinking of Sol II: Stuff of Dreams”
Deborah Greenwood "Re-creation"
Deborah Greenwood “Re-creation”

Lest the show get too ponderous, the curators included Deborah Greenwood’s gentle memory of childhood toys and a call to relax and re-create oneself.  To my mind, an Artist Book needs to surprise the viewer.

Indeed, one of the qualities I wanted to see more of in this show is a sense of fun and humor.

Charles Miley "Shock Head Peter"
Charles Miley “Shock Head Peter”

Charle’s one page popups are built on 19th century children’s cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffmann. They are humorous in an Edward Gorey fashion.  Something that might frighten adults. (I couldn’t find a website for Charles, but the Facebook page which I am almost certain is his, that page has a great collection of visual and verbal commentary on recent terrorism.)

I was delighted to see a work by Lisa Kokin, masterful observer of ludicrous humanity.

Lisa Kokin "Fret"
Lisa Kokin “Fret”
Lisa Kokin "Fret" detail
Lisa Kokin “Fret” detail

“Fret” is from her self-help books series.  It involves book spines sewn into an eye dazzling but comforting quilt.  It is sly humor and double meaning, and a stretching of the bookbinding metaphor.  Both beautiful and surprising, it is an object to contemplate and enjoy.

Circling back around to the idea of books talking to each other.  There is another “quilt” in the show.

Clair Dannenbaum "Coverlet: A Lover's Discourse"
Claire Dannenbaum “Coverlet: A Lover’s Discourse”

Each of the “Coverlet’s” quilt rectangles is made of crumpled pages from Fragments d’un discours amoureaux by Roland Barthes.  Claire’s book evoked my childhood memories of making “leather” by distressing brown grocery bags.  That is the technique she has used to make the coverlet look and feel like flannel.

What is the conversation about between these two quilts?  Maybe it’s for us to lend an ear.

Whatcom Museum
Whatcom Museum, the Light Catcher Building,  street view

I’m always skeptical of the words “cutting edge”.  I feel that if you can see the cutting edge you are viewing it from behind.  It has already passed you by.  But I like the double meaning of “the hand as the cutting edge of the mind”. In any case, the artist book makers are giving us a new venue for visual thought.

The museum is metaphorically on fire.  There is much to mull.  It is time to travel home.

There are 70 spectacular pieces in this show by 61 artists, including most Artist Book luminaries, from around the world.  There was time and space to mention only a few of them in this post.  If you are at all interested in the making of meaning I highly recommend this show.


Until January 3, 2016,  in the Museum’s Lightcatcher Building

250 Flora Street, Bellingham, WA

Wednesday – Sunday, noon5pm;
open Thursday until 8pm; open Saturday at 10am

(360) 778-8930

Members: Free
General: $10
Students/Military(with valid ID)/Seniors (62 +): $8
Children 2-5 years old: $4.50
Children under 2: Free

Every Thursday is $5 admission!

Public art on Flora Street: Weston Lambert “Our Time” granite and glass

San Francisco Center for the Book

Oola walks to the San Francisco Center for the Book
Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Here we are in San Francisco, looking north to the financial district.  Oola is crossing Rhode Island St. at 17th, and the San Francisco Center for the Book is on the right.

The SF Center for the Book is an extraordinary resource for artists and book lovers, a mecca for LetterPress aficionados.

Oola and I enter the large, airy main room with the high ceiling, clean tables, and 6 Vandercook presses.  Memories of art school flood into my brain, but not into Oola’s because all that was before her time.  But I digress.

In this tale it is early in the day.  The place is so quiet, so pristine, so serene that the posted rules — even the signs that in an art school would usually say “Your mother doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess” — These signs look like broadsheets.

clean up
Clean up Manifesto

Only one artist is printing,

Terry Horrigan has been a printer for 30 years.  She said she once had her own press, but sold it and now she works at SFCB.  You can see broadsides and books from her Protean Press publications at  

Oola discovers that there are more treasures: a bindery and platen presses and more drawers of metal type.  She wants to start taking classes here.

On the north wall of the main room is an exhibition space and a show that is the reason I made this trip to SF. “Uncommon Threads” contains work by two artist whose work redefines “book”. Brought together by Curator Donna Seager — a champion of the artist book and partner in the Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley — these two artists’ work are connected on many levels.  The most noticeable is the involvement with re-purposed books and the use of thread.  In their work I find that I am drawn by those threads backwards through years and space to a place with a palpable sense of personal history, the mystery of an individual’s existence on this planet, the ancestor roots, the riddle of existence in a given place – then and now, specific and universal.

Jody Alexander‘s pieces have a meditative lyricism.  Look long enough and you will find yourself totally absorbed.

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Lisa Kokin’s work parallels that plus a sense of environmental/social urgency and a wicked sense of humor.

repurposed books
“Fauxliage, No Birds Sing”
repurposed book
“Fauxliage, No Birds Sing” detail

In the detail shot of “Fauxliage” you can see that the leaves have pieces of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring stitched into them.

altered books
“Panacea Pizpireta”

Lisa has this thing about self-help books.  This don’t-worry-be-happy piece, stitched together from the spines of self-help books, is “bound” to assist with personal difficulties!

Both Jody and Lisa have huge bodies of work.  Both are fascinating and challenging.  Check them out.

But Wait, There’s More.  In a gallery behind this exhibit Oola found the work of Barbara Alexandra Szerlip in “A Visit to Mad Geppetto’s Workshop”.  Barbara is a writer who also makes book sculptures.  Intriguing, Informed, Acerbic.  Don’t miss her.

repurposed book

On the Knowledge side is a torn up book; on the Power side, shredded U.S. currency.

artist book/sculpture

Those “teeth” are 1950’s vintage hamburger sleeves.

A book is a way to transfer knowledge and experience and story.  What is the shape of a book?  In the hands of an artist, who can tell?

These are compelling artists in an amazing setting.  If you are in the SF Bay Area, don’t miss any of it.  The shows are up until February 1, 2014.

San Francisco Center for the Book
375 Rhode Island Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 565-0545

Be well.