Wrapping words in scraps of beauty Exhibit: Cuban artists and writers have collaborated to burst the borders of what defines a book, creating art to read.

August 20, 1998|By Joanne P. Cavanaugh | Joanne P. Cavanaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MATANZAS, Cuba -- Black tissue paper rustles as you pick up the slim book of poetry entitled "Unforeseen Nectar." On the cover, tied to flesh-colored lace, is a foldout fan of shaved wood and paper, a delicate canvas for a hand-painted garden and its story:

The bee returned to my rose bush,

I told him,

It's late for nectar,

This is still winter for me...

-- Dulce Maria Loynaz

There are only 200 copies of "Unforeseen Nectar," each edition carrying a hand-drawn image of a kerosene lantern -- the symbol of Ediciones Vigia, a small book collective where designers, illustrators, poets and writers create works in a genre known as artists' books.

The Cuban books, which will be on display at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, starting tomorrow, are unique examples of an evolving 20th-century art form now featured in galleries and museums in such cultural centers as London and New York. The Museum of Modern Art has the world's largest collection, directors say.

It's not easy to define artists' books. Generally, it's art created in a book format -- though such works often play with the concept of "book." Pieces might be styled into a doll's bed or made of glass pages. They can be cut to resemble houses or filled with notes, opera tickets or gum wrappers found on a sidewalk. Some are as big as a room, others palm-sized.

The books provide a three-dimensional canvas (some work like accordions or telescopes). One of the genre's early modern manifestations, for example, is children's pop-up books. The works often contain poetry or prose, or may be left blank for a new author's scribblings.

"Sometimes it's a marriage between writer and a visual artist to produce a unique, limited-edition book about craftsmanship, visual beauty and literature," says Walter Gomez, owner of Gomez Gallery in Baltimore. "It's also a marriage of these three aesthetics to make a statement, something political or something that resonates in the soul. It's really quite open."

Gomez, whose Baltimore gallery specializes in Latin American art, says he started seeing dealers specializing in artists' books at the 1996 Iberoamerican Art Fair in Caracas, Venezuela. "It is a very formidable art form that has been gaining strength," he says.

Baltimore artist Soledad Salame is working on her first book-art project with a Chilean entomologist who has studied Chile's myths and legends about insects. Salame's insect-oriented prints and paintings are displayed at the Gomez Gallery.

Book art is "a very intimate view of what you do. It is very precious, like jewelry," Salame says. "You do it by hand. It's like sculpture; you can see it being born from the paper. It's something very private."

The genre is especially popular in Latin America, where it has caught on grass-roots-style. In nations like Cuba, for example, literary or political expression has become easier as inexpensive "printing" processes -- such as mimeograph, photocopy machines and desktop computers -- become available. The Ediciones Vigia books capture the spirit of the artistic form.

A group of 15

Since 1985, a group of 15 or so Cuban artists in Matanzas, a few hours east of Havana, have published the rustic yet elegant books made of recycled newsprint, burlap, feathers, plastic bags, cloth or whatever material they can recycle.

The group's workshop is a regal old colonial house on the banks of the San Juan River in the Plaza de la Vigia (Watchtower Plaza), for which it's named. Matanzas, a town once known as the Athens of Cuba, has long attracted writers, artists, poets and musicians. This building has served as a writer's home, a wine tavern and a casa de trova, a gathering place to hear traditional Cuban guitar music.

Working a few hours a day -- around the clock if there's a big order -- book designers and technicians line a long table in the second-floor studio, surrounded by glue, scissors, watercolor paints and scraps of paper. A primitive mimeograph machine, and now a photocopy machine that sometimes jams, are their printing equipment. Downstairs, there is a gallery and wicker-decorated reading salon. A heavy, old-fashioned cash register is the room's centerpiece.

The visitors who stop here are often European tourists on their way to Cuba's famous Varadero Beach. Others are art buyers who come specifically because they've heard of Ediciones Vigia through book exhibits in Guadalajara, Barcelona, Vienna, Toronto, London or New York. A poetry scroll or book runs $1 to $10 U.S. Some months, the collective may bring in $200 to $300; other months, the take is zero.

"The idea was to create books in which young poets could be published. This is the only one in the country," says Ariel Lopez Gonzalez, 20, who has worked as a book designer/technician at the collective for two years. "Each copy is done by hand. Every one is the same, the same design, the same colors. But it's always just a little bit different. It's a lot of work. And the paper is not very good."

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