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Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

By Ilene Dube, JerseyArts.com

Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

Simple Pleasures – it’s the brand of pink hand soap at the Hunterdon Art Museum, and also a recurring theme for those seeking to regain life post pause. On a recent summer day, young ones were experiencing the simple pleasures of returning to camp in a white tent alongside the Raritan River.

A tent is a simple pleasure in summer camp; in a refugee camp, not so much.

Crossroads: Book Artists’ Impassioned Responses to Immigration, Human Rights and Our Environment,” curated by Maria G. Pisano and on view at the Hunterdon Art Museum through September 5, delves into the painful realities of our time: climate crisis, immigration crisis, health and hunger crises, poverty, racial injustice, human rights abuse, wildfires and drought, species extinction.

“We are at a crossroad. Our world is changing in myriad ways: refugees and migrants are being displaced, our environment is visibly in peril, and there are constant conflicts/wars between countries and within nations,” writes Pisano in a curator’s statement.

Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

A book artist, printmaker, and educator, Pisano has curated exhibitions at the Hunterdon before, and the museum did not shy away when she proposed her topic.

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“Artists reflect our humanity, especially when the world seems to have reached a level of injustice and violence that is incomprehensible,” Pisano writes in an email. “Their voices speak for those who can’t. Keeping this in mind, I sent out a call for artists who were working on issues of immigration and the environment, and contacted fellow book artists I knew, whose work reflected these themes.”

In a series of pamphlets, book artist Sarah Nicholls asks, “Why is everything always described as either a utopia or a dystopia?” Her work explores the wild places – community gardens, salt marshes, urban homesteading – in such New York City locales as Flatbush, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and Broad Channel (described as “the Venice of New York”).

“The land is what remains, people nourishing it, fighting to keep it from those who would grab it for profit and destroy it,” says Pisano, who grew up in Brooklyn.

Tana Kellner and Ann Kalmback’s book, “Whereas, We Declare,” includes text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proposed by Eleanor Roosevelt to the United Nations in 1948. It celebrates accepting immigrants to the U.S. as historically essential to defining the nation, enriching its cultural horizon and contributing to science and the humanities.

Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

Pisano, who in 1964 came to the U.S. as a child from Italy, understands the immigrant experience firsthand. In the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, an enclave of Italian immigrants, where her family continued such traditions as growing their own vegetables, “I was ridiculed, called names, and alienated.” As hurtful as it was, she sympathizes with immigrant children today for whom social media makes the taunting worse, “harnessing and stoking the power of hate groups and right-wing extremists that create and multiply false narratives,” spewing “hate and prejudice toward anyone not like them.”

The journey for today’s immigrants, rife with hardship, has been documented in the news. Aileen Bassis’s “Advice for Travelers,” in a butterfly binding, looks at the forces that cause people to migrate from their homeland, facing danger and an uncertain future. “Remember a blanket when you leave, for nowhere will be soft”; “you’d better know how to swim and be ready to walk all day.”

 From one land to another, a common denominator is soil. “The voice in the soil is speaking to each one of us,” says artist Therese Swift-Hahn, who volunteered on an organic farm and learned about permaculture and the ecosystem of the soil. “Healthy soil is the foundation of life itself.”

Her work “Terra Preta” (referring to the black earth originating in the Amazon Basin 2,500 years ago and, according to text, still among the richest soils on earth) fans out like a peacock, using walnut and gold inks in handmade paper, along with tree roots, leather, and a Pre-Columbian clay spindle. The calligraphic writing whorls into spirals, like a fractal.

Book arts is an ideal medium to express these reactions, says Pisano, because “books are egalitarian. We are a familiar and comfortable with them and over the centuries they have carried our collective memories. Book arts combine the old and the new, from paper making to digital arts, and reach out to the viewer for sharing and dialogue.”

Book arts can present a challenge to exhibitions – fragile, they must be shown behind glass – but the Hunterdon has added QR codes that link to recorded interviews with the artists, enhancing interactivity.

Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

“Paradise Lost,” an accordion-fold book by Thomas Parker Williams, measures 296 inches when fully open. It is displayed in a vitrine, with original ink drawing on handmade paper in which a wordless narrative unfolds, beginning with forests where people lived before the arrival of Columbus. We see Africans, captured and enslaved by wealthy white men to work on plantations. The line drawings caress rich textures of cotton fields, antebellum architecture, and the startled eyes of a field worker in a turban, confronting her captor. Her beautiful face has become hardened in her effort to survive, and glancing forward to the next page we see the hooded Klansman who instilled her fear.

“The American dream has always been a myth of paradise,” says Williams, with a middle-class lifestyle only available for white people. “If America wants to find a paradise again, it must realize that resources will have to be shared with all people.”

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 There is something about children’s shoes that goes straight to the heart. Their littleness, their fragility, like the adorable beings that inhabit them. To be human is to react to the smallness, the cuteness – it’s built in to us so that we know to take care of little ones. Pam Cooper’s little paper shoes do that to us, with tiny laces, straps, toe bumpers – everything from ballet slippers to sneakers and sandals, all crafted from a pearl white paper, some studded with jewels. “Stolen II,” an installation of these shoes hanging from the rear wall of the gallery, is about the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. From each pair of shoes hangs a cardboard tag that describes the laws that allowed countries to forcibly remove children from their parents.

Utopia or Dystopia? Book Artists Respond to the World We Live In

“The fragility conveys the tenuous hold on life these children had,” says Cooper, “as they had no say in what was happening to them.”

Seven years after the kidnapping, more than 100 girls remain missing; it is believed they were forced into sexual slavery.

“Our lives over this past year have changed in ways that we are still trying to comprehend,” says Pisano. “With the pandemic, we lost the unspoken connection we make with one another, from a single handshake to a hug or kiss. This exhibition re-connects us and celebrates the return of the artists, who are reacting, lending their voices, and presenting book works that reflect our tumultuous times.”


Crossroads: Book Artists’ Impassioned Responses to Immigration, Human Rights and Our Environment” is on view at Hunterdon Art Museum, 7 Lower Center Street in Clinton, through September 5. For information on admission procedures and more, visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.

originally published: 07/09/2021

About the author: Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, curator and filmmaker.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

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