Zink Makes Me Think

The artwork caught my eye first, a diorama featuring several miniature samurai helmets on an irregularly shaped platform hanging from a wall in a gallery in the

The Writing On The Wall

Albuquerque Museum.   When I went to read the title (“Spectacular Helmet” by Melissa Zink), the quotation included on the tag drove everything else out of my mind.

“Its like you’re walking around with this enormous suitcase full of magic and you are never allowed to open it, because the rules say that the things in that suitcase are not worthy of artistic consideration. Worlds, childhood memories, pretend, fantasy, archaeology—all that. And so, until I could open that suitcase, I really didn’t have anything to work with. It was like trying to paint with your hands tied behind your back.”  Melissa Zink.

These words thrilled and excited me – so much so that they brought tears to my eyes.  Although  up to that time Jim, our friend Michael Wester, and I  had been having a lively discussion of both the art we were viewing and whether or not we thought the captions and titles did the art justice, I found myself  reluctant to comment.  Then Michael said something like, “That’s a really amazing statement.”

I was astonished.  I’d thought the words meant so much to me because I was a writer who had her own “enormous suitcase full of magic” and regularly delved into it – despite my awareness that, in the academic world in which I did my education, “the things in that suitcase are not worthy of artistic consideration.”  However, here was Michael – a professional mathematician – finding himself moved by those words as well.  Now, admittedly, Michael is an eclectic personality, interested in far more than mathematics, but his statement made me wonder how many of us carry around private suitcases that we’re apprehensive about opening in public lest the contents be deemed unworthy of consideration.

I decided then and there that we needed a copy of the quotation.  I was about to hand copy it, but one of the guys suggested that maybe we could photograph it.  Since photography was forbidden in the museum, I hurried off and found the gallery guard.  My words tumbling over each other, I explained what we’d like to do.  He smiled, genuinely delighted by our enthusiasm and said, “You like Zink?   Let me come over and you can take your picture.”

We did.  Later Jim transcribed the quote and I sent Michael  a copy.  That might have been the end of it except that, a week or so later, when I was at the library researching something else entirely, I came across a book about Melissa Zink’s art.  It was titled The Language of Enchantment and written by Hollis Walker, a gallery owner who had loved Melissa Zink’s work since she first encountered it in 1978 and who had represented Zink since 1993.

As I read Walker’s introduction, once again I was chilled down to my soul: “The principle source of Zink’s inspiration has been books.  She’s passionate about them, down to the way they smell, everything that contributes to what she thinks of as the ‘book experience,’ and the expression of that passion has been the central concern of her career.”

I turned the pages, looking at the photographs of Zink’s art, feeling rather like Alice gazing through the looking glass into a world that belonged to someone else but nonetheless was deeply familiar.  I loved the narrative dioramas from the series “The (almost) True-To-Life Adventures of Gypsy Dog and Hattie Macwilliam in Darkest Artland.”  Later in her career, Zink moved from these dioramas to “wall-hung pieces with two-dimensional aspects” such as the piece that had caught my eye in the Albuquerque Museum.  Later still, she tightened her focus down to letters and words, creating unique alphabets or illustrating a single word.  No matter how abstract the work became, the sense of story remained.

Most of  Zink’s works were small but, when she tried her hand at works on a larger scale,  the written word remained her inspiration.  Her “Guardians” were “The Minister of Words,” “Chamberlain of Letters,” and “Book Warden.”  Walker’s book showed Zink impishly peeking out from behind the three tall bronze figures, their androgynous heads set atop flattened bodies made from text.

Looking at Zink’s work, I found myself understanding afresh why books I can hold in my hand mean so much to me.  Her generosity in sharing her suitcase of ideas brought home to  me how a book, a word, a letter, are all more than merely mediums for the translation of ideas.  The written word, the printed word, the smell of paper and ink, take me somewhere.  There is a magical experience in the act of reading, what Zink herself called “a trance state.”

I don’t think it’s coincidental that for many people this sense of magic is tied to the physical book.  A good friend of mine was given an e-book device for Christmas.  A dedicated reader, she found this quick and easy way of getting  stories to read – without even having to leave the house or wait for something to be shipped to her – surprisingly addictive.  However, she’s also commented that, if she really loves a book, she buys a physical copy.  Holding the book makes it somehow more “hers.”

How about you?  How do you feel about physical books?  About the book experience?  Are words to read enough or do you, like Melissa Zink, feel there is something to the book itself?

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12 Responses to “Zink Makes Me Think”

  1. Peter Says:

    I come down solidly in the middle. There’s definitely something about book-as-artifact, at least for some books – I keep a box of 20 or 30 that have followed me across several continents, through dozens of moves, and repeated purges of my physical library, and my 1968 Ace paperback of Dark Piper will probably accompany me into my grave. Holding that particular artifact in my hand stirs up emotions and memories particular to itself that the same collection of words in another format (and that includes other physical versions of the book, not just electronic ones) doesn’t.

