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Jody Williams creates cabinets filled with tiny curiousities

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For book and box artist Jody Williams, one medium has led to another...and another. When the MCAD professor was still an undergraduate herself at Carleton College, she took a printmaking class and discovered etching. “I’d walk into the studio and the smell of linseed oil would drive me crazy,” she recalls. She soon jettisoned her plans to major in biology and graduated with a B.A. in studio arts in 1978.

While pursuing her MFA at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Williams made a series of tiny prints, planting the seed for her future endeavors. During one of her early teaching jobs at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, she took a letterpress printing class and made her first four-by-six art book, Marvel Ann’s Dream, a memoir of her artistic development. That book led to many more, which Williams published under her own imprint, Flying Paper Press, named in tribute to a Talking Heads song.

With her metalsmithing skills, Williams began to build boxes to hold her books. As time went on, she realized that the boxes themselves qualified as works of art. Fifteen such pieces will be on display at her show “Circumstantial Evidence,” which opens Monday at Augsburg College’s Christensen Center Art Gallery.

Heavily influenced by the natural world, Williams decorates her “not empty” boxes with found treasures, such as shells, insects, feathers, and stones. Drawings and poetry often accompany the items. The largest box in this exhibit, titled Some More Specimens, is comprised of items she collected during a semester spent in Ireland.

“My little cottage was right on Galway Bay, so I could walk right out my front door and beach comb,” she says.

One of Williams’ most complex works was a 48-inch-wide Cabinet of Curiosities for the Carleton Library. The piece, divided into “observing,” “thinking,” and “breathing” sections, was an examination of the liberal-arts environment. It included a tiny Periodic Table of Elements and beakers, a miniature desk with typewriter, a copy of The Ambassadors by Henry James, and a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Water samples, sugar maple seeds, and dried thistle were among the specimens foraged from the prairie land and the arboretum on campus.

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While Williams can’t put an estimate on how long each book and box take to complete, she estimates that each drawing requires two to three hours; she includes up to 40 drawings per book, plus poems.

As intricate and intriguing as the books and boxes are, they are delicate in nature and cannot be touched by art-goers. “The specimens are irreplaceable,” Williams explains. “Because the objects are so little, I just don’t feel they can have them open to the public.” Objects in drawers and cubbies, as well as book pages will be visible, however.

What is clear to see about the artist herself, and the multiple mediums she has worked in, is that Williams has a penchant for exploration, learning, and continual growth. As she says, “For most artists, it’s through hard work that they get better.”

IF YOU GO:

Jody Williams: Circumstantial Evidence

January 11 through February 19

Christensen Center Art Gallery

Augsburg College

Free

There will be a public reception Friday, January 22 from 6 to 8 p.m.