Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Painter, Poet, Publisher: The Magical Top-of-the-World Book Art of Ken Leslie

He's a painter first and foremost, and his journals, themselves handmade books, are crammed with watercolor renditions of the landscape of Svalbard. But for Ken Leslie, a professor at Johnson State College, Johnson, Vermont, the movement from images and flat renditions is swift toward a sense of the round earth itself. So it's no surprise that the biggest constructions at his exhibit at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium are in circles.

One lines the encircling balcony in the Victorian-era building's gallery. It has been about 10 years since Leslie tackled the project, which consists of one painting per day of the sky over Hardwick, Vermont, all linked together to form a year of sky. But he joked that the project had been meant all along for the museum -- the weather program called "An Eye on the Sky" transmits from the museum, and that, said Leslie, is just what he had for an entire year: "I had my eye on the sky!"

Most of the exhibit focuses not on Hardwick, though, but on Svalbard, which at 78 degrees north is actually closer to the North Pole than to the Arctic Circle. He visited once in the summer when the sun never sets, and once in the winter when it never rises. "It takes time to see the light in the dark."

At 27 degrees Fahrenheit his paint would freeze as he was painting, forming the feathery fern patterns we know from winter windows. They remained in the finished work, branding it as unquestionably Arctic. At lower temperatures, Leslie relied on his "perfect pitch" of color memory, gazing at his surroundings, then running inside to portray them.

"Long before I made a book (from this work) I started painting circles," he explained, "because ninety-nine percent of printing is on rectangles and you're carrying an enormous weight of history on your shoulders" if you use rectangle forms. Painting on circles freed him of that weight. Plus, things fall to the center of circles, instead of to the bottom of a page. As Leslie worked, he became increainglu interested in the perimeter of each circle, finally removing their centers entirely to form "donuts." Then, one night, he realized he could fold these toroid shapes into "books" -- and the result was his creation SPACE + TIME.

He began to take photos and paint from life, to test his sense of reality. With this, he developed landscapes that moved through time. At Svalbard, he said, "I felt very intrigued by experiencing a sun that doesn't set or that doesn't rise."

For the Fairbanks exhibit, which runs through January of 2008 (www.fairbanksmuseum.org), the museum's creative staff developed a wall mount that turns one of the "books," and a floor-mounted donut-shaped table to offer a flat basae to another. I like the poem from the floor-mounted piece, which begins before dawn and ends in the dark heart of the night:

I chose a place to measure a day.
I found plates full, and promises kept.
Somewhere else, differences explode.
Anger triumphs. Hope is trashed.
But here, this day, this place
is a good place.

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