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Observers can read a lot into poetic show

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In 2010, digital books started outstripping conventional hardcover sales. Amazon eBook sales now outnumber paperbook sales two-to-one. Like the giant panda and the Siberian tiger, the book might soon be an endangered species.


A poetic new group show at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery finds other connections between books and nature. Eleven artists from diverse backgrounds explore the ways both books and nature measure time, store memories and provide a grounded physical experience in what is becoming an increasingly detached and disembodied technological world.

Artists' bookworks have a long history. As conventional print books become less common, their focused concentration on the tangible weight and heft and feel of books takes on a slightly melancholy edge. Many of these works contain text and images -- there is meaning between the covers -- but there is also meaning in the methods and materials of the books themselves. The art is in the construction, which can include carefully handcrafted bindings, transparently thin Japanese paper, cushy hand-felted covers.

Books here are blown up and deconstructed, stretched out into long lines or compressed into cunning little boxes. Tied to the nature theme, some are made out of organic materials like papery wasp nests or birds' eggs. Some works reference forests and trees, making an honest reckoning of where books come from.

Winnipeg-based academic and writer Karen Clavelle takes the book back to some primal forms in Before Guttenberg, with volumes constructed from birch bark, slate, waxed linen thread and linen paper. Agatha Doerksen, who was raised on the Prairies but now lives in Golden, Colo., takes an old book and turns it into a scorched, strangely beautiful shredded bird's nest in Nest as Destiny.

Winnipeg-based artist and art educator Ann Stinner is fascinated by sheep and wool. Flock, a series of 14 little booklets each containing a linocut image of Dolly the famous sheep, finds funny parallels between the duplicating technologies of printmaking and sheep-cloning. The Library of Warm Thoughts uses pages made from reclaimed sweaters.

Erwin Huebner, an Alberta-born artist who also happens to work as a cell biologist, offers a canny little work in which quails' eggs are opened up to make fragile book covers for tiny paper panels filled with DNA data. Taking a miniaturist's pleasure in impossibly small, intricate pieces, Huebner explores the beauty of the microscopic universe.

Deborah Danelley, a mixed-media artist from Winnipeg who is also the show curator, collaborates with B.C.'s Carol Leach in Wildflowers, in which brilliant drifts of elaborately folded paper blossoms are made from the pages of old gardening guides and nature books.

This is a varied, spread-out group show that requires a certain amount of wandering around. Some of the works are not supposed to be touched, but some invite us to examine. (Look for white curator gloves next to these pieces.) In particular, there is a table of documents and objects on the second floor -- with a couch nearby -- that asks for slow, patient, considered reading. And that's the thing about books, real books: They want you to sit down, unplug and experience.

Art review

Bound by Nature

by various artists

Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Ave.

Until June 18

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2011 D3

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