On the idea of reclamation

(A barnwood desk from Woodland Creek Furniture)

I thought I would take a moment to address a question that’s come up before, but has been asked again recently upon the announcement of my Hendrick’s Artist Box — whether I really do cut up old books and magazines, and whether such a thing is proper. Marksman Gemmel D. wrote me today:

Dear Mr. Malki,

I discovered your web comic a few months ago, and it has made me laugh countless times. You are a truly creative person, with a sense of humour I can appreciate.

That being said, I fear I must admit to being appalled at the way you decorated your box for the Hendrick’s Gin Curate a Box project.

I understand that you make collages of 19th century images to create your pieces, but I naively assumed that you made copies, not that you actually cut up these publications.

I must say I am a little upset. Old books, magazines and newspapers are important artifacts; They tell us things about our history and our society that the history books can’t. In fact, they are a priceless resource for historians and genealogists, sociologists and anthropologists.

If it can be avoided, they shouldn’t be destroyed, even to make art.

Please don’t think I’m being pushy or overbearing, but Is there any way you could make or use copies of these texts, and preserve the originals for future posterity? You must have a large collection of fine pieces – the pages used for the Hendrick’s box were from Scientific American and Punch magazine. I don’t need to tell you that Punch was one the first satirical magazines, and great writers like William Makepeace Thackeray wrote for it.

Any library or University would probably love to have your collection in later years. Your collection could be invaluable for future generations, but not if it is cut to bits.

If you read all the way to the end of this e-mail, I thank you for hearing me out. I’m not trying to tell you how to do your work; I know nothing about art, and can’t even draw a straight line properly. I’ll even understand if you’re angry at me. But I do feel that we should preserve as much of our past as we possibly can.

This is a serious issue, and one that I want to clarify for the record. Here’s the response I wrote:

Thanks for the note. I agree that old things have value, and should be preserved. That’s part of why I love doing Wondermark — I get to take things that very few people get to see nowadays, and reinvent them and share them with a wider audience.

To make my regular comics, I work entirely from digital scans of the original work. I have a large library that is not depleted in any way by the work I do.

But to make the Hendrick’s box, I wanted to do something different. I perhaps did not make clear enough that the work I cut up for the box was all, essentially, trash — the Punch pages were from a volume that was rotting and falling apart; the Dickens covers were received in a dusty box that was basically just a heap of paper. I have made a habit of accepting, and deliberately acquiring, material like this that otherwise would just go in the garbage. I buy books on eBay with tobacco stains, children’s crayon marks and missing covers that collectors and historians have no want nor need of. The life I give them, in the main, is life they otherwise would not have.

I have not made that as clear as I perhaps could have, for folks who are less familiar with my process than I myself am. I hope that sets your mind at ease somewhat.

It would be a tragedy to tear down a barn simply to make a desk. But I believe it is an art to take the planks from a barn that has already been condemned, and make a lovely desk from them. Thanks for the email, Gemmel.

12 thoughts on “On the idea of reclamation”

  1. Well said, and nice to know. I assumed the normal comics were scans and (sadly) the fact that the box has been reclaimed just makes me want it more.

    I also want that desk, but the fact that you have to email them for prices means I can’t afford it.

  2. Max Ernst disagrees.

    DM: Remember that Max Ernst, in his time, worked with ephemera — his genius was taking something considered banal and turning it into art. Work from 1885 had less historical and nostalgic value in 1934 than it might in 2011. The analog would be if Wondermark was made from pictures from Life magazine, or drawings from church bulletins I found at a flea market.

  3. Great letter and response. Both positions are important and each has their place. It is important to preserve artifacts from the past, if they are in a state where they can be preserved. Re-use of materials retains valuable properties of the original while creating new value as well. I think that’s the charm of Wondermark’s comics as well as the physical item(s) the artist creates.

