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Jan Davidson, Free Little Bird and Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Santa Cruz, California. Peter and Donna Thomas (2019) 7x3x1 inches. 12 accordion pages with 12 nested accordion pages. 39 copies.
Binding: Nested accordion binding: repurposed mahogany wood covers, front cover engraved with image of bird. Clamshell box: Blue paper with blue cloth spine, woodcut label on front cover. Paper: background accordion; blue and tan duplex, nested accordion; ochre handmade by Peter Thomas. Pages laser cut paper doll style with bird images. Printing: Letterpress: printed from linoleum blocks. Typography: Handset Canterbury, linocut text. Illustration: 9 linocut blocks with text and images of birds, etc. cut by Donna Thomas. Note: Excerpt from an Appalachian folk song is juxtaposed with an quote from Maya Angelou’s book, which is printed in the hidden space created between the nested accordion pages.
We made a 3 minute video showing the book and talking about it.
A successful artists’ book, like a successful song, is an aesthetically rich creation, and at its best it will hold many aesthetic surprises. It will be rich in meaning, rich in visual content, in color, shapes and texture, there will be more than one way to understand it, more than one way it will engage its audience.
Free Little Bird is an Appalachian folk song we first heard from Jan Davidson at the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. We had been searching for a quote by a woman to pair with Walt Whitman’s “Afoot and lighthearted…” to paint on the eves of our wandering book artist caravan, and decided this would work.
People looking at the wagon often asked us about it, which led us to consider it more deeply. As it is a folk song, there is no author to say exactly what was meant, and in this artists’ book we present our personal understandings, interpretations and responses to the story told in the lyrics.
We used our structure of nesting accordion structure because it can be seen to mimic the motion of a bird when flying. The outer accordion features silhouette bird images with wings outstretched; free little birds. Donna cut the shapes as she would a paper doll, so in contrast to laser cut work done from a digital file, each of Donna’s birds is unique. This lack of mechanical perfection creates more visual interest. The paper is handmade, a duplex sheet. The front side is a muted blue, a common color found in bird’s feathers, and allusive of the sky where the bird is free. The back is darker, a beige/blue. We created duplex paper as a visual hint that each side of the paper is important, hoping to lead the astute viewer to wonder why we made that choice, and what more there might be to look for on the back side of the accordion. The text was cut in linoleum by Donna. The mark of her had is evident in the letter forms. We carefully chose the metal Canterbury type, a free and minimal san serif, to complement, and not distract attention from her hand cut letters. We placed the Canterbury type sideways so it would clearly be less important than the text.
One reading of the text could interpret it to be the mocking cry of a child saying “Catch me if you can.” But in another reading one can find undertones social justice concerns. We used the colophon to provide another a hint to look for more in the book, stating: “…the text is an Appalachian folk song and an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings.” The reader then asks, “Where is Angelou’s contribution?”
The back side of the accordion is illustrated with silhouette cut-outs of flying birds. a careful look through the bird cut-outs reveals Angelou’s darker text “caged” inside the nested accordion structure. The book is bound with two wooden covers, with an image of a bird laser cut into the front cover. The wood alludes to the trees, which represent another form of freedom to the birds. The book is housed in a clamshell box, another “cage.”
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