Carole P. Kunstadt: The Sacred Poems series, which I’ve been working on since 2006, has been an ongoing exploration generated solely by the materials: two editions of an antique book, dated 1844 and 1849. As an art student and in my first years as a freelance artist I was a calligrapher, and have always been fascinated by illuminations in manuscripts and books. I purchased the first book in Vermont in 2000 from a used-book seller without any specific idea in mind. In 2006 it occurred to me to use the paper as the ground for a collage. But to my surprise I was enticed and captivated by the responsiveness of the paper: the inherently facile, tactile, tender yet strong pages. Soon I was transforming them in unexpected ways. The series has grown to 75 unique works celebrating life and the beauty that’s contained within the Psalmody.
TSGNY: What’s the range of the transformations you’ve subjected the paper to in this series?
CPK: I’ve layered pages and machine-stitched through the lines of text, leaving a fringe of the threads; I wove strips cut from the pages, fascinated by the random patterns created by the letters. It had been over 25 years since I had been involved in tapestry weaving. The process was truly satisfying: to find previous skills resurfacing unexpectedly and from a different orientation.
CPK: My lifelong fascination with texture came into play when I found that releasing the pages from the binding and cutting towards the crease created a ‘ruffle.’
CPK: I am in a constant state of discovery in this series as new ways of working with the paper evolve. I just completed a piece in which I gilded strips of pages with 24K gold leaf. The gilded strips were then woven, and hand-sewn/knotted with thread.
TSGNY: What was your work like before you embarked on the Sacred Poems?
CPK: I had been working with handmade papers, layering with other ephemera and natural found objects, for over twenty years. I was intrigued and inspired by found papers, and used old receipts, labels, currency and tickets that I collected in my travels, but also purchased antique postcards, ledgers, etc. for use in my collages. The series I was working on prior to this one, Markings, consisted of 6” x 6” paintings in gouache that incorporated lines of script itemizing New Hampshire farm/estate sales, which I cut from a ledger from the 1860s. I added lines of stitching by machine-sewing right through the paper. They were fluid and spontaneous – an immediate record of the day’s energy, incorporating the collage fragments from the past in an intimate and delicate manner. Towards the end of the series I worked graphite into them as well to accentuate the marks of script. Each one has its own presence but they also work well hung as groupings.
TSGNY: It sounds like this new series puts many more demands on the paper than your older work. Is the fragility of 150-year-old paper an issue? Does it constrain your choices?
CPK: The pages from the book dated 1844 were amazingly flexible. The discoloration from aging is a honey color that provides warmth and depth. The paper wasn’t brittle – to the contrary, it was very forgiving. After a few years of focused work on the first book, I found myself running out of pages and tried to locate another book in similar condition. This has proven to be elusive . . . like the holy grail! I finally did buy an 1849 volume online and was surprised to find it so different in color and texture despite the few years’ difference. This book has led me to work a little differently. The pages are slightly larger, lighter in color, and less flexible. Inspired by working in the 9” x 9” x 3” format for the upcoming TSGNY exhibit, I ventured further into the realm of three-dimensional boxes. It has been a very liberating experience to work on an object as sculpture rather than a single surface.
TSGNY: Does the content of the manuscript pages affect your work? Is it different working on a secular text like the ledger and a sacred text like the Psalmody?
CPK: The handwritten script from the ledger I used in Markings provided curvilinear marks that captivated me with their fluid human strokes and implied personal history. The fragmented words and letters suggested intriguing insights and anecdotes of another time. Combining a selected strip of paper from this recorded experience with a sewn and painted surface develops a new presence that builds on the remnants of previous generations. The persistence of time merges with the tenuous quality of life.
CPK: The Sacred Poems’ use of a sacred text has been central to the methods of alteration of the papers’ nature. The repetitive actions of sewing, cutting, weaving, and knotting mirror the actions of reciting, singing, and reading: implying that the repetition of a task or ritual offers the possibility of transcending the mundane. Transformation and the possibility for revelation are primary elements of the work. This exploration led to a greater depth and connection to my creative core. The books have revealed themselves as vessels containing a rich source of history, and personal experiences which I am responding to intuitively.
The intended use, as well as the nature of a psalm as spiritual repository, both imply a tradition of careful devotion and pious reverence. The physical text evocatively and powerfully serves as a gateway to an experience of the sacred and the realization of the latent power of the written word. This process of interaction plays out visually in the piece, mimicking the internal experience. Through the individual evolution of each page, culminating in a transformation of the whole volume, the material and the conceptual interact delicately and suggestively with one another.
The casual purchase of a book ultimately changed my creative path.
TSGNY: I’m sure a lot of artists would recognize a similar moment of serendipity in their own lives. Finally, are there any artists whose work inspires you that would like us to know about?
CPK: Zarina Hashmi‘s work has inspired me to explore the idea/intent as well as the materials in my work. Her ability to extract simplicity from complexity and present a vision of the world from her personal experience is fortifying and compelling. Her use of gold leaf – and Wolfgang Laib‘s — are thought-provoking and profound. He masterfully reorders and redefines materials and gets to their very essence. His work is unadorned, yet powerful in its simplicity. Viewing his work is a sensory experience.