How do the objects we leave behind narrate the stories of who we once were and continue to be? How do our forgotten letters, rushed margin notes, old plane tickets map the contours of our lives?
These are the questions that Rose Katz, reader services librarian at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, started asking herself five years ago, when she came across a bar mitzvah photograph from the 1960s tucked between the pages of a book that had been recently donated.
“It’s tantalizing, the things you find,” said Katz, expounding on the ephemera she found nestled in the pages of books at the library. “You don’t know anything about the person; all you have is the piece of them that they left behind, in the book.”
She began to collect these fragments, stowing them away in boxes under her desk and sharing the most unusual finds with Elayne Grossbard, the library’s guest curator for art exhibits.
Letters from Alaska, secret messages between children and a stack of rubles are just some of the many objects that accumulated in Katz’s treasure box.
“It became a bloodhound kind of thing,” said Grossbard. “And we wanted to do something more with it.”
The result is “Book/Marks: What We Leave Behind,” a collage series exploring memories, markings and private musings. The exhibit runs through March 13.
Grossbard immediately thought of Mark Faigenbaum as the artist to pull such an exhibit together. The local printmaker and collage artist had participated in a handful of the library’s past art exhibits.
“You can’t have just anyone doing this — you need someone with wit,” she said, noting Faigenbaum would be an ideal person to work with Katz’s collection and create an exhibit based upon things people leave behind. “You’re working with materials that are either making you laugh or cry.”
Grossbard initially encountered Faigenbaum at his 2005 Recology exhibit, a show that featured large-scale assemblages from the notes, letters and papers that had been abandoned at the San Francisco dump. The 56-year-old artist moved to San Francisco in 1982. He has twice been an artist-in-residence at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and teaches at the Center for the Book.
Grossbard handed over the box of paper goods, and told him to have fun.
He did. “I tried to stay away from cutting up the materials in the box too much, because of Rose’s attachment to them,” Faigenbaum said. “I wanted to leave the stuff — not intact, but instead of having me shape them, having them drive the shape of the collage.”
He started to collect his own pile of vintage miscellanea to add to the existing library papers: coat stubs, matchbooks, letters, tickets. He worked to imbue his group of assemblages with an array of aesthetic qualities, and meticulously collaged colored works share space with large black-and-white text blow-ups. The duality of the works, of things left behind, resonates throughout: both precious and yet disposable.
Walking into the library, one is greeted by “Envelope,” a large 24-by-36-inch color print of an old, yellowing envelope covered in multiple enigmatic scrawls and a variety of red-hued stamps. It is creased and worn.
“This is the perfect piece to pull the exhibit together,” said Faigenbaum, of the opening piece. “It really typifies what the exhibition is about. All the different cancellations and hand stamps and notations, there are at least six or seven people’s hands that have been all over this. Just on this envelope exists a visual history, but it tells a story that we’ll never know.”
The twelve 12-by-16-inch collages that hang in rows by the back wall include punctiliously arranged designs made of bright red concert tickets, and ultramarine matchbooks are hung next to tiles of ripped, yellowing notecards and receipts.
His found images cohere on the surface, but there is always a slight dissonance, an off-putting alignment.
In stark contrast, the remainder of the exhibit consists of black-and-white, unframed, magnified photocopies: scribbles in margins, underlined poems, the middle paragraph of a letter. Title pages of books are blown up to 24 by 36 inches and printed on loose white paper.
“The medium is the message,” Grossbard said. “These are things that were not meant to stick around.”
The large blow-ups balance structure and content: Some feature abstracted watermarks and loops of cursive, while others highlight provocative excerpts from letters and scrawls in the margins of old books.
Some of the notes are funny, others devastating.
An excerpted letter from 1981, all the text blacked out save for one paragraph, beseeches its correspondent, “Isn’t the world in a mess now? … I used to think that once WWII was won — the world would be a heaven of peace and brotherhood — but in some ways this is almost as bad now.”
An enthusiastic underline, complete with double checks in the margin, captures the joy of a reader’s moment of revelation. The person behind the pencil may not remember, but the paper always will.
Through Faigenbaum’s collaging, the pages bleed into each other. There is a story begging to be told — but it is just beyond grasp.
“There was a dancer who used to say, ‘If I could say it, I wouldn’t have to dance about it.’ I hope to be creating something that can only make an impact through visual means and that what it gets across, hopefully, is something that’s beyond words,” said Faigenbaum.
“Book/Marks: What We Leave Behind,” through March 13 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. An artist’s reception takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, with remarks from the artist at 6:30 p.m. www.jewishlearningworks.org/library