November 2020

Artist books, paper, thread, watercolor paint

The books stand five inches tall and three inches wide. Two sheets of paper sewn down the center with a pamphlet stitch in fine, golden-yellow, bookbinder’s linen, they alternate between geometric color blocks on one side of the sheet and the unpainted backs of those pages so that the center fold is a full spread of color and the first and last spreads on either side are white. Inside it reads:

These days I feel like a lot of things around me are fragmented.

Time feels both broken and elastic, almost undifferentiated. I schedule my days in blocks at
the end of which I can imagine that something called progress has happened. I try to believe it. Earlier this month my advisor agreed that reading the materials I could read and writing the words I could write was better than doing nothing. So I try to piece together the scraps of this research, those that I’ve found so far.

I believe, without proof, that in the whole, these fragments will be something beautiful.

For the last five months I’ve been participating in a monthly art exchange with a group of mostly-strangers. Some people stay in the exchange month after month, others appear and disappear. As far as I can tell, only two of us have been in every month since July. For the last few months I’ve been using these pieces as a way to think and feel and communicate about what it means to be writing a dissertation on the history of environment and technology during a pandemic that has put a halt to much archival research. Sometimes the link is explicit, like the zine about feeling unmoored as I set off to begin my research, somethings it is more literal, like the stamped prints of plants I saw at research sites. For November 2020, a month that seems to have contained enough events, national, global, and personal to take up several months’ worth of time, I set out to paint colors between strips of cut painters’ tape and turn them into artist books.

Using little tubes of watercolor paint my partner and I bought at the artist colony supply shop in Johnson, Vermont in 2008 and the largest paper I had on hand (a soft drawing paper which buckled and bent with the water) I filled in the shapes I’d created until the only white space remaining was that beneath the painters’ tape dividing lines. I couldn’t have said what I was trying to communicate, but the sense for it had crept into my thoughts as I was waking up for several days and I knew there was something there.

It was only after I had cut and folded and stitched these into pocket-sized artist books that I started to have a feeling for what I was getting at. There’s a sense I have, these days, that many things are in fragments. There’s a tension, I think, between the undifferentiated time of living and working and being at home and the fragmentary nature of my research these days. Without the archival visits I had imagined, I work with what I can find. And, to some extent, historical research is always a matter of fragments, whether the challenge is too many or too few. I have a huge stack of newsletters to read, but some issues are simply missing, location unknown.

This book, I realized, was a way to play with the idea of believing in the process of reading things and writing about them. Forcing myself to draw some link, however tenuous, between what I spend all day doing on my computer and the creative joy of making a physical object to mail to a stranger forces me to engage with my research, and its process, on a different level. Instead of analyzing the layout of graves relocated in 1954 I feel my way towards shapes in color. Instead of tracing the development of an educational grant program in the late 1990s, I describe, as plainly as I can, what it feels like to do this work.

One of the most profound realizations I had in the first few years of grad school was that thinking and feeling were not nearly so distinct as I had thought. With an undergrad education at a women’s college I trained myself to begin sentences with “I think” instead of “I feel” and I encourage my students to do the same, to own their ideas as the intellectual objects they are. But at the same time, the feeling of thinking and the thoughts themselves can’t be entirely separated. To think is to feel; to me, to engaged fully intellectually with research is to open your heart to the material. So, I think, I have to keep making artwork about what it feels like to do research.