Carol Sawyer’s images sing in library’s lyrical voice

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Carol Sawyer: Trace Ingredients

At the Vancouver Public Library until September 28

I was sitting in a study carrel on the fifth floor of the Vancouver Public Library, central branch. Through the window beside me, I could see three immense banners, hanging high in the Library Square arcade. Each banner, created by Vancouver artist and musician Carol Sawyer, was printed with a handsome colour photograph of a stack of library books. The books were arranged in such a way that, in each stack, the exposed titles on the spines composed a poem—or perhaps a song lyric. One of them read, “I Am a Composer/Doing Things with Texts/Still Lives/Balancing Acts/Collected Poems.” It was as if the artist’s voice was burbling out of her imagery.

Along with six framed photographs and three video works, mounted near the escalators and elevators on the second to sixth floors of the library, the banners are the result of Sawyer’s recent residency there. (Her project is part of an ongoing public-art program sponsored by the VPL and the City of Vancouver.) The images and ideas she garnered for Trace Ingredients reflect the role she assumed as a “miner” of that institution. Quoted in the exhibition brochure, Sawyer describes her work as “sifting and sorting veins of information, unearthing and collecting traces left by past patrons and workers”.

Sawyer’s carefully composed stacks of books, inspired by those left behind on tabletops and in study carrels, reveal not only their sculptural and poetic nature but also an assortment of unexplained marks. Multiple coloured dots and red Xs stipple their paper ends. Sawyer’s video Periodical Stamp is a montage of successive shots of the dates hand-stamped on over 700 New Yorker covers, from 1949 to 1964. As project curator Karen Love notes in the brochure, each date stamp represents “the trace of a gesture” by a library employee. The images also reveal aspects of the New Yorker’s distinctive and enduring title font and cover art.

At the recent launch of Trace Ingredients, the visual art was complemented by a musical performance by the improvising ensemble ion Zoo. Sawyer is the vocalist of this group (which includes Steve Bagnell, Clyde Reed, and Lisa Miller) and she riffed on the book-title poems she had assembled, the pleasures and curiosities of public libraries, and childhood memories of staggering home from her neighbourhood library with arms full of books. The performance was smart and supple.

When I was perched in my carrel, the woman behind me had accumulated four piles of books on Mediterranean décor. In front of me, a man with headphones was listening to a salsa CD. Although mostly still, he occasionally leaned back, smiled broadly, and sang soft chuka-chuka sounds. The banners hanging in the arcade took on additional meaning: Sawyer’s work neatly reiterates the everyday life of the library. Trace Ingredients is a truly successful public-art project.

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