Book artist Lyall Harris doesn’t shy away from difficult and complex subjects, but dares to approach them more closely and pick them apart piece by piece to rebuild them. “Art is a language, a place to put things, to work stuff out,” says Harris. “My conduit.”
Whatever her subject, recurring themes of identity and place can be found in most of her work.
Originally from Lynchburg, she describes returning home to Virginia after 30 years as a “lovely, layered thing.” She grew up in an artistic family with a Francophile mother whose interests led her to Europe, where she eventually settled in Italy, married Florentine vocalist-composer Francesco Ronchetti and had two children. Harris has now come full circle, she says, after she and her husband settled in Charlottesville a year ago, drawn by the presence of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center (where her work is exhibited through April 16) and the vibrant music scene.
While living in Tuscany, she witnessed the immigration crisis in Europe, and met a man named Lahad’lo who had fled Mauritania, a country where slavery wasn’t officially abolished until 1981 and wasn’t criminalized until 2007. Harris and Lahad’lo found a common language in French, and he told her she was the first person to speak to him in the four months he had been there.
Harris recognized her own reality as diametrically opposed to Lahad’lo’s. She was technically an immigrant herself, though privileged, white and married to an Italian. This encounter inspired the book If Color Were Taken Away, a villanelle that combines their conversation with her explanations of the grayscale in a painting class she was teaching to fifth-graders in Settignano at the time.
“Book art marries so many ideas,” says Harris, who is also a poet and painter.
It encompasses a vast array of styles and techniques, from fine press printing, to altered (repurposed) books, to flip books, to digital book art. Sometimes the fun and the challenge is in taking a form such as a pop-up book and changing the tone, making it serious or terrifying.
“It is a sculptural investigation of form and content,” says Harris. “It’s not just text or images. It engages a third activity, not just a personal reading experience.”
In 2013, Harris gave herself the challenge of creating a book a week.
“Constraints heighten your observation,” she says. “Everything you encounter can become part of the art. It propelled a ton of work.”
She became interested in designs with simple execution that had the complexity to create a strong experience. One example is the book Skyscraper she created on the anniversary of 9/11. Harris picked up a piece of copy paper and asked herself, “Can you do something with it that moves you?” She cut out the cityscape of the twin towers and used a hole punch on each to represent the planes crashing through them.
Another book, For That, contains her and her daughter’s handprints, the pages sutured together, and the text from an original poem printed on medical tape. The poem tells the story of the young Kosovan girl who came over to play with Harris’ daughter and they ended up painting their nails together. When Harris asked the girl the next day if her mother had been okay with her polished nails, the girl replied, “Well, she didn’t hit me for that.” The book represents “handprints that hit and those that play,” says Harris.
On the lighter side is the book entitled Some Books Are Considered Dangerous, the binding for which she used quills dropped by Italian hedgehogs, proving her own point as she accidentally drew blood in the process.
In The Black Box and Interior Landscape, Harris tackles the taboo subjects of infanticide and suicide.
After reading the flat responses in an interrogation transcript of a mother who had committed infanticide, Harris created a magic wallet within a black box that contains both spoken answers and an imagined internal dialogue. The intricate box also contains miniature case files, an hourglass, prison bars and calendar tick marks.
She then read Sylvia Plath’s diaries and combined Plath’s text with her own handwritten responses and stark landscape paintings. Harris says she could relate to Plath’s self-rigor and high expectations. But, she explains, the important thing is to carry on with imperfect mothering, to fail as best you can and move forward as a working mother-artist. In doing so, she has adopted the opening line to Plath’s poem “Munich Mannequins” as her personal mantra: “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.”
Her latest project is Just One Look, two sets of playing cards called Pairing and Passing commissioned by the women’s studies and English departments at the University of Washington, which sought artists exploring women’s shifting identity. Harris drew inspiration from the book You Are Free by Danzy Senna, a woman of mixed heritage interested in how we pass for one thing or another. In moving back to the South, these questions of identity were at the forefront of Harris’ mind.
Toward the end of our meeting at the VABC, Harris recognizes her high school French teacher whom she last saw 30 years ago in her final semester at Lynchburg’s E. C. Glass High School. Her teacher, Mrs. Cash, recognizes her instantly. Harris has, indeed, come full circle, in terms of the theme of identity and place in art as in life.