Walking into the Catalyst this month is a mood-altering experience. Books are displayed in the window and on the walls. They are framed, encased in drawers, closed, shredded, opened, blank, accordion-style, all adorning the interior of the cafe and the front window. Among the daily bustle of soup and coffee orders, the exhibit creates an atmosphere much like that of a library, according to acting curator Lynn Ascher.
Ascher shares that the Catalyst has been seeking pairings of artists: one to display work in the window facing Higgins, the other making use of the interior cafe. “These are usually little known artists of high quality work,” she shares. “This month we have a bookbinder, Mary Liz Riddle, paired with assemblage artist, Allison Troxel. These obvious counterparts—one an artist, the other a craftswoman—create a quiet, contemplative exhibit with lots of references that echo for people. You have to remove layers and layers of material to find out what many of them mean.”
Mary Liz Riddle came to bookbinding in the 1960s while teaching in rural Vermont. Wanting to preserve the work of her pupils, she taught herself simple binding and went on to work for the Vermont Council of the Arts. With no schools to teach this centuries-old craft, she undertook a five-year apprenticeship with a professional bookbinder. She moved to Missoula in 1994 and has continued with her bookbinding passion, even finding ways to share it with others. She teaches spring classes at the Willard Learning Center, focusing on repairing old books and non-adhesive bookbinding.
“There are some books being created by fine artists who take the structure and use it as a vehicle for an artistic statement,” claims Riddle. “What I do is quite different. I bind books that open albeit sometimes in a non-traditional manner. My books allow for the collection of words or pictures on the page. They lie in my hands or on a table in such a way that the contents can be seen. My books are always recognizable as books, although they may not necessarily take the form of a four-sided object with 90 degree angles.”
Riddle likes to refer to herself as a craftswoman rather than an artist, given her traditional approach to bookbinding. When repairing a book, she’ll use the original resource as much as possible with the goal to preserve, as much as possible, the original appearance of the book. In her written statement about bookbinding, she describes her craft as “taking pride in creating one of the finest materials commonly available, a beautiful and functional object—a book.”
At the Catalyst, her three-dimensional exhibit features hardbound books made from different styles of bindings and a variety of paper materials. There are miniature-sized books, accordion-style books, examples of exposed-spine sewing and other non-adhesive bindings. While lending beauty to the cafe, her pieces display a mastery of skill and meticulous handiwork. While pleasing to the eye, all of Riddle’s books have blank pages in them. As Riddle attests, “I never get away from a book being a book.”
Montana-born Allison Troxel grew up in an art family. Her Bozeman childhood home was a place with books everywhere and no TV, she says, citing the early influence. After studying at the University at New Mexico and UM, she decided to settle into Missoula’s art community in 1996.
It was about five years ago that Troxel identified books as a medium to work with. “This is an obsession,” she says. “It comes from the idea that books become friends, and jiggle a time and memory. I take an item and see how far I can go with it. Art is revelatory for me, a way of discovering. The book is the content and the art spirit riffs on that.”
Troxel sees lost books as sacred objects, or what she calls “temples of ideas and shrines of language.” Rather than have them be discarded, she seeks to “re-sanctify” them through transformation of their surfaces and interiors. She only seeks objects that can withstand the manipulation that she puts them through. This includes hammering, scraping, pounding, gluing, waxing and even, but not always, putting some words on the pages. Media include vellum, cut-up text, red velvet, sandalwood, cumin, hair, fruitwood, and other organic materials. “I work with surfaces,” says Troxel. “Clean and simple.” Recycling these rare finds into book art, she adds, is a combination of intuition and manipulation.
Inside the Catalyst, her varied works grace the walls. Some books are open with print readable, while others are closed with décor around and on the cover. Some are contained within inverted wooden drawers, behind a transparency, making for compelling depth and composition. One series, which Troxel created from recycled Reader’s Digests, deals with the changing role of women over time. Its esoteric, hand-written references about women in history are sure to elude casual walkers-by but may reward those who read a little deeper into the mixed media piece.
Each work is enigmatic and holds clues hidden beyond what first meets the eye. “They are closed, contained, mysterious, and hold personal secrets,” as curator Ascher attests. “There is something to cherish about the secret intimacy of them.”