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A few pages of the 100 works of art produced by the Art Book Circle, on display at the library last month. (Submitted photos)

Art Book Circle makes art, community

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In 2023, 10 local residents spent the better part of the year filling 10 books with original art, a page at a time. Some of those 10 — Marie Hertzler, Marian Miller, Coltrane, Forest Bright, Alice Kennedy, Jeff Mellott, Karla Bristow, Dennie Eagleson, Robin Littell and Nancy Mellon — are, by their own admission, artists; others don’t adopt that title, but are self-professed creatives.

Each person began by creating their own work on the first page of a blank book, then handed that book off and received another in which to create a new piece of art, round-robin style. At the end of 10 months, each of the 10 members of the Art Book Circle received their own book back, now filled with color and expression — a truly unique work made in collaboration and community.

This week, the News spoke with three members of the Art Book Circle — Marie Hertzler, Dennie Eagleson and Nancy Mellon — about their year of collaboration, and what they hope that year will inspire, both for themselves and for the wider village.

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The Art Book Circle was Hertzler’s idea — though she noted that, like many artists, she was herself inspired by someone else. Hertzler’s friend, local resident and artist Beth Holyoke, had engaged in a similar practice with a small group of other artists during the first year of the pandemic. On a visit to Holyoke’s house, Hertzler got a peek at one of the books created during the process.

“I was like, ‘Wow, these are really cool — I’d like to be in a group like this myself,’” she said.

In short order, Hertzler set about gathering friends to create their own series of works. Whether they were artists or not, Hertzler said, wasn’t as important as whether they were “willing to put themselves at it for 10 months.”

For artist Nancy Mellon, the project presented an opportunity to set a personal creative goal. Having lived with Parkinson’s Disease for the last two-and-a-half years, Mellon said she appreciated the motivation that setting a monthly intention afforded her as she manages a shifting physical capacity.

“Each month I had to come up with something — and it’s much better for me to create than not create,” Mellon said. “I’m always dealing with physical stuff now, so it was really nice, in many ways, to know that I needed to do this.”

The Art Book Circle worked via a variety of methods: collage, drawing, painting, found media, mixed media, text. The art the group produced in their books — 100 works of art, all told — encompasses pieces that are, at turns, dreamy, lyrical, loud, joyous and meditative, depending on the page.

There was no set theme or influence for any of the books or the work created therein; as Hertzler said, the Art Book Circle was “at liberty to do exactly what they pleased.”

“The one thing we agreed on was that we would take one month, and then the book had to be passed on to the next person,” Hertzler said.

Most often, artist Dennie Eagleson said, the pieces a person would create weren’t informed by the others that were already in a book when it was received. Sometimes, though, a piece might be inspired by the person who would eventually receive the finished book. Eagleson recalled a gathering the Art Book Circle held at Hertzler’s home last summer, around the midpoint of their collective art journey, when she observed a clothesline on Hertzler’s back porch.

“There were all these beautiful colors of towels — so I made that picture for her book,” she said. “If you knew the person and became aware of their sensibility, you could kind of think, ‘Oh, this person might really appreciate this.’ So some people did use the book and their interaction with [others] as a motivator.”

Eagleson added that she attributed the gathering at Hertzler’s — one of three that took place over the 10 months — as one  reason for the Art Book Circle’s ultimate success.

“I got to know these people whose work showed up in my book — that was a really important part of it,” Eagleson said. “I think that was Marie’s biggest intention — the idea of creating community through art.”

Hertzler is one of the creators in the Art Book Circle who doesn’t consider herself an artist. She said she’s certainly creative — she enjoys designing interior spaces, has taken pottery classes and acted in plays and is learning to play the ukulele. She met her husband, the late artist Brian Maughan, in a sculpture class he was teaching.

“So I have been exposed to art, and I’ve dallied in it — but I was a French teacher my whole career,” Hertzler said. “Over the years, I never had the time to really go all out on art — but this past year has been so fruitful for me, and I’m really enjoying it. For me, it was low-stakes — I was doing collage, and it was really fun.”

Eagleson agreed that — outside of the monthly deadline — there wasn’t a lot of pressure to the Art Book Circle project. There was no judgement of the pieces they created — only an appreciation of the work involved and what it produced.

“It was very welcoming, very inclusive,” Eagleson said. “It was a place to be a little vulnerable, and know that there were people who would appreciate your efforts, whether it’s found objects or drawing, like I was doing. As long as it fits in the book, it’s all OK.”

To that end, Mellon said she used existing art — some she’d created in the past, some created by her granddaughters — to build new work for the circulating books.

“I do work differently than I used to,” she said, noting that her vision and manual dexterity have changed over the last few years. “But I have found equally as much enjoyment creating in a different way. There wasn’t pressure to be really great at drawing or something like that. It was just, ‘Go forth!’”

At the end of 10 months, the Art Book Circle had their 10 books in hand, happy to share them with one another. But they also hoped to share their work with the wider community — which they were able to do last November, by showing the books in the library’s front-entrance display case that month. Hertzler said she came in every few days to turn the pages in the books, giving library patrons views of new works each time they came in. Librarian Nacim Sajabi, who aided the Art Book Circle in setting up the display, told Hertzler that the exhibition of the books was well-received by library patrons.

“People told her, ‘Wow, we love looking at this display — we’re coming to the library more than we normally do so we can see the next page turns,’” Hertzler said. “That was super cool.”

Looking ahead, Hertzler said she intends to go forth this year with another Art Book Circle group, composed partly of those who were part of 2023’s project, and partly of new folks.

Hertzler added that the nonprofit Sister Trillium, of which she’s a Foundry member, may also be a resource for future Art Book Circles. Sister Trillium sells recycled art supplies at the local farmers market and aims to open a storefront this spring. Hertzler’s hope is that future Art Book Circles will use the storefront as a place for meeting and connection.

And just as those who saw the Art Book Circle’s work on display at the library were inspired to keep coming back, Hertzler said she hopes the upcoming presentation will inspire others to dive in and “get their art juices running” in collaboration and community.

Mellon shared a similar hope, adding that, in the end, the Art Book Circle project was all about connection and fun.

“I’m hoping other people will do it, because I think they’ll enjoy it — and that’s really what it’s for,” she said. “It’s really all about enjoyment.”


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