Diane Samuels

with an interview by Elaine Sexton

Detail of ROOTS with mycelium joining the stories

Elaine Sexton: I’d like to hear about the origins of your most recently completed epic work of art, The Overstory, Richard Powers, handwriting, on handmade paper with collaged material, every word of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Once again, you, an avid reader, have scrupulously written out the text of a book, that clearly matters to you, and made art of it.

Diane Samuels: I’ve been a fan of Richard Powers’ work since Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance in 1985 and have read and reread all of his work since that first reading.  My burning desire to transcribe Richard Powers’ The Overstory began when I read an advance copy of the book.

The full scroll showing the title bookplate on the scroll rear

My husband Henry Reese and I are the co-founders of City of Asylum which provides sanctuary for writers in exile.  Based in Pittsburgh, this organization has a facility, Alphabet City, that includes a bookstore and space for readings and performances. We first met Richard Powers after he accepted our invitation to read here.  

After reading The Overstory a second time I deeply wanted to take this one on as my next project, which meant I would spend a few years slowly reading and transcribing it. I was lucky to have a chance to ask him myself. We always invite those who read for dinner. So, on that first meeting, I had a chance, before other guests arrived, to show him my work in my studio. After seeing what I had made of other text, he agreed to permit me to transcribe his book.

His story of the inter-connectiveness of activism, science, family stories, the alternate worlds of gaming, immigration and climate issues, our insignificance in the vastness of time and the planet is compelling, profound, and timely, and will resonate for many lifetimes into the future. The specifics may change, but they remain as timely now as they were as described in the book.  

Detail of end of TRUNK and beginning of CROWN

While reading The Overstory I found a parallel between this and my previous project, a transcription of Moby-Dick, or The Whale, the greatness and vastness of the two books spoke to each other, one from the sea, the other from the land. In starting to think about The Overstory, I realized this piece might be of a similar scale and scope to the transcription I’d done of Moby-Dick.

Detail of ROOTS Prologue

The Melville work is a scroll which unrolls to 47 feet long and 8 feet wide – the size of a very small sperm whale. I knew I wanted The Overstory to be monumental in size and relate to the size Sequoia sempervirens, a central character in the book, and be structured like the sections of the book, ROOTS, TRUNK, CROWN, SEEDS. I chose to make a scroll that is the size of a section of the Sequoia sempervirens. The finished piece, unrolled, is 20 inches wide by 160 feet long, the height of a small Redwood tree. 

Top: Detail of TRUNK from The Overstory, below: Detail of CETOLOGY from Moby-Dick, Or the Whale (two separate bodies of work).

But other than scale this piece is quite different. Each of the sections of The Overstory has a very different visual presentation on the scroll, while Moby-Dick, or The Whale, aside from slight color-shifts and small collages is similar throughout. The transcription of Moby-Dick is on blues, greens, purples, and whites, but for The Overstory I used a palette of dark reds and browns, very different from palettes I’d used previously. 

All Front Matter to ROOTS Prologue, then ROOTS

The most important difference from any of my previous book-based work is that I was able to correspond with the author during the transcription.  Richard Powers has been extraordinarily generous and answered questions and made useful observations all along the way. This was an exciting, inspiring, and essential component in making the work. 

ES: The paper, itself, has storied origins. Somehow trees, paper, pulp, books, all of it comes together here in a way that seems even more significant, if possible, in the making than previous work. Is that true?

DS: Yes, the materials I used for the piece do have a subtext. I am 72 -years old, and have flat files filled with my drawings, prints, and unused paper that I’ve amassed over the years. For The Overstory transcription, I continued a process I started with Moby-Dick–painting over old artwork, mostly with Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay India inks, and then ripping the painted papers into strips and gluing the strips down to a substrate with using archival book glue. I like the idea of recycling my personal history, masked by Bombay India inks, into something new. Reading both books was, of course, filtered through my personal history/memory.

Woodcut of each leaf representing each character (plus title and author) next to one of the bookplate rubbings

Although the papers I used are mostly recycled drawings and prints, the substrate I used is silk –a nod to the Mulberry tree and China and the family story of in Mimi Ma, a character in the novel’s family story.  The rear bookplates are also of Mulberry paper, and the scroll form itself is also an acknowledgement of the Arhat scroll, a family heirloom in Mimi Ma’s possession. 

When the 160 foot of The Overstory scroll is rolled-up, it looks like the a 16-inch by 20-inch cross-section of a tree. 

Detail of SEEDS with a quotation from Walt Whitman
Detail of SEEDS drifting through CROWN towards the beginning

ES: Many of your projects, this in particular, match one form of activism to another, yours, with the subject of your choosing. Would you say a little about how you came to commit to this text in this way? 

DS: The Overstory resonated for me in the addressing of current, vital issues that impact every part of the world. Figuring out how, as individuals, we can address them requires cooperation, which is essential.  The novel interconnects characters having to make these choices and their stories to the entirety of human and non-human life, to keep in mind that we’re all inter-connected, not just with one another, but with the whole of nature.  Figuring out how to work in concert without breaking fragile threads, the connecting mycelium in this book is important. 

There were so many points as I was transcribing this work that I found echoes that resounded with current events, giving my experience of it an added dimension. For example, in the beginning of the peaceful marches in Pittsburgh the week after following the Tree of Life massacre, the 2018 synagogue shooting, I transcribed a passage from The Overstory that gives instructions about peaceful protests.  So, yes, activism does move me.

Another kind of activism is inspiring more people to read great books.  I hope, when a viewer questions why this woman (me), would want to do this, when you can’t possibly read the entire text in whole on the artwork, is to send someone to bookstore or library and read this book! 

Detail of CROWN

The Overstory, Richard Powers,” is 20 inches x 160 feet (w x h), made of recycled papers, gampi, mulberry, silk, ink, 2019. All photographs by Thomas Little.

Diane Samuels is a visual artist with both studio and public art practices.  In both she uses other peoples’ words as her literal and figurative raw material.  A recipient of a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency in Italy and an American Academy in Jerusalem Fellowship, her exhibitions include the San José Institute of Contemporary Art, Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory Museum, National Library of Technology (Prague, Czech Republic), the Leo Baeck Institute, the Center for Book Arts, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, the Municipal Museum of Art (Gyor, Hungary), Jerusalem Biennale, the Synagogue Center (Trnava, Slovakia), the Bernheimer Realschule (Buttenhausen, Germany), and the Czech Museum of Fine Arts. Her permanent site-specific artworks include Luminous Manuscript (Center for Jewish History New York) and Lines of Sight (Brown University), and The Alphabet Garden, a memorial garden in Grafeneck, Germany, site “A” of the so-called euthanasia experiments in 1940. She holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University, a diploma from the Institute in Arts Administration at Harvard University and has received honorary doctorates from Seton Hill University and Chatham University. She is the co-founder (along with her husband Henry Reese) of City of Asylum, based in Pittsburgh, which provides sanctuary to writers in exile. Samuels is represented by the Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, New York. dianesamuels.net