Sackner Archive: Beyond Words

Sackner Archive: Beyond Words

An example of a "Commonplace Book" from late-18th to mid-19th century England. These handmade scrapbooks were adorned with fragments of poetry and visual elements. Photo by Jose M. Cabrera
By Barbara Pierce, Special to Library Communications

An example of a "Commonplace Book" from late-18th to mid-19th century England. These handmade scrapbooks were adorned with fragments of poetry and visual elements. Photo by Jose M. Cabrera

Sackner Archive: Beyond Words

By Barbara Pierce, Special to Library Communications
UML Special Collections expands array of artist books with acquisition from famed Sackner Archives

They are elegantly bound in tooled leather, precisely folded into origami-like panels, and loosely assembled from handmade paper. They incorporate ethereal washes of water color, homey-looking needlepoint, jittery images formed from thousands of typewriter imprints, and vestiges of vintage printed materials collaged into fanciful wordplay. They intrigue the eye and tease the mind with microscopic calligraphy requiring a magnifying glass to decipher and enigmatic messages in giant block letters, mock medieval woodcuts and intricate logos for imaginary entities, shimmering rainbows of delicately placed threads and distressed pages that have been cut, torn, burned, and gouged.
 
They are artist’s books—one-of-a-kind or limited-edition art works that take the form of books or book-like objects, turning the page of artistic expression to multi-layered world of images, color, words, and texture that roam the expanse of the human imagination, yet fit neatly in the palm of a hand. Over the past several years, University of Miami Libraries’ (UML) Special Collections has amassed a growing trove of artist’s books. Thanks to the assistance of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 56 works from the legendary Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry were recently added to the library’s holdings.
 
Cristina Favretto, head of Special Collections at UML, has been fascinated by artist’s books throughout her career—and long aware of the extraordinary collection of “word art” amassed over 40 years by Miami’s Marvin and Ruth Sackner, passionate soulmates in life and collecting. “Finding and annotating all of these works was a great adventure,” says Marvin Sackner, a retired pulmonologist and still-active inventor of medical devices.
 
As chief of medicine and head of education at Mt. Sinai Medical Center on Miami Beach for 17 years, Sackner taught Miller School of Medicine students on the University’s medical campus and, later, during their clinical rotations at the hospital. An avid fan of Hurricanes football and basketball, he says that his scientific inclinations never influenced his acquisitions for the collection, widely acknowledged as the world’s largest of its type. “You could call them twin obsessions,” he smiles.
 
When Favretto met the Sackners soon after arriving at the University about ten years ago, “It was such a thrill for me to be invited on a tour of their home and collection,” she recalls. “That’s when I got a true inkling of the kinds of materials they had.
 
“The Sackners’ intelligent and comprehensive collecting methodology created a body of work that documents the cultural history of the written word in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
 
Favretto acknowledges that, as a creative genre, an artist’s book can be hard to define. “There are artist’s books with pages that are made of porcelain, formed from encaustic, buried in dirt, written in blood or spices,” she says. “But, on some level, each one shows great artistry and tells some sort of story, albeit not in a linear fashion.”
 
Even amid the dominance of digital information technologies, this intimate mode of creative expression is “more vibrant than ever,” says Favretto. “The field used to be more esoteric, more solitary. But now, because more libraries are collecting artist’s books, more people are seeing them, engaging with them, and getting inspired to create their own.”
 
After Ruth Sackner passed away in 2015, Marvin Sackner prioritized efforts to divest a large portion of the collection, which encompasses more than 75,000 pieces. Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, seeking to ensure that some of the works stayed in Miami, approved funding to transfer more than 400 pieces to the Perez Art Museum of Miami.
 
“Three quarters of us who live there come from someplace else,” Ibargüen said at the time of the Perez acquisition. “You really need to find ways to bind people—to explain people—to each other as we invent the new Miami.”
 
In 2017 the Knight Foundation approved a grant application from University of Miami Libraries Special Collections to support acquisition of several pieces from the Sackner Archive. “Victoria Rogers [the foundation’s vice president for arts] was very helpful,” Favretto says. “She explained exactly what we needed to do.”
 
“The collection was formed in Miami,” Marvin Sackner says. “So I am very happy to have some of it here.”
 
Sackner gave Favretto and her colleagues nearly free rein in terms of choosing which items to include in the acquisition. “We wanted our selections to be geographically and chronologically diverse,” she says, “while also focusing on works made in and/or focusing on historical and cultural facets of Latin America and Florida.”
 
“Complementing Special Collections’ existing holdings of rare and creative works, these representative selections from the Sackner Archive will serve as a rich source for study and artistic inspiration not only for UM students and faculty, but for visitors from the Miami, national, and international communities,” says Dean of Libraries Charles Eckman.
 
The library’s collection of artists’ books is one of its most-used, attracting faculty and students of English literature, creative writing, history, and other disciplines—even marine science. Several UM faculty members have incorporated artist’s books into their classes. Favretto has heard from many more who are “percolating” ideas to integrate them into their lesson plans.
 
“Engaging with artist’s books adds an exciting dimension to creative writing instruction,” says Mia Leonin, senior lecturer for creative writing in the Department of English. “Students experience the hands-on beauty, history, and mystery of the book as their imaginations are propelled toward new ways of seeing, understanding, thinking, and writing.”
 
Surprisingly, visitors interacting with the artist books in Special Collections are allowed to handle them with bare hands—no gloves required. “Unless they were just eating doughnuts, most people’s hands are clean enough,” Favretto says. “The books want to be touched.”

In turn, says Favretto, "Artists’ books inspire us not only with their beauty and technical skills, but because they show us that words can be interpreted and reinterpreted in myriad, beautiful, illuminating, and sometimes mystifying ways. They allow room for creativity and adventurousness, and we hope they say ‘give it a try…you can do this too.' Because at the end of the day, our materials are “Special” because they allow us to see new worlds not only out there, but within ourselves."