“Unbound” exhibit showcases books in all their forms

As any true book lover knows, a book is more than a physical item. It is not the pages or binding or ink that make a book a book, but rather its contents.

The students of ART 584, “Contemporary Institutes of Display,” see it a different way.

Their upcoming exhibition, aptly named “Unbound: What’s Your Story?” takes a look at the art of books, physical and non-physical. Deconstructed into its materials and the memories attached to the stories, the class examines what makes a book a book.

The Meadville Public Library collaborated with the class to create an exhibit that breaks down what a book can be, what it can look like and what it can mean.

Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of Allegheny Art Galleries Paula Burleigh explained that her class’ project is one that explores the mental, emotional and physical aspects of a book in one exhibition.

“This show kind of explores the possible range of books as objects while also engaging with the book as a repository of memory, as an object that we develop affective attachments to,” Burleigh said. “We might associate different books that we’ve read with different times in our lives, just like we would with a song or a particular smell. So it also thinks of these as deeply personal objects.”

The class has collaborated with other community partners in previous semesters, namely with Meadville Council of the Arts and Erie Arts and Culture. This exhibition is different in that it will not only be featured in the library space, but will also be tailored to the library’s audience.

“The Meadville Library suggested that we curate a show based on the art of the book, or artists’ books, to think about the sculptural possibilities of a book,” Burleigh said. “Books can take many forms; they can be unbound, as the title suggests, they can be made out of found materials, they can be made out of natural materials. It really runs the gamut.”

Director of Meadville Public Library Dan Slozat echoed this idea while explaining that libraries, not just books, can mean many different things.

“We started talking, and really it came around to the discussion of libraries and books, and what is a book?” Slozat said. “What is a library? To some extent, libraries are way more than books. So I’m very excited to see what the students have curated in terms of pulling from artists all over the U.S. and their perspectives on how to tell a story.”

Burleigh explained that the project is nearly entirely student-run, meaning that students had a say in every part of the curatorial process, from finding and selecting artists for the show to crafting display cases and fine-tuning the presentation.

“They’re really learning about all facets of putting together a show. There’s the fun curatorial part where you’re creative, but then there’s also the … administrative labor that’s often invisible, and they’re doing all of it,” Burleigh said.

Students in Burleigh’s class split into teams to accomplish the work of curating the show. Some students focused on communicating with artists, while others were tasked with creating a cohesive design for the show or marketing the show to Allegheny students and the Meadville community.

Heather Amancio, ’23, is part of the communications team and was tasked with reaching out to artists, explaining the terms of the exhibit and answering any questions that the artists had.

“We kind of were tasked with looking through all of their (the artists’) … materials they provided,” Amancio said. “It was a couple different rounds; I think we all picked like six or so at first, and then we got together, talked about which ones we all picked and then saw the overlap and talked about what we actually wanted from this exhibition.”

The team had to sort through over forty artists’ works, selecting the pieces that would be right for the theme of the show. From there, students like Cameron Paines, ’23, were tasked with designing a uniform look for the exhibition.

“Making things cohesive is also kind of an issue because using a bunch of different kinds of wood, using a bunch of different kinds of materials is obviously not ideal, so we’re trying to figure out how to make that work,” Paines said.

Creating a cohesive look proved to be only one challenge of exhibit curation. Attracting the right audience has also presented challenges, according to Jahyra Williams, ’24.

“I think, speaking from the promotions team, one thing that we’ve had to talk about and discuss is how to promote for different audiences,” Williams said. “So we’ve created two different flyers — one for the school and then one for the general public — because we know that the audience is different.”

The exhibition is set to take place on the second floor of the Meadville Public Library and will feature works from a number of artists from around the country, each of whom bring a different interpretation to the theme of books, stories and found materials.

One of the featured artists is Ashley Pastori of Erie’s Grounded Print Shop, which produces paper from recycled and repurposed materials.

Pastori’s work in the exhibit will include a book with pages composed of abaca — a natural leaf fiber — and dust. Her other contribution will take the form of a tall, spinning fixture to display used pillow cases. The message of the works, Pastori explained, is one that communicates her love of crafting paper.

“In an end-result kind of way, it’s this way of recording anything in a way that I trust,” Pastori said. “It’s existing in real life and not in, like, the ether somewhere.”

Her works also speak to the stories that we choose to tell about our day-to-day lives, and what we choose to leave out of our stories.

“They all have to do with kind of my accumulation of life, as in like the dirt and dust and skin and nasty stuff that people leave behind, and how it’s kind of a record of actually the most of our time,” Pastori said. “Most part of our life is actually spent kind of in these in-between times when you’re either working, or you’re sleeping, or whatever.”

The collaboration between Allegheny’s artistic community and the Meadville Library is not the first and will not be the last, Slozat explained. In the future, he plans to introduce the Meadville community to all kinds of unique experiences, with “Unbound” serving as just one example of how the community library space can be used.

“We’ve really reopened this floor with the intention of as many community events as possible,” Slozat said. “So slowly but surely I want to partner with other organizations like the historical society and get actual displays of historical artifacts, other galleries — really open it up more to the rest of the community and have other local artists on display.”

The “Unbound: What’s Your Story?” exhibition will be on display through June 2, 2023.