A Visit to Reed College’s Special Collections

My co-conspirator in this blog, Doug Garnett, and his son Sam Garnett, have begun filming a documentary about my work. Doug has directed national TV commercials and Sam is an excellent videographer and editor. (Here’s a clip with us busily at work in my studio.)

It has been exciting to see film about my work begin to come together. While the documentary won’t be out for some time, the recent TX83 blog post has the first public example of their work.

In their exploration, Doug and Sam decided it would be important to capture the experience of seeing my work in person — something many have never done. This means visiting a rare book room where my work is most often found.

So they visited Reed College’s Special Collections which has three of my books:

Trajections. A full size, one-of-a-kind manuscript book.

Synesthesia. This is a collaboration with Terrence McKenna and Daniel Kelm released in an edition of 60 (I still have a few available for sale).

Tables of Jupiter. This is the guide for my 2004 show in Walla Walla of the same name.

Don’t I have to be “special” to visit special collections?

It’s funny how shy we are about visiting a rare books room. Partly we’ve been trained to expect that “rare books” are for “rare people” — requiring special dispensation to visit them. Most students might not know, until some type of orientation class, that the university even has a special collection or rare book room. I certainly didn’t until graduate school. Then we were taken, roped together like kindergarten kids, over to what seemed a secret space high up in the library. Mind STILL blown. (Thanks Bill Ritchie!)

Visiting these places also carries some residual childhood fear of breaking library rules — like being quiet. That’s sad, of course. As children, it was not our fault when we broke the rules — it was our nature to struggle to be quiet.

Museums have also trained us that touching art or rare objects is out of the question. So it’s kind of a shock to find out there are places we can look at valuable things, get to handle them and turn the pages. (So much better sense of an object comes when we touch it.)

Rare book rooms and special collections contain incredible things. And, those who care for them want their precious charges to be seen.

Visitors are welcomed in most rare book rooms or special collections. Librarians will gladly give you access and help you learn how to handle the books correctly. Quite often, as with Reed College, you don’t even need to call ahead.

All this said, things get more challenging when special collections materials are fragile or have other restrictions. Often access to this sort of thing is restricted to researchers, but in my experience, you should ask and determine what is available. Many many times, I had but to ask and worlds opened up. Christopher De Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts or Nicholas Basbane’s On Paper; both are excellent reads if you’d like to get a sense of what it’s like to visit these types of books.

Doug and Sam visit Reed

Special Collections at Reed is found two floors below ground in an environmentally-controlled area of the main library. In the interest of inviting students in, their door was wide open.

Doug and Sam had arranged to film at Reed so the books had been graciously pulled ahead of time. Special Collections Librarian Maria Cunningham and her team welcomed Sam and Doug. (If you are ever in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, I highly recommend that you visit this library where you’ll also find an excellent collection of rare maps.)

Before turning to my work, they looked over a page from a 12th century manuscript, a huge book of music on vellum, and a set of artists’ books the library keeps within easy reach for anyone who wants to visit. Reed College staff keeps these books readily available in order to encourage students to explore the collection.

After showing Doug and Sam how to ensure their hands were clean, Maria left them with my work. Of that work, Trajections is the main attraction.

Time with “Trajections.”

I hadn’t seen it since finishing it in the winter of 2007, allowing twelve years for my memory to lapse. During the last stages of the work on this book, I fell on the ice following a big snowfall, broke my arm, the left one, which is my drawing arm, and was decommissioned for several months. I have metallic implants in the elbow which pleases me as they link to my days in my Dad’s hardware store.

The assembly of the box for Trajections was done by my wife Ann, as I was in an advisory capacity.

The photos the crew sent back surprised me a bit. I almost always forget the details of books even though I have photo files which I frequently review. The books that I especially feel strongly about are touchstones to what I want to activate and not all my books do that for me. My interest in visual density, like complex music, makes recall of specifics difficult and only the primary themes can be easily grasped or remembered.

Some are amazing to me, with disbelief that I even made such a thing. Others fall into a range of competence and some just don’t do the dance. A review such as I had here, brings up vamps and moves worthy of another look. Like a good jazz player, we spend our time creating an inventory of riffs and we need to learn them in all keys and/or in many different materials.

We are beings that, by default, believe our memories are infallible, but in reality are constantly and subtly revising themselves, making minor course corrections and retelling parts of the story. So details become vivid again, the scale is corrected. In music, for me the idea of practice is to keep refining the riffs and by doing so something novel, and sometimes utterly novel, just shows up. This little wiggle here had never been played before. This chord next to that one gave up a new idea. Review and rehearsal. Can’t be improved upon.

Trajections is such a book. It evokes easily that idea of reexamining a move. It is full of nice pressures and responses. Delighted that it’s in Portland and only a few hours of driving so I can visit it.

The team spent just over an hour browsing the three books.

My books are intimate, overgrown and deliberately crammed with intersections of all sorts of stuff.

A common theory seems to be that my works are busy (this is offered as criticism). But I seek a certain density in my work which pleases me. Even more, that criticism has never seemed valid — for anything. Truth is that I’m honored by the accusation of “busy” — Mozart was reportedly told by the Emperor Joseph II that “The Abduction From the Seraglio” had “too many notes.”

What I’ve found with my work is that taking a good look requires time.

There may be no better way to do this than to just sit with one book for an hour, paging back and forth — exploring the binding and the box — just looking.

One of the beauties of a rare book room is that it can be seen as a mediation space or whatever flavor of solitude you like. It is safe and comfortable and designed for just this absorbing experience. You can take that time and savor the experience — just you and the book.

©2019 Timothy C. Ely — All Rights Reserved

One comment

  1. Jenny Flexeder

    Thank you for for this article.I enjoyed being part of your creative life albeit from a vast distance.Your books are dazzling and complex and intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

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