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Sandra Kroupa, Book Arts Librarian

Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives, University of Washington

Anniversary Waltz: The Bookworks of Mare Blocker

Anniversaries are an opportunity to stand on a hill and survey forward and backward. If we are lucky in life, we work steadily along towards a goal but often the path is crooked, obscured by other things and progress seems fleeting. Art is a difficult career; few succeed. Life distracts, challenges, depresses and sometimes defeats. I believe that determinedly making art for twenty years is success in itself. When I look at the number of edition and one-of-a-kind book that Mare Blocker has created in that time, I am amazed. When I read and experience them, the beauty, humor, pain and passion they present to me is phenomenal.

Twenty years in any life is a long time but the twenty years between 19 and 39 are the critical, life defining ones. When Mare Blocker first visited the Book Arts Collection as a BFA student in Ceramics, she stood out in the group even then. I find it surprising that I still remember that first meeting with Mare and, several months later, looking at one of the early bookworks, Residence, which appears on her anniversary announcement. Residence was the first book I saw and the first I acquired for the Libraries, the first of over fifty. It symbolizes for me the start of a rich relationship.

Although Mare started to make editions when she got her letterpress in 1984 and became The M Kimberly Press, she continued to make one-of-a-kinds and now has over three hundred to her credit. She has done over thirty edition books and countless letterpress printed cards and other ephemera. The quantity of work she has produced in twenty years is remarkable but quantity is, of course, never the final determiner of success. Mare’s edition work is almost all out-of-print and virtually all of her one-of-a-kinds have been sold. She had gained a national reputation as a book artist, being represented in the Northwest, Southwest and South be galleries. Her work is placed in museums and libraries in England, Europe and the United States.

In 1991, Mare was chosen along with Katherine Dunn, to be the first recipient of the Library Fellows Artists’ Book Award at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The Official Route Book of the Mystery Girls’ Circus and College of Conundrum: Season 1991 was a tour ‘d force and went out-of-print immediately even though it was produced in an edition of one hundred and twenty-five copies. Katherine and Mare did such a convincing job of evoking The Mystery Girls’ Circus that the library on the East Coast, to be unnamed, that cataloged the book first, believed the Circus to be real and dutifully created real subject headings for it. These records were later quietly changed but, nonetheless, the world Mare creates for us is often more real than it first appears. Perhaps that cataloger knew the truth.

Mare Blocker is the artist most frequently asked for at the Book Arts Collection. What is it in Mare’s work that seems to appeal to so many people? Her visual narrative style is populated by saints and martyrs, friends and family, and range of animals and insects that look like people I know. She evokes the language of flowers and the plots of Arabian Nights; skeletons bowl and tigers jump through oops. Dramatic relief prints and drawings and paintings constitute much of her work, sometimes in stark black and white, other times as a wildly colorful display. She embellishes with beads, sequins and found objects. She packages books in hat shaped boxes, pie tins, suede pouches and lockets. Bindings are shaped like cowboy hats, doghouses and carousels. The visual imagery and the expressive presentation of that imagery speaks eloquently to both artist and non-artist.

But Mare is first and foremost a storyteller, her stories tell the adventures of circus characters with names, which are hysterically familiar to those who know her. Titles are fanciful: Dalmatian Fixation, Syzygy, Redhead Decoy, Hoop De Doo, Bug-eyed and Moo Moo Buckaroo. Her stories, which often sound like fantasy, come from her ability to take the lives we see all around us and focus on them in a way that can be humorous, tender and biting. The books are charming and disturbing at the same time. These stories, like life, don’t have happy endings. People die from insect bites. Dreams foretell death. Looking in a mirror, death looks back.

Mare has collaborated with many people. She has done fine work with Katherine Dunn, Christopher Stern, Reeta Tollefson, Carl Chew, and Lauren Grossman among others. These are the people who knew they were collaborating with her. Friends tease that we are all fodder for her creative adventures but her ability to transform our foolishness, love and daily dramas into touching and meaningful bookworks is the role of the artist, one Mare does with wonderful flare.

Much of Mare’s most powerful work comes from her own life, her struggles and challenges, her optimism and her disappointments, her bereavement and her humor. There is little she hides from the astute reader yet often the tenderness and pain is hidden behind a wacky laughter. She evokes Voodoo, the Madonna, demons, and angels with sequined wings. Mare shares her kitchen piled high with dishes, her string of inspirational animals and several major changes in her life. Mare’s face stares out at me in almost all her work. She lounges in a bathtub while a poodle brings her champagne, she hovers as an angel in her Grandmother’s heaven, and her face personalizes a butterfly. She is Earth Mother, disappointed child and woman in love. In every guise, Mare creates a link between herself and the reader/viewer, which is compelling. It is what brings us all back, over and over, for more.

I believe Mare Blocker is one of the most creative people I know. One of my great pleasures is calling her my friend. My fondest hope is that in the next 2o years Mare can be as productive and successful as she has been in the last 20 years, and, out of selfishness, that I am around to enjoy it with her.

Sandra Kroupa,

Marearcana Catalog 1999