Voices from the Classroom: Artists’ Books


MARBL staff love to collaborate with instructors to incorporate manuscripts, archives, and rare books in to the classroom. Students are able to connect with history and the creative process in a deeper way as they read first-hand accounts of the Civil Rights movement, compare early drafts of literary works, or contemplate the meaning of artists books. The students who work in MARBL create new scholarship and their research has led to theses, dissertations, exhibitions, and plays. Voices from the Classroom will showcase some of the research and discoveries uncovered by students using material held within MARBL.

The following essays were written as a part of the “Serious Fancy: Creative Critical Thinking” course taught by Amy Elkins as a part of the 2013 Summer Pre-College Program at Emory University. The students came to MARBL and were asked to analyze and explore an artist’s book which at first glance looked whimsical or childlike, but addressed a serious issue or situation. 

“What’s in Dinner?”  Modern Food Ethics in Lise Melhorn-Boe’s What’s For Dinner?

by Andrew Trilby-Bassett, Lassiter High School (Marietta, Georgia)

When people hear “Dinner” they immediately think of one thing: food. They will then ponder what to eat, where they can get it, whether or not would it be easier to go out to eat, etc. However, most do not stop to consider what each food product went through to reach our plate. Even fewer question the consequences. What Lise Melhorn-Boe wants us all to see is the genetic-modification, pesticides, chemical and hormone treatments used in food processing regardless of the health consequences. Her artist’s book, What’s For Dinner? accomplishes this task by forcing the reader to set the table and sit for a meal with all the artificially produced food.

The book makes its initial impression by playing on the senses of sight and touch as well as the expectations those senses cause. In order to begin reading, you have to unfold the book and spread it out on a table. By doing so, it forces you to spread the table cloth, the one the book is made from, in preparation for a meal. Then, your eyes are drawn to the colorful food popping up from the cloth. It includes such dishes as hamburgers, salmon, chicken, salad, jello, and much more. However, this colorful and whimsical food is all a façade. When you look more closely, you will notice writing on every napkin placed next to a plate. This is where Melhorn-Boe speaks her message. Imagine that this food was real and you sat down to eat. You started with the hamburger, but through the napkin Melhorn-Boe will tell you how cows’ feed was mixed with “low doses of antibiotics… to provoke growth and to prevent disease in the overcrowded; unsanitary conditions” in which the cattle were raised (Melhorn-Boe). Deciding against beef, you then perhaps go to eat the salmon? Once again through the napkin she will whisper that “four of the most common treatments for sea lice in salmon are said to be carcinogenic and hormone disrupting” (Melhorn-Boe). Deciding against meat altogether, you go for the healthy salad, naturally grown save for the pesticides. You will assume the pesticides are perfectly harmless to you, why else would they allow it to be used? However, Melhorn-Boe will once again ruin your meal with the statement that “The World Health Organization estimates that there are on average three million pesticide poisonings worldwide yearly: 2500 of these result in death” (Melhorn-Boe). Not hungry anymore? The power of the tablecloth format lies in making you select which meal you want to eat and the consequences that come with each. The food’s cheerful color scheme hides its unsavory background. The color itself may be the threat as is the case with food coloring. Artificial coloring is so bad that Melhorn-Boe asserts that “the F.D.A suggested banning it in the 1980s” (Melhorn-Boe). In short, the visual aspects of her book illuminate the ways food is shown in a positive light without knowledge of its background, while the accompanying literature exposes those harmful backgrounds.

Building upon the visual aspects of the book are the actual materials it is made from. The objects on the tablecloth represent more than food; they represent everything from the hidden nature they hold to the decisions you are making as a consumer. Most would assume the food and plates are made of cloth simply so they could be compacted into the book. Instead, I want to argue that Melhorn-Boe made the food out of cloth to demonstrate that what appears healthy may have no genuine nutritional value. Like the jello on the table made with “acesulfame potassium” which increases “the risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer,” all the food set out before you is artificial (Melhorn-Boe). Additionally, if the food was cloth because it could be compacted easily into a book, why does she make the utensils plastic? The silverware has been converted into an inexpensive, synthetic product that is as widespread as food. The intended function is the same, but unexpected consequences will tend to follow the weaker, synthetic product. Thus, the use of plastic clearly demonstrates that the artificial product is not superior to the natural one. All utensils aside, perhaps the most important object to observe is the tablecloth itself. Displayed in the background of the colorful food is a multitude of fruits and vegetables. I believe through her choice of background, Melhorn-Boe critiques the way the unhealthy products are in your face and advertised while the healthier, natural options are shoved to the back. Lastly, we arrive back at the napkins upon which she has scribed the harmful facts of the food. Typically, a napkin is used to wipe up messes, so I believe Melhorn-Boe directly challenges us to clean up the mess artificial food has caused.

