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Introducing the Slow Read

The artist Barbara Tetenbaum began working with Cather’s novel while in residence at Reed College in 2010.

The artist Barbara Tetenbaum began working with Cather’s novel while in residence at Reed College in 2010.

An introduction to the Cather Projects; or, how one person can spend ten years reading one book.

In the summer of 2010 I spent a month in the gallery at Reed College in Portland, Oregon listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia. I had wanted to put myself in the position of a first-time reader and respond to the story however it moved me. I assumed I would draw directly on the walls as I listened and that this would be the basis for the exhibition. Instead I became amazed at the pure gorgeousness of Cather’s writing—in particular her descriptions of the landscape and the sky. I surrendered myself to her words, retyping sentences and paragraphs onto many scraps of paper and pinning them to the walls of the gallery or suspending them from fishing line for viewers to bump into. 

On the floor of the gallery I mapped out the novel using colored drafting and electrical tapes, assigning color or tape width to each character. The end result looked like a London Underground map and the room was a kind of exploded view of the novel. 

From this show, an artist book and a second installation were envisioned. The book served partly to take the Reed College experience and put it back into book form. The second installation, at Oregon College of Art and Craft, formalized some of the ideas that emerged in the making of both the original installation and the book. 

At OCAC I offered the visitor a chance to “see” the novel as though visiting a National Park memorial: Visitors first encountered a viewing platform overlooking the gallery. The orientation panel mounted on the platform contained lines of sight and texts explaining key moments in the novel. Cather’s story was mapped out with painted lines and text on the gallery floor and walls. Excerpts from the novel were printed on single folios of paper, mounted to bookstands placed at intervals on this large map. Visitors could wander over the map, chart a character’s path and read small excerpts as they became entwined in the story.