Published February 7th, 2024 by Benjamin Merritt
An exhibition at MCBA celebrates the life of a beloved book artist, mentor, and friend
Jody Williams: A Life in Art opened on January 26th, 2024 on what would have been Jody Williams’ 67th birthday. Jody passed away this past fall, on October 17, 2023. To celebrate her life, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) has put together an exhibition that features her work spanning four decades, from numerous different collections across the country. Tiny objects and interactions between reader and book, person and object, nature and human, past and present illustrate Jody’s vast strength as an artist — an endlessly thoughtful collection of work. Jody’s work highlights small, complicated book structures that house various drawings, writings, photos, and collages. Much of her work utilizes intaglio or other printmaking processes, techniques that she taught in various classes at MCAD, MCBA, and elsewhere locally and abroad.
It’s difficult to write about this as a posthumous exhibition. I met Jody in 2015, when I took my first intaglio class with her as a Freshman at MCAD. I took a class with her every year after that until I graduated. After graduation, she was a wonderful mentor and peer who helped me traverse the waters of the post-graduation art world, and her influence on me as an artist and as a person will forever remain. In writing this, I am celebrating her masterful body of work and reflecting on her impact on my life and many others’ lives.
One of many highlights in the exhibition is Jody’s artist book, For Now. She won the 2019 Minnesota Book Artist Award for this piece, a gorgeously constructed book object housing four separate vials of dust, and accordion books connecting to them. The illustrations within the accordion books are careful line drawings of a variety of subjects — birds, a castle, a dragon, feathers — that tie into a conceptual relationship between four groupings connected to her own familial ties and travels: West/Water/Hawaii, North/Earth/Minnesota, East/Air/Ireland, and South/Fire/Florida. These themes contrast with each other but also imply hidden and unexpected connections to one another. The physical vials of dust inform the drawings and text, which play with ideas of memory and history through storytelling and poetry.
Top: For Now, 2018. Four-part book box, collection of Mary Leikvold. Bottom: Relative Remains, 2010. Framed layout of book, collection of Dani Roach. Photos by Benjamin Merritt.
The contrast between some of the illustrations in For Now, such as the dragon and the vials of dust, illustrate Jody’s way of aligning the sweepingly grandiose with the absolutely tiny. Seeing all of these pieces together illustrates that relationship, and I found myself particularly interested in a piece of hers I hadn’t seen until now, Relative Remains from 2010, a framed layout of an accordion book. Some words from the book: “What once was no longer is. Presences past and present, seemingly related species defined by structures, divided by depths of rock and time.” The pages feature the text in Jody’s characteristic handwriting, alongside drawings of creatures extinct and contemporary. The drawings hint at evolutionary connections and histories, while the poetry in the book evokes spiritual and unseen similarities. What lives on in our bodies that has lived before us? What prehistoric shells have decayed into the soil, that we then eat in our food or hold in our hearts?
Untitled Landscape, 2021. Archival digital print.
After spending time with this piece I was immediately drawn to two other framed pieces, two untitled landscape drawings from 2021 and 2022. Maybe it’s because of the tumult of those years socially and politically, or because they were some of Jody’s final years, but these two gentle and serene line drawings hold an emotional weight that is hard to touch on. One features a flattened hillside speckled with leafless trees, boxes, smaller plantlife, and snow. Going from the detailed linework of the prehistoric creatures to a bare landscape, I think of what exists in this drawing underneath the surface. The practice of drawing and representation becomes a practice of appreciation and observation, and Jody’s small marks on the page translate that curiosity and wonder about the natural world. At once a still portrait of a hillside and a snapshot of a day in Jody’s life, this piece evokes feelings of how the little moments in our lives linger.
A few other pieces from 2016 echo this. Four prints that use intaglio, digital print, and chine colle are each a square composition that features a line of poetry, a landscape photo, and a textured intaglio background. The backgrounds are full of multi-color specs, which could be dust, sand, air molecules. The text in one of the pieces reads, “Secrets slowly revealed, but never explained, at low tide” — again invoking senses of history, but with a sweetly poetic reflection on what we do not know and may never know about the world in which we live.
A large portion of Jody’s work plays with this balance. Her 2006 book Still Sense uses the book form as an interactive sculptural work where the reader can find drawings in compartments, alongside collected specimens and poetry. One poem on view in this book is titled “Substance”:
“Gathering strength / rising / singular points / of reference / divide and connect / earth and sky / imposing order / repeating patterns / retain and record / past and present / grand presences / enduring”
Next to this poem, the page “layout” is three compartments that hold some natural specimens, a vial, and a drawing of a tree. Once again, Jody’s careful drawings of the world around her radiate a joy and appreciation, offering the reader a new way to view these living systems. Her words let us live in a sense of wonder about the world, just as in the piece before: “secrets slowly revealed, but never explained”. The relationship between these elements is never explicit, and the viewer is invited to build the connections for themselves and create their interpretation with their own histories.
