Mary Austin: Bookcentric patron of the arts

[Alyson Kuhn] Mary Austin’s enthusiasm for books literally knows no bounds. Encountering her remarkable collection of artists books — now hovering above 2000 pieces — is like sliding down the wonderlandish rabbit hole. Austin readily acknowledges, “I buy to support living artists. And I have only one criterion: I buy what I like.” A well-curated fraction of Austin’s favorites were recently presented in an exhibition whose subtitle, Theatre of the Book, set the stage perfectly.

Exploding the Codex at 142 Throckmorton Theatre, in Mill Valley, Calif., March 1–April 3, 2011

This show presented several dramatically diverse handfuls of books from your collection. Do they share some conceptual underpinnings?
They do. Daisy Carlson, who curated the show, selected these pieces for their element of surprise. The show’s title, Exploding the Codex, refers to the fact that artist books literally and figuratively explode our notion of what a book is. As for the Theatre of the Book subtitle, theatre and movies and books are more similar than you might think — all of them are about storytelling and sequence.

Cake of Books, by Jody Alexander. The “frosting” is a glass dome (not shown).

What is the story behind Cake of Books?
I saw it at the Printers Fair at Fort Mason several years ago and loved it. I already had two pieces by Jody Alexander, and I was so intrigued by these encaustic books — they are coated in wax, so you can’t open them. You can’t really read them — which is itself an interesting twist on bookmaking — but there’s also the notion that, just as you anticipate the deliciousness of a slice of cake before you have tasted it, you anticipate a good story. Anyway, I said I’d like to buy it, and Jody replied that “it” was actually “them,” five separate works. I told her I’d like to buy them all — and the cakeplate, which she was using to display the pieces. I asked if she had the dome, which she did, and I bought that as well to “complete” the piece. What a thrill to be able to participate in the process!

Colander Calendar, by Ed Baskaukas. The whole year (2007) is told in holes.

Inside Chance, by Linda Smith

I love Colander Calendar and its clever transformation of function. It was displayed next to another piece with prominent holes titled Inside Chance. What’s inside it?
Linda Smith has taken the whole notion of books — how you interact with a book, and how you read and engage with text — and literally turned it inside out. She’s made an eight-compartment book in the form of a die, and the dots [on the die] are die-cut, and inside there is a papier maché globe, which looks solid — but it explodes. It doesn’t look like a codex at all — it’s a book arts transformer!

As in Queen (The ABCedarium of a Typophiliac), by Leda Black.

Are alphabet books particularly intriguing to you?
I do have a lot of books that are just the letters of the alphabet. You can take something as simple as a single letter and put it in a different form to tell a story. In As in Queen (above),  the form is a concertina, or accordion-folded book. The Qs are falling off the page, they aren’t contained within the page or even within the book structure. The color scheme is calming — peachy, light blue, soft on the eyes — and then what’s happening is so astonishing. Leda [Black, the artist] puts you a little “off edge” — which is where creativity and new ideas come from. By the way, I think Q and Z are among my favorite letters — I find Z much more interesting than S. My older son’s name is Caslon, but we all spell his nickname Caz, so he can have a z.

A Blue Coat, by Anna and Arne Wolf. Text from Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, 1914.

Do you know some of the artists whose works are in your collection?
Oh, yes, almost all of them. Linda Smith [the artist of Inside Chance] is one of the few people whose work I have that I don’t know personally. You know, I don’t really think of it as a collection, because I don’t feel that I am collecting. I buy these books to “use” them, in the sense that I read them, and they require active reading. It’s not just curling up with a novel — it takes fiddling and playing with them to discover their stories.

Five Luminous Towers, by Carol Barton.

Winter Orchard, by Marie and Carl Dern. Drawings and sculpture by Carl Dern (d. 2009), design and letterpress printing by Marie Dern.

St. Ostrich in Manhattan: The Visitation of a Martyr, printing and structure by Julie Chen, text by Lois Morrison.

From your perspectives, what does the future hold for books?
The book is such a revered icon of our culture. People are constantly talking about books going away — and many of them will. I am immersed in and fascinated by both worlds, the digital and the analog. I use a Kindle, and I’m an original board member of the Internet Archive, which Brewster [Brewster Kahle, Mary Austin’s husband] founded in 1996. I am also a printmaker and a bookmaker. To provide a focus for the book arts in the Bay Area, I cofounded the San Francisco Center for the Book (SFCB) with Kathleen Burch, in the same year Brewster founded the Internet Archive. He and I both felt we wanted to give back to the communities who made us who we are. But, as I was saying, it’s one thing to transmit and share information, and totally another to provide a tactile experience.

I think an artist’s book can offer “profound reading” that can be applied to other areas of our lives. Art is such a universal thing. It allows people to connect, which is important in itself, and artist books are such a collaborative process. All these voices have to synchronize to get the message out there. It’s a model for other aspects of our lives – how to think outside the binding to express ideas, how to tell your story. We all have a story in us, and I like to think that the Center [SFCB] offers a way for people to tell their stories. There’s a long tradition of writers writing books and selling them. I say, “Let’s make the ‘book part’ part of the message.”

All photos © 2011 Douglas Sandberg Photography

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