Ten Minutes With Cynthia Sears // Art Aficionada and Book Curator

By Connie Bye

Cynthia Sears, founder of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, has painstakingly assembled an impressive 1,300-plus collection of artists’ books over the past three decades. Visitors to BIMA often rave about the works, part of a thought-provoking display in the Sherry Grover Gallery. Sears appreciates art’s many forms, but these intricate, hand-made books hold a special place in her heart. A BIMA exhibition spotlighting these books that Sears loves so much is set to take place March 9 to June 2.

How do you define an artist’s book?

It is a three-dimensional art object which reveals or tells its story over time, the way a book does, and usually involving the agency of the reader or viewer—in the form of turning pages or pulling tabs or opening the book or putting together a parcel. It is not essential that the reader participate, but for me, the best artists’ books all require the agency of the reader.

What is your favorite artist’s book or genre?

I have books that I love so much that I can hardly speak about them. But it couldn’t be just one.

I would make a generalization about artists who create artists’ books: They dive deeper into subjects, do more research and have the best sense of humor of any group of artists I could imagine.

People save up their most impassioned subjects to put into artists’ books. (For example) in 1959, Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than submit to the integration of their student body, chose to close all public schools and subsidize private schools only for white children. They kept (the public schools) closed for five years. I had not ever heard of that. But a collection of artists made a book that is so beautiful. It has stars for every one of the children who was denied an education for five years. Through this little book, people are finding out about this. Why that form, rather than writing an editorial or a book? It’s somehow the transformative act of turning it into art and then sharing it. It’s just words if you have an editorial—and then it’s gone.

Where do you find these books?

There are some wonderful dealers. Vicky and Bill Stewart (Vamp & Tramp Booksellers in Birmingham, Alabama) load up hundreds of books in their car and drive across the country once a year and stop everywhere along the way. They wheel in huge suitcases full of books, and we put them out on a table and have a book wallow.

Why share your books with BIMA visitors?

I can’t think of a collector who doesn’t want to share whatever it is they collect.

Is the collection yours or BIMA’s?

I want the museum to have it; we just haven’t gone through the formality of transferring ownership.

How often do you visit the artists’ books in the gallery?

To talk about the books? Twice a month. My talks aren’t talks so much as show-and-tell. The tell part is usually what I’ve learned online or what the artist has said or what the dealers have told me. To be in the room? Two or three times a week at least. That’s my happy place.

Ten Minutes With Cynthia Sears // Art Aficionada and Book Curator