Science Defined by the Hands of a Book Artist

You can’t always tell a book by its cover; in fact, it may not even have a cover. These artists’ books convey their message in unexpected ways

Artists have long lent their talents to illustrating books on science. Detailed drawings accompany studies of subjects from botany to physics. But what happens when a scientific treatise is suggested to a book artist for an interpretation? "Science and the Artist's Book," an exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts, explores the answer.

To most people, a book consists of pages between covers, but books have also taken the form of clay tablets and writings on silk. As envisioned by those who specialize in creating books as artworks, the message may best be told with a sculptural approach-and it may not even be obvious that the result is a book. The 27 book artists chosen to participate were asked to base their works on one of the 200 texts listed in a volume called Heralds of Science. It was written by Bern Dibner, who in 1974 donated a remarkable collection of 10,000 books and manuscripts to the Smithsonian, establishing the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. In Heralds, Dibner described some of his rare books, the seminal works of such original thinkers as Charles Darwin, Rene Descartes and Marie Curie.

With such scientists as their inspiration, the artists approached their projects with wit and imagination. Julie Chen took on the challenge of James Watson and Francis Crick's papers on DNA. Her two-volume work fastens together to form a double helix. JoAnna Poehlmann included a freeze-dried frog in a shadow box in her book based on the work of Luigi Galvani, an anatomist who worked with frogs. In a masterpiece of engineering, Sjoerd Hofstra created what looks like a ledger, but as the pages are turned, the geometric shapes of Euclid's Elements rise in three dimensions on the page.

Half of the show is currently at the Libraries Exhibition Gallery in the National Museum of American History, and the other half can be seen downtown at the Washington Project for the Arts through the fall.

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