Out of Print and Unexpected Gifts

I’m always dropping and breaking things.  I was never a particularly graceful person, my head is always in the clouds, but lately I can’t seem to hang onto things as easily as I once did.  I’m working on my upper body strength, but it hasn’t seemed to help with my hand strength.

Last month, I dropped a cup of coffee I was drinking in bed.  I have a wonderful one cup coffee maker that I have by the bed.  After a visit to the bathroom, I get back in the bed, drink my coffee and write in my morning book.


Scattered all around the bed and side table are books I’m currently reading.  An unreasonable and abundant pile that both challenges and comforts me.  It includes my library books.  I dropped the coffee, it spilled on the bed and dripped down on my library copy of Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.


I love this book and I’ve checked it out many times from the Memphis library over the past 15 years.  It was published in 1988 and is now out of print.

I dabbed it with the tissues by my bed then ran for a towel and dried it.  I fanned it open.  The coffee had seeped into the inner covers of the front and back were stained, as well as the outside of the pages.  It had one page spread that had a drip stain, but it was still a readable copy.  It already had signs of wear — underlines from other readers, some foxing, and a deteriorating binding.

When I was reading it earlier, I was looking closely at a painting, pushing the binding open, when a small metal fragment cut my hand.  (I pulled out the viscous little sliver with my pliers so no one else would get cut.)


I returned it with the rest of my books, but the library wouldn’t accept it and said I would have to pay for it.  It was $35., which was a strain on my limited budget.  But if they had charged me for a replacement copy, it would have been a lot more.  The least I’ve see it for lately is $85., since it’s an out of print book.

And they said I could keep it.  So I now I own a damaged but delightful copy of a book I’ve wanted for years.  I feel bad about it not being in the library collection anymore, but it was all a series of unfortunate events that led to my ownership of it.  If you like biographies of artists, I highly recommend it.  There’s not a lot of information on the Mexican surrealist women painters besides Frida Kahlo, and there were several whose work deserves more attention.

remedios varo

I love Remedios for her narrative qualities, her strange bodies and vehicles, as well as the story of her non-traditional relationships.  If you can find a copy at your library, I urge you to read it.  She and her friends had to flee Spain to Mexico during the rise of fascism and they never returned.

I hope she doesn’t miss the library too much.

After buying my damaged book, I went to the library used and discarded bookstore.  (It’s at the Memphis Central Benjamin Hooks library.)  I immediately found a coffee table size book on Antoni Gaudi for $4.00.


One of the things I love about used books is that carry a little history.  This one is a clean copy, with a most intriguing dedication from 1993.


If I had travel money and was able bodied, seeing the Gaudi buildings would be on my bucket list.


This a wonderfully informative and beautifully photographed book published in 1993.  It’s also out of print, but there are affordable used copies, not for $4.00 for a very good edition.


I always check the children’s books in case a favorite is for sale.  I didn’t find any picture books I liked, but tucked among them was this little jewel from 1998, (also out of print) introducing me to an art form that celebrates the natural shapes of stones:


It was only $3.00.  It’s just the kind of quirky beautiful book that delights me.  I love stones and minerals.  I keep little ones in nooks around the house, on window sills, and bookshelves.  I have never seen this way of displaying them, or considered the fine art of finding a naturally shaped water sculptures.




I can never be a minimalist when it comes to owning books.  I do like that the public libraries hold such a treasure trove that I have access to.  I also don’t have to buy or store all the books I love because the library does it for me.

But it always makes my house seem more like a home when I find beautiful books that I can own.  I’m sorry I damaged the Remedios Varo book, but the outcome is that now I can refer to her paintings and story when I feel fallow and uninspired.  All the books I acquired yesterday are now on a well honored inspiration shelf.

Lucky me.  But I no longer keep library books by the bed.


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Rock, paper, conscience


Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letter and Photographs from the Petrified Forest, edited by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, is a fascinating peek at the ephemeral nature of human life and the permanence of stones.  There’s a myth that says if you remove a rock from the Petrified Forest, you will be cursed.

Editor Ryan Thompson took a trip to the Petrified Forest and its Rainbow Forest Museum, where a few letters of conscience were displayed.  Drawn to their “humor, heartbreak, and humility,” he began the project that lead to this book.  He sifted through 1200 letters, the first from 1934, that spoke of the misfortune that followed those who left the forest with illegal souvenirs.

002People are concerned that the rocks be returned to the place they were taken from, but because of “their unknown provenance, these specimens can not be scattered back in the park;” Thompson writes, “to do would be to spoil those sites for research purposes.  They are instead added to the park’s ‘conscience pile,’ which sits alongside a private gravel service road, a bit of dramatic irony that only furthered my interest in the phenomena.”

