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MAC hosts features elaborate works of bookmaking artist

No words exist to describe Colfax artist Timothy C. Ely’s stunning new exhibit at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Oh, wait. Ely just invented one.

“It’s going to be totally psychothermic,” said Ely, 61, a nationally known bookmaker/painter/ draftsman/printmaker. “You won’t find that in the dictionary.”

“Psychothermic” is not a bad word for Ely’s art, since it invokes both mental processes and scientific concepts, two of his recurring themes.

One look at Ely’s largest-ever exhibit makes it clear that his influences are vast, encompassing science fiction, biology, geography, cartography, 12th century illuminated manuscripts, astronomy, watch-making, magic, mathematics, geometry – the list is mind-boggling.

“It’s an exhibit as much about science and math as it is about art,” said Ben Mitchell, the museum’s senior curator of art. “It’s really a web of Tim Ely’s mind.”

Ely, a native of Snohomish, Wash., has fed his artistic imagination in many places – Seattle, Portland, New York City and England, to name a few.

For the last nine years, he and his graphics designer wife, Ann Marra, have lived and worked in Colfax. They moved there to be close to family. He loves the tranquility.

“This is a man living quietly in Colfax, who is extraordinarily well-known to anyone who pays attention to the world of bookmaking,” said Mitchell.

“His books are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Getty Center (in California), the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. The list is long.”

Ely discovered early in his career that he didn’t want to put his artwork in frames and hang it on the wall. He fell in love with hand-binding his work into beautiful books.

“Books are carriers of concepts,” he said.

So his output consists largely of one-of-a-kind volumes, commissioned by individuals and institutions. This exhibit consists of about 50 of his books – the biggest collection ever assembled – mostly loaned from institutions and collectors.

The only problem: Books are meant to be held on laps and leafed through. How do you display books in a museum setting?

That was the challenge Mitchell faced, and he solved it through three creative strategies:

• The museum’s small, circular Solarium has been converted into an “introductory” space to Ely’s work, displaying many of his artistic and intellectual influences – ranging from comic books to DaVinci.

It also includes an Ely book, made specially for this exhibit, that visitors are allowed to leaf through.

• Ely spent most of this week drawing a 20- by 10-foot work directly onto the wall of the exhibit. Think of it as a giant open page of a book.

“It will only live as long as the exhibit,” said Mitchell. “There is no way to preserve it.”

It includes many of Ely’s signature ideas: geometric shapes, scientific designs and astronomical symbolism.

“It starts with the Big Bang and condenses into the heavier elements like iron,” he said. “… It will express some of the ideas I have about geometry and physics and art history.”

• The exhibit contains more than books. It also features objects and tools from Ely’s studio, to give viewers a glimpse into the process behind the work and the mind behind the process.

Ely is particularly pleased with the Solarium space, since it’s the first time he has really been able to give viewers “an inventory of my influences.”

Maybe this will make it easier for viewers to understand his work – which has proven to be a challenge in the past.

“They get angry because they don’t understand it, or they get twitchy with me because I can’t explain it,” said Ely. “But I tell them that if I could explain it in English, I wouldn’t have to make the drawings.”

On the other hand, there are viewers who become mesmerized by his work, “trip out” and don’t want to leave.

Ely’s work is layered with meaning and symbolism, but some of it defies decoding. For instance, he often writes page after page of incredibly intricate, beautifully designed text – but in an alphabet and language that does not exist.

It’s totally improvised. No, you can’t translate it.

Ely is clearly thrilled by the size and scope of this exhibit, yet he has a perspective that other artists may lack.

“Most of these books have 40 drawings – one has 160 drawings,” he said. “If we were to dismantle one book, it could fill a gallery.”

In other words, every book is an exhibition. Multiply by 50 and you have an art event.