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Art, Science, and the Book: Historical Books as Matrices for New Works of Art

Annie Schrandt

Saturday, October 27. A panel discussion with Elizabeth Yale (moderator), Julia Leonard, Robert Riter

Elizabeth Yale opened the presentation with a discussion of the role of historical books as the impetus for new book arts. She discussed the experiments that Isaac Newton wrote about in his notebooks, particularly one involving fragmenting light through prisms, the experimentum crucis. These experiments reflect Newton’s conversation between knowledge, visualization, and making, which inspired artists in two shows that she curated with Julie Leonard Micrographia (2015) and Handy Books (2017). Riter’s talk centered on one work: Peter and Donna Thomas’s printing of Celia Finne’s A Record of 17th Century Papermaking. The book is the seventeenth-century diary of an English woman who traveled to papermaking facilities, among other places, and took extensive notes. The Thomases printed their edition in miniature on seventeenth-century paper sourced from unfinished documents. It was supplemented with Donna’s illustrations of paper mills, annotations, and a paper sample paired with one of Finne’s descriptions of that paper. This book is an example of the relationship between materiality, narrative, and recordedness. The book is about seventeenth-century paper and made of this material, offering a feeling of historical resonance while also challenging the reader’s assumption of what seventeenth-century paper is like. Julie Leonard’s presentation also discussed two exhibitions that she worked on regarding scientific books and their makers. She drew inspiration from a 1995 Smithsonian exhibition on the same topic to help make Micrographia and Handy Books. Like the Smithsonian exhibit, these shows invited artists to examine historical books and consider both their content and their role as functional objects. Some artists made works that considered how the books changed over time, either in their physical aging process or in how audiences read them. Some artists created contemporary interpretations that are analogous to their historical predecessors. Leonard discussed many examples from the two exhibits and how artists created different interpretations of the same concept.