The conscience pile

I can’t tell you how much this book delighted me.  It has several of my favorite elements – ephemera, stones, and space.  As it unfolds it becomes a poignant look at how people interpret the concept of luck.  What causes sorrow and hard times?  Throughout our lives, we are faced with many, many difficult situations.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was as easy to solve as getting rid of a cursed stone?


The letters change as they move more towards the modern era, where an awareness of our impact on our natural resources and our parks is more defined.

005There’s an insightful interview at the back of the book with Matthew Smith, Museum Curator at the Petrified Forest National Park.  He manages “an extensive collection of objects that encompasses one of a kind plant and animal fossils, cultural artifacts and the conscience letter archive.”  The way people remember the forest on return visits is skewed.  It reveals both the inaccuracy and the embellishment of memory.  The early managers of the forest have added to the confusion by manipulating photographs to “persuade the public to help them preserve the National Park and not see the wood disappear.”


The layout of this book is gorgeous.  The photographs of the petrified wood on clean white space are breathtaking.  There are random blank pages that made me pause.  There is room in this book to ponder the material, the ephemeral nature of our letters and sorrows, and the permanence of the stones, no matter where they eventually land.


I so enjoyed reading the various hand written letters.  They’ve become rare in the past few decades and seeing them in all these different manifestations was touching.  I was fascinated by the types of paper and the way each letter was composed.  It felt like an archaeological expedition into the concepts of luck, confession, and even redemption.


Bad Luck, Hot Rocks has a website where you can see some of the letters and photographs, but the book itself is most lovely and engrossing.


Ryan Thompson lives and works in Chicago, IL where he is an artist and Associate Professor of Art & Design at Trinity Christian College. His current research examines various powers humans ascribe to the events and ephemera of the geologic. His work has recently been included in Cabinet Magazine, Fotograf Magazine, Making the Geologic Now (Punctum Books), Reframing Photorgraphy (Routledge), and Format P Magazine. More at:  http://departmentofnaturalhistory.com/

Phil Orr loves building things, particularly out of the discarded, salvaged, unwanted, or forgotten. Much of his work focuses on these objects and the complex relationships surrounding them. He makes a living as a carpenter in Urbana, Illinois where he lives with his growing family.

Bad Luck, Hot Rocks is published by Ice Plant, an independent press based in Los Angeles that focuses on small print run artist books, with an emphasis on photography.  Their designs are impressive and result in books that feel good in your hands and your head.


Draw What You See: Benny Andrews

I got to hear the artist Benny Andrews speak in the 1980s in Memphis, when the Brooks Museum of Art had an exhibition of his work.  His art is so vibrant and unique, the elongated characters practically walked off the canvas, shook your hand, and told you their story.  
I’d first seen his drawings when I read books written by his brother Raymond Andrews.  Raymond was the author of a series of books about Black communities in central Georgia, and their close but dangerous relationship with the White community.  Benny’s line work was amazing — simple but expressive with a narrative all it’s own.  

Benny and Raymond were from a family of 10.  Their father was a sharecropper but also a painter who sparked a creative fire in his children.  Benny told a story about his father painting practically everything in the house.  His mother had to hide her Sunday shoes to keep him from painting them.
Kathleen Benson, Project Director at the Museum of the City of New York. has written a wonderful picture book  Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, (Clarion Books, 2015).
As a child, Benny drew his family members and the life around him.  He went on to become a major influence in American art.  
The book opens with a story of Benny as an adult teaching art to children who lived in camps in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The story then moves back to his childhood.

“In grade school, Benny was always the class artist.  He copied the comics from the daily newspaper.  He drew the stories he heard on the radio and the stars in the movies he went to see in town on Saturdays. 
“After school, Benny worked carrying water to the laborers in the fields. At planting and harvest time, he didn’t go to school at all.  None of the black children in Plainview did, because they were needed on the farms.  Their school year was only about five months long.”

Though most of his friends left school to work in the fields full time, Benny longed to go to high school.  His mother prevailed upon the farm’s White boss to allow Benny to go. 
After high school, he joined the air force.  When he got out, he had the means to go to art school.  He’d traveled all over the world, learned new ways of looking at things, but, “Home was always in his heart.”  He was inspired by the people around him.  “With lots of practice, he became a master at capturing movement on the still canvas.”

I love that he emphasized that you draw what you see because his vision was uniquely his own.  He couldn’t stay confined to absolute realism.  He saw things with imagination and style.  He saw the vibrancy of open spaces.  He added texture to his work by sticking paper and cloth on to the canvas.  
He was a “people’s painter.”  He taught.  He shared art.  He illustrated children’s books.  He opened doors for other underrepresented artists.    

