Artist's Bio and Statement

Susan Colburn-Motta is an artist, writer and inveterate grazer of both libraries and bookstores. Among other things, she makes visual books about paying attention to the world around us. Her recent work involves a collaboration around the notion of sacredness with respect to nature and its miracles.

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For the Love of Books: Book Arts, Design & Craftsmanship

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month: The Fine Art of Book Grazing
I always leave the library with more reading material than I intended and certainly more books and magazines than I can possibly finish in the two weeks I'm allowed to keep them. I'm like a starving horse and the library is my pasture. But unlike most four-legged animals who eat from one relatively small area until it is well picked over and they are satiated, I prefer to nibble a little here and a little there; sometimes I want vinegar on my fries and other times I want to dip them in ketchup.

There are many books, though, that I am more desirous of owning rather than borrowing. I find I want to make notations next to particular passages that I admire and sometimes even fold over the corner of a page to mark a spot to which I want to return at some later unspecified time. Even though my mind still plays the tape of my fifth grade teacher's apoplectic fit over bent page corners, I figure, it's my money and time I'm investing, therefore I can do whatever I want.

So, in addition to libraries, I have taken to grazing bookstores over the years and, while I enjoy all of them, I particularly like those containing used or out-of-print books. In fact, it was while I was perusing my way through just such a place that I came across two volumes by Christopher Morley, an early 20th century American writer. In The Haunted Bookshop (Grosset and Dunlap, 1918) Morley writes about a bookseller who refers to himself as a "bibliotherapist," a person who prescribes certain books for whatever might ail a person. According to Morley's bookseller, "Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing."

I think this sentiment is well taken. But, all too often, people tend to stick to the same few authors or at least the same genre of reading material, probably because it seems safe. For example, I've always felt perfectly comfortable in the art section or even the gardening, women's studies and, of course, the poetry and fiction shelves but I can remember a time when I made the briefest possible turn through the history aisle and completely ignored any books with scientific sounding titles. I believed myself incapable of getting through such tomes - a holdover, I'm sure, from my public school education experience wherein there were people good at math and science and people who just couldn't grasp the principles at hand. Being a member of the latter group, I felt defeated before even trying. But Morley's bibliotherapist offers this piece of advice: "It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way." Perhaps I could, after all, be bold enough to choose such alien reading material.

I began to lurk about the aisles containing books on nature, deciding that this was more closely linked to gardening and maybe not such a huge stretch. I began my journey with such titles as A Year in the Maine Woods by Bernd Heinrich (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994). Heinrich is a biology professor at the University of Vermont who spent a year at a rustic cabin in northern Maine without the amenities of electricity or indoor plumbing. His book is comprised of his observations on nature, sketches and reports of scientific experiments conducted on the habits of ravens as well as a good dose of pithy, homespun philosophy. Easy enough. In fact, practically painless.

From there I moved on to Jeremy Hayward's Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World (Shambhala, 1997) and The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees by Stephanie Kaza (Shambhala, 1996). I felt that since Hayward's book was written for his teenage daughter, I should be able to find at least some success with it. Both he and Kaza view the world from a spiritual standpoint and feel that we must become "re-enchanted" with nature in order to survive in a highly mechanistic society. Kaza, also a professor at the University of Vermont, writes from the perspective of Buddhism, feminism and environmentalism. In this book, she discusses the "primordial intimacy" humans have with trees. Since I have conversed with nature for most of my life, I found immediate resonance with the messages in these books. Indeed, I have revised many of my theories about art now that I am broadening my perspective about the connection between art and science.

These images are from a book entitled Pearls by Susan Colburn-Motta. The text reads:

"A seed is sown, a pearl is grown.
Nature celebrates the potential..."

It is meant to honor the possibilities that exist every time a child is born.

From the nature/science shelf it was a quick leap to psychology and philosophy. Here I encountered such titles as David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous (Random House, 1996) as well as some older but classic works by Rollo May and Frank Barron on the subject of creativity. Abram follows suit with Hayward and Kaza in his discussion of the human relationship with nature and the disconnection felt in modern society. In The Courage to Create (W.W. Norton, 1975) May discusses his position that the very essence of being is demonstrated by the act of creating. He expands the definition of "creating" to be inclusive of the act of living everyday life and not just within the "creative arts." Barron's work, particularly Creative Person and Creative Process (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969) was a bit more problematic for me in that his definitions seemed a bit elusive. Perhaps the field of creativity lends itself well to vagueness. But the point of the matter for me was that I found enjoyment from reading this material.

With the intention of digging deeper into these subjects, next on my list of books to read are Earthmind: Communication with the Living World of Gaia by Paul Devereux (Destiny Books, 1989), A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman (Vintage Books, 1991), and Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance (Park Street Press, 1981). Recently, I ran across a little book called The Sacred Earth (Jason Gardner ed., New World Library, 1998). This is a wonderful compendium of quotes from many authors who have written about nature, going back to Thoreau and Whitman and including such contemporary writers as Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. Gary Paul Nabhan is quoted as speaking of "the naturalist's trance," a state of mind achieved by those who indulge themselves so deeply in nature that they are able to feel rather than see the essence of living.

Now, when I enter a bookstore, I feel that I am approaching "the reader's trance." I graze about, sampling here and there, no longer only skirting the periphery of, to me, the more difficult subjects. Although I realize that the thought of the art section may strike terror in the hearts of some people, I still graze there first. For me, it's a kind of "settling in" and art historians Lucy Lippard and Ellen Dissanayake among others will always be the main course of my reading diet. But soon I find myself wandering away from safe territory and into the less charted (though no longer uncharted) seas of nature, science and philosophy. Christopher Morley, in John Mistletoe, (Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1931) says, "...you may feel assured that no one ever entered a bookstore without having in his soul some fertilizable granule of human possibility." Since my discovery that science books don't bite, I am determined to graze every inch of that field of possibility.

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Susan Colburn-Motta is an artist, writer and inveterate grazer of both libraries and bookstores. Among other things, she makes visual books about paying attention to the world around us. Her recent work involves a collaboration around the notion of sacredness with respect to nature and its miracles.


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