Photo by Matthew Swanick / Staff Photographer

By: Ben Theriault, Staff Writer

Sometimes a book can be judged by its cover. From Jan. 28 to April 20, students have an opportunity to see the exhibit Contemporary Illuminated Manuscripts: the Work of Nancy Ruth Leavitt. The exhibit can be found in the reading room on the seventh floor of Glickman Library and admission is free to all.

Leavitt specializes in creating and hand lettering decadent books. She has been teaching the craft since 1985. Her work is internationally renowned and can be found displayed in places such as: the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Portland Museum of Art here in Maine.

Photo by Matthew Swanick / Staff Photographer

Her work combines poetry, calligraphy and bookmaking to embrace the relationship between humans and nature throughout different parts of history and the world. Every book is hand-lettered and painted in ways that allow her to repurpose the content inside. By intentionally emboldening certain words and creating distinct fluctuations in font, Leavitt is able to attract the viewers eye to different portions of the text, allowing her to insert her own interpretations of the text.

In her 2018 piece Garden in the Mind, Leavitt recontextualizes poems and prose from Kabir, Hypatia of Alexandria, Lao Tzu, John Stuart Mill, Sarah Margaret Fuller, Li Bai, and Mary Wollstonecraft amongst others. By taking insights from a variety of perspectives that differ in history and location and fusing them into one cohesive text, Leavitt manages to envision a shared vision of humanity and meditation on nature. The texts are on homemade paper and paired with watercolor paintings of overlapping leaves. In her paintings, Leavitt pays careful attention to texture and shadowing.

In her 2006 piece Outside of the Realm of Time she couples Italian arias composed by Caldara, Handel and Scarlatti with a thoughtful assortment of colored rocks. This book has a wooden binding, which is adorned with an arrangement of dioctrotic glass. The entire book is housed in a beautiful wooden box with an interior embellished in satin. Within the box there is a divet where another array of colored glass is displayed.

Throughout the majority of her nature pieces Leavitt focuses on plants or rocks. This juxtaposes nature’s responses to time: stagnancy versus transformation. By attaching language to these concepts she can apply them to the human experience and then expound upon them through her selection of texts.
Leavitt’s exhibit ultimately represents the power of multimedia art. She uses a variety of texts, materials and techniques to present unique art. One of the most fascinating aspects is her meticulous attention to detail in the book bindings and boxes as well the pages themselves. The boxes and covers are as important as what they encase.

By utilizing so many different resources, Leavitt can tell several stories within a single book.

For more information and images of Leavitt’s work, visit and explore her portfolio. If you are interested in learning about USM’s Book Arts Minor, program director Rebecca Goodale can be reached at [email protected]


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