Across three display cases in the hallway leading to the reference room lay twelve artist’s books, each beautifully unique in form and content. This collection, which includes traditional codices, tarot cards, postcard collections, accordion-folded pamphlets, and albums in all shapes and sizes, demonstrates the St. Olaf Libraries’ collection of artist’s books with a focus on social justice in our modern world.
Artist’s books are difficult to describe in any overarching way. The exhibition uses a quote from the Pratt Institute to attempt an explanation: “Artists’ books come in all shapes and sizes and resist an easy definition. At the most basic level, an artist book is a work of art in the form of a book or inspired by the idea of a book.” The range is beautifully illustrated in this curated collection.
A few of my personal favorites include “Common Threads LXI” by Candace Hicks, in which the artist recreates an ordinary composition notebooks entirely out of fabric and embroidery, and “How to Transition on Sixty-Three Cents a Day” by Lee Krist, which hardly resembles the form of a book at all. It consists of a round tin containing postcards, letters, and magazine articles representing the artist’s journey with gender-affirming treatment.
Breanna Teynor ’24, the student associate for exhibition and instruction support, curated this exhibit and created the accompanying digital format.
“Throughout high school I worked at a public library, so I did have ambitions of continuing to be in the library atmosphere,” Teynor said.
In her role she collects materials for professors who want to include pieces from the archives in their courses, as well as assisting with putting on exhibits, and even curating some of her own. Librarian for Special Collections and Archives Instruction, Jillian Sparks, supervised the project.
“It is important to me to provide space for Bre to explore the collections and do her work in addition to supporting me do my job,” Sparks said. “It is important [that] she has that space to be creative.”
Teynor created this exhibit keeping in mind current social justice efforts and turmoil that people of different backgrounds face. Each book discusses a different topic. One features protest signs from the 2017 Women’s March, one contains postcards about climate justice in Oregon, and several explore racial identity. Three books in the last case reflect on the current pandemic, including “COVID-19: 2020 At a Glance” by Brea Black, a fascinating accordion of sewn boards featuring minimally outlined months punctured on each day spent without human interaction throughout the year. Teynor’s passion for social justice and accessible art informed her curation of this exhibit.
“It starts with one book,” Teynor explained. “My specific interest is accessible art and accessible literature, so that’s how I got into zines. I am really interested in roadside art and folk art, stuff that is a little more low-brow, but it’s for everybody. There was one book called ‘M’Cille’s Museum of Miscellanea’ all about an Alabama woman who sets up a little curiosity museum for the children in her community. That was a really inspirational book to me, it appealed to the things I was interested in. It is important for me to include stories of all people.”
This exhibit illustrates the Library’s recent efforts to make the Special Collections and Archives more accessible and welcoming to all St. Olaf students. In line with the College’s origins, the Library has historically focused on collecting Christian and Norwegian works. However, that does not reflect the current St. Olaf community.
“We purchase books to support the curriculum, but we have been really focusing on, as far as the artist books, collecting activist art and social justice related works,” Sparks said.
The artists themselves sometimes become a valuable resource for classes as well. This spring, LMNOPI, an artist and activist from whom the library has purchased several prints, was a guest lecturer for Writing 120: Making Ecology Personal, taught by Professor of English Mary Trull.
“We collect these materials, but we also get invested in what ways we can keep connecting with the artists, how to best show their work, and how to get people involved,” Sparks said.
These are not passive or static pieces. The Library wants to preserve them, collecting and uplifting underrepresented voices, especially on topics prevalent to our modern world.
If you want to see more of the Library’s Special Collections, you can make an appointment through the Library’s web page or contact Sparks directly. Make sure to stop by the Spring popup in Buntrock Crossroads on April 21.
Here are photos of the collection Teynor curated.