Book art available, but you have to paddle to get there

arts / Article

All photos courtesy of The Floating Library.

Minnesota takes a lot of pride in both its lakes and its literacy. We famously house more than 10,000 of the former and consistently rank among the national leaders in the latter. It only makes sense, then, that we’re also the home of The Floating Library, a unique intersection of books, lakes and visual art.

“The Floating Library is a collection of books that are made by artists. They sit aboard a raft that has specially designed bookshelves and floats in the middle of a lake,” explained book artist and Floating Library creator Sarah Peters. “It’s conceived as a public library for boaters. People are not supposed to swim to the library, because when you’re in a boat you’re dry, for the most part, so you can read books and not damage them or get them wet.”

Since its 2013 inception on Cedar Lake in Minneapolis, the library has visited lakes in Winona and St. Anthony, and even made a West Coast trip for this February’s Los Angeles Book Art Fair. This July, the project makes its debut in the capital city. “This is the first time the project will be presented in St. Paul, and that’s entirely due to the Knight funding,” said Peters, a winner of St. Paul’s Knight Arts Challenge. “Lake Phalen has a really interesting history as a lake that has been and still is host to a lot of boating tradition. The St. Paul Sailing Club is there, they have sailing lessons, there are a lot of regattas and things like that that take place there. At the turn of the last century when canoeing was a big trend for certain people of means in St. Paul, hundreds and hundreds of canoes were stored on the banks of Lake Phalen. It’s an interesting site to think about putting a boat-based art project on, since there’s a whole history there.”

Caitlin Warner's all-mylar book.

Beyond the obvious curiosity factor and aesthetic appeal of the project, the Floating Library serves as a layperson’s introduction to the often overlooked field of book arts, which often eschews traditional narrative. The collection is made up of work from both commissioned artists and respondents to a call for submissions (open through June 15) with an emphasis on themes of water, Lake Phalen, environmental issues and immigrant history in St. Paul. Highlights of previous installations include Caitlin Warner’s all-mylar book (“It makes you think about what context means in a book, because it reflects its environment, literally,” noted Peters.) and Anne George’s “tangled mass of fishing bobbers” wrapped in pages from a vintage book of fish recipes, something of a macabre message to the lake’s permanent residents.

One longtime favorite entry takes on an unexpected poignancy this summer: Martine Workman’s “Prince Food.” “It’s a fanzine about all of the food that is in Prince songs. It’s beautifully illustrated,” said Peters. “Prince came into the collection in the very first year, in 2013, and was an instant hit. The copy the library has is quite tattered but it’s been enjoyed by many people. I’m certain it will have a special place in the collection this year.”

Above all else, the Floating Library is a chance for the community to engage with art in an unexpected setting, and one that requires active participation. “It’s fun when people are already boating around and they discover it,” said Peters. “It’s a project that brings together three things that I love: public space, public art and lakes.”

The Floating Library will reside on Lake Phalen on Saturdays and Sundays from approximately 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. from July 16 to August 6. An open call for book art proposals runs through June 15. Visit thefloatinglibrary.org for more details.

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