by Rice Freeman-Zachary
The definition of juxtaposition is a simple one, meaning nothing more than the placement of objects in proximity to one other. For artists, however, juxtaposed objects reverberate as they play off one another and expose multiple layers of meaning.
For Sas Colby, whose seminal work has helped change the way people think about artist books, juxtaposition is the catalyst for much other own art and much of what she teaches students in her workshops, held every summer at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico.
Other constructions, she says, “In juxtaposition, you get one clear feeling from both the background collage and the found object, playing off of each other. There is an impression conveyed, or a story told — something metaphorical, without words. Each is like its own little gem.”
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1939, Sas grew up near Boston, knowing from early childhood that she wanted to be an artist.
“My father was a building contractor, so I was used to the idea of making things, of seeing something built from the ground up,” she says. “I always wanted to beautify my surroundings. I loved color and had a yearning for an artistic life.” Fueled by determination, luck and family support, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence and began her career as a textile artist, creating fantasy clothing and masks, quilts, banners and wall hangings. The 1980s were devoted to mixed-media, mail art, performance art, artists’ books and photography.
The intentionality is important to her: she moved halfway across to the country, to a completely different landscape, to take up a new medium and a new way of approaching artists’ books. “The canvas books wouldn’t have developed if I hadn’t come here. I didn’t know very many people, and I felt totally free to let this take me where it was going to take me.” Sas thought she could survive on her savings for perhaps a year.
“Somehow I’ve managed ro make it last,” she laughs. She attributes part of that fortune to finding the Fenix Gallery and an art dealer who believed in her work. Artist books are often considered in oddity in the art world, too strange and difficult to sell. Owner and dealer Judy Kendall had never seen anything like what Sas was doing but was willing to take a chance on the books and has been Sas’ primary dealer for them since 1992.
“One of the things I was trying to overcome was the marginalization of artists’ books as some odd art form,” Sas says. “I thought if I used the materials from fine arts, like canvas and paint, that people would look at them in a new way. It was a breakthrough in terms of creating a synthesis of form and medium.” She wanted the books to be approachable, touchable — works that would engage readers and make them see artists’ books in a new way. To that end, she made the books of stitched and painted canvas so that they were very durable and could be handled. To further engage viewers, she added three-dimensional objects to the covers and pages.
“The text was cut out of canvas and applied to the page,” she says. Then she covered the text with paint, resulting in raised letters that feel “almost like Braille.” Each of the books had a theme, sometimes based on a simple quote or a comment that appeared across the pages. Pages often overlapped so their configurations changed according to how the viewer handled them.
“I explored a lot of the conventions of the book in this format,” she says. “The book that was most successful was called Obsessive Behavior.” She began this book with a piece of paper she found on the street, a snippet with a quote about obsessive behavior.
“It was like this talisman that someone had carried around,” she says. “Whenever they wanted to count or wash their hands, the quote instructed them to stop and think and not be overcome by these obsessive feelings.” She put that quote into the book and created pages to illustrate different kinds of obsessive behavior, something many artists know from personal experience.
“You want to sew a whole page of buttons, or make a grid and put a number in each square, or you overhear other people’s conversations and you write them down — all of those things artists feel somehow compelled to do — I tried to put in this book.” The book was purchased by a psychologist, and Sas likes to imagine he has it displayed in his waiting room. “I love that! It seems so right.”
The last of these canvas books was created in 1995. Sas explains, “I think I just came to the end of it. They’re very complex, and every surface has to relate to every other surface to create sequencing, to create a flow through the book as a cohesive and coherent work of art.” In 1996, the pieces she calls “bundles” began to evolve into the constructions that became her next series.
“They were made out of folded newspapers and old mail order catalogs,” she says. She folded and wrapped the catalogs with strings and tags, sometimes covering the bundles with gesso and primitive paintings, often attaching found objects.
“They had a soft crunchiness, and you’d be aware that there was something inside, but it was not available to you. It was just a surface on which I’d make a painting or do a collage. They were totally pleasing objects,” she remembers. “I did a few of these, and then they evolved into more formal artwork, which I call constructions and which are really about juxtaposition.”
Sas also began to look at the ways text and visual objects, juxtaposed, can interact in unexpected ways. One of the most innovative sections in her workshops is the one in which she enlists a poet to introduce students to writing techniques.
“They were using text, and oftentimes not to its best effect; and I could see that we would all benefit from studying poetry, especially how metaphor works” she says. “The text needs to be as artful as the visuals, and it should not be just a label.” Rather, she explains, the text should transform the art into something else. “I think that’s what art is about. It’s about the transformation, it’s about something rising to a different level of emotional understanding.” She pushes her students to try things that are unfamiliar to them, encouraging exploration. “Artmaking is a discovery,” she explains. “That’s the whole point of doing it. It’s a kind of daredevil experiment, and it’s a little reckless. I think the truest art is the work that I’ve done when I’ve somehow stepped out of the way and the an has come through me; and I think every artist knows when it happens in their own work.” Most of that art today is created in Berkeley, where she spends the winter months, in an 800-square-foot warehouse studio with 13-foot ceilings, terrific light and a bright fuchsia door.
“When I’m in my studio, I’m very inside and close to my own internal process. It’s a very good place for me,” Sas says. She begins her mornings there with her sketchbook, in which she draws one object, day after day. Early on in this practice, she began to draw a rabbit figure, a soft rubber bunny that took on great significance.
“I started drawing this bunny when my husband was dying, and I had little time for art making, but I drew this figure every day, unconsciously creating a journal of my grief process.” The bunny became an icon to her, an alter ego that makes regular appearances in her paintings. “I think having an alter ego is a terrific thing for an artist.”
Currently she’s excited about integrating her art with the travel she loves. “Once I’ve taken a trip, it’s very important to me to make a book and to synthesize my experiences,” she says. She’s returning to Burma this year and is traveling to Italy and Mallorca, gathering the experiences that are invaluable to an artist.
“If you give yourself the time to go away from your daily life and completely immerse yourself in your artwork, you’ll make more progress than you can imagine,” she says. “What is the measure of a successful artist? It’s the ability to keep doing the work — it doesn’t have anything to do with sales or awards; it’s about the ability and desire to keep doing the work.”
Rice Freeman-Zachary is a writer and artist living in Midland, TX