When the right artist meets the right writer, the combination of words and pictures is like a good lyric strung on a fine melody.
The latest local example is the collaboration between Terry Tempest Williams and Doug Himes ("Earthly messengers," discussed here), but the tradition of mixing fine painting with prose and poetry began even before "The Book Of Kells."Part of the intrigue of such collaborations is that books work on two levels. The can be a means to an end -- and efficient way to get the word out -- or the book can become an artifact in its own right. "The Two Penny Press" in California goes the former route, selling its volumes for 2 cents each. Salvador Dali's million-dollar calf skin volume with original paintings opts for the latter.
Get it wrong and you end up like Ricardo Sanches, with a luxurious over-priced collection of populist writing that nobody wants, or like Garcia Marquez, author of a literary masterpiece printed on cheap paper with bad ink.
When the magic works, however, it's the best of both worlds. in the case of Himes and Williams the magic is working. **** People who know Terry Tempest Williams will tell you she's a writer who speaks the truth. She doesn't fake it. Like I.B. Singer, she says simple things that have depth. Reading her work is a bit like looking into the clear pools of Yellowstone Park.
Her literary ancestors are Emerson, Thoreau and other transcendentalists who never distinguished between nature (small "n") and "Nature," the over-soul that animates the world.
In a way, in fact, that wedding of spirit and substance is the theme of her latest book, "Earthly Messengers."
"I think it would be presumptuous of me to say I'm a poet," she says. "In the book I simply try to present a few, short episodes of what comes and goes in life. It's a book about all the messengers in our lives, about the places where the outer and inner worlds meet."
The setting for "Earthly Messengers" is the bedroom of the Williams home in Emigration Canyon. The book is a bestiary, a roll call of the small woodsy creatures that have come into the room over the years. Moths, hummingbirds, bats, deer all pay a visit. When they leave the writer is left pondering the spiritual and mythological aspects of such miracles.
"There's magic in the ordinary world if you look for it," says Williams. "All you need to do is be attentive. Every day things can be construed as mythic."
As for the collaboration with artist Hal Doug Himes, Williams feels their work has been a marriage of true minds.
"It's like that notion of `one plus one equals three,' " she says. "By working together, we've produced something greater than our contributions. The book was both written and drawn with great restraint. Doug is amazing. His internal landscape is as vivid as anyone I've ever met. I admire the connections he makes, the questions he asks.
"As for me, a book like this is both functional and beautiful - like an Anasazi pot. It's an intimate book, small, private; something you can hold in your hand."
"Earthly Messengers" will be available around Dec. 20. It is being sold exclusively by the Dolores Chase Art Gallery (1431/2 Pierpont in Salt Lake City).
There are two editions: one for $35, another for $125. Both are printed on Kochi paper in Bembo 12-point type (a 15th century typeface). There is no acid paper in the book, no tape, no glue. All bindings are hand-sewn. Each $125 version has a postcard-sized original watercolor done by Himes.
For information call the gallery at 328-2787.
As background information, it should be noted that several local presses continue to produce first-rate "individually crafted" books. The Red Butte Press at the University of Utah has brought out some real collector's items in the past couple of years, and Donnell Hunter - now at Brigham Young University - offers limited, letter-press editions of Leslie Norris, William Stafford and his own work.
"Earthly Messengers" will join those books not only as a handsome artifact, but as good literature and a good investment. As the reputations of Williams and Himes grow, copies of this book will undoubtedly end up in the shops of antiquarian books dealers. And there, the value of limited-edition, fine press books goes up every day.