 Draw What You Seeis a gorgeous book.  Without being didactic, the story makes it clear how difficult it’s been for Black people to get an education and to pursue art.  Benny wanted to make it easier for all people to become artists.

Unlike many pictures books about artists, this one uses Andrews’ own art work.  Kathleen Benson and Benny Andrews worked together before.  He illustrated her book John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement, which won the NCSS Carter Ge Woodson Award. 
This is a great picture book to introduce kids and aspiring artists to the work of Benny Andrews.  
It’s a delight to look through no matter what your age.  It’s like having a little gallery of Andrews work at hand, work that welcomes you in to the beauty and mystery of his vision.  There’s excellent additional information and a time line of his life in the back pages.
If you’d like to learn more about Benny Andrew, The School Library Journal has an excellent interview with Kathleen Benson here
You can learn a bit about his brother, writer Raymond Andrews, and life in Plainview for their family here.

Follow your vision and thanks for reading my blog!   

A Trip Through Time and Space: Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

Sometimes life can seem like a lot of drudgery and sorrow.  These days we don’t only have to deal with the troubles of our own life, but we have instant access to troubles all over the world.  It’s easy to start feeling oppressed and depressed.  It’s easy to forget about the wonders of the world amid so much bad news.  You might even go days and days without really looking up, seeing the sky and realizing what a miraculous planet we live on.
Twice in the past month, when the conversation got too dreary, I took out the book Cosmigraphics and showed it to friends.  Even the cover made them gasp a little.  The wonders inside turned the conversation from the earthly to the cosmic.
Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, Abrams Books, 2014, is the story of how people have both imagined and documented our creation, the structure of the universe, and the earth’s place in the cosmos.  Benson is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker.  In the last decade he has staged a series of increasingly large-scale exhibitions of planetary landscape photography. He lives in Boston and Ljubljana, Slovenia
He works from the intersection of art and science, and tells the story of how we perceive the universe using illustrations, graphs and maps.  He has gathered beautiful works of art from the world’s great science libraries. 
The book take you on a journey through more than 1000 years of images, through humanity’s ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space.  From before the telescope was invented and people believed the earth was flat, to the most sophisticated maps and supercomputer simulations, all the beauty of our understanding comes to light. 
Sky Disc from 2000-1600 BC – the first known astrological instrument
This book is a literary gem, too.  Benson’s writing is lyrical and accessible, making clear the story of human thought and beliefs.  Chapters are divided into Creation, Earth, The Moon, The Sun, The Structure of the Universe, Planets and Moons, Constellations, the Zodiac and the Milky Way, Eclipses and Transits, Comets and Meteors, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena.  Each chapter starts with an essay from Benson on how our beliefs and thoughts about space have changed through the centuries.  Benson says:
“I have felt free to include material that would not necessarily figure in a presentation of exclusively astronomical images.  I’m interested in innovative approaches to the conundrum of how to present such a vast subject within the frame of a graphic image, even if they aren’t directly associated with scientific research and occasionally represent conservative reactions against astronomical findings.  I’m biased toward the striking and unusual, even if it restates a case that has previously been made with less visual flair.  While this isn’t an objective visual history of astronomy, I do believe that sometimes a subjective approach reveals cultural or historical truths better than a dutifully comprehensive method.”

He opens the first chapter on Creation with a quote from The Tao Te Ching:
There is something formed of chaos,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void, it is not renewed,
It goes on forever without failing
It can be seen as the World-Mother.

He begins the last chapter, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena, with a quote from Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis rays,
They flit ere you can point their place.

Depiction of Sun Dogs from 1533
I can’t overstate how beautiful this collection of graphics is.  Almost every page reveals a breathtaking look at the universe – from illuminated maps and manuscripts that illustrate early belief system, to a 2009 supercomputer simulation of a sunspot:  
The book is too big for me to scan pictures for you, but just Google the title and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s how I got pictures for this post.  This book has been praised in the New York Times, and hundreds of other sites, including Brain Pickings, one of my favorite book and culture sites, so you don’t have to take my word for it.  The publishers say this book “will be a revelation to space-struck Earthlings, art lovers, and readers interested in the history of science, the visualization of information, graphic design, and mapping.”
1979 geological map of the south region of the moon
I’m a big library user, but this is a book I feel you should own.  If for no other reason than to look at it with your depressed friends and take a little flight away from the tyranny of bad news into a universe of stunning mystery. 
Or for a stolen moment, when gravity seems to have you glued to the ground, to take a trip through space and time, and come back elated.