Merging Books and Literature With the Visual Arts

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 08, 2003

“I think I’m predisposed to really love books,” said Indigo Som. “I mean, we’re in Berkeley, right? One of the reasons I live here is because you walk down the street and you look in everybody’s windows and you see massive bookshelves and books overflowing. Right? You can see people walking down the street, reading as they’re walking down the street. You know? I love that.” 

Beyond loving books, Som, 37, makes books unlike any you’ll find in your mother’s library. Currently, two of Som’s books flutter as you walk past them, their pages mere stained gossamer silk and thread, pinned to the walls at the Berkeley Art Center. They are part of an exhibit, running through July 27, entitled “Unbound and Under Covers: Experiments in Visual Writing.”  

Exhibit curator and Oakland resident Jaime Robles explains Unbound’s perspective on the bookmaker’s art. 

“There’s no crossover between the visual and the verbal in western art, generally. Literature [is] on one side and then you have paintings and sculpture on the other side. You don’t have this kind of mix like you do in Asian cultures,” Robles said. “The show wasn’t meant to be about book arts, it’s more visual artists who are into the book form or who are interested in using it as a vehicle for the visual arts. What I wanted was people who had a very strong connection to writing, who either were writers or who were artists that had such a close connection to text and were such good writers that they could be considered writers primarily.”  

Robles, who edits the literary magazine Five Fingers Review, selected one of her own pieces for the show. Sheets of poetry, dipped in beeswax, are suspended over flickering candles. The pages seem to melt. The poem is a eulogy to her mother, whose cremains lay in an open dish beside the poem.  

Death, nature and family are themes that Unbound examines. Eight of the nine writer-artists in the show are women.  

“There certainly is a lot of work here that refers to family and mothers,” Robles acknowledged. “It’s primarily women artists. There’s a lot of things about mothers and home and family.” 

“Book arts is full of women,” Som agreed. “I’ll speculate that it has something to do with women being more trained or more accustomed to multi-tasking. Also there’s a lot of fine handwork involved and there’s a lot of crossover between the textile world and the book world, although we have our fair share of hot shot boys.”  

She laughed softly: “Mostly the women are in charge of a lot of it.” 

White haired and sturdy, Jerry Grigsby is neither female nor a book artist. A Berkeley hills resident, he regularly attends Berkeley Art Center events.  

“This is my second time through [this show] and every time I talk to somebody I tell them all about it,” Grigsby said. “It’s really beautiful, physically, without even going into the content of the word. Some of these pieces remind me of ‘Concrete Poetry,’ the kind of poetry that is just about the color and the shape of the sentences and the phrases just sort of carry something without even knowing what the words mean or what they’re saying. It becomes verbal on a personal level. As you see the objects they mean something or they bring up some kind of a memory.” 

Robles, who teaches creative writing and critical theory at New College in San Francisco and St. Mary’s in Orinda, deliberately elicited an evocative atmosphere for her exhibit.  

“It was meant to have an erotic side to it,” she said. “It also is meant to have a sleuth-like quality to it. When you say somebody is under cover, it’s not just under covers, but it has that quality of being subversive. I wanted it to have all of those word connotations.” 

That ambiguity worked for Som. In an art exhibit purporting to be about text and books, neither of Som’s two pieces have legible words or identifiable narrative.  

“There’s a lot of personal stuff that I didn’t think was necessary for a viewer to appreciate it. I wanted to communicate a feeling and not the specifics of what made me have that feeling,” she said. “They’re more about handwriting and the gestures of handwriting. I’ve always been interested in everything to do with the written word and so this was a way for me to draw and write at the same time but not say anything specific. 

“I think my fascination with language has a lot to do with the fact that I learned Chinese as a first language. There was a little lag time when I was monolingual, and I think that I became just really hyperaware of language, of the thing itself. I think the hyperawareness of language just makes you want to write and participate in the language that way.” 

When asked how her fluttering silk flags with indecipherable words can be called a book she replied: 

“It’s a book because there’s text, there’s sequence, there’re pages and because ...” she fades to a quiet murmur, “because I make a lot of books and I say it is a book.” 


Berkeley Art Center Web site: http://www.berkeleyartcenter.org 

"Unbound and Under Covers: Experiments in Visual Writing" is open through July 27, 2003