In a happy coincidence, to enjoy two new exhibits in the River Market district, you'll need white gloves. The gloves — which the galleries are providing, so don't run out and buy some — will allow you to turn the pages of the latest “Limited Editions Club” book at Hearne Fine Art and the artist-made books featured in “The Subject Is Books: Chapter 3” at the Cox Creative Gallery.
Unhappily, words fail to describe the stunning “Limited Editions” book, the eloquent “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” by Martin Luther King illustrated with eight serigraphs by Faith Ringgold. Visitors to Hearne's previous show of the “Limited Editions Club” books will know that these oversized “livres d'artistes,” limited to a run of 300, transcend their literary function with letter-set type, fine paper and work by artists. Ringgold, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the children's book “Tar Beach,” works in a self-taught style; among the work here is Ringgold's picture of the Birmingham church bombed in 1963. The four little girls who were killed hover above the church.
At the Cox Center, the second floor Creative Gallery features books created or transformed by Arkansas artists, and I'll admit to a certain trepidation in going, because I'm not sure I like the idea of destroying books to create art.
But I found quite beautiful the neatly made and poignant “Journey Home,” a little book recovered in a collage of maps and decorative paper by Susan Purvis. The slim volume contains, in a book within the book, writings by Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in camps around the country, including Arkansas, during World War II. A suitcase tag is the cover of the diminutive book inside, set in a cutout rectangle cut from the glued pages of the book.
David H. Clemons' book “Burden of Flight,” his own creation and not based on an altered book, is a beautiful, haunting little book of hand-set poems that punctuate small watercolors of birds building a new wing for an injured comrade. “Twilight Zone” fans will laugh out loud — and then get a little uncomfortable by turning the pages of Amy Edgington's “To Serve Man,” which, as everyone of a certain age knows, is a cookbook. Edgington has paired 1950s-'60s advertising of scenes in the kitchen with human organs.
Hearne's exhibit in 2004 of Limited Edition books included a book of Langston Hughes poetry illustrated by Phoebe Beasley and stories by Zora Neale Hurston illustrated by Elizabeth Catlett. Now, work by 20 women, including Catlett, Beasley and others, is on display in Hearne's current main exhibit, “Daughters of the Diaspora.” The show includes work by Arkansas daughters among the 20: delicate silverpoint botanicals of Marjorie Williams-Smith and bronze reliefs by Susan Williams. Work by other nationally known artists include a charming Clementine Hunter painting in identically toned shades of red, green, aqua and orange; serigraphs in black and white by noted printmaker Samella Lewis, and vibrant works in fabric by Bisa Butler, Xenobia Bailey and Phyllis Stephens. Lithographs by Catlett will be joined by sculpture in coming weeks.
Laura James' work — heavily outlined and stylized paintings that draw, apparently, from Ethiopian art — is a show-stopper. James illustrated the “Book of the Gospels” for the Catholic Church in America, and her work here is religious-themed as well. But at Hearne, James' last supper features Christ with 12 women disciples, their haloes painted in gold leaf, and it is a huge crowd of women that has followed him to the Sea of Galilee.