May 01, 2023 Book of the Week — Local Conditions
“Out of the forest at last there stood the mountain, wholly unveiled, awful in bulk and majesty, filling all the view like a separate, new-born world, yet withal so fine and so beautiful it might well fire the dullest observer to desperate enthusiasm.”
— John Muir, Steep Trails (1918)
Chandler O’Leary (1982-2023)
Tacoma, WA: Anagram Press, 2010
N7433.4 O45 L63 2010
Last month, the Book Arts community unexpectedly lost one of their most talented members. Chandler O’Leary passed away on April 2, at the age of 41, after a brief and sudden bout of severe pneumonia. She leaves behind a grieving husband, a young son, and an entire community of artists and art lovers, including all of us here at the Rare Books Department and the Book Arts Program. To celebrate her life and work, we share with you her artists’ book, Local Conditions — published in 2010 under her imprint, the Anagram Press.
Chandler O’Leary was born in South Dakota, just fifty miles west of the famous roadside attraction Wall Drug. Her family relocated to Massachusetts and she found herself growing up on the hook-shaped peninsula and popular summertime destination that is Cape Cod. Perhaps it is there that O’Leary first became fond of seafood shacks, lighthouses, ponds, bays, and ocean beaches — the same views she would come to find when she finally settled in Tacoma, Washington with her husband and son. Overlooking the Salish Sea in her century-old Craftsman home, O’Leary would spend her summer nights observing the blinking lights from the nearby lighthouses and listening in to the call of crying gulls and barking sea lions. Most other moments were spent criss-crossing the continent with her family on winding back roads, always with her sketchbook in hand.
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), O’Leary began her one-woman business where she did illustration and lettering for a wide range of clients. She also loved to spend time on personal projects, such as her illustrated travel blog, Drawn the Road Again and other work under her house brand, Anagram Press. When she moved to Washington state in 2008, she met fellow book artist and letterpress printer, Jessica Spring (Springtide Press). Together, they joined forces to create the Dead Feminists project — a series of thirty-three limited edition broadsides, each in response to some cultural issue or event (gun violence, persistent racism, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) accompanied by a quote from a historic feminist (Emma Goldman, Ida B. Wells, Sarojini Naidu). Besides their exquisite illustrations, the broadsides included deeply researched details, some encoded visually: such as lettering that was inspired by popular typefaces at the time the given feminist was alive. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the broadsides were donated to a related nonprofit or campaign. The success of the broadside series led to a co-authored book, published by Sasquatch Books in 2016. The Seattle-based publisher would later go on to publish two travel books O’Leary wrote and illustrated on her own: The Best Coast: A Road Trip Atlas (2019) and On Island Time (2023).
The name “Dead Feminists” was a private joke between the two of them for years, until O’Leary insisted on making it official. “It’s a little hard to be left with that,” Jessica Spring recently said. “Because now she is a dead feminist — and it hurts.”
O’Leary first set eyes upon Mount Rainier while visiting the University of Washington campus. When she finally made roots in the Pacific Northwest a short time later, she had volcanoes on the brain. For nearly two years, volumes of sketches, close to six thousand photographs, reference books, and stacks of maps littered her studio. The project began as a tribute to Katsushika Hokusai (1759-1849), the Japanese printmaker and illustrator, best-known for his seminal works, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. The two series of woodblock prints, published from 1829 to 1847, depict the sacred peak within the context of landscapes and scenes of daily life. At the heart of the series is Hokusai’s own obsession with immortality, and his fascination with Fuji’s eternal presence. However, for O’Leary, therein lies the rub: Fuji is anything but eternal. Beyond the usual, abstract geologic transience of eroding rock and drifting continents, Fuji is an active stratovolcano. Its days — and those of the lives and lands at its base — are numbered.
In Washington state, just forty miles southeast of O’Leary’s home, was Fuji’s taller, more volatile, American twin — sometimes called Tacobet, Tahoma, and Ti’Swaq’ by the region’s indigenous peoples, or simply “The Mountain” by contemporary locals. Finally, in 1792, it was named Mount Rainier by Captain George Vancouver. While living on its outskirts, O’Leary mused about Rainier’s impermanence, though she understood why it was so easy to forget. For thousands of years the mountain had presided in the literal and figurative worldview of indigenous cultures. After the encroachment and occupation of European settlers, it oversaw the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the fever of the Klondike Gold Rush, and the splendor of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. And yet, without notice, Mount Rainier has changed. Is changing. Its volcanic center shifts in form, its angles are marked and masked by weather, while warming climate perpetually chases the alpine glaciers into retreat. One day, maybe even tomorrow, it will erupt in an explosion of ash. Or perhaps, a million years from now, erosion will have erased it completely. With this uncertainty, O’Leary sought to capture the present moment — one hundred present moments to be exact, for “If nothing else, Local Conditions is a reminder of the lesson of this place: that here in the Ring of Fire, we never see the same Mountain twice.”
Local Conditions was produced with the support of a Tacoma Artists Initiative Program grant from the City of Tacoma Arts Commission. The two year project included historic research, hundreds of miles of photo-scouting adventures, preliminary drawings, and thousands of print impressions — assisted by her good friend and neighbor Jessica Spring. This interactive artists’ book was illustrated, designed, printed, and bound by O’Leary. Text and images in Hokusai’s indigo ink were letterpress printed at the Springtide Press and hand-finished in watercolor. Each of the book’s one-hundred and twenty image flats is compiled from sketches, photographs, and data collected in person, and on location, from September 2008 to October 2010. When closed, Local Conditions resembles something like a cube. On the topmost face is the frontispiece, containing the title and a topographic map illustration of the summit of Mount Rainier. The north, south, east and west sides of the box are faced with illustrations of the corresponding faces of the mountain, each depicting a view at sunset. As the book “opens” the outer wrapper reveals detailed instructions of how to use and interact with this unique and mesmerizing work.
Opening up a set of three drawers, the reader (viewer) will find one hundred and twenty hand-cut image flats depicting both foregrounds and backdrops of Mount Rainier. A “viewing window” with slots slides into the top of the box and is used to interchange and stage the nearly endless views of the mountain. A stab-bound book and “locator key” is provided to guide the reader in creating at least one hundred views — all documented by O’Leary. The key references individual image flats, which are numbered and printed with a color code. Also included is real-time data such as time, latitude and longitude coordinates, location name, weather, and notable historical information. If the reader wanted to experiment with their own views, there are exactly 1.4 quintillion variations, to be precise. O’Leary produced this book as an edition of twenty-six copies. Yes, that’s 3,120 successfully hand-cut, hand-printed, hand-colored flats. The University of Utah’s rare books copy is no. 8 and signed by the artist.
Words are wholly inadequate to describe the magnitude of Chandler’s passing for her family and friends, for the Tacoma community, and for the whole world. If you are so inclined, you may donate to support her family during this difficult time. In Chandler’s memory, please remember to hug your loved ones, take road trips, write your legislators, and sketch something beautiful.
Chandler O’Leary (1982-2023)