Paulette Myers-Rich – Eyes with a Sense of Touch 

Soft Black Petal, silver gelatin print, 20×24”, 1985

Paulette Myers-Rich ‘s photography-based art books and prints reference abstracted landscapes where industry and nature intersect. Paulette Myers-Rich has consistently focused her gaze on the very moment of transformation in both interior and exterior spaces, when a place, nature, history, altogether shift. The artist shares with Art Spiel how she has developed her practice, her notions on book making, and how she sees her role as an artist today.

Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?

I’ve always combined my living and studio space, so the studio routine hasn’t changed much for me, or for my husband, the painter David Rich. But this time of isolation has brought us a quietly intense experience of deep sessions in our work. It’s a powerful, concentrated period when conversations with loved ones have become more profound, meaningful and resonant. The multiple crises impacting our communities are ever present in our minds and we’re doing what we can while sheltering in place. These aren’t new concerns for us as we’ve been engaged in social justice movements since our teens, but we are seeing this as a long-overdue time of reckoning, as many people call it. We’re hopeful that despite- or because of the trauma many of us are feeling right now, real change has begun and that we can maintain the momentum.

It’s not at all surprising that the demonstrations for racial justice are happening during this time of the pandemic. This health crisis has been politicized and used as a form of germ warfare against vulnerable people who are seen as political rivals and surplus population by the president and his supporters. The massive loss of life and economic destruction resulting from Trump’s policies have pushed people beyond their limits. This is indeed a very intense time, but we’ve been here before both as Americans and as artists. I have faith in the collective action of good and righteous people to overthrow the heartless, racist and near fascist state we find ourselves in. It’s crucial that we prevail together. 

How all of this will manifest in my artwork is hard to say. I’m inspired by the many people who are creating images and language for each other that’s achingly beautiful, or difficult and traumatic, or both. There’s so much intensity, destruction and fragmentation in the country right now, I don’t know what’s real anymore. It’s all I can do each day, a bit at a time, to construct stories and images into a narrative that I hope brings insight and meaning to others. So many are going through so much. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to abide during this pandemic, to not squander this strange time and place. It’s one of many strange times I’ve gone through and I know it won’t be the last. In the end, it’s necessary to go into the studio and just do the work.

AS: You are both a photographer, writer and book maker. Tell me a bit about your background and what experiences drew you to your art practice.

Paulette Myers-Rich: I studied experimental filmmaking in the early 1970’s at an alternative program called Film in the Cities, in St. Paul, MN, where I’m from. I was influenced by the Structural Film movement and considered the materiality of film and light as a part of the content of my work. This was contemporaneous with Hollis Frampton, Stan Brackhage, Paul Sherits and Michael Snow. I saw many of their films at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which has a strong new media program. They brought in a number of these filmmakers, who would then often participate in workshops or give lectures for students.

I stayed with this for about a decade, making short films and writing. But eventually, due to the demands of motherhood and economic limitations, I switched from filmmaking to still photography. I created series of abstract images in black and white using a community darkroom in Minneapolis. I began to exhibit this work and became known as photographer. In 1985, when the Minnesota Center for Book Arts opened, I signed on to study Japanese papermaking with the newly arrived sculptor and papermaker Amanda Degener, who needed an intern. I wanted to learn more about how to use and make paper for my set ups, so I spent a year training with her. MCBA had a visionary artistic director in Betty Bright, who curated significant contemporary book art exhibits, which led to my discovery of artist photo-bookworks. Some were created as documentation for happenings and performances, but also, there were artists’ books that were unique and experimental that made me realize this was the form I was looking for to contain the sequential narrative of my images.

In time, I incorporated texts to accompany the visual narratives and this led me to study letterpress printing Letterpress was not commercially viable, so there was a lot of cheap equipment around like presses, type and cabinets, all the tools you needed to set and print type and relief blocks. When I was offered a press for free by a woman who was moving away, I rented a space in a warehouse in Minneapolis, set up my studio and began Traffic Street Press in 1993. As I began to collaborate with poets I admired, it was no longer just about my personal work, but about work I found meaningful by others.

AS: You say that your photographs are about place – interior and exterior landscapes – as well as time – transformation and ephemerality. Can you elaborate on these ideas and how they are expressed in your work?

