A nest that remembers

There’s lots of discussion these days on the future of the book. Everyone seems aware that digital reading and publishing is changing the way we write and read and publish, that it’s changing what we’ve assumed for a long time, namely that books adhere to paper and pages and bound volumes of various kinds, so lovely to hold and open and read through and close again and set on shelves.

I’m not here today to offer my opinions on these changes (though if you’re interested in the future of books topic, there’s a series of writers, booksellers, publishers talking about it at the online Winnipeg Review), but rather to mull on an art exhibition we attended last evening. “Bound by Nature,” at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery in Winnipeg, May 6 to June 18, reflects on books in a very different way. Officially it’s described as an exhibition “inspired by nature, landscape and books” and it’s all that (and a really fascinating juxtaposition when you are made to stop and think about it) but it was “book” at the heart of the pieces that especially drew my attention.

So, for example, book spine covers used to create a series of “horizon” landscapes by Deborah Danelley reminded me of the world we see but also what one sees in books. They made me think of those large books I’ve known, yes with their cloth/paper spines fraying and loosening, maybe books of art or photos, a treasure of things and also a kind of borrowing from one medium to the other.

There’s a whimsical display called “Wildflowers,” by Deborah Danelley and Carol Leach, featuring what I can only call a “bed” of flowers fashioned from the pages of recycled garden/landscape/nature books. Erwin Huebner has a number of interesting pieces that reflect on the “books” of small places like eggs (think of all the information an egg contains) and the stunning color and shapes of substances seen via the microscope. Other artists had made accordion books and match box books; there was richly textured paper.

"Nest as destiny" by Agatha Doerksen

I knew that my sister-in-law, Agatha Doerksen (Denver, Colorado), had a number of pieces in the exhibition, so of course I was curious to see where the theme had taken her. I was not disappointed; her pieces were a highlight for me. A number of them were intricately altered books opening into nests, and her author’s statement asked some intriguing questions:

If a seed becomes a tree, does the tree remember the seed?
If a tree becomes a book, does the book remember the tree?
If a book becomes a nest, does the nest remember the book? 
Where can I find a nest that remembers the seed?

I left the exhibition with a sense of the seamlessness of story/book and nature, of book as memory, of book as something something primeval, even primitive, vulnerable though resilient. I left feeling, strangely perhaps, optimistic about the future of the book.


"I want to tell a tree my secret" by Agatha Doerksen (seed pods with book pages rolled tightly into its cavities)

Note:  Canvass has a statement about the exhibition, and on the third page, images of some of the other work. Eleven artists participated, and the exhibition was curated by Deborah Danelley.

3 thoughts on “A nest that remembers

  1. Thanks, Dora, for another thought-provoking post; this time on Friday night’s “Bound by Nature” exhibit which also struck a deep chord within me! And it was a special treat to see you there too so we could “talk books” (including your’s!) for a while as we stood on the balcony and looked down on that rich & inspiring array of “book nests” below us!

    I too especially loved the intricate beauty of Agatha’s “nests as destiny,” the essence of which you caught so well in your photograph. And I was struck also by the delicate texture of the pastel eggs held so lovingly within their environmentally-friendly nests of printed pages awaiting new birth (perhaps of the Word in another form?) – One could almost feel the nurturing hands which so gently fashioned and placed them there.

    At the same time, I also appreciated the earthy impact of the “book nests” of another friend, Karen Clavelle, whose creativity, in some of her pieces, seemed to draw on the origins/chaos of creation, with skulls and bones and teeth and rocks and shells giving rough homes/resting places for tiny books like butterflies which rested lightly upon them ready to take off into a newly emerging world; and in another evocative piece, small translucent scrolls bearing the name of writers, past and present, nestled within the crags and crevices.

    All around it was an inspiring evening of yearned for “book talk” which left me too, feeling positive about the future of books as well as confident that their very long roots in evolutionary history, would carry them forward in one way or another. Serendipitously, Peter & I had just been reading about this evolutionary history yesterday morning, in a book by Diane Akerman, An Alchemy of Mind, (recently recommended to us by a poet friend, Dennis Cooley), in which she writes:

    “What the [evolving] brain really needed was space without volume. So it took a radical leap and did something unparalleled in the history of life on Earth. It began storing information and memories outside itself, on stone, papyrus, paper, computer chips, and film. This astonishing feat is so familiar a part of our lives that we don’t think much about it. But it was an amazing and rather strange solution to what was essentially a packing problem: just store your essentials elsewhere and avoid cluttering up the cave. Equally amazing was the determination and skill to extend our sense beyond their natural limits, by devising everything from the long eyes of television, to the cupped ears of radio telescopes. Forget about being too big for our boots [or our nests!]—we became to big for our skulls …”


    • Oh my, Leona, once again you have so wonderfully added to — enhanced and enlarged — this post! I appreciate your review of Karen Clavelle’s work. Thanks so much for your observations and the Akerman quote. — I sometimes find myself hesitant to talk about visual art because I feel I don’t have the language for it (much as some high schoolers complain about needing to analyze poetry, for example, because they’re just not sure enough of what they’re supposed to “get”) but it’s always fun to jump in anyway, and when I do, I find a kind of alchemy happening too between what I see and the work I do in my (our) particular medium. Anyway, I’m glad you joined me in that.

  2. dear Dora… of course good news or in this case a review, always travels fast, and your lovely and thoughtful comments on the opening of Bound By Nature quickly got to me through various channels. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights. I also read your note to Leona which said that you are sometimes hesitant to talk about visual art… I feel the same way about writing … i never quite have the same natural ability to express myself in that way as I do in my art practice. For me your “language” was real, and I am aboslutely thrilled that this exhibition has made you feel optimistic about the future of books in one way or another!!!

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