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A Summer night of art, coloring, and boxed wine

I join 40 or 50 others on a beautiful June evening to participate in the “Mingle & Make Book Arts Reception” at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne. Our charge is to view the “Utopia/Dystopia” book arts exhibit, color in samples of the featured artwork, sip adult beverages, and mingle, not necessarily in that order.

Something a bit naughty about eating, drinking and schmoozing at a library. I grew up in the libraries of the 1950s and ‘60s. Orderly rows of bookshelves that you perused in silence. Stern librarians saw to that.  These sedate settings were also dream worlds. I read my way through Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and the Captain Horatio Hornblower series.

The libraries of the 21st century have expanded their horizons — and ours too. Public computer banks, hands-on children’s spaces, teen clubs, makerspaces, coffee bars, films and art exhibits. They have always been community centers. They are now amped-up, in keeping with the realities of 2017.  

No surprise, then, that the library addresses today’s hopes and fears with a “Building a Better World” reading series and the accompanying “Utopia/Dystopia” exhibit. Current events have made us all a bit jumpy. Artwork and books may not allay our fears. Hope lies in the facts that artists continue to create and public space exists to showcase their visions.

Jessica Drenk, “Reading Our Remains” altered books with wax, plaster and string (group), 8 x 48 x 10” (Jessica Drenk)

Librarian and artist Jennifer Rife supervises this annual exhibit of book arts. Rife notes that the library began the exhibit three years ago “to connect the summer reading series with art.”

Pinedale artists Sue Sommers curated the exhibit. Sommers finds herself spending a lot of time in Cheyenne, traveling with her legislator husband, Albert. No stranger to topical art, Sommers dreamed big and requested artwork from well-known artists from around the world.

“When I told the artists the theme, they said ‘Oh’,” Sommers said as she conducted a guided tour of the exhibit at the June 23 reception. “They thought it was very timely and were excited to show their work in Wyoming.”

Miriam Schaer, “Witness” sewn cords bound book created with laser prints of original texts, hand cut pages. 6.25 x 4.25 x 2” (Miriam Schaer)

Artwork is exhibited on the first and third floors of the library. Some is displayed in spacious two-way glass cases that line the corridor leading into the building. “Witness” (single board Coptic bound book created with laser prints of original texts, laser cut binder boards, 10.25 inches wide by 7 inches high by 5 inches deep) by Miriam Schaer of Brooklyn is one of them. It features a handmade book in the shape of the artist’s hand. Schaer’s artist’s statement describes it best:

“Witness… was created for the Al Mutannabi Street Artist Book Project, Witness was formed from the initial article in the New York Times that described the bombing of the historic street of booksellers in Baghdad during the Iraq war in 2005. Taking the article, and running it thru every version of Google Translate, the pages took on new and unfamiliar forms to an English reader. Albanian, Esperanto, Georgian, Malay and Serbian now lived side by side with pages covered in French, Italian, and Thai. The pages, were then cut in the form of my own hand, sewn on cords, then burned, buried and dyed to emulate the books that survived the initial bombing. In this age of instant news we are all witnesses. In this age of ever constant information, we all are witnesses and responsible. Claiming ignorance is not possible.”

Patricia Smith, “Pocket Desire Map” drawing, offset printed multiple booklet. 6 x 3.75” (Patricia Smith)

In an adjacent space are two works by Patricia Smith of Paris. Smith has exhibited in the U.S., Canada and Europe. She has a penchant for maps as shown in her two works. “City of One” is a drawing, hand-stamped and signed, offset printed multiple booklet. Eighteen inches by 24 inches when open. “Pocket Desire Map” is a drawing, offset-printed multiple booklet, 6 inches by 18 inches when opened. The library provides magnifiers to help us see the contours of the maps and read the small print.

Smith describes her work this way:

“I refer to my drawings as maps, as they are attempts to define a place on paper. The places I am depicting exist within the fluid and mysterious regions of the mind. I use certain conventions of cartography and, in some cases, information transposed from actual city maps. The drawings evolve through a labor-intensive layering of minute details rendered in stippled ink dots, watercolor washes, graphite and other dry media, ink stamping from self-designed rubber stamps, and collaged elements.”

Her artwork was recently featured on the cover of “You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography,” published by the University of Arizona.

Jessica Drenk is a Florida artist raised in Montana who obviously knows her undersea creatures and her high-plains fossils. She uses wax, plaster, string and old books for her creations which she calls “Reading Our Remains.”

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Wyoming artists include Nathan Abel, Cristy Anspach, Mark Ritchie, Jenny Dowd, Camellia El-Antably, Conor Mullen, Nyla Hurley, and Sommers. According to Sommers, Anspach’s “Highway Reliquary – Mule Deer” had its genesis in a Wyoming roadkill encounter. Anspach’s multi-dimensional piece includes an “exploded” deer skeleton on the bottom level topped with a reclining wool felt version of a deer at rest on the prairie. The observer gets to see both the bucolic version of the animal before its encounter with the machine and then the after-effects. Utopia and Dystopia together.

Nyla Hurley, “Nativist Nostalgia” California job case, string, nails, hand-dyed paper, typewriter. 32” wide, varied lengths. (Nyla Hurley)

Hurley’s “Nativist Nostalgia” on the third floor takes up a good bit of wall space and is conveniently located next to the library’s genealogy room.  The Cody artist describes it as a sculptural piece. She used an old California job case as a backdrop for a house made from the string. The multiple strands trail to the floor and are attached to personal memories typed on hand-dyed paper. As Hurley describes in her artist statement: “I find myself constantly chasing fleeting feelings and experiences. I am starting to understand that my way of thinking is an addiction or even a disease: a disease of nostalgia.”

Also on the third floor are flip books created by Karen Hamner of Illinois. You are invited to handle these, as well as one of Sommers’ repurposed “Liberty Walking” coin collecting books. Instead of coins, Sommers has drawn feet which represent the immigrants coming into the U.S., welcomed by Emma Lazarus’s famous Statue of Liberty poem which is inscribed inside.

Sue Sommers, “Liberty Walking” (detail), altered books created with repurposed coin collecting albums, watercolor and pencil on Yupo, collage and ink. 8 x 6 x 1” (each volume; group), (Sue Sommers)

When I finally got around to the participatory part of the evening, I chose a line photocopy of the top section of Anspach’s “Reliquary”. With the help of wine-in-a-box and lemon bars, I did a pretty good job of coloring inside the lines.

“Utopia/Dystopia” continues through Aug. 7. You can read artist statements and biographies and see samples of the work at the library web site at http://lclsonline.org

Michael Shay’s book of short stories, “The Weight of a Body,” was published by Ghost Road Press in 2006. His fiction and essays have appeared in Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, Northern Lights, High Plains Literary Review, Colorado Review, Owen Wister Review, and in multiple anthologies including “Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams;” “Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone: An Anthology of Wyoming Writers” (forthcoming); and “In Short,” a Norton anthology of brief creative nonfiction. Previously he served as the managing editor for the WY Arts Council Artscapes magazine, among other duties. Michael lives in Cheyenne and blogs about books, culture and politics at Hummingbirdminds.

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