  4. I grew up in a house which was largely paneled with wood from an old barn, which itself had been mostly constructed of wood from an old schoolhouse built in the 1880s. It is a noble and laudable thing to take the bits and pieces for which the rest of the world no longer has any use and remake them into something functional and artistic.

  5. The sad reality is that many libraries, even those at colleges and universities, are desperately trying to rid themselves of old books and, especially, magazines and journals. Even where this material is being preserved, it’s often the case that libraries will be part of a consortium where they will share a single copy of a resource amongst dozens or even hundreds of libraries, through interlibrary loan.

    DM: I’ve been pleased to provide a home for many volumes that libraries are getting rid of — librarians have written to me saying “My library is going to throw these away; do you want them?” I’m always thilled to take them.

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Mr. Malki. I have to say I cringed inwardly when I read about old editions of Dickens and Scientific Americans from the 1880s being cut up for this project, but I feel *much* better knowing that they were in a sad state of affairs anyway rather than the pristine volumes I saw in my mind’s eye.

    Now I only cringe a little. Sorry, some things are hardwired. =)



  7. It is always intriguing to go back and take a look at publications of a different era to see the big shifts in perspective from even a few decades ago. However, as a librarian, I must say that I don’t see the need to keep every copy of every printed work inviolate forever. There is no shortage of old copies of Scientific American and other popular publications lying around, and if you try to donate your “amazing” collection of National Geographics to your your local library they will accept them with a smile and move them straight to the recycling bin.

    It’s actually interesting that we have lived more and more in a world where publications persist forever. From the time of the printing press to the modern internet it has been incredibly easy to produce more and more content and distribute it more cheaply. It’s a little daunting to think how easy it will be for our grandchildren to continue accessing our century old twitter feeds in the future.

  8. I grew up with the same ideas as Gemmel above, that books were treasures and it was sacrilege to destroy them. Then I started working at a library. After twitching in horror while watching co-workers rip the covers off books and fling them into the recycle bin, I started rescuing things and bringing them home. Some items however are not even whole. So I feel less terrible about cutting them up and using them in my little artistic endeavors knowing that I’ve saved at least a little piece of them. Took awhile to get there though.

    Also, I will keep you in mind when I scavenge future items. Nice to have other people that appreciate these things to share with.

  9. It is sadly true that ‘institutions’ have no use for worn, damaged or partial ‘old’ publications, or even for multiple copies of good condition antique material. Going through a University library’s discards is a horrifying experience, especially since the sorting is often done by student volunteers or undergraduates in work-study who have no idea what is valuable … or priceless. Even more horrible is what happens to publications that are donated to charity second-hand stores – ‘It’s old? Throw it out!’ is often the rule there. Rather than have imperfect antique publications consigned to the recycle bin to become pulp, better that they are preserved by reuse.

  10. Since I have seen you address this question before, I was glad that you treated this letter without a hint of snark or condescension. Some bloggers would have taken it as an opportunity to employ both, and it was very cheering to read your thoughtful and kind response.

    I also appreciate the responses written by the librarians and their friends here. I had no idea of the extent of “winnowing” that goes on in libraries until I recently read a blog on the topic–sadly I can’t remember the title or I would link it. Shelf space is very limited and although some ephemera or older material is endlessly valuable… some is not! Reading about how librarians distinguish between the two categories is fascinating.

  11. Oh yeah — I work at a used-books store, and every day I go there, we need to discard books. The ones in decent shape go to a local hospital, and lately to Goodwill. (The hospital told us they were full up for the rest of the year. At the beginning of September.)

    Sadly, a fair number of the books we toss are quite old, and might have been salvageable if they’d had better care. Just today, we looked over most of a T.S. Eliot collection in lovely marbled covers… but most of the volumes were literally falling apart. And if we can’t sell them, we can’t keep them….

    On the flip side, today I spent an hour applying leather treatment to various loose volumes (Eliot from a different set, and others) and a near-complete set of Robert Louis Stevenson’s works. So some of us are trying to keep those old books going!

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