DEIA Collection Spotlight, Winter 2023: Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center

DEIA Collection Spotlight, Winter 2023: Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center

Welcome to the first edition of a quarterly series of posts shining a light on the collections in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, and the artists represented within them. This edition features an artist book from the Rosemary Furtak Collection (RFC) of the Walker Art Center. Started in the 1980s by Furtak, the RFC contains over 2,000 artists books, multiples, artist magazines, and more. One of those artists’ books is Up River (2018) by artist Kelly Taylor Mitchell.

Cover of book made of handmade paper. The paper is wrapped in a cream-colored cloth and loosely tied.
Cover of Up River by Kelly Taylor Mitchell. Image courtesy of the artist.

Blending familial and racial history with fascinating paper-making practices, Mitchell’s Up River is a conceptually- and visually-harmonious work of art. From the formatting of the text to the texture of each page, reading the artist book is a unique experience, allowing us to ponder the histories of escaped former slaves and the role water has played in them.

Up River is comprised of handset letterpress printing on handmade abaca, milkweed, peanut, and flax papers. The text is an original, free verse poem written by Mitchell that is influenced by local and personal history. She often draws on archives and personal papers in research for her projects. Made while in residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, in this book she includes references to one enslaved reverend’s escape via the Mississippi River to freedom in Minnesota where he eventually started a Baptist congregation, as well as her great-great-grandfather’s escape from slavery to North Carolina.

Ideologies travel like pioneers gone west.


Congregation, Community, and Culture grew,

In spite of stale racism–

Fed our countrymen like the finest of foods.

To Mitchell, these stories of escape and travel in histories that she studies are linked by the presence of water. Water is both a path to freedom, as well as danger to people throughout history.

The great separator

The great unifier

The great Mississippi

A single-page view of a page from the book. Image courtesy of the artist.

She intentionally uses limited language, text formatting, and sensorial tactics to reflect this idea of water and its presence in human history. The text is formatted sometimes traditionally – all lines justified – and sometimes text floats along the page like a winding river. As the reader turns the pages grains of sand and bits of plant fall off the pages. The sound and sight give physical presence to the river that Twin Cities members are likely familiar with. How many times have I walked along the river, smelled the wet earth and heard the crunch of sand under my feet? In fact, Mitchell pulled some of the plant material for the paper from the banks of the Mississippi, among other historically relevant places.

Picture of handmade book page . Paper is cream-colored  with a river-like swirl through the center.
A single-page view of a page from the book. Image courtesy of the artist.

Overall, the physical and sensorial aspects of the book, combined with her poetry enable the reader to become immersed in the book. In text we sense the hope and fear of the travelers, and the smell and feel alone could give one a sense of the places referenced. To experience this book yourself, make an appointment with the Walker Art Center Library:

Jennifer Riestenberg Pepin, Assistant Librarian, Walker Art Center

As part of our 5-Year DEI Strategic Plan, our quarterly posts are intended to highlight underrepresented local collections, items, or artists. Would you like to contribute a post? Fill out this form to let us know what you’d like to share with members and when and we’ll follow up with you via email.