Vessel: A Guild of Book Workers Exhibition

Around the time that I was beginning to think of a theme for the next Guild of Book Workers exhibition, I visited Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum. One of the nation’s premier archaeological sites, Moundville is just seventeen miles south of The University of Alabama, home to the MFA in the Book Arts Program. Surrounded by twenty-six earthen mounds, the Jones Archaeological Museum at Moundville sits along a bend in the Black Warrior River. The site of the ancient Mississippian Culture or Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, Moundville was a political and religious center circa AD 1000 to AD 1450. The museum houses over 200 prehistoric artifacts – copper gorgets, engraved shell, stone disks, and a large collection of earthenware vessels. Many of these artifacts were unearthed over 100 years ago, during excavations in 1905 and 1906.

Among the many artifacts found in and around the mounds, the effigy vessels were the most striking to me, bearing the likenesses of people and animals, used perhaps as part of burial ceremonies. The vessels seemed to hold the secrets of this lost culture. How these vessels were used, what they may have contained, the incised and engraved decorations, and their significance in ceremonies would tell much about the culture of the people who lived here. After viewing the museum’s collection, I walked along the riverbank among the water oaks and hackberries, amidst the songs of the Indigo Buntings and the White-Eyed Vireos. As I thought about how these vessels delivered clues about the lives and culture of the people who inhabited this land in great numbers before us, my thoughts turned to the red earthenware vessel discovered in 1945 in Naj ‘Hammādī.

Discovered by an Arab peasant digging soil at the site, that vessel held the earliest surviving binding structures. Dating from circa AD 350 – AD 400, these thirteen leather and papyrus bindings became known as the Nag Hammadi codices. These primitive binding structures give us a glimpse into the materials, tools, and processes, the considerations, and the available resources of these early bookbinders. The detail of a finished edge, a tacket, a running stitch, reveal the care in crafting these books from rudimentary materials. According to Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, in her book The Gnostic Gospels, the Arab peasant, Muhammed ‘Alī al-Sammān recounted years later that after finding the vessel, he hesitated to break it open, considering that a “jinn” or spirit might live inside. Perhaps we can agree that, in fact, spirits were inside that vessel, the spirits of the makers of those limp leather bindings and the writers of those texts, and perhaps even, the spirits of the future makers who would follow in this lineage of craft. The theme for the Guild’s 2015–2017 Vessel Exhibition was conceived of such thoughts and musings.

As the submissions came in, I could see that the theme sparked interest and creativity among our members. It was exciting to see the diversity of interpretations on the theme and heartening to see the enthusiasm that it generated. One work in particular that struck me was Cathy DeForest’s Our Immortal Soul, an artist’s book that “elevates the vessel of language” by pairing early forms of writing with the Manifesto of the Poets of Baghdad, written in the wake of the Al-Mutanabbi Street bombing. DeForest’s work, exquisitely crafted, draws the viewer into the center of what she calls “this container of human experience” and leaves us with the question of how we intend to fill this vessel, with “creativity and humanity” or with “destruction and horror”.

It was the difficult task of the jurors Sarah Bryant, Timothy Ely, and Deborah Howe, to select only a third of the submissions for the traveling exhibit. Sarah, Tim, and Deborah brought to their jury process a depth of knowledge and a broad range of experience in the many book crafts. With distinct expertise, they each had their own criteria for select- ing their top picks for the show. After working through the submissions individually, and identifying their common selections, the jurors had a series of international phone calls, spanning three time zones, to discuss the merits of individual works, and to make their final selections. It was clear that these discussions were lively and enlightening for the jurors and that they relied on and trusted each other’s unique perspective and particular expertise when it came to discussing works employing techniques outside of their area of mastery. I am very grateful to Sarah, Tim, and Deborah for lending their enthusiasm and expertise to the jury process.

I would like to thank The University of Alabama’s Center for Instructional Technology, Faculty Resource Center, and Multimedia Services for providing support and resources for the online Intent to Enter form, the online Submission form, audio and video editing for instructional tutorials, cloud-based storage for the exhibit’s elec- tronic resources, studio space for the professional photography, and physical space to receive and store the works and to prepare the works for exhibition and travel.

There are a few people who were essential to accomplishing all of these tasks and to whom I am very grateful for all of their efforts and energy. Alana Baldwin of Ant Lord Press and Raw Medium Collective designed our beautiful exhibition logo for both print and web. She also served as a consultant on many design questions. You can find more of her design work at Brandon Walker assisted with equipment and studio space and shared his sharp attention to detail and thoughtful solutions to any technical challenges that arose. He produces multimedia projects as Brandon Walker Productions. Mary Elizabeth Watson was vital at every step in accomplishing all of the tasks involved in preparing this traveling exhibition. Her wit and charm were invaluable throughout many months of seemingly endless to-do lists and many late nights and weekends of exhibits work. She creates book works under the imprint Roygbiv Press. Julie Leonard designed the beautiful printed exhibition catalog. Designer for the four most recent exhibition catalogs, Julie has brought a new standard of high quality to the design of the Guild’s exhibition catalogs. And lastly, my deepest gratitude is to Randy Arnold for absolutely everything, yet again. Randy helped develop many of the processes during the last exhibit that served as a roadmap for preparing this show for traveling. Randy, Mary Elizabeth, and I photographed the works for the catalog with assistance from Alana and Brandon.

The book as vessel inspires beautiful metaphor — a craft for traveling, a container, a receiver, a transporter. Across time and culture, the vessel is at the center of many ceremonies and rites of passage. Native American cultures regarded the vessel as a portal to a sacred realm. The book as craft is the book worker’s vessel to sail the high seas, to hold dearest memories, and to indicate the pulse of life. Prompted to consider vessel, members interpreted the theme as they were so inspired. The work presented here is a vibrant and dynamic collection of artists’ books, fine bindings, fine press printing, calligraphy, and sculptural book works that showcases both the history of the book worker’s craft, as well as contemporary interpretations of the book form. The Guild was founded, primarily for the purpose of mounting exhibitions of members’ work, in 1906, the same year that excavations at Moundville were uncovering the vessels that would inspire the theme for Vessel, the Guild’s 2015–2017 triennial exhibition.

Amy LeePard
Exhibitions Chair