Crossroads: Book Artists’ Impassioned Responses to Immigration, Human Rights and Our Environment

Curated by Maria G. Pisano
May 8 - September 5, 2021
Thomas Parker Williams, Paradise Lost
Thomas Parker Williams, Paradise Lost
Pam Cooper, Stolen II
Pam Cooper, Stolen II

We are at a crossroad. Our world is changing in myriad ways: refugees and migrants are being displaced, our environment is visibly in peril and there are constant conflicts/wars between countries and within nations. This past year the world was devastated by a pandemic, Covid-19, which to date has caused more than 562,000 deaths in the United States.

While our country was suffering under this epidemic, governmental lies, ineptitude and callousness caused many to suffer physically and mentally and to go hungry in the wealthiest nation in the world.  By blaming the W.H.O. and China for misleading us about the outbreak, officials stoked prejudice and hatred toward Chinese people in our country. George Floyd, an African American, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for over 9 minutes during his arrest. Protests against systemic racism erupted all around the US and the world.

Under a Zero Tolerance Policy, more than 5,000 children were separated from their families at the border and to this day more that 445 of them are still lost. The wall, at a cost of 45 billion dollars, contributed to the destruction of protected lands such as the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the Lomita Historical Park, the National Butterfly Center, a tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge as well as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Native American burial grounds.

Our lives over this past year have changed in ways that we are still trying to comprehend. With the pandemic, we lost the unspoken connection we make with one another, from a single handshake to a hug or kiss. This exhibition re-connects us and celebrates the return of the artists, who are reacting, lending their voices, and presenting book works that reflect our tumultuous times. These artists share personal stories, reflecting the changes they observe, alongside concerns for our current policies towards immigration, climate change and equal rights. The books presented in this exhibition open a dialogue about policies and concerns facing our country.

In her two books, Advice for Travelers and I Crossed Borders, Aileen Bassis focuses on forces at work around the world that impact desperate people, cause them to migrate from their homelands and face dangers for an uncertain future.  She asks us the question: “At what point do people decide that they have no future where they are and must leave?”

Pam Cooper in Invisible (2014) focuses on unaccompanied minors who arrived  from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  Stopped at the Mexican/US border, their subsequent release to sponsors who were not properly vetted resulted in a large number of children being abused, molested and trafficked.  Her second work, Stolen II, a book installation, speaks of the abduction of the Chibok school girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. It explores why children have been abducted from their families for racial, political and economic reasons in many countries over the centuries, and looks specifically at children who have been removed from  unwed mothers, Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, the Canadian Inuit, and more.  She states, “For Stolen II, I made paper shoes.  Their tags, hand printed in pencil, tell of the laws that allowed countries to forcibly remove children from their parents. The fragility conveys the tenuous hold on life these children had … as they had no say in what was happening to them.”

Tana Kellner and Ann Kalmback’s book, Whereas, We Declare, focuses on our current immigration exclusion laws and reminds us that this is not our history. They state: “The book compiles the text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proposed to the United Nations by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948, with drawn images and statistical information about immigration. These texts celebrate accepting immigrants to the USA as historically essential to defining the nation, both by enriching the cultural horizons and contributing significantly to science, industry, and the humanities. Themes of imposed boundaries and borders run throughout the book’s imagery; the inside covers are the UDHR preamble annotated by Roosevelt.”

MaryAnn Miller and J. C. Todd’s book On Foot/By Hand focuses on people forced from home: refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and deportees. MaryAnn states: “J. C. Todd’s poem I Carry This integrates the narrative of a leaving into the visual images. Although the poem is set in the Middle East, the book has implications worldwide and throughout history. Timeless, it shines a cold boiling light on the tragedy of humanity at its most inhumane.” As a container for On Foot/By Hand, Miller and Todd created a cloth wrap based on the Japanese and Korean traditions of bundles. The cloth bundle represents the worldly goods displaced people are able to carry with them. Sometimes that bundle is only a black plastic bag.

MaryAnn Miller’s Message in the Coal speaks of her family’s migration to the US from Italy. It is a paean to her grandfather Pasquale, who moved to Western Pennsylvania and used his talent for finding coal to create his own business providing coal for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. She states, “The poem in the book tells of his success. My brother, who also worked in coalmines south of Pittsburgh and in West Virginia, met older miners who had earned their “papers” at my Grandfather’s mine.” In What’s in the Coal Bin? she incorporates an actual piece of coal from the mine where her brother worked. Ultimately she says, “We sacrificed with great courage and resourcefulness to make a success for our family.”

