Collector’s Editions

W ithin a single room in SCSU’s Buley Library, the skyline of a city unfolds, a tree grows to full height and a jewel-toned quilt weaves together on a whim. 

These are the miracles of the Artists’ Book Collection, acquired, curated and overseen by Tina Re, the Special Collections Librarian. With over 100 books, all exceedingly rare—many are one of less than 200 copies—the collection is a unique microcosm, covering topics from civil war to alcohol addiction to socialist 1950s housewifery. It includes a book the size of a post-it—equipped with its own fingernail-sized magnifying glass—and another large enough to cover the whole table.

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Re got her start working in Yale’s library system, where she first discovered artists’ books. She recalls one in particular, a “little pamphlet made on a xerox machine… called Your Co-worker Could Be a Space Alien,” she says. “The text was cut out from a type-written page and stuck on. It was so edgy and provocative and powerful in the middle of this big old stodgy Sterling Library. It just stayed with me.”

When she began working at SCSU, Re wanted to bring artists’ books, and their unique pleasures, to the student body there. She started the collection with Place of the Long River: A Connecticut River Anthology, a book of poetry and prose illustrated with bucolic woodblocks using transparent inks to add depth and shadow. Paging through it, she runs her fingers over the text, feeling the texture of the letters. “This is letterpress-printed,” she says. “When the metal type presses into the paper, it leaves an impression. They call it a kiss.”

The same sensory joy and romantic sensibility can be found across the collection. Artists’ books are in thrall to detail; the choice of paper, for example, affects not only the look of the content but also the texture under the reader’s hand, as well as the sound of turning the page. One particularly extravagant piece is an Ursula K. Le Guin short story printed on paper so thin and rigid that it makes a delicious crinkling. This book comes with a dramatic woodblock of a tree and a cylindrical mirror, which, placed just so, causes the tree to reach for the sky in its reflection.

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Then there are the books that trade on sterner stuff. Heather Weston, a clinical psychologist, created a palm-sized text, A Diction, that, when closed, looks like a shot glass. When opened, it forms a spiral—presumably a downward one—charting the inner monologue of a person trying to justify having just one more drink, and maybe a chaser. Another, A Mideast Kaleidoscope by Louise Neaderland, is consciously low-budget. A spray of black and white images and text fans out to create a violent tract on war. Each page has several hole punches in it so the reader can change the position of the one-spoke binding, thereby revealing a different message. All spread out, Re points out that its shape looks more like a circular saw blade than a kaleidoscope. “You can almost hear it whirring,” she says.

While the collection is impressive in its own right, Re is most excited about the way students at SCSU interact with the books. “It’s not just art. It really is about connecting across the whole curriculum,” she says. Students come from departments as far-flung as criminology, mental science, nursing, social work, creative writing and women’s studies to see the artists’ books. They’re often inspired to make their own, which they can do at one of Re’s workshops.

Re shows me some student work: a photo book of a mechanic at work, bound in metal; a bouquet of wild phrases sprouting from a cylinder, mimicking a jester’s hat; and a flip book in which a pool ball rolls tantalizingly closer to the corner pocket before the last page, which is a tart, blank green—a witty refusal to give the reader what they expect.

While Re still searches far and wide for new artists’ books to add to the shelves, the influx of student artwork means the collection is growing into an even more unique whole. The student books are now the rarest in the collection—truly one-of-a-kind.

Artists’ Book Collection at Hilton C. Buley Library
501 Crescent St, New Haven (map)
Viewable by appointment during the week.
(203) 392-5597 | ret1@southernct.edu
www.libguides.southernct.edu/c.php?g=7187

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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