Vassar’s historic Thompson Memorial Library has become the stage for a battle of life and death. Works of art sit in glass display cases evoking melodic odes to nature’s beauty and simultaneously telling the horrific story of its impending end. Arrayed under the main archway of the library is Ilse Schreiber-Noll’s exhibition: “Nature, and Nature Defiled”. Schreiber-Noll, a Hudson Valley artist, has several items on display, including her original “Artist’s Books”, an artwork that utilizes the form of the book, as well as limited-edition prints and paintings, all of which highlight the beauty of nature while ridiculing the destruction humanity is imposing upon it.
The exhibition’s juxtaposing sides intensify the nature of each book, coordinating with each other to create a tense symphony. The books representing “Nature” sit on the left and those representing “Nature Defiled” sit on the right. The exhibition begins on the left side of the archway with “Silent Sun”, one of Ilse Schreiber-Noll’s unique Artist’s Books. The linen pages of her Artist’s Books are thick with golden layers of paint, sand, woodcut prints and natural matter. Written on the opening page of this book is Walt Whitman’s poem, “Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun”—Whitman’s poetry makes continued appearances throughout her works. This poem is a love letter to the natural world, admiring mother nature from afar while being trapped in the steel cage of the industrial city: “Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling.”
Under the archway, across from this work, is a book representing the “Nature Defiled” portion of the exhibition. Its dark brown and black pages contrast against its neighbor’s gold and yellow suns. Standing between these two books is to stand on the precipice between life and death, to put your own humanity between the world and its demise. When discussing this book and its large, heavy pages, Schreiber-Noll said, “I think the soil is a sick and crusted surface. I think if [this book] feels like touching the soil, you are involved in those heavy surfaces, with the history of what happened.” The soil contains memory and life, and this book shows what happens when we destroy that life.
As well as works centering on the environment, Ilse Schreiber-Noll eulogized the COVID-19 pandemic in her Artist’s Book titled “Loss”. A dedication alongside “Loss” reads: “This book is dedicated to the lives that were lost in the natural disasters and the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.” Shemade this book for all of the people who have suffered over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pain their families have endured as a result. Its pages are filled with woodcut prints of anguished faces and crying angels. Along with scenes of the pandemic, “Loss” also focuses heavily on the damage done by natural disasters,especially those caused by the effects of climate change. In the middle of the book is a print of an angel with the word “hope” hanging by her wings. In my conversation with Schreiber-Noll, she continuously emphasized the importance of hope when the future seems so bleak. She spoke about her fears for younger generations, saying with a tired smile, “We must have hope. If we don’t have hope then living becomes unbearable, right?”
Ilse Schreiber-Noll’s emphasis on hope always holds a place alongside her critiques of violence. She sees it as necessary to balance the world’s tragedies with our own sense of hope, something her own upbringing taught her. Schreiber-Noll was born in Germany directly after World War II. “I saw the consequences of war and the destruction and heartbreak it caused to my country and to others,” she shared. Her career in art was propelled by the 60s protest movement. Her works are filled with outpouring of her anger and despair, and still flow with an immense beauty.
Ilse Schreiber-Noll has been creating pieces related to environmental subject matter since 2012, when she participated in the Hudson Valley Artist exhibition at the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz. The title of the exhibition was “Dear Mother Nature,” and Schreiber-Noll contributed the first book of her “Oil Spill” series, which commented on the industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “[I] find it very important to show the beauty as well as the destruction in juxtaposition,” she told me. “So the viewer is wondering and will ask the question: Why are we doing this to something so beautiful?”
Even before making art on the matter of climate change, her work has been extremely politically oriented. She was heavily involved in artistic movements against apartheid in South Africa. Throughout that time she was constantly questioning the productivity of her and other artists’ works. “Artists from many countries, all over the world, people from all professions contributed and said: ‘We must help to change this terrible system.’ And it became [a]house we all built together,” she explained. In the 21st century, her art is utilizing its intensity to advocate against climate change. She views the fight against war and the fight against the destruction of the environment as having parallel ideology: Any contribution, no matter how small, can help to bring about change.
In my interview with Ilse Schreiber-Noll, she shared her immense enthusiasm for this spring’s exhibition. “I am delighted and especially excited to show in a college,” she told me. Her artist career in printmaking and Artist’s Books began while she herself was a student at Purchase College. She studied under the late Uruguayan-American artist, Antonio Frasconi. Frasconi, the man she dedicated her book “Autumn” to, was a prolific woodcut artist and professor at Purchase College. Schreiber-Noll fell in love with the form of the book, and found inspiration in her mentor’s political activism. “My wish is that my work speaks to your generation. Giving something to the next generation is a privilege. So, I’m very thrilled about this exhibition.”
Ilse Schreiber-Noll will be a panelist at the symposium, “Responding to Climate Change,” along with Laura Haynes of the Earth Science and Geography Department and Jeff Seidman of the Philosophy Department. The symposium will be moderated by Head of the Special Collections Library Ronald Patkus. The event will be taking place on Wednesday, April 6 at 4 p.m. in the Class of ’51 Reading Room in the library for those interested in the interdisciplinary discussion on the destruction and protection of our environment.
For more information on the exhibition and a gallery of the works, visit: https://vclibrary.vassarspaces.net/nature/index