from the bindery: an homage to life

This is Joseph Cornell.
A fascinating and eccentric 20th-century artist, sculptor, and avant-garde filmmaker. He is best known as a pioneer of collage and assemblage art--art which most famously took the form of diorama-like boxes. his art was heavily influenced by his Christian Science faith, mid-20th-century surrealists, the cosmos, Emily Dickinson, and other actors and dancers of his time. Below are a few examples of his boxes

Throughout his life, Cornell struggled to find ways of capturing and reconciling his myriad interests and experiences. To poet Marianne Moore, Cornell confided his frustration. He wrote: “There seems to be such a complexity, a sort of endless ‘cross-indexing’ of detail (intoxicatingly rich) in connection with what and how I feel that I never seem to come to the point of doing anything about it.”* What he did end up doing about it was channeling that inertia into collage and assemblage art. This form of art allowed Cornell to draw those connections between the disparate elements of his life.

I was introduced to Cornell only about 18 months ago. Our final fine binding project at the North Bennet Street School was to design and execute a binding for Dickran Tashjian's Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire.

As I began to read the book and research more about Cornell, I exclaimed multiple times both inwardly and outwardly, "Why haven't i known about this guy sooner?!" I related to his art, ideas, philosophies, questions, and curiosities. I especially connected his drive and desire to pursue and connect them all. He was another trying to bridge gaps between a multitude experiences and interests partially through art and spirituality.

Feeling this connection to Cornell made designing a book cover based on his work incredibly fun. I designed my cover as if it were one of Cornell's boxes with compartments filled with an eclectic collection of objects representing many of my central interests and the recurring motifs in my life. These included family and ancestors, memory, land and environment, entropy and order, creation, the physical laws governing space, and ultimately spirituality, light, and God. I was pleased to discover as I read more about Cornell and looked at more of his art that many of these dovetail with motifs in his art and thoughts, particularly themes revolving around spirituality and the physical universe. While I'm not sure I possess what Donald Windham considered Cornell's "genius for sensing the connection between seemingly remote ideas, emotions and objects," the possibility of at least trying to reconcile and connect some of the "seemingly remote," elements of me was a compelling and overall delightful challenge.*

So here is what I came up with.

While part of me clamored for a more minimalist design, another part of me rejoiced in the clutter and the possibilities of being able to unite these elements through the binding craft.

As for these elements, here is a quick breakdown of each "object" in each "compartment" beginning with the back cover:

1. Thomas C. Thomas, my dark-eyed, mustachioed Welsh great-grandfather with the same name twice: Writer of poetry, weaver, inventor, miner, fruit farmer. He planted my family, at least in part, in Utah, and one of his wild roses planted in the orchards still lives in a corner of our yard today. It seemed fitting that such a multi-faceted man, whose genes I seem to have inherited, take part in this piece.

2. A tiny collage of an apple branch using linen thread, book cloth, and leaves cut out from a Sargent painting in an art book. Apple trees are a family symbol. These trees along with many other fruit trees in our yard dominated my childhood. They represent not only work of the harvest but also many an adventure for lost orphaned girls and cops and robbers. Fruit trees are also a potent symbol of life, learning, and spiritual change, which is significant in my life.

3. A collage of excerpts from four separate journal entries. Journal keeping has been a central endeavor in my life. I've written nearly every day since 19 January 1995.

4. The Spiral Jetty. A continuing obsession of mine. It is one of the first earthworks art pieces created by Robert Smithson in 1970 in the northern part of the Great Salt Lake. The ideas behind the Spiral Jetty are tied to environment, entropy, chaos, and reclaiming industrial waste through art.

5. Sailing is one of my favorite things to do. Cornell also featured sailboats, ships, and other nautical objects prominently in his work. The sailboat is a collage of linen thread, muslin, book cloth, and a tiny clipping of water from an ocean in a Winslow Homer painting in the art book that I cut up.

