Performing Arts

Three South Florida efforts explore the intersection of books and art

After threatening to close almost two dozen libraries, Miami-Dade County recently relented and instead will reduce hours and employees. Across the country, similar cutbacks are taking place. Coupled with the demise of bookstores, both independent and chain, it almost seems like there is a war on books, and as an extension, on education in general.

So it’s a good time to look at what’s happening in our own backyard, at people who love books and art and learning.

At Spinello Projects’ new space on Northwest Seventh Avenue, “The State of the Book” is a unique and wonderful exhibit/installation. In essence it is a reading room filled with books culled from bookshelves of various Miamians, here for public consumption while the exhibit remains open through September.

It’s intentionally a tactile, old-fashioned experience. After coming through the door off the street, you see a façade that looks like an English bookstore, circa Dickens time. Open that door, and a darkened room lit by reading lamps awaits. Created by video and performance artists Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright, the shelves are organized by topics and interspersed with artifacts and knick-knacks, completing the home-library mood.

Browse through the offerings: There are art books loaned from MOCA, and tomes on the birds of Florida from artist Christina Petterson. Millares added his rock-’n’-roll books, and Wright her poetry collection (her mother, the Florida mystery writer Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, contributed her personal first editions). Other artists and museums complete the reading room with sections on travel, spirituality, history, photography, Cuban-themed books in Spanish and English, and one shelf dedicated to motorcycles.

“The State of the Book” is a literal title addressing the topic of the state and its involvement with books, says Millares. “This is a political statement, with the closing of libraries, books being discarded because there is no room for them,” he says while pointing to a top shelf lined with old Encyclopedia Britannicas.

“We want people to physically enjoy the book — sit down, open it, find out how much is in there that you can’t find on Wikipedia.” He adds that the reading room or the library is also a communal space, as opposed to the lone computer/Kindle space. “It’s a place where people can engage with each other.”

Indeed, moving through this reading room is a physical experience. Pick out a large, coffee-table-size book and turn the pages slowly; it’s as though every new page reveals something new and special. Or choose a book that has a textile cover; you can feel it before even delving in. There are books with the author’s note inscribed on a title page, or ones where a reader has underlined segments. These are elements that simply cannot be reproduced on a computer screen, imprints that keep us tied to the past and present, and to each other.

The exhibit will close with a performance from the artists. What the performance will be Millares won’t say, but it will include books.

Over the last several years another labor of love of books has been taking place, relatively under the radar. It’s called the SWEAT Broadsheet Portfolio, and it involves collaboration between 46 artists and 42 writers and poets from South Florida.

In 2009, some of these artists and writers talked about creating an interdisciplinary book arts center, both to bring together people who traditionally work in isolation and to promote local arts. They didn’t get funding for such a center but pressed on anyway. Meeting at the alternative SWEAT Records space in Little Haiti, they decided on a broadsheet project, where an artist and writer would be paired to produce one 12- by 18-inch page of text and visuals. Once upon a time, before radio and TV and the Internet, broadsheets — tacked on to walls and poles — were the vehicles used to deliver news, advertise, promote a political cause and publically publish prose and poetry. These would be a 21st century version.

With no money but lots of sweat and hard work 75 broadsheets materialized, made from everything from collage to inkjet, silkscreen and woodcut prints, organized chiefly by artists Tom Virgin and Lea Nicklass and poet Michael Hettich.

In 2012 during the International Book Fair, they were exhibited at the MDC Wolfson Campus Center Gallery. There are far too many interesting broadsheet couplings to list here, but just some of them include Lydia Rubio and Hettich; Rosemarie Chiarlone (visuals) and Susan Weiner; Brian Reedy and P. Scott Cunningham (of the O Miami poetry project); Virgin and Campbell McGrath.

According to Virgin, the dream of an arts book center has not died, it just might take some time. He believes that creating a tangible, visible presence for the world of words is important, and that building a community among groups that should have a natural affinity for each others’ genre — authors and artists — is also valuable.

The complete portfolio is currently housed at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University and will also be with MDC and public library system. Another exhibit is planned for fall 2014, says Jeremy Mikolajcsak, executive director of the MDC Museum & Galleries of Art + Design, along with a collaboration with the Center for Book Arts in New York.

Meanwhile, after some fits and starts, the Turn-Based Press has found a huge home in downtown Miami. Founder and artist Kathleen Hudspeth explains that the mission of Turn-Based is both to provide a physical work space for people to learn, and then practice, printmaking, but also to facilitate communication among artists. Like those behind the broadsheet project, she realized that artists in any discipline often work alone and can become isolated from ideas. And books after all, “historically are a principle way of communication,” she says.

In a space shared with several studios and alternative galleries, Turn-Based Press — which has received a Knight Arts Challenge Grant — opened its first exhibit of works on paper this summer. “The Hasty Show” included inkjet prints, engravings, zines and self-published books from artists across the country.

Behind the exhibition area, the sprawling workshop is under construction. Eventually it will house four etching presses, work stations and storage space for prints that are being created on-site. Hudspeth says “it’s important to foster a collaborative process,” where people can literally turn to one another while making art.

The goal is to have members who already know print-making and need the facility, and workshops for the general public. While members will be able to use the space during regular hours, workshops will be held in the evenings and last about four to six weeks for a course.