“You will find it all in a book.”
That statement opens Lynne Avadenka’s most recent artist’s book “By A Thread.” It also serves as a broader statement about the power of a book – in a recent interview, Avadenka stated that books are “containers” storing knowledge, culture, religion. We can also think of books as doorways through which to transport readers on journeys of exploration. In either sense, books are powerful vessels, yet still something with which we can interact on a quite intimate and personal level – we hold books in our hands, touch the pages, and a dialogue is created between reader and author in that exchange.
For Avadenka, making such limited edition artist’s books has long held great appeal. In fact, while she officially came to the medium from printmaking while attending graduate school at Wayne State University, she’s been making books since she was a little kid. She recounts from her childhood, “I made this fairy tale with a wooden cover. I made the binding, and did all the drawings, the illustrations, the text, and always was an avid reader. … I always had this interest in the physical object, and paper and typefaces and all those kinds of things.”
Throughout graduate school she worked as a freelance graphic designer making Jewish marriage contracts. At the same time, her artwork was quite abstract, completely devoid of content. “I was keeping those worlds really separate.” But this would change as she found that she spent an inordinate amount of time titling her prints, which led to the realization that text was really important to her. This brought her back to what she was doing with the marriage contracts, which were, “an integration of both word and image and made a sort of singular visual impact.” So she put together text, image, and the multiplicity offered by printmaking and started making books.
Her books are, as Avadenka describes them, typically text driven. “Usually it’s a text or a topic that comes first, and then it’s integrated with imagery, but not in a classic text on one side; illustration facing. They’re meant to be integrated. One can not exist without the other.”
Though her earlier works were often solely devoted to Jewish subject matter, she eventually began to broaden her scope. The first such project was “Root Words,” an exploration of the shared origins and commonalities between Hebrew and Arabic languages, produced with accompanying Islamic calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya. These themes are picked up with “By A Thread,” which retells and connects two cultures and the similar stories of Scheherazade, the Persian queen and storyteller of “1001 Nights,” and the biblical Queen Esther. Through only their wits and their voices – by using their language to speak out – the two women triumphed against powerful forces and were able to bring freedom to themselves and to their people.
“By A Thread” addresses the power of language, of our words, through its content and further reinforces that message through the very vehicle it’s delivered in. Take this passage for instance, “Here’s what men forget about women wearing the veil: we can see them and they can’t read us.” It’s an insightful statement about the role of women in male-dominated cultures, but it also connects to Avadenka’s own thoughts about the power of books. She describes them as having a similar subversive quality – that even when, “people think they know what’s going to be inside it, you have total control to surprise.”
As a physical art object, “By A Thread” is surely such a surprise. Ingenious craftsmanship coupled with her abstract compositions work with the text for a full literary and visual experience. The “jacket” or slipcase unfolds like the four sides of a top-less box split down the seams, with text revealed as each “petal” is opened taking the reader into the text on the first page of the book (which is then removed from this outer layer) itself. The artwork is configured from non-representational references to the cultures’ architectural forms and patterns, and is drawn in subdued but rich palettes. While we can focus on individual moments within the compositions, the imagery serves quite strongly to manifest atmosphere – we feel the places, the times, the culture, the circumstances, even the people, without ever seeing a single illustration of such things.
The text is integrated into the book so as to not interfere with the art. It’s printed on tabs the width of a page and about a third of the page in height inserted between each page, with sequential chapters of the narrative on each side of the tab. For the reader, this means turning pages within pages, giving the story Avadenka spins yet another layer of complexity. After reaching the end of Esther’s tale, another turn of the page flips the entire accordion-structured book to its backside, which is the start of Scheherazade’s tale. This of course leads back to Esther’s at its conclusion. This literal cyclical structure ties metaphorically into the linkage between the stories and cyclical connection of history.
Avadenka spells out this connection through the ages with a lovely passage that suggests the book’s title as well. “Dear sister of stories, I don’t know if my story will be remembered, or even if it will find you. If even the thinnest thread reaches you, take from it what you can use and tell your own story in order to survive.” And surely, the lessons of these courageous women ring just as true today: “Because of my voice … My people were not destroyed.” At a time when our capacity for communication is so expansive, her works ask that we remember the power in our words. As Avadenka writes, “In the end, it is language that will save us.”
Next on Avadenka’s docket is designing a book featuring the words of Israeli poet Dan Pagis, who’s credited with bringing Hebrew poetry into modern times. The featured images will come from collages made from maps of German train lines, which she created while working in that country last year. “By A Thread” will reach beyond its already unusually bound format and be reimagined as an installation exhibition in Boston in March of 2008. She plans to fill the huge space with 1001 drawings that “explode the story off the wall,” with the idea of transforming the book from something that can be entered visually into an experience people can enter more literally.
She’s also in the research stage of a project dealing with the Golden Age of Spain – a time when Christians, Arabs, and Jews lived alongside one another and “got along” to some degree. She’s focusing on Hebrew poets who live and spoke Arabic and transformed the Arabic poetry of the time into Hebrew, and how that particular moment in time speaks to the broader influences cultures have upon one another.
While differences in language have certainly kept people apart, in presenting our commonality and the power of our words to bring about change, Avadenka’s books demonstrate the potential for language to bind us together.