    On the other hand, once “I have heard it stated that a Zexro tape will last forever.” appears in front of my eyes the outside world goes away, and it doesn’t matter if I’m carefully turning the high-acid cheap pulp pages, scrolling my mouse wheel, or hitting the next page button on my Kindle – I’m on the planet Beltane with Vere Collis and Griss Lugard and the rest and the delivery system fades into the background.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Funny. I was just thinking on a similar line not all that long ago.

    There are a few web comics out here that update a page, or sometimes just a strip, every so often. I enjoy them (particularly a couple of anthro comics, and one wolf comic I’ve found). Waiting for the next update like taking 1-4 days to turn a page. Yet when the creator of one sold a hard copy of the same story I could read on-line, I jumped on it. Even paid extra for a signed copy.

    I think for me, the physical item (book, comic, whatever) allows a deeper connection. In terms of written word, it also allows better immersion, and availability. Don’t have to turn a book off on a plane. Don’t need DSL for a graphic novel. Don’t need to recharge that paper back. And I still wonder how an author “signs” an e-book.

    I just can’t get lost on my computer or an E-reader like I can a book. I remember the books I’ve read. I keep my favorites, or those that made the most impact, tucked away, safe and sound. That includes the ones I have signed by you Jane. And my copy of “Where the Red Fern Grows” with a special tribute written in the inside cover by mom to a special pet I lost. The same pet I learned to say goodbye to thanks to that same book.

    Finally there’s that ownership you mentioned. The feeling of “this is MY copy” that makes it feel that much richer somehow. Seeing the cover also matters. The entire cover, not just the front. It makes it feel like a completed craft. A work of art I get to hold on my hands with little to no fear.

    I’ve yet to have any piece of technology match that.

    P.S. Do I ever post anything short? Even once?

  3. heteromeles Says:

    I have mixed feelings about books. On the one hand, I’m every bit as addicted to books as the people above, and I’ve got my collection that’s followed me through many moves.

    On the other hand, I’ve been learning to read books on my computer and iPhone, and I now think about whether something is important enough to me to get it in paper.

    There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, to be blunt, it’s easier to throw out e-books that I don’t like. Since the only used book store in the area gives out store credit for books and has crappy stock, the only way to get rid of a paper book I don’t want is to donate it to the library. Not that I mind giving to the library, but the book’s cost is sunk when I buy it, and I won’t get anything back.

    The second issue is that I come from a family of bibliophiles. Recently, my uncle loaned me a mid-sixties paperback that he thought I’d enjoy. I haven’t read more than a few pages, because it’s falling apart so badly that I’ll destroy it if I read it. It is, of course, long out of print. Then there are my parents, who have, at last count, over 8000 books in the house, with more bought every year. My mom cheerfully tells me that it will all be my problem some day. A used bookseller appraised it about a decade ago, and told my mom that when she passed, he couldn’t possibly take it all. He advised her to sell her unwanted books online. She’s not going to get around to doing that, so at some point, I’ll be left with a bunch of old books to sell, throw away (due to deterioration) or find space for. I’m not looking forward to it, because I think I’ll have to throw most of them away. The authors are dead, their audiences are gone, and the books have no buyers any more. And I have fond memories of reading some of them as a kid.

    While my mom may think it’s funny to dump this on me, being on the receiving end has changed my attitude. Books require recycling, just like any other form of paper, and I think it’s better to do it yourself if possible. Since the audiences for most authors disappear when the author dies, it’s better the recycle them quickly, and only hold on to the ones that are really meaningful.

  4. Tom MacCarrol Says:

    Reading is reading, and I’ll get my fix from roadside billboards if I have to. But there is a deeper connection to having a copy of your very own. It goes beyond the ease of being free of a desktop machine, or the digital rights issues. {For example- when you ‘buy’ an electronic book, all you get for your money is a license- the publisher’s permission to own and look at it. They can siphon it back anytime, for any reason.}
    Anything I truely love, I want to hold & have.

  5. lobelet Says:

    I love books as physical objects. I own something on the order of 10,000 of them; the product of a lifetime of dedicated collecting. However if I really had to, I could easily get rid of 9,000 or so of them. There’s nothing special about most of them. Some books do have special memories or special properties. I have books that were personally autographed by writers who are long since dead. I have special editions of books; editions that were produced solely and simply to look and feel beautiful. And I have battered, fragile paperback books whose stories once transported me to wonderful new worlds and which are truly precious because those stories are truly magical. I could never get rid of any of those books.

    But these days I mostly read ebooks. I will never stop buying physical books. However there will need to be something special about the book as a work of art, otherwise I will probably get the ebook instead.

    Also I love arranging to meet somebody somewhere and arriving a little early. When the person finally turns up, I get a big kick out of saying, “I wasn’t sure what time you’d arrive, so I brought 4000 books with me to pass the time…”


    -Alan

  6. Paul Says:

    I sometimes read books electronically, too, but also have thousands around here that I’ve collected (my wife would say “hoarded”) over the years — mostly paperbacks, to conserve space. And, yes, they are fragile, even read carefully. When I’m gone, they may end up at various libraries. As for that quote from Melissa Zink: Isn’t it amazing how someone’s “voice” can reach even from beyond the grave and reach someone so meaningfully? And now it has reached me and the other readers of this blog as well.