On the front cover:
1. The balloon is a recurring motif in my life. I was enchanted by hot air balloons as a child and included them often in drawings and even a yarn punch picture I did in 4th grade. This particular rendition is inspired by Kari Jorgensen's hot air balloons, which appear frequently in her art. In the larger narrative of this design, the hot air balloon is me.

2. The compass is a more concrete representation of the heartbrain, which is a term I use when talking about learning and finding truth through the spirit/heart AND the mind. This is something I think about all the time. The heartbrain had to make it into the box! In one of the LDS books of scripture, the Doctrine and Convenants, Section 88:118 talks about seeking knowledge by study and by faith. Section 8 verse 2 also says how God will speak to us through the Holy Ghost to our minds and our hearts. The actual image of the heartbrain is rather like a blob--unsightly and too abstract for this book cover. So I chose the compass because it connotes clarity of direction (which one will have if one seeks truth from God through the heart and the mind). It symbolizes the whole of truth as well. I, as the hot air balloon, am in flight--ever dynamic (hopefully), never static as i progress through life, gaining more light and understanding....Which brings me to the last panel.

3. The cosmos. The cosmos motif continues onto the edge decoration of this book and the endsheets.

I share Cornell's interest in the physical and spiritual laws governing creation and the universe and all the elements in it. This cosmic compartment of my "box" represents some fairly abstract but awesome doctrinal points in Mormonism having to do with light and man's ability to become like God. The closer we draw to God, the more light (both in a literal and figurative sense) and understanding we attain, the more we become like Him.


I have mused upon the greater theme of gifts within this text while mulling over these objects. They represent experiences, ideas, and interests whose variety I sometimes feel burdened by but which are really gifts from God--gifts of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge and whole truth that draw me closer to Him and to others. Along with the bookbinding craft which I used to piece them together, they are all pieces of a much broader existence. "Just be glad, " Dad says, "that you are interested in and find satisfaction in so many things."

There's a lot more depth here, but I think I've already gone a little further than necessary. I've hesitated to flesh this out here in so much detail, wondering if it's better to just let the book speak for itself. But the fact that i was able, through bookbinding, to create a fairly satisfying, compelling representation of myself in a work of art that is also an homage to another artist who created so much of his work in homage to others is something that makes me a joyful bookbinder and not a reluctant one.

(*excerpts and ideas from pp.22-23 in Tashjian's book)


Jeff Roberts said...

Your binding job is gorgeous. I covet it.

Are you familiar with Trasobares' limited edition homage done for Grassfield Press?

César Trasobares, Untitled (Homage to Joseph Cornell), 1992 Cedar box, wire, tinted gesso, paper, xerography, Christmas ornament, plastic cube, feathers, coral rock, book
Published by Grassfield Press, Miami Beach, Florida, Edition of 30

In 1992 Grassfield Press commissioned César Trasobares to create an homage to Joseph Cornell using a cedar box and a copy of the book, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, by Dickran Tashjian.
Trasobares covered the cedar box with a wire lid that opens like a gate to the nostalgic garden of Cornell's collage, For Josephine, that is printed on the cover of the book. When the book is removed, the open gate reveals Cornell in his garden in Flushing, New York. In a direct reference to Cornell's assemblages, Trasobares selected an array of evocative objects for display in the box's small compartments.
Trasobares adds a new dimension to the book's central theme of gift-giving by montaging excerpts from the IRS tax rulings regulating gifts of art work. Such social commentary is a common feature of Trasobares' work. He also pays tribute to Cornell as an "Enchanted Wanderer" by scattering airline schedules throughout the lid's montage.
Trasobares (b. 1949, Cuba) lives and works in Miami, Florida. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Trasobares has exhibited extensively since 1970, and was included in "Cuba U.S.A.," a traveling exhibition originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1991. He is a recipient of artist fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Cintas Foundation.

The cedar box was hand-crafted by Luis Baltar, Miami, Florida. Hans Namuth's photograph of Joseph Cornell (1969) was reproduced by permission.

Sue said...

