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Arts & Culture

Little Red Leaves supplies books as transitory visual art

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Several copies of OFF Flaw, by Dawn Pendergast

In his recently republished Notes of A Dirty Old Man, perennial drunk and total brute Charles Bukowski is talking with an editor who has an idea for books that disintegrate as you read them, come apart in your hands like a very rare objet d'art. The clueless lout's mind goes something like: Oh I get it, so when it breaks apart, you make people have to buy a new one.

I'm looking at — most people would say, "I'm holding in my hands," but I'm just looking at — a tiny book published in 2011 by Central Texas-based Little Red Leaves: a single poem written by San Antonio-native Trey Moody called "A Weather." And I am actually afraid to touch it. The fragile square seems to be onion skin over an old tourist map of Florida, and thank god the print is readable from a distance.

So. The thing is fragile, they only make a few of them, and that is the whole point. Outside of the sheer (literally sheer) beauty, this book is perhaps a physical reminder of time as well as scarcity. It's a literary example of the genre known as ephemera: transitory paper products which include bookmarks, postcards, and even airsick bags, and they are meant to convey a message. The term is derived from the Greek word for things lasting no more than a day. 

But books are supposed to last, right? Or at least that's what I think when someone gets all ooo-ahhh over a first edition copy of Stranger in a Strange Land or Heidi. Ephemera, single-side printed broadsides and their sturdier cousins the chapbooks, were all traditionally vehicles for cheap nursery rhymes, political tracts, or inexpensive ways to get your religious zeal out there. They come apart. You could always print them again, and it's the ideas that will live.

But not these handmade babies, some of which look like tough toilet tissue sewn into a cone by a drunken fairy; others are like cardboard wallets adorned with fossil print. Written by Dawn Pendergast and published by Klinger/Dusie in 2009, the matchbook-sized OFF Flaw incorporates what I take to be braille and the pummeling of a stamp machine; it looks like an invitation to a clandestine beheading. If I spill coffee on my copy of Trey's book, or Dawn's book, or even this one that looks like tissue paper that I can't even find a name on, I have defaced a work of art. I have made it rarer and complicated its beauty. I have committed an art crime.

In Texas we have several outstanding publishers devoted to the rare art of broadsheets and handmade binding including Effing Press, Cuneiform Press, Wings Press, Aztlan Libre, and the aforementioned Little Red Leaves. The irony is that these books — often made of yarn and yellow pages, homemade paper and wallpaper swatches, that look like the patterns of a Zooey Deschanel dress — will no doubt, due to the care placed over their construction, outlast the latest Philip Larkin hardback reissue. •

San Antonio Collects: Contemporary

10am-9pm Tue, Fri, Sat
10am-5pm Wed-Thu
Noon-6pm Sun
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W Jones
(210) 978-8100
On view to July 1

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