  7. Hilary Says:

    That quote by Zink is so true! I feel like I have a whole world inside my head that I keep to myself because who knows what people would think of it? And it’s so important to me that if anyone said a bad word I’d probably be crushed. So, probably not going to be a writer. Even my art only really touches on the surface, though I do enjoy sharing what I make with people. 🙂

    As for real books, you already know my ideas on them. But I’d just like to add that I was thrilled when my mom gave me her set of The Chronicles of Narnia when I was little. She got them in Germany and though they’re worth nothing in resale value they are one of my most treasured things, because she got them when she was little too so it’s almost like holding part of my Mom’s life in my hands. I’m just lucky they’re in great shape! Then there’s my first copy of Watership Down. I think I’ve read the poor thing twenty times and it’s nearly split in half, but I could never bear to part with it, even though Mom got me a wonderful hardback copy to replace it. It’s been with me since…oh, Fifth grade maybe! And I’ve enjoyed reading it so many times. Now it’s “retired” and gets to sit on my shelf in a place of honor. ^^ (I couldn’t bear the thought that it would probably get thrown away because it’s damaged. >.> )

    And besides that, I have several others I’ve inherited/won/been given that, besides being good stories are are also reminders of the people who gave them to me, or the me who existed when I got the book, etc.

    I don’t think ebooks can beat that. ^^

  8. Dominique Says:

    For a kid who needed to escape from real life a lot, books were my haven. I don’t just read them, I get lost in them, then re-read them and get lost again. There is so much comfort in that escape.
    However, I find the electronic book impossible to do this with. It feels cold and intangible. This seems strange to me because I realize that it shouldn’t make such a huge difference, but regardless it does.

    Something else that Jane’s wonderful blog made me think today is that ebooks don’t show there owners love either. Let me explain. I have quite a large library at this point, and if a stranger were to enter my library, and examine my books, he could easily tell the books that are most loved. No matter how hard I try, the books are never quite as pristine after a good read. But I find comfort in this. They are truly loved. Maybe that’s way I think of ebooks as cold and hard to get lost in. They are forever pristine, and they never really feel like they are mine. I just… I really love the real thing… no ebooks for me.

  9. janelindskold Says:

    I didn’t want to distract from the topic, but now I can mention that I feel a similar draw to the physical elements of writing as did Melissa Zink. Since I can’t draw, I find myself attracted to molds and printing tools shaped like letters…

    We own an e-reader and find it very useful. Jim has been reading reports on it. He takes it on his commute. However, I don’t think either of us are going to give up “real” books any time soon.

    We actually have a small separate library building to feed our our habit… It’s only twelve by sixteen, but when lined with shelves and with additional free-standing bookcases, it does a pretty good job. Of course, when down the road Jim retires, we’re going to need to do some culling…

  10. Chad Merkley Says:

    I just looked through the images on melissazink.com to try and get an idea of what her art was about. It’s very abstract, and the statements she makes aren’t immediately obvious (the fact that I was looking at 2D images of complex 3D objects did not help). But she used words, pieces of books, and letters all throughout her later works. I was especially taken by a series of bronze dogs textured with letters.

    The thought that all this left me with is that language, especially written language, is itself an abstraction. There is nothing concrete about how the shape of these letters relates to the meaning of this sentence. Or even how the sound of a word relates to its meaning. But still an author is able to convey meaning and emotion through these symbols.

    I have to wonder if that degree of abstraction in story-telling is why we tend to cherish the physical books so much, as a way to make our favorite stories more “real”. An e-book adds an additional level of abstraction and may make it harder to connect emotionally to a story or character. A physical copy of Watership Down or The Chronicles of Narnia makes Fiver and Hazel or Peter and Lucy seem closer.

    I’ll read ebooks, but I’m still going to have to invest in another bookshelf soon.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I really like your thought about how the different formats make the story more abstract or concrete.

      I just picked up a copy of a Current Big Bestseller from my library. It’s on my desk, already slightly battered from the people who have read it before me. I know I’m sharing the journey with these anonymous others.

      You’ve given me another thought I’m going to mention here, but I think I’ll repeat on Wednesday… A book cover opens like a door. I wonder if that physical act makes us feel as if we’re entering a place. I certainly don’t feel the same when I open a computer file or even when Jim opens his e-reader to show me something.

      Interesting…

  11. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I must respond to Chad’s comment about how “There is nothing concrete about how the shape of these letters relates to the meaning of this sentence”. Well, that’s true, but as a former professional calligrapher and one who has just in general been observant of letter forms, I need to say that while there may be nothing concrete about the shapes of the letters affecting meaning, there sure is an effect that the forms have on the feeling of the text. When I put together one of my Bloch Letters (my personal newsletter), I take great care with which fonts I use, sometimes taking one single letter from a different font to go with those from a different one, because something about that one letter bothers me. (Just for example, certain forms of “g” annoy me.)
    And yes, I do prefer a “real” book to an e-book, but most of all, I love the STORIES, and space is limited so an e-book is a great help there.

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