Desdemona redux: Emily Martin explores animation at CSPS

Opening Reception: Desdemona: In Her Own Words

CSPS Legion Arts — Thursday, Feb. 1 at 5 p.m.

Still from ‘Desdemona: In Her Own Words,’ an animation by Emily Martin. — courtesy of the artist

Book artist Emily Martin, whose work has been displayed across the country and the world, has turned her attention to a new medium for her exploration of William Shakespeare’s Othello through the words of the tragic Desdemona: animation.

“I don’t feel that conceptual leap” between book arts and animation, she said in an email. “These are all means of engaging the viewer to me.”

Her current work, which will be screened at CSPS in Cedar Rapids through Feb. 25, is the latest of several works she has done focused on Shakespeare. And she’s not done.

“My first foray into working with Shakespeare was a carousel book, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, that I made for a Designer Bookbinders competition in the UK,” said Martin, who teaches book arts and bookbinding at University of Iowa’s Center for the Book. “It had very specific parameters and required some connection to Shakespeare. I was delighted to have the book accepted and even awarded a silver medal.”

Currently, she’s working on a series of movable puppets, King Leer: A Tragedy in Five Puppets, to be presented at the Fine Press Book Fair in New York City in March. That series, Martin said, is “related to our current president.”

“I had been working with the play King Lear but after the 2016 election, this project intruded,” she said.

Her most recent foray into Shakespeare, prior to developing Desdemona: In Her Own Words, was a book that Martin produced that explored the comedies as a group. But she found that the comedies have a “sameness” to them, whereas the tragedies offer more material to work with. She experienced that with Romeo and Juliet, and decided she wanted to explore another tragedy, without the constraints that bound that competition.

“Part of my fascination is the shifts between my memories of reading these plays when younger and my reactions to them now,” Martin said.

Still from ‘Desdemona: In Her Own Words,’ an animation by Emily Martin. — courtesy of the artist

Ultimately, Martin didn’t chose Desdemona as her subject so much as Desdemona chose her, falling perfectly into what she calls “a convoluted form of erasure poetry.”

“I’m not sure what made me choose Othello other than knowing there would be a lot to work with,” she said. “I didn’t choose Desdemona so much as she came to my attention while reading Othello. Her passivity in the play was so frustrating to me that I decided to isolate her dialogue and use it to form new lines.”

She had created a flat, hinged puppet of Desdemona (“think Indonesian shadow puppets,” she said) while working on a print series that was a first iteration of this project, and at the same time had been considering experimenting with a stop-motion animation software.

“I often work with movable/sculptural forms and am often trying to incorporate movement and various ways of animating action within my work,” she said.

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Desdemona was created using 2-dimensional flax paper puppets, a chalkboard and word magnets. The flax paper for the puppets was made at the UI Center for the Book papermaking facility.

“I wanted the colors of the flax papers to reflect the characters and set them apart from each other,” Martin said. “The flax papers are very strong and I knew they would withstand the demands of the puppets and mimic the qualities of the original shadow puppets.”

Although she has no other projects along these lines currently on the horizon, Martin does believe she’ll return to the medium of animation at some point.

An opening reception for Desdemona: In Her Own Words will be held at CSPS on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 5 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

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