Paulette Myers-Rich: When I was making my earliest work in experimental film, and then in still photography in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, I didn’t have a dedicated studio space. Instead, I used whatever domestic or community space I could, and those limitations generated the images in my work. I relied on the ephemeral quality of natural light moving through rooms and seasonal and economic changes in the urban landscape. I made constructions that were strictly for the camera, situated in various locations within my domestic space, and I also photographed specific sites in my neighborhood that were on the edges of the natural world and industry, then revisiting them over time, looking for the changes that have occurred. I’m interested in how things evolve, affected by forces within the space they occupy, while they’re seemingly static: how something is lit, if there’s movement in a room. It’s slow, nuanced and meditative work. I remember seeing Michael Snow’s experimental film Wavelength in the late 1970’s and it totally upended any traditional notions I had about what a film should be, and revealed more of what a film can be. Same with the notion that a photograph must be an image of something, which often perplexed viewers of my early non-representational and abstract work. I was often asked, “what is this a picture of?” Or there would be a guessing game happening where the viewer tried to determine the image source, or argue about whether it was truly a photograph, which was an interesting effect of this work.

AS: There is also a strong sense of vulnerability and ephemerality. You lived in the North, where systemic economic shifts were happening. Did this inform your work?

Paulette Myers-Rich: My landscape photography was a very personal response to the economic shifts of deindustrialization beginning in the early 1980’s. As the abandonment and demolition of neighborhood industrial sites became routine, I began to photograph familiar places that held meaning to me before they disappeared. I’d sneak to these vacant sites, basically trespassing, to photograph what I consider portraits. I’d then spend time reviewing the images and would often return to the site to see what was changing during the period of neglect and sometimes during demolition. Initially, I didn’t intend to make these photographs into a primary body of work, but when it began to take on the dimensions of a cultural critique, it became central to my practice. As a working-class artist, my sense of place and identity was disrupted, and I began to ask myself: if we’re marked by place, what does living here mean? I wanted to memorialize and meditate on these sites as a form of resistance to the abandonment, loss and erasure my community was experiencing.

In the series Work Sites/Work Cites these postindustrial landscapes are contextualized in artists’ books that present and frame the site, including poetry and found texts relating to each site’s history and activity. For example, the book River Reveal (2007) is a multi-year study of a small area on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, a postindustrial zone that was demolished after recurring flooding, an illegal dump that was cleared out. The only things occupying this site were huge cottonwood trees and invasive plants, trash and rubble buried by river sediment left behind from floods, and riverbanks heavily eroded by barge traffic. There was a constant submersion and re-emergence that I documented seasonally and under differing conditions such as droughts and floods. I spent about 4 years observing that location and came to know which trees had fallen, and what was buried under the leaves and silt. The vanished history of the site and the subsurface detritus gave it the illusion of nature, which I found compelling. The intersection of the built and natural worlds was not immediately obvious but if you looked closely, it was there. It has since been cleaned up for use as a riverfront park.

River Reveal, photogravure prints and letterpress text bound into handmade paper on boards, 2007

AS: Craft practice and materials are central in your work. Can you share some key elements in your process? Let’s look at Ghost Poems for the Living for instance: How did you start, what is the idea behind it and what is the work process?

Paulette Myers-Rich: Ghost Poems for the Living, (2005) came about after several personal losses and the reflections that accompanied them. I was approaching 50 and had to confront what aging means for women, but I also was looking ahead to what I wanted to concentrate on in my work. I needed to leave these troubled landscapes that really weren’t safe for me to be in and go back inside at a time when I finally had a live/work studio that permitted me to do more ambitious projects. I had acquired a 4×5” film camera from a friend when he was changing over to digital. In order to return to an interior practice, I decided to learn how to use this large and complex studio camera and set up still lives of dried plants from my garden and the river bluff that I had collected over the years simply as a way to learn this new tool. I was in a somber mood during this time and working with this format forced me to be deliberate and slow, while it opened me up to making constructed images once again.

The resulting photographs from these shoots were surprising to me. I began to see the images as stand-ins for what I was going through with the passage of time, the losses, the challenges of the aging body and solitude. This led to the photographs being paired with a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets addressing these concerns, which are not as well-known as the ones about love. I performed what I call “distillations” with the texts that bring out the powerful images within the complex Elizabethan verse in a contemporary and elemental form. I eliminated certain words from each line while keeping others in the exact place and the result was the ghost poem. I paired positive images with the full sonnet and negative images with the ghost poems to reflect the dual nature of existence. The texts were letterpress printed on pigment prints on rag paper and hand assembled in a small edition of 26.

AS: And your Broder project?

Paulette Myers-Rich: I was given a suite of poems by the British Poet Anna Reckin to consider for a collaboration, but I was deep into other work and it took me months before I could get to them. I wasn’t looking for a new project at the time, but when I finally read them, I had a strong response to her poetry. These were a series of short, abstract poems that were reflections on domestic zones and the activities within as ordinary, yet potentially dangerous places for women. Her usage of terms and practices of sewing and needlework as the underlying metaphor inspired me to construct a set-up and photograph for each poem. When Anna saw the images, she felt they evoked without illustrating the mood of her work. We decided to collaborate on a letterpress printed and hand-assembled book in a very small edition. It was a wonderful project that happened from chance and intuition as opposed to something deliberate and structured.

