The time has come to talk about Poison Sisters. I had wanted to work with Frank Riccio on a collaboration for a very long time and in 2013 I finally got my chance. The Virginia Arts of the Book Center was getting into their annual group project and the fervor was for all things miniature book. Frank and I love botany so we created the concept of Poison Sisters.
The concept grew from our curiosity with European poison gardens and the observation that Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) and Datura stramonium (Hells Bells or Thorn Apple) were sisters in the Solonaceae family. Our fascination and inspiration culminated in:
". . . an illustrated meditation on the science and folklore of two botanicals, datura and belladonna. Evoking their hallucinogenic potential with pictures, pop-ups, and text, this accordion-fold book is a syllogism in miniature on the lethal and medicinal characteristics of this pair of plant siblings. Letter-pressed on Lettra ecru white paper with tinted end sheets, and hand-bound in Japanese silk and Italian marbled paper."
We worked really hard to bring this edition together. It's one thing to make a pop-up book. It's a whole other monster to produce an edition of them.
I don't normally go in for printing with a polymer plate but there were 2 key factors here. Firstly, this miniature book had to conform to the dimensions of 2" x 3". In order to achieve the crazy detail in draftsmanship we both love, I knew we would have to do a caste. Secondly, even if I was nuts enough to attempt a block there wasn't enough time to get it done and print.
Frank came up with a beautiful technique to create our own "end sheet" paper. He printed a weak layer of black onto our ecru paper and then printed layers upon layers of different purple grays. The result is a lush painterly quality to the paper that creates this ethereal background for the illustrations.
You can see our edition number was 30 but we printed and had materials for more like 45 in case anything went wrong . . . and it always does. We had a few artist proofs left over but not very many!
This spool of thread illustrates the diminutive size of our incredible book!
It really was serendipity that some italian marble paper I found matched our color scheme. Veins of gold and burgundy course through washes of lavender, black, and deep purple. It compliments the Japanese silk book cloth that encases the spine. Frank did a custom title for us in his script. I remember he cut each little title piece out and kept them stacked together in a tiny cardboard jewelry box.
The accordion had to be printed as one full sheet of paper that had to be folded over into two layers and then folded again into 11 pages that added up to ultimately 22 pages. We barely squeaked under the size limitations of the VABC vandercook with this one.
Here's a close up of Frank's illustrations and the "painterly" quality of our custom made paper.
Here are some photos documenting the dreamlike "storyline" of our book. We wanted to have a continual dreamscape for the top layer with facts and folklore showing through on the under layer. The accordion-fold style translated this well.
The first page features our poison sisters carved into an old stone relief, sitting atop a skull, and drinking from their cups. Their namesake plants are etched beneath them.
Frank drew Belladonna next in the style of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus". She is edged on her left by heavy ripe belladonna berries as she rises within her flower. Twinkling cut-out stars dust the background that leads into a landscape of clouds.
I drew Frank's Belladonna soaring in the air with a toad, a goat, and a black cat. Lore had it that witches used belladonna in their rituals as a "flying" potion. I used my own goat, Odin, as a model. His tail is crooked because it was broken before birth.
The next pages feature Datura as she tumbles through her spiky maze of thorn apples and into a bed of trumpeting datura flowers.
We end with our sisters united in the Caduceus, Hermes' staff. Though it has been wrongly confused with the Rod of Asclepius, I wanted to use it because it fit my duality purposes and many people associate it with medical and pharmaceutical connotations. Now as nagini, our sisters twine up the staff to sit upon a belladonna berry while holding a thorn apple high above their heads.
Lastly, we signed and numbered each book with our lovely signatures.
I am so grateful to have finally worked with my friend Frank Riccio and shared the efforts, burdens, and rewards of an edition of books with him. It is a thing of magic when two kindred spirits come together and create something beautiful with their own hands. It is the feeling that craftspeople live for.
Sadly, Frank succumbed to cancer this past summer.
I will never forget my friend nor the adventure we had putting together this book. I will imagine his spirit sitting by, quietly sketching and observing, every time I work in the VABC. I know he enjoyed documenting the dreamscape of poison sisters and we saw them at once as poison, hallucinogen, and medicine. The memory of our work encourages me to keep creating and documenting the dreamscape.