Arizona Trip, Box collage with specimens, collection of Mary Leikvold.
Another concept I find myself reflecting on during this exhibition is the way Jody’s work invokes absence and presence — the presence of the earth through vials of material, the presence of the artist in poetry, or the past presence of a personal experience, like her road trip map in the collection of Mary Liekvold. Jody’s work plays bittersweetly with these themes: you are not meant to hold on to these moments and objects, the point is their spiritual and emotional impact as impermanence. The ephemera, fragmented poetry, and connected drawings all live in the beautiful moments of the unexpectedness that comes with experiencing things without trying to hold onto them forever, although we may want to hold on to some things forever.
Jody’s bookforms uniquely bridge the space between permanence and impermanence, and there’s a beauty in the tension of that. The book objects hopefully will archive these things as long as possible, but they’re archiving them as new, different experiences built from memory and fragmentation. As the books are collected they take on new lives with their collectors, traveling through new homes, exhibitions, shared with family members and friends. Her work contains these passing moments and reflections on things past, but they don’t strive to hold onto that specific fleeting moment. They build new identities and meanings, and as the book object lives on, its materiality remains but the meaning remains impermanent, shifting and growing as their collectors or viewers do. Their meanings are vastly different to me now than they were two years ago, when I was emailing Jody back and forth about a new exhibition she had coming up. They are physical remembrances of her life and opportunities for her legacy to continually shape others’ lives. I am reminded of this when I look at the exhibition and I see how many different personal collections her work comes from, and how willing everyone was to share her work with the community.
The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has organized such a wide reaching, generous view of Jody’s work that one could write forever about all of the books on display. The pieces I mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jody’s work, her craft, and the reach she had to impact the lives of those around her in a profoundly positive way. Her work is a record of a person who lovingly observed the world around her, who created work that allows us to experience joy and wonder in all the connections — poetic, physical, emotional — that create the webs of life we occupy. Jody is, for me, the person who taught me to live a creative life, not just to be an artist. I see her life within her work, these records of travel, diaries, and even an online magazine of all things tiny.
When I went to experience the exhibition, MCBA had a little shelf next to the works list of small prints for attendees to take. I, of course, took one (or maybe two) and have been spending a great deal of time with them since then. One is a page from This Time, a book from 2007. The page has abstract drawings and text, printed from an etching plate. Because this is an etching, the printed lines are slightly raised from the page, which you can feel very subtly when you move your finger across the surface of the print. One of the reasons I fell in love with printmaking, taking Jody’s class years ago, is because of the way she talked about them. Prints, existing as multiples, are affirmations of presence. I feel the raised surface of the print, and I think about her spending time in her studio making this piece and what she learned making it and how she would bring that to the classroom later on. The physicality of the print is a record of the creation of it. Of course, just as she created multiples through her prints and books, there are pieces of her in everyone she taught, as well as in her colleagues and her friends. This is the emotional resonance of this retrospective — seeing how many connections, large and tiny, exist diffusely around us and through us.
Jody’s retrospective shows the magnitude in the tiny things within our lives. Her vast body of works, shown together from numerous collections far and wide, illustrate a life in art that observed, reflected, and created worlds seen and unseen, beneath our feet and out of our reach. Spending time with her work shows the way that what we live around impacts and affects our lives. Her collections of poetry, objects, and artifacts reflect on our relationship to the world, our continual absence and impermanent presence.
Absence is inevitable to think about here. I cherish the moments I had with Jody as a teacher and a friend, and I wish that I could relay these words to her instead of here. Now, I feel the tiny landscape of ink raised off the surface of the print I took from the exhibition, and I think about Jody. I am reminded of her presence. I think about how the way I wipe ink off of a copper plate is the same way as she taught me; the way I cut bookcloth corners is the same. I think about the first time I met her, in 2015, as I sheepishly entered her classroom and for some reason asked, “Are you the teacher?” and she said “No, I am the oldest MCAD student ever.” Just like her work suggests, the tiniest part can have the largest impact. She lives on through her body of work as shown in the MCBA, but also through the immeasurable impact she had on her students, peers, and friends. If you weren’t familiar with Jody, I encourage you to spend time with her exhibition and reflect on these ideas and see what new experiences her work brings to your life. If you were lucky enough to know Jody, I’m sure you miss her just as much, and this exhibition will give you space to be in those memories for a moment. ◼︎
Jody Williams, photo via Minnesota Center for Book Arts.
Jody Williams: A Life in Art is on view at MCBA through March 23. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10am –5pm; Thursday, 10am – 7pm. For more info, visit mnbookarts.org or follow them on Instagram @mnbookarts.
MCBA has also compiled a collection of remembrances from Jody's friends, students, and colleagues.
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