Bookmarking Book Art – Barbara Tetenbaum


Here is another instance of “reverse” ekphrasis.   When a writer creates poetry or prose in response to a work of art, that is an ekphrastic work.  Think of John Keats and “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” William Carlos Williams and his poems inspired by Breughel, Randall Jarrell’s “The Bronze David of Donatello” or Mark Doty’s extended essay in response to Jan Davidsz de Heem’s “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon.”

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,                      Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1606-1683

Tetenbaum, both writer and artist, spends a month in a gallery listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, and the result is an “artist’s book” or “bookwork” called Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map.   

imagesPut aside — difficult as it may be — the pleasure of craft and art so plainly suffusing the print, paper and binding of this work, what is its relation to the material of which it is made?  Is it like a “movie of the book”?  Or some sort of literary/artistic criticism?   Are we enjoying Tetenbaum’s “making the novel her own” (as in the pun on mining), or is the work inspiring us to go back to Cather’s novel with renewed interest?  To what degree can we appreciate Tetenbaum’s book art without having read My Ántonia?  How do we think about the “material” of which Mining My Ántonia is made?

Some work in this category of the artist’s response to book material, in which a well-known scene from the book is created, is merely craftwork.  Other work — which can stand on its own, albeit better appreciated in the context of full knowledge of the inspiring book — is art.  We want to make it our own — to mine it — which curiously might send us back to the quarry from which the artist drew her material.

Willa Cather's Prairie, Nebraska
Willa Cather’s Prairie, Nebraska (Photo credit: Ross Griff)