As the Meem Library continues its 30th anniversary celebration, we look back to the year 2002, which marked the installation of a Library art work now familiar to a generation of our students, faculty, and alums: Melissa Zink’s An Environmental Study of 26 Characters. This sculpture, which hangs prominently on the east wall of the Library’s inner lobby, was a gift of Susan and Jeremy Shamos, long-time friends of the College and members of the St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors.
According to Steve Parks, at whose Taos gallery Melissa Zink showed her work:
As an artist, Melissa Zink’s career got off to a rocky start. A shy but brilliant student, she was cowed in the 1950s by a prestigious art school into believing that if she didn’t produce abstract expressionism, she had no future as an artist. So for nearly 20 years she worked on the fringes of art—designing custom frames, operating a shop that specialized in embroidery and other crafts—while privately painting and drawing and thinking about art. Then, in her early 40s, fate interceded and introduced her to Nelson Zink. She divorced her first husband and married Nelson who soon after asked, “If you could be anything you wanted, what would it be?” Her response: “I want to be an artist.”
Fulfilling another life-long dream, she and Nelson moved to Taos which she had visited as a young girl and remembered as a magical place. As she later wrote: “Taos is a community where art is important both economically and socially. I don’t think that it’s visible in my work, but that doesn’t indicate a lack of importance. Surrounded by beauty and nurtured by the culture, I have been able to concentrate on my inner landscape—because of all the gifts of this remarkable environment.”
Here she quickly established herself as a leading artist in the region. Her earliest work was enchanted, ceramic scenes that met with immediate success. But Zink was a restless artist, blessed with enormous skills, and soon she began combining painting and sculpture and later added collage, print-making and bronze sculpture to her arsenal of media. As she once said, “I divide artists into two categories, miners and explorers. The miners go deeper and deeper into a fairly narrow vein of subjects and techniques, while the explorers are looking for new and exciting ways to express themselves. I’m definitely an explorer.” Throughout her career, though, her primary source of inspiration was what she termed “the book experience,” and it ranged from literal story-telling to expressions of her nearly spiritual regard for words and typefaces, old, foxed papers, illustrations and bindings.
Zink’s early rejection of the Art Canons of the 1950s might well be regarded a blessing. It enabled her to find her own way, to create a totally original body of work, fueled by a most unusual passion, books. Her work, which is in major museum and private collections across the country, remains immensely popular and she is widely regarded as among the finest artists to come out of the Southwest in a generation. Personally and aesthetically, she’s been an inspiration to scores of younger women striving to be artists.
In 2000 she was awarded the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. At the awards presentation, she said: “To the observer, mine appears an ordinary enough existence with little to distinguish it from uncountable others. But an observer cannot know the journeys I’ve made, the lives I’ve lived, the intensities of joy and anguish I have experienced. Nor can that observer know how the everyday complexity of life shines with unfathomable beauty or how the difficulty of expressing that experience becomes overwhelming. That same observer has no way of knowing that I have found permanent shelter in a world constructed from the experience of words and pictures, a world full of marvels, terrors and delights that becomes more real from one day to the next. A world I hope to vanish into someday.” (Source: Steve Parks, Parks Gallery)
Two years later, at the January 26, 2002 installation ceremony for An Environmental Study of 26 Characters at Meem Library, Melissa made the following remarks:
Thank you, Susan and Jeremy. Thank you President Balkcom and the board, faculty and students of St. John’s for allowing me this presence in the heart of your college. To explain how deeply touched I am by this honor would be to dwell at excessive length on my own life, but I do need to say to you that when I see these Characters installed in this library, I can only utter a profound sigh of relief, of having at last found my way home.
I have been using the physical and intellectual matter of books in my work for a number of years, always searching for a better way to understand and communicate an intense love of letters, in the largest sense of the word.
In the fall of 2000, I began to understand the alphabet as an infinity and to see the anthropomorphizing of letters as a way to convey the infinite possibilities of our language. As it always is with satisfying ideas, the task seemed simple and self-evident. Although it wasn’t quite so simple as I imagined, my belief that the Characters could convey the wealth inherent in our alphabet never wavered.
