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On the books: Melanie Hewitt is part of Saranac’s new exhibit ‘Between the Covers’

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 5, 2021

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

Last week, Spokane Valley artist Melanie Hewitt, 36, entered a Barnes & Noble to browse for books. Within a few minutes of scanning the thousands of mass-produced paperbacks, her husband turned to her and pleaded, “Will you please just make me one?”

“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Hewitt laughed.

After all, Hewitt is an up-and-coming book artist who finds joy in enticing people to handle and hold books. She makes books not just as objects to convey information, but also as works of art. (Hint: Books with flimsy pages that all look the same are not art.)

“I think that moving into a largely mass-produced society has created a great influx of people who are interested in going back to the things that you make yourself by hand,” Hewitt said. “My husband and I have always appreciated hardcover, well-constructed books.

“You don’t just see it in the book arts, but also in letter press in which, instead of typing at a computer, artists are actually setting letters out individually, by hand, and then inking it and rolling a piece of paper across it.

“Moving so much into digital and mass production has created this urge to go back to working with our hands and creating beautiful things that are not just for consumption.”

That urge for handmade books cuts across all the artistic disciplines and has inspired Saranac Art Projects’ latest group show, “Between the Covers,” opening this First Friday at 5 p.m. Hewitt will be among 20 Saranac collective members and guest artists showing their lively and multidisciplinary interpretations challenging traditional definitions of what constitutes a “book.”

Friday’s free opening reception will follow masking and social-distancing protocols. Those who wish to watch from home can tune into a Facebook Live event at 5 p.m. at Saranac Art Projects’ page. Zoom tours of the exhibition will be at 5:30 and again at 6:30. The Zoom link will be posted to Saranac’s Facebook page on Friday.

The exhibit’s painters, printmakers, ceramicists, fiber artists and photographers are Roin Morigeau, Josh Hobson, Kurt Madison, Margot Casstevens, Ann Porter, Emily Hawkinds, Posie Kalin, Avalon Kalin, Louise Kodis, Wendy Zupan, Tobe Harvey, Wendy Harvey, Hannah Koeske, Roger Ralston, Lisa Nappa, Harry Mestyanek, Emma Noyes and more.

Hewitt, who identifies as a “German Mexican-American,” first fell in love with making and building with paper as a young child growing up in Germany. Her mother and her German aunt used to spend time with her “basteln,” translated as “crafting,” in English.

“I have always loved working with my hands and making things and playing with paper,” Hewitt said. “That is an obsession that has carried on throughout my life, so becoming a bookbinder was a natural fit.”

Hewitt met her husband while attending Brigham Young University in Utah, where much of her family still resides. The couple, who have two kids in elementary school, lived in Pittsburgh for several years before moving to Spokane Valley in 2013 for her husband’s job at a tech company.

Shortly after relocating to the Inland Northwest, Hewitt, who is also a photographer, began to look for resources to learn the art of book-making. There wasn’t much, so she taught herself. Now she teaches vintage and contemporary binding and paper marbling techniques to the public as a member of the Spokane Print & Publishing Center.

“Spokane is Goldilocks for us. It’s just right with the right size, the wonderful things to do out and about, like Green Bluff, and all the nature-inspired things,” Hewitt said. “But there are very few bookbinders out here, so there is some work to do to get people interested in books as art and not just as harbors for information.”

Compelling audiences to interact with her “artist’s books” is one of Hewitt’s not-so-secret hallmarks. Take her piece “Be Healed,” which is one of three she has in Saranac’s “Between the Covers.” It’s a hardback book with a pill bottle stuck right through the middle of it.

Viewers are meant to take out the bottle so that they can look inside the book and read the words on each page, all pierced with a massive hole through each and every page. On the pill bottle’s label are descriptions of side effects such as “this will make you feel you are less than a person.”

While Hewitt encourages all interpretations, for her, the piece is extremely personal, dealing with her own postpartum depression, continuing anxiety and Christian background. She was taught that going to church and praying should be adequate to ease one’s mind. Some even believe that resorting to pharmaceuticals could get in the way of one’s relationship with Jesus.

“(‘Be Healed’) is an exploration of those kind of unhealthy thoughts, and that if you just have enough faith, you should be OK; thoughts that just further the depression and anxiety you are already suffering,” Hewitt said.

Inside the bottle, which viewers are also meant to open, is a white cloth remnant. It represents Christ’s hem that the woman with bleeding issues in the Bible touched and was healed by through her faith. On the fabric, Hewitt left a message for readers, written in red: “Be Healed.”

A more current piece Hewitt has in the show was inspired shortly after the pandemic began. Titled “Honey,” the piece is a sculptural hexagon of book pages, reminiscent of the hexagons that bees build to store honey, the necessary food the species needs to survive.

“The pandemic got me thinking about what it was that I really needed in order to survive,” Hewitt said.

Each side of the hexagon has one thing that Hewitt identifies as essential: family, spirituality, community, art. In order to read the text of each section of the book, viewers have to change the angle of how they are looking at it.

“It’s one of my little tricks to force you to interact with the book and to get people to consider what it is that they need in order to actually survive,” Hewitt said.

She asks: “What is your honey?”

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