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Artist’s books give Pankratz a voice to tell stories of transformation

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Much of Teresa Pankratz’s installation in Bethel College’s Fine Arts Center Gallery is a book you can step into.

That’s because it’s an artist’s book. In this genre that mostly developed in the mid-20th century, the book is “more sculptural, an object more than it is a traditional book,” Pankratz says. “Artist’s books embody the text. They are physical expressions of what’s inside.”

The Dream House Collection, OR Tales of a Narrow Escape: A Sculptural Novel opens Jan. 16, with the artist reception that evening from 6-8 p.m. outside the gallery.

“To step into The Dream House Collection is to enter the remains of a lost home,” Pankratz says in her artist statement, “accumulations invoking the existence of … three fictional adult siblings whose lives are transformed when their childhood home burns to the ground.

“Displayed under glass and situated on a room-size blueprint floor, 11 print and object-based narrative sculptures and artist’s books make up [the] nucleus.”

In the gallery around the central installation, “two- and three-dimensional wall-mounted sculptures, drawings and prints draw the reader/viewers to the parameters. … These 25 works collectively explore the relationship of the individual to the loss of the sheltering structure called ‘home’. … Like images framed in a graphic novel, these artifacts assemble themselves to reveal a collective tale.”

During “the great ice storm of 2005” (early January), Pankratz, who lives in Chicago, was shocked and horrified to get a phone call from her brother, Tim Pankratz of North Newton, informing her that their mother Eulala Pankratz’s home in Walton had gone up in flames. Eulala Pankratz escaped without injury.

“We had just been there for Christmas,” Teresa Pankratz recalls. “[Because of the ice storm], there had been no heat in the house for a couple of days. My mother lit a gas fireplace that hadn’t been lit for a while, and the flue must have been blocked.”

The storm had also produced frozen water lines in Walton, meaning the fire department had trouble responding quickly. The result was a total loss of the home.

“I was totally amazed at the feelings generated,” Pankratz says. “I wouldn’t have expected so much grief. I felt untethered. [I hadn’t realized] what we invest in the things we use and the places we’ve lived.”

Pankratz graduated from Bethel College, where she studied printmaking and drawing with Bob Regier, in 1978. In 1981, she moved to Chicago for a term with Mennonite Voluntary Service, and she’s been there ever since. She and Bryan Saner, who met at Bethel, married in 1985.

Soon after, Pankratz saw her first artist’s book, in a studio not far from where she and Saner lived.

With artist’s books, “I could do what I was doing with printmaking and drawing, but I could also construct things,” Pankratz says. “I’d been doing that since I was a little girl – with dollhouses, with paper and glue.

“The revelation to me was the ability to use text. It was a magic triad – text, image and structure or form. I found my voice and [began to discover] what my story was to tell.”

In the Mennonite world, Pankratz is probably best known for her pen-and-ink illustrations, which she did for the Mennonite Central Committee Women’s Concerns newsletter for nearly two decades, as well as for numerous other publications.

“The illustration felt more like freelance,” she says. “The artist’s books have been the meat of my studio work.”

In 2007, Pankratz began graduate studies at Columbia College in Chicago, where she recently completed an MFA degree in interdisciplinary book and paper arts.

The Dream House Collection – which has been described as “a multi-part sculptural novel” and “a three-dimensional novel” – tells the story of “the transformations in the lives of three adult siblings,” Pankratz says. “It’s fictional, but drawn on autobiography.” (In addition to Tim, Pankratz has a sister, Becky, who lives in Ohio.)

“It’s about loss and what it means, and how [losses] effect transformation,” Pankratz says. “It started as memoir, but I wanted to be free to fictionalize.”

Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel assistant professor of art who also coordinates the FAC Gallery schedule, is currently teaching the first-ever Book Arts class at Bethel, being offered during the January interterm.

The class “will alternate every other interterm with printmaking, both of which work well in an intensive format,” Epp Buller says. “I’m pleased that Teresa’s exhibition coincides with the class. Her work pushes the definition of book arts and she’ll be a great resource for us.”

Pankratz will take one class session to show some of her older pieces and talk about the process of creating an artist’s book.

She will also be doing several “live narrations” of The Dream House Collection for students in both the Book Arts class and Ami Regier’s Studies in Drama interterm class as well as a handful of family members, friends and community members – small groups because the performances have to be done in the FAC Gallery.

“Book artists often struggle with how to present their work,” Pankratz says. “People don’t usually go to a gallery to sit and read [the art]. This is not just a reading – I add other elements, such as sound, so you get a different experience.”

Pankratz and Saner spent a week ahead of the Jan. 16 opening installing The Dream House Collection in the FAC Gallery.

“Bryan built the display tables and the blueprint floor,” Pankratz says. “He’s the key to the infrastructure being as well-crafted as it is.

“I can’t physically move it myself,” she adds. “This is the first big road test. [The exhibit has been installed in some Chicago-area venues.] This was a good place to try it, with a support system of relatives available.”

The Dream House Collection is on display through Feb. 14. FAC Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays, 2-4 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information, see www.teresapankratz.com.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2013-14 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2013-14. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.