I think a saw this book last time I was in Utah, but I didn't have you to explain it to me. It is lovely and beautiful. I appreciate knowing it's starting point and it's meaning to you. I love collage. I loved seeing those boxes. When I was young I had a floor to ceiling collage on my bedroom wall - about six feet wide. I loved it - mostly made of images that I liked.If the wall had been other than concrete my mother might have balked at my efforts. I liked the idea of collage in a box. hmmmmm. There are too many good ideas in the world and not enough time.

Blair said...

I remember this book as well. Such a great talent. Beautiful work as always!

Amanda, Curtis, Ellis, Hugh said...

Bid, thank you for exhibiting your book. It opens up our minds and hearts as we learn of and from your experience. I admire your work so much that I'm glad you included me in a part of it, talking about just how to arrange the elements on the cover and the symbol of the compass. In the end it is YOU who courageously created it and now courageously share that creation.

Nancy said...

You are not only an amazing book binder, but a stunning person. Thank you for sharing your design and the genius behind it all. I sure am glad to have such an amazing cousin.

christina q thomas said...

Jeff-Thank you for your comment and compliments! I am not familiar with Trasobares' homage, but how interesting that it, too, is based on Tashjian's book. Tashjian's daughter is a graduate of the bookbinding programm at NBSS, where I studied. He sent us the copies of is book and signed them all to us individually, which was very generous and kind of him. I would love to see Trasobares' work!

By the way, I visited North Andover last spring to visit NEDCC as well as the great museum of printing. what a fantastic place run by a man who knows printing backwards and forwards!

christina q thomas said...

Sue~ Thanks for your comment and kind words. Oh, if only you knew how my brain is overflowing with ideas! While i was in Indiana living with Amanda, I collaged a tree on my bedroom wall. it was collaged only out of words, which took some time. i'm beginning anew on my current bedroom walls, but progress is slow. and oh! how i want to make dioramas. in fact, this sunday we are going to make dioramas with peeps after being inspired by the peep show diorama contest (google "peep show 2009" and you'll probably find it.)

not enough time, you say. this has been my lifetime lament. really, i suppose we have eternity for creation, so all is not lost!

christina q thomas said...

Blair~thanks for your comment. Next time I botch something (probably tomorrow) i'll be sure and show you. :)

Mand~it's true, you were the inspiration for the compass! did i mention that in the post. i hope so. i have a whole presentation for the actual process of binding this book--step-by-step slides and the like, but i think it would be overkill the post it, even tho it's super interesting

Nancy~You are too, too nice. Thanks for the kind words. one thing that is nice about these blogs is seeing all that each other is doing in their lives and all they are creating, no matter what it is. i bet there really is genius behind it all that we can't even see. hopefully when we look back at our lives, we will see masterpieces!

Sue said...

I wish I had seen the tree. I tend to haunt thrift stores for scrabble letters. I don't know what I will do with them yet. I love their subtle variations, their simplicity and their potential.
The "Peeps show" sounds fun. I'll look forward to seeing more of your wonderful creativity.

ZLB said...

gorgeous. i have been a long time fan of cornell and your book is such a lovely homage to him, your life and craft. hope to see you soon!

John said...

I love you and I love sailing too! I will treasure our day of sailing in Idaho and you taking the wheel (how old were you?). You were a natural. As for your book binding--why aren't you a millionaire yet? And, ahem, I didn't mind all the other lovely things you wrote too. Have you really never skipped a day of journaling since 1995? I love that. I admire that. I seem to skip more than write. Very sad.

Miss you.

This is Mary--not JOhn (though he would agree with everything you wrote)

Wendy said...

I'm a little behind the curve in reading this post, but I am so glad I finally did. All those weeks (or was it months) of working on our fine bindings of this book together I knew that there were a lot of ideas floating around in your mind about it. How lovely to read about them now and reflect back to that wonderful and creative time together. It adds new layers of meaning to the binding. I am so glad you shared your thoughts. Now if only we could all come together again, with as much time and energy and resources, and make new fine bindings.