By Jane Ford
Create a work of art. Then mail it to another artist. He or she will add to or change it and mail it to another artist, who will create another layer of interpretation.
When the creative loop is finally finished and the piece makes its way home to U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Art, it’s a unique collaborative work that will become one of the 168 pages in a full-color book — a product of “The Land of Wandering,” a project almost two years in the making, in which a group of U.Va. faculty, alumni and artist friends — almost 30 printmakers and writers — participated. The project is a leap of faith that required respect for the work of all the artists
This type of dialogue between artists creates works that layer the individual artist’s expressions to create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts, said Art Professor Dean Dass, who teaches printmaking, as well as courses that focus on the art of the book and papermaking.
“It’s the nature of the print studio to work together,” Dass said. “We think we’re going to get a better result that way, one that no one person would have expected.”
“The Land of Wandering,” which is both an art exhibit and a book, is the first part of an undertaking with the overarching title of “Exquisite History.” The larger venture is modeled after the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles, which began with the Book of Genesis, followed by the history of the world up to 15th century Germany and culminated in the Apocalypse. Parts two and three of “Exquisite History” are: “New World,” which will bring the creation and fall to America and will be the topic of volume two; and “Gates of Heaven,” which will encompass a utopian vision that goes vertically through time, the topic of volume 3.
“The Land of Wandering” is not based on the conventional Christian Genesis, but weaves the story of the creation to the fall from the perspective of the three major theologies that come of out the East: the Yahwist or J writer of the Old Testament, the core of the Koran and the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
The artists looked to these oldest writings in our history, interpreting the stories through contemporary artists’ eyes. “We worked in the same tradition and with the same kind of depth as illustrated manuscript artists,” Dass said. “The works may reference historical images or quote an old manuscript illustration, but they are not conventional illustrations.”
As the images were passed from one collaborator to another, the layers of images, meanings and methods of printmaking became increasingly more complex and opened the artists to dialogue about their work, Adam Wolpa said. Wolpa, a 1996 U.Va. alumnus, has worked with Dass on exchange portfolios for eight years.
Those early years of collaboration involved a shared theme around which Dass and recent graduates of his print studio each created their own work, exhibited together, then created a portfolio of the individual prints for each participant. The shared project has grown into a collaborative work that is more complex and involves artists and writers from across the country and Europe. All have a connection to the U.Va. printshop.
In addition to sending the prints back and forth, numerous members of the group gathered during a weeklong summer session to continue the collaborative relationship face to face.
“Negotiating ideas. Sharing philosophies. Working together in a shop … brings those different ideas to the table,” Wolpa said. “The project becomes a compilation of many voices.”
Writers and poets play an integral part of the concept of “The Land of Wandering.”
Poet Lisa Russ Spaar, director of the U.Va. Creative Writing Program, applauds the collaborative scholarship of the project and the opportunity to explore the relationship between visual grammar and poetic grammar in her own poetry. The project touched on themes she has wanted to write about and several of her poems grew directly out of seeing the works coming out of the print shop. For the past two years, Spaar and Dass have team-taught an advanced class in printmaking and poetry.
They, and other artists in the group, also collaborated on “Circular Ruins,” an earlier project that carried on the tradition of artist and poets, such as William Blake, who conceived of the two mediums of artistic expression as interconnected and emerging from the same muse. That project culminated in a handmade book of original prints, owned by the U.Va. Special Collections library.
“The sense and process that printmaking is about is being fearless,” she said. “Wonderful things can happen when you start mixing things up.”
Blurring the lines between printmaking and poetry, some of the printmakers imported texts from poems by Spaar and others into the images they created.
“The whole project pushes the boundaries of the Academical Village,” Spaar said. “It’s one of the most exciting projects I have been involved in since I came to U.Va. as an undergrad in the 1970s.”
The book portion of the project further expanded the concept of collaboration. Four members of the group gathered around a computer at the University of Iowa, laying out the graphic design of the book. Two faculty members and four graduate students from the University of Iowa’s print program contributed to the collaborative printmaking project. The book design process involved another layering as some of the pages are collages of the images and others involve editing and layering as the images passed through the collective talents of the group.
The 168-page, full-color book, titled “ex.hi, vol. 1,” is not like a catalog but is a further tightening of the project’s artistic expression, Dass said. “It pushes the project out of the print shop and allows the work to reach others.”
The University of Virginia Press will distribute the book. Penelope Kaiserlian, director of the press, was impressed with the art book created for the “Circular Ruins” project and agreed to distribute “The Land of Wandering” and the two other volumes of “Exquisite History,” which the artists expect to complete in the next two years.
She said the press plans to make the book available to art museum stores and art book stores — venues that “appreciate a fine piece of book art making.”
The project challenges the modern idea of a solo genius set apart creating a work of art that they have total control over, Wolpa said. “You give up control with collaboration. The post-modern idea that there are really no new ideas, just reworking of old ideas — this project is a way of acknowledging that.”