Since the overarching idea propelling this work concerned the infinite possibilities of letters and words and thoughts, no particular symbolism applies to each character. The A could be Abraham or Arabian Nights or Aleph. L doesn’t equal dog, but the image could be associated with love and loyalty or laziness and lassitude. Every association leads to another, and with those associations, worlds can be built. What I hope I have made is both a game and a reminder. A game of associations and journeys into places real or imaginary and a reminder of the extraordinary, ultimately indescribable wealth of thought and image, the benign galaxies of possible combinations waiting to express thoughts yet unthought.
John Man, in his book Alpha and Beta, says: “To the many millions who use it routinely, the alphabet seems the essence of simplicity, as easy as ABC. But the sense of simplicity is deceptive, for the alphabet is a surface impression of hidden linguistic depths. Its few symbols are nothing compared to the complexity of sounds they represent, while those sounds merely hint at the complexity of language itself.“
I hope that An Environmental Study of 26 Characters reminds viewers of the extraordinary marvel of language and the minds that use it and the worlds we occupy.
The story might have ended there, with the installation of this vast, mythical, Borgesian work within the Meem Library, a locale to which it is aptly suited. But there is also a quintessentially St. Johns-ian postscript.
Several years after the installation of this sculpture, Melissa Zink and St. John’s Tutor Eva Brann crossed paths in New Mexico. Quickly recognizing in one another kindred souls in their close age and their mutual passion for books and the written word, but separated by half a continent, Melissa and Eva struck up an epistolary friendship that continued until Melissa’s death in 2009. “With many people it takes years to become close friends,” Eva has said. “But Melissa and I became friends almost instantly.”
Following Melissa’s passing at the age of 77, Eva proposed to gallery owner Steve Parks, a longtime friend of Melissa’s, that he publish a small volume of their collected letters. This was printed and released in 2011 as Liberated Characters, described on the Parks Gallery website at the time as “a loving collection of the late artist’s correspondence with Eva Brann, a former Dean (1990-1997) and longest-serving tutor (1957-present) at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. The two had much in common, bonding over their mutual affection for literature and in the wondrous sharing of ideas.”
Steve Parks himself passed away two years later, in 2013, and with his death and the closing of his gallery, this small volume went out of print and remains so to this day. The correspondence itself, however, still lives in the archives of the Greenfield Library on our Annapolis campus. The pages of it are rich with talk of books, talk of religion and politics, talk of youth and of time and of aging. They are also rich with the affection and respect of two women, each highly accomplished in her own domain, who recognize in their shared passion for books a commonality that embraces and transcends both.
In one telling passage Melissa writes to Eva:
I have made a nice position for you in my mind. Years ago I made a piece called Museum of the Mind and I portrayed myself scrabbling in broken bits and fragments. But you are indeed a Curator of the Museum of the Mind. I think, as I notice my own increasingly lazy brain, that it is critically important for there to be curators who will love and preserve our intellectual past. Perhaps I’ve come to feel this way because I’m so disturbed by what I perceive to be the loss of affection for anything that isn’t the newest rendition of whatever and the belief that breaking the rules is the only fun around. Most of the rules have been broken many times before, but who knows that? Anyway, I give you many gold and silver stars for having loved and protected what has formed the best of what we are today. N. [Melissa’s husband] reminds me from time to time that all babies are from the stone age and each infant must start the long climb anew.
In another letter, Eva writes to Melissa:
I think I know why you don’t date your letters: It’s to make time inessential. I wrote a whole book making the case wordily and lamely. You simply enact it.
The “Statement of the St. John’s College Program,” the defining articulation of our educational model, includes an oft-quoted line: “St. John’s College is persuaded that a genuine liberal education requires the study of great books—texts of words, symbols, notes, and pictures—because they are both timeless and timely.” This explicit recognition of the roots of the timely in the timeless— present in a great book but also in a work of great music or of great art, in a laboratory practicum or an act of translation, in an extended conversation or an extended correspondence, in a shared affection or a reluctant parting—lies at the deep heart of the St. John’s experience. And Melissa Zink’s sculpture, for two decades now a silent daily presence alongside the tens of thousands of books within our Library’s space, remains a timeless and timely homage to all of the vastnesses contained within them.