Ghost Poems for the Living; 13 Sonnets by Shakespeare With Distillations, Letterpress text on Pigment Prints bound into boards with handmade paper, with slipcase, 12 x 9”, 2005
Broder, letterpress printed poems by Anna Reckin; pigment print photographs by Paulette Myers-Rich, handbound on boards in a clamshell box, 6×6”, 2000

AS: What is your take on the “Romantic”, the “Sublime”, and their relationship to your art?

Paulette Myers-Rich: I think the aesthetic of my work, which is a result of my tools and processes, could be seen as referencing a Sublime, Romantic or even Gothic style and my subjects relate to some of the tenets of these movements in art, which focus on the forces of nature and the unknown, spiritual or otherworldly forces. I am interested in ephemeral, natural and supernatural phenomena, but also in material culture, and I don’t reject theory or reason as the Romantics did. My intention is to offer an alternate read through a contemplative object, like the book as art. I’m influenced by Walter Benjamin’s ideas about art and contemplation, and the aura of the art object. So along with photographing an object to make an image, I’m also making the photograph into a physical object-in-space through a print or book to be handled by the viewer.

Because we’re now in this time of screen-based media where so much is hyper-ephemeral, and presented in an equivalency imposed by the format of our devices, a contemplative image/text/object in the form of an artist’s book has become a notable experience for the young, digital natives who find physical media compelling and desirable. It’s unmediated, holding their attention in a way their feeds don’t. I see this frequently and it’s a surprising turn in the reception of my work, which wasn’t at all a factor when I first began making artists books. Back then, making books was a way to bypass gatekeepers and a commentary on culture, language and ideas. Now these books have become an alternative to digital media, offering an intimate aesthetic experience through a physical object. Viewers become more aware of their eyes having a sense of touch, just as their fingers do. I think of it this way- a screen makes your eyes slide off the page, while paper holds them in place and we’ve never experienced this before, other than perhaps seeing a charcoal drawing framed under glass and wanting to see it without the barrier. Artists’ books are a way of reintegrating the mind and the body by receiving ideas through physical experience. It’s been observed that cursive writing increases neural activity in the brain, assisting in learning and retaining information. I believe reading from a book, or handling, or viewing an art object in person has the same effect. And I avoid framing work on paper, preferring to use magnets to hold them to the wall for the same reason. It makes a difference.

AS: How do you see the relationship between word/image/book in your work?

Paulette Myers-Rich: The images set up a visual narrative. The texts that accompany them may offer a bit of context, or are part of the narrative, but they interact with each other rather than explicate. The book’s form is in response to the narrative and how I want it to be received by the viewer. The form is not only the container, but also a part of the content. Sometimes it’s a traditional codex, other times it’s much more interactive with handling and assembling pieces to create meaning by the viewer, as in the Quartet series. Regardless, the book form is important to me as it offers the viewer the experience of holding, interacting with and pacing an artwork in a somewhat familiar yet often unconventional form.

Quartet #1, photogravure prints and letterpress; handmade paper bound onto boards and clamshell box, 8×10”, 2011

AS: What are you currently working on?

Paulette Myers-Rich: Completing long-time projects that were developed as mock-ups, but never got to the production stage, and exploring color images for the first time. I’m continuing to make book-objects that people can handle and I now have a venue to offer that experience. I recently moved with my husband, the painter David Rich, to Beacon NY where we renovated a derelict storefront for our studios and living space. It’s a building with a double storefront and I use one side as my studio and the other to present artists working with image and text, primarily in photography, small press poetry, artists’ books and works on paper that have a narrative component to them. This is an extension of my studio practice as an artist. I don’t consider myself a curator or gallerist, but a maker and educator having conversations about the work.

AS: Looking back at your earlier work, how do you think your work has developed?

Paulette Myers-Rich: It’s much the same really. I’ve been steady in my commitment to my practice, but of course, as my skills and experience gets stronger and deeper, so does my work. The biggest recent development is being able to present my work in a relational setting through my Reading Room. To engage and have intimate conversations about art with total strangers looking for meaning has been incredible and feels like a radical act of healing in a time of anxiety. I’ve become a combination artist/librarian/bibliotherapist holding free office hours on weekends and it’s very rewarding. This is how I want to be as an artist in the world. I’ve taken all I’ve done in the studio, classroom and library and consolidated it in the Reading Room, and that has activated my practice to include this form of exchange through an art object in a space devoted to these encounters in an intimate setting. It’s transformative.