Therefore, Lise Melhorn-Boe’s What’s For Dinner? seeks to make her readers question the authenticity of their food. While the information on the page is relevant, it is not necessary to get her message across. That message, to simply be aware of what you are consuming and the impacts those decisions have, is cleverly hidden within the fabric of the book.

America’s Resilience

by Erin Kennedy, Westminster Schools (Atlanta, Georgia)

Emory’s Manuscript, Archive, Rare Book Library houses an artist’s book, United We Spend. The newspaper advertisements inside the book hold as much symbolism as book’s cover, an American flag. The December 2001 newspaper advertisements from a Milwaukee newspaper comprise this artist’s book, published anonymously in 2002. One may think that the author’s anonymity does not alter the meaning of the book; however, I believe that the lack of an author actually creates a more powerful response from American men and women. United We Spend represents the diverse makeup of America bound together at the intersection of patriotism and consumerism after 9/11.

On a material level, the book’s content bolsters the idea of America’s diverse demographics. Every single advertisement is taken from the same December 2001 newspaper; however, the size, texture, and layout are different in nearly every advertisement. Companies seek to catch the eye of the potential consumer, so this tactic makes perfect sense in a newspaper context. However, the author challenges the traditional uniformity of books by arranging the pages in a deliberately random fashion. A reader attempting to solely decipher the meaning of the advertisements’ content could overlook this strategy, but analyzing the juxtaposition of the ads is equally significant. Every single day, different beliefs, backgrounds, and upbringings constantly mesh together in American society; sometimes this meshing is deliberate, and other times it is unconscious. The United States’ ability to combine different cultures and socio-economic classes sends a unique and powerful message, similar to the one sent by the author’s distinct layout of the book. A glossy Verizon advertisement for the latest and most expensive flip phone of 2001 could be found adjacent to the newspaper-thin “Chanukah Deals” for five-dollar produce at Jewel grocery store. In isolation, these advertisements tell a single story and appeal to a specific class. The author expresses the voice of each class by allowing complete visual access to the more expensive advertisements while hindering the view of some pages directed towards the lower class. Sentry Grocery’s pages are folded in half and bound so that their products cannot be seen, whereas the JC Penny catalogue flaunts the “magic of warmth and saving” experienced when purchasing their more expensive sweaters. Advertisements endorse a wide range of products directed at different audiences, but they all share the same goal: selling the product to the American consumer.

United We Spend elucidates the relation between the two seemingly disconnected worlds of consumerism and patriotism. After the tragic events of 9/11, a surge of consumerism swept through America as a means of supporting the economy and proving its strength. The small, handwritten slip of paper tucked behind the cover is the only indication that the book was compiled just three months after the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Every advertisement exudes the same amount of pride in their “savings” and “low prices” as those in preceding years. None of the clichéd slogans indicate sorrow or tragedy; ironically, the trite phrases in colorful text epitomize America’s resilience. Whether through promising free products or ensuring their drugstore is “where America takes its pictures,” marketers deliver a subliminal message of patriotism (Walgreen’s advertisement). It is tempting to assume that “free” only persuades readers because it implies saving money, a classic advertising trick. However, free is derived from freedom, one of the key principles upon which that the United States was founded. Therefore, the unconscious promise of freedom further compels the American consumer to purchase the product. Perhaps it is for this reason that “free” has remained one of the quintessential phrases in advertising. The author not only incorporates consumerism to foster economic support, but also to connect to a broader American identity.
The mysterious objects submitted with United We Spend exemplify the pride in an American identity. The author creates the paradox between personal connection and distance by including two flags and a handwritten note while still remaining anonymous. The small note and flag placed inside the cover are notable because they are not bound like the advertisement pages. The note contains the only reference to the time period, and the flag is considered a sacred American symbol. The other flag on the cover literally binds hundreds of advertisements from the 2001 newspaper, symbolizing the United States’ unwavering unification during a delicate time in American history. Therefore, like the United States, United We Spend is built on a strong base while still influencing delicate human lives. The author’s anonymity allows the flag to serve as the narrator, therefore allowing freedom of interpretation. Patriotism is ingrained in every American; however, everyone applies it to his or her own life uniquely. The months following 9/11 were ambivalent times since everyone was affected differently, but eventually the spark of patriotism spread like wildfire across America.

One may question whether a book without an author and a dearth of original writing is worth reading; however, the true meaning manifests itself through what is left unsaid. Although the advertisements in United We Spend sell varying products to differing audiences, all aim to ameliorate America’s economy. Ironically, the author’s anonymity personalizes the text to correspond with every individual’s idea of freedom. Although United We Spend illustrates America’s willpower to unify a diverse population through consumerism and patriotism after tragedy, the material layout is crafted to potentially raise doubts about whether consumerism is necessarily a strong foundation for freedom and independence. However, the author’s detachment and ambiguity allow the meaning to fluctuate based on personal interpretation.

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