Out of Bounds: MCBA’s Winter Book offers a few surprises


On December 8, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) celebrated the publication of their 19th Winter Book. Each year since 1988, they’ve been publishing a beautiful letterpress-printed, classically designed, hand-bound book, calling each the Winter Book and inviting local literary luminaries such as Patricia Hampl, Bill Holm, Louis Jenkins and many other artists and writers, plus bibliophile volunteers, to contribute to the project. It has always been a collaborative creative project, but this year’s edition takes the idea of collaborative creativity to a whole new level. You might even say it turns the Winter Book tradition completely on its head.

MCBA promises that this year’s edition of the Winter Book “will be as surprising as an 80-degree day in Minnesota in December.” The book is an anthology of “visual literature,” a term meant to encompass a broad range of creative works that aren’t so much a combination of visual art and poetry as they are a collision of the two forms, using words and letters as visual elements more than for the meanings they are meant to convey.

The book is co-edited by local mail artists/visual poets Tom Cassidy and Scott Helms, who have known each other via their mail art and other work since the 1970s, and with input and a foreword by John Bennett, curator of the Avant Writing Collection at Ohio State University (Columbus). It’s titled Vispoeologee, which contributor Matthew Rucker translates as “visual poetry anthology.” Cassidy says it may also incorporate the word “apology” somehow, or anyway ought to. (Cassidy is not likely to mean that he wishes to apologize for the invasion of his favorite art form into the Winter Book so much as he was expressing the hope that the end result will shake things up a bit in the literary art world.)

Even the press packet is a departure from the usual press releases — it’s an amalgam of cards of different sizes, each in its own envelope, each with an example of artwork from the book on one side and illuminating text on the other. Then the whole collection of bits is inserted into a transparent 6-by-9-inch vellum envelope. Opening the various envelopes and examining the contents is a lot like opening gifts at Christmas, or taking apart a Russian nesting doll. The book itself promises a similar experience, with a mixture of tactile and visual stimuli in a “hands-on, gloves-off experience.”

Yet it’s all put together with the same care and attention as previous Winter Books, with MCBA’s trademark attention to detail and craftsmanship.

Shaking things up

Ever since artistic director Jeff Rathermal came on board at MCBA four years ago, he has been shaking things up little by little, bringing the venerable art and craft of making books together with the edgier art movements of the 20th century. In 2004 the Walker Art Center showed selections from its library of artist-made books and mail art at MCBA; in 2006, the show Uncollectable featured such unconventional artists’ books as zines and pamphlets from the Fluxus and other nonconformist art movements, including selections from Cassidy’s massive collection.

“My collection is so outside the museum stuff,” says Cassidy, who began collecting self-published works by artists such as Ray Johnson, General Idea, Dana Atchley, FILE (Anna Banana) and others in1969. “By luck, I’ve gotten the right stuff,” he says of his collection of 35,000 pamphlets, small press books, mail art and other ephemera. Cassidy’s own work was also included in the Uncollectable show, in particular an altered book he started when in high school and has added to ever since. (An altered book is one that has been previously published that the artist adds to, takes away from, or alters in any number of ways.)

Much of Cassidy’s collection took shape through the medium of mail art. “The thrill of mail art was messing with the postal system, collaborating with people all over the world that you’d never meet,” he says. Eventually, he began to notice that the works he favored had something in common. “My preference, though I didn’t realize it, was for visual poetry.”

He’s also been dabbling in creating visual or concrete poetry for decades (possibly synonymous terms, though there may be subtle distinctions this writer hasn’t picked up on). “In high school I wrote a poem with rows of evenly spaced eight-word stacks of the word window, each stack having the complete word at top and bottom plus one to six of the lines in between missing indo so that the page looked (exactly!) like the side of an apartment building with different windows cracked, half open, or opened wide.” He called this an example of internal rhyme, a term he still uses to describe some of his work.

It’s hard to describe or classify much of the art that Cassidy collects, nor the kinds of things that will be included in the Winter Book, though all are grouped under the broad umbrella of visual literature. Cassidy describes many of the poets who will be included in Vispoeologee as “individual art movements” unto themselves.

But the influences upon these very independent artists can be traced to various early-20th century art movements, such as Fluxus, which Rathermal looked to for examples of how to “bind” this year’s Winter Book.

The Futurist movement is another root of visual literature. “2009 is the 100th anniversary of the first Futurist Manifesto, it really was a seismic shift of literature that’s still being felt,” says John Bennett. “They had a concept of words in liberty, it freed up words from the constraint of the text, introduced mathematical signs as a means of text, not as math,” he explains.

This year’s edition also promises to free MCBA’s Winter Book from its usual constraints, but that doesn’t mean that Rathermal and MCBA have thrown the old art forms out of Cassidy’s internal rhyming w—-w.

“My goal for the Winter Book is to surprise people each year — one year something steeped in traditional fine binding and printing, another year’s incorporating nontraditional methods,” says Rathermal. We look forward to seeing how that plays out, not only this year, but also in the years to come.