The Kimball Art Center’s focus is on the visual arts, and exhibits curator Nancy Stoaks knows that the written word, when done right, can enhance the visual-art experience.
So in 2019, Stoaks started a Kimball Art Center Book Club series that would address some of the issues, styles and philosophies that inspire artists to create exhibits that show at the art center.
There are two such events scheduled this month at the KAC.
The first, a discussion of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction,” will start at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 8. The second, which will center around Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story collection, “Ficciones,” will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 15, Stoaks said.
“The Sixth Extinction” has a direct tie into Claire Sherman’s exhibit, “Here, Now,” that is showing in conjunction with David Hartt’s “On Exactitude in Science (Watts)” and Cara Despain’s “In Memoriam: Carbon Paintings,” according to Stoaks.
“Book selections often come out of conversations with the artists I work with, and sometimes I’ll have an idea in mind, and sometimes they will have an idea,” she said. “In the case of this month’s first discussion, the idea came from Claire Sherman.”
Sherman said in a statement that she borrowed the title “New Pangaea” for one of her recent exhibits at the DC Moore Gallery from a chapter in “The Sixth Extinction.”
“The title of my exhibition referenced a new state in our environment caused by globalism and increases in global trade and travel,” the statement said. “This current mode, one in which human intervention creates a new supercontinent, is one in which invasive species and plants are forced into a new existence together… As I reflect on the show in 2019 from our current perspective, one that is deep in the throes of a global pandemic caused by similar elements of globalization, I am even more dedicated to these new directions that are evolving in my work.”
The book discussion, which will be led by Nell Larson, Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter’s executive director, will take place in the exhibit area, so participants will be surrounded by Sherman’s paintings, Stoaks said.
“I thought it would be nice, given the environmental focus of the book, to invite someone who could add to the discussion, and Nell’s background — an undergraduate degree at Yale as well as her master’s degree of environmental management with a focus in ecology at the Yale School of Forestry — seemed like the most perfect person to invite,” Stoaks said.
The Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter is a nonprofit whose mission is to “preserve the land and the human connection to the natural landscape, to educate the local and broader communities about the value of nature, and to nurture both the ecosystem and the people connected with it.”
When Larson heard what Stoaks wanted, she fell in love with the idea of exploring Kolbert’s book while surrounded by Sherman’s artwork.
“There are so many ways to connect with nature and science, and art is an important and interesting way to do this,” she said. “At Swaner, we hope to spark curiosity and help our community learn about the natural world in a fun way, so working with the Kimball Art Center to focus on the environment through an artistic lens is a really fitting — and fun — opportunity for us. So, it’s exciting to meld art and science for a fresh perspective on environmental issues in partnership with the KAC.”
As she did in selecting “The Sixth Extinction” for the Dec. 8 discussion, Stoaks turned to an exhibiting artist for a book recommendation for the Dec. 15 discussion.
It was David Hartt that suggested Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story collection, “Ficciones,” she said.
Borges, who died in 1986, was a celebrated Argentine poet, essayist and short-story writer who is considered one of the anchors in 20th-century world literature, Stoaks said.
“He was known for his short stories, and he had a one-paragraph short story called ‘On Exactitude of Science’ that inspired David Hartt’s exhibition that we are also currently showing,” she said. “The story was all about cartography and the impossibility of fully representing a space, which was something David was addressing in his neighborhood of Watts. That’s why the title of his exhibit shares the title of the short story.”
The 17 tales in “Ficciones” demonstrate the powers of imagination and intelligence, said Stoaks, who is currently reading the book.
“When I run into people who have read Borges’ works, their faces light up, and they tell me how interesting, how deep and how unexpected his stories are,” she said.
While seeking someone to lead the book discussion, Stoaks contacted David Laraway, the Department of Philosophy chair at Brigham Young University.
“I was introduced to Borges’s work in the way that children are introduced to vegetables — his name appeared on a syllabus of classic Spanish-language authors in a literature class and I was expected to become familiar with him and other canonical writers,” Laraway said in an email. “The text I was assigned to read was called ‘The Secret Miracle,’ and it tells the story of a minor Jewish intellectual and mostly failed writer who is condemned to be executed by the Gestapo after the Nazis take Prague. I loved the philosophical richness of the story — which Christopher Nolan specifically cited as an influence on his film ‘Inception’ — and soon discovered that all of Borges’s works were similarly rich and provocative. I was hooked. “
Although Laraway isn’t familiar with Hartt’s works, he is looking forward to seeing how it ties in with Borges’ writings when he leads the discussion.
“The brief text which apparently inspired Hartt is one of those Borgesian gems that in just a few lines manages to totally upend our intuitive understanding of not just maps, but the notion of artistic representation in general,” he said. “It suggests that the relationship between the terrain and the abstract representation of that terrain in symbolic form is much more philosophically complex than we ever might have assumed.”
The two discussions are open to the public, whether or not they’ve read the books,” Stoaks said. “As you can see, this isn’t your standard book club, because we don’t always select the newest titles or the books people are talking about today. We just would like people to come and dive deep into the conversation with us.”