Therese Swift-Hahn’s handmade paper book, Terra Preta with her beautiful calligraphy, reminds us of the richness that nature offers us, and how we can benefit from it. She states, “This palm leaf structure book is inspired by terra preta, meaning, “black earth”.  Originating in the Amazon Basin at least 2500 years ago, it is by far still some of the richest soil on the planet.  Gold ink is used as a reference to the “riches” contained in this life-sustaining soil, which is up to two meters deep in some areas and has been shown to retain its fertility for thousands of years, even to today.  The formation of terra preta soils by pre-Columbian Amerindians was key to their ability to flourish and sustain their vibrant culture.  Scientists and environmentalists have been researching terra preta soil enrichment to support sustainable agriculture and carbon sequestering to significantly reverse the effects greenhouse gas emissions have on the planet.”

Sarah Nicholls creates beautifully illustrated and printed pamphlets highlighting places in NYC environs and speaks about their ecosystems, adaptation, and history. In Make the Earth Say Beans she focuses on community gardens, land use, zoning, urban agriculture, and the history of Flatbush. Homesteading for the Urban Coyote is the third in a series of three on rewilding and adaptation in the urban ecosystems. She asks, “Why would coyotes come to Queens? What happens when you reintroduce predators? Who are our new neighbors? Do we want lions and elephants wandering around the Midwest? Why is everything always described as either a utopia or a disaster?” Flyway concerns itself with the ecology of Jamaica Bay and the establishment of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Here she speaks about the salt marshes, horseshoe crabs, shore birds, ospreys and more. Intertidal concerns itself with the history and future of the only inhabited island in Jamaica Bay, Broad Channel, New York’s own Venice, in the middle of the salt marsh. These latter two pamphlets are part of a series of three about the history, ecology, and communities around Jamaica Bay.

David Sellers and Anne Waldman collaborated to create the work Extinction Aria: Its Exegesis, the Realms, How Ink is Blood. Anne, the poet states, “Extinction Aria was composed responding to what is known as the cycle—within the Wheel of Life—of the six realms in Buddhist philosophy: hell realm, hungry ghost or preta realm, animal, human, warring god, and pleasure-seeking god realm…Extinction as in the “sixth extinction” comes to mind; the planet is threatened from many directions by global warming, nuclear war and other ominous threats of the Anthropocene, where humankind is constantly running interference. I wanted to create a kind of sutra for the times, a prayer, an incantation of urgency.” It is a beautifully printed letterpress work with patinated copper-clad covers with two cold-cast bronze figures. Fifty Tibetan Buddhist woodblock images carved in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries accompany the poem. The pages are wrapped in Indian homespun and handloom wild Mulberry or Bhagalpur silk fabric, tied by a single strand of Nepalese silk yarn, in the manner of a Tibetan sutra.

In Paradise Lost, Thomas Parker Williams presents an original ink drawn accordion opus that when fully opened measures 296 inches. He states, “This is a wordless narrative that explores variations of loss in America, over time and in the present.   Starting with the forests where native peoples lived before Columbus, the book follows slavery as Africans are captured and forced to work on plantations owned by wealthy white men.  Although many landowners lost their way of life, the anonymous power figures did not die, and continued to crush black, brown and white workers and families who in their minds were expendable. Finally, as we confront the reality of climate change, even the Earth itself is treated as if expendable.”

Recently there have been major disruptive global events, such as the fires in Australia, the aqua alta in Venice, Italy, and droughts across South America due to El Nino. Displacing people, animals, nature and a way of life that is dramatically altered and impacted, they are warnings for the world to see the vulnerability of our environment. These events can bring people together to effect positive change; they are the clarion call. The books presented in this exhibition open a dialogue on policies about  immigration, climate change, civil rights and other issues our country faces.

Anne Waldman, in her Extinction Aria Prologue (below) expresses the disquiet that many artists feel,

“And this was my vision/ rocked back by the/ weirdness of days/days on earth when/ the weather changed course/ when we lost our mind/s when leaders failed us/ there was no wisdom/ everyone was joking/ everyone was very entertaining/ when war kept going/ and animals were mimicking the end/ and starving kept on/ and there were people escaping/ across many borders/ dying of it, the running/ you bent to see them on the map/ borders were lines on a map/ you strained at the screen/ little dots/ people were dots on the map/ points of light with beating hearts/ they can see us anywhere/ we said/ we looked at ourselves/ are these people?…”

Kathy T. Hettinga’s work Displacement, speaks of Pennsylvania’s changing landscape. She states, “We are living in times of immense displacement and relocation of peoples from their homes, and natural resources from the earth. My book begins with looking at the bleak mid-winter trees in central Pennsylvania. Driving through the hilly farmlands, I see old houses are perched precariously near highways and dense woods are overtaken by high-voltage transmission towers and power plants. The offset cuts, reminiscent of an Advent calendar, conceal and reveal small creatures hidden within: a brilliant, orange-headed female western oriole and a house mouse take their places beneath the eastern woods and farm house respectively. The branches of sycamores create white lines out of the dense woods, tiny pathways of hope in a bleak time.”

Maria G Pisano – Curator © 1/2019

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