Artist As Archivist: Maureen Cummins at Watts History of the Book Program

November 29 – December 1, one of several extraordinary Watts History and Culture of the Book Program events was held at the John Carter Brown Library and at other locations in town. The JCB’s autumn series entitled, Books of Business/Business of Books, featured a weekend of lectures, informal conversations and a letterpress printing/bookmaking workshop with guest artist Maureen Cummins. In keeping with the event series theme, a fascinating exhibition of historic record books of early American commerce were on display at the JCB Library. Added to that theme, Maureen’s artist’s books, derived from antique handwritten documents and extensive research into archival collections, provided glimpses of the past, but with contemporary and challenging new perspectives.

Maureen’s lecture on Thursday the 29th described how her work as an artist came to be focused on archival resources as inspiration for her book concepts and narratives. She related how her love of flea markets and antique stores has unearthed many thought-provoking raw materials from which to work. In the process of mining historic archival collections, she uncovers little known stories and facts that she sensitively weaves into a new visual narrative.

Accounts, title page

For example, in her artist book Accounts, the pages of this authentic 1860’s ledger book are filled with client names and sums from a busy New York based cotton trading company. Handwritten in elegant pen and ink, the pages themselves speak of wealth and privilege. Yet Cummins has printed over these ledger account pages excerpts from the WPA Slave Narratives, in bold, sans-serif type, bringing our attention to the wealth gained at the expense of other human beings. We hold in our hands two voices from the past, brought together in a profound visually compelling new way.

Another book by Cummins, Crazy Quilt, provides personal narratives of 19th and 20th century women who were placed in institutions for the insane when it was clear they were as rational as anyone else. In these brief stories we are reminded of how women’s issues were viewed not that long ago, and are still viewed in some contemporary cultures.

On Friday the 30th, in the Special Collections Reading Room of the Fleet Library at RISD, Maureen continued the conversation about her work, where the lively question and answer session from the night before had left off. Students had an opportunity to see some of her books close up and Maureen was able to delve deeper and more informally into her creative process. Several other artists’ books from the RISD collection that also derive from historic events or documents were compared and discussed.

Conversation with Maureen at RISD

Saturday December 1st was spent printing and bookbinding, in a hands-on workshop, held in the book lab of AS220. Maureen asked each participant to come up with a word or short phrase to print on the letterpress, with each person printing a small edition of their page. When all the pages were printed and collated, they created a kind of visual poem, with both elegant and humorous combinations of text and meaning. Students were taught a simple pamphlet stitch binding and each went home with a keepsake book of their very own.

For more information about the work and career of Maureen Cummins, go to http://www.maureencummins.com/  The RISD artist book collection has two of Maureen’s books and several hand printed prospectuses from her other books. A new book based on documents from the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, which took place in Manhattan over one hundred years ago, will be added this summer.

Posted by L. Whitehill Chong, Special Collections Librarian

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