Sisters of Invention: Forty-Five Years of Book Art by Sas Colby, Betsy Davids, and Jaime Robles
by Barbara Roether
The following is a review of an exposition at the San Francisco Center for the Book that opened October 23, 2015 and will continue until January 10, 2016.
What can be made from words? Or what do words make? Only what we make of their meaning, or something more? In the multitude of works in Sisters of Invention words are found struggling to be more, to be embodied in color, in shape, solid, sculptural, to live in time, appearing and disappearing. Here are words on a tablet of beeswax, in a bottle, sewn onto fabric. Book covers become wooden doors, pages become canvases, poems descend on wires, and we are lifted into the secret three-dimensional life of language. Interplay between the physical lives of books/or book like objects, with their interior literary message gives tension to this extraordinary exhibit.
The three women represented here, each a multidisciplinary artist, carry forward a creative practice born amidst the feminism of the 1970s, but in no way limited by that. Spanning forty-five years the show is indeed a great catalogue of cultural changes in the world of art and literature, and of women’s unique role in bringing that forward.
The feminine, in its sense of an embodying force, in its sense of renewal/reuse and in its use of personal narrative, is very much in evidence. The use of traditional women’s arts in Sas Colby’s patchwork sewn books from the late 1970s, to the household feel of works in drawers and boxes, draws us to the power of the domestic. And of course there is the greeting card by Robles “Tortilla Holiday” which is printed on a tortilla. Experimentation with new materials is always in evidence, books are laser printed, images photocopied. Even the process of recording, in a hand-painted camera-shaped book by Colby, is recorded. Betsy Davids’ handwritten journals of private pilgrimage become detailed public records of time and place. Her dream journals, which include images of her dreaming, make the most personal act universal.
Travel (Europe, Asia) informs much of the work here, and includes images of site-specific work by Robles in the UK, including an old brick wall, which is transformed by autumnal leaves printed with poems. Travel happens in this exhibit, across time, place, materials and methods, and its effect (like real travel) is to refresh and awaken us to new possibilities.
The progression of printing technologies that have become open to poets and writers is very much part of the show. The early letterpress work of Davids and Robles reminds us that letterpress in the ’70s was not just a pretty way to print poetry but one of the few methods by which non-mainstream writing could get printed at all. Small press, after all, used to mean books that were printed on small presses. Watching the fine artistry with which these writers embrace subsequent technology, color copies, laser printing, or cheap offset, is a testament to the value of their training in the craft. These artists can make even photocopied, spiral-bound work look elegant.
So much of the cultural life of San Francisco, as a center for literature and art has its roots here (Betsy Davids was one of the founders of the Pacific Center for the Book Arts). There is something generative in the sheer variety of work presented, this constant invention, as the title suggests, is contagious. As more than one viewer was heard to say, “I’m going home right now to start to make a book.” Sisters of Invention succeeds on all fronts.
The beautifully designed exhibit catalogue is of interest as a book in its own right. (Available from SFCB.org). Profiles of the artists, along with essays by Betty Bright and Susan E King, illuminate the contexts of the work
Barbara Roether is a San Francisco writer who began her own career in local small press publishing. She sometimes blogs about the arts on her website barbararoether.com. Her first novel, This Earth You’ll Come Back To, was just published by McPherson & Company.