But the golden ratio isn’t exactly what we see in the world. It’s a math concept, and thus an estimation. The thing winds itself out to an infinity of decimal spaces — measuring cups don’t get that small — so Ely will have to play with the proportions.
“Like your great aunt did,” he says, “a pinch of this and that,” until your hands begin to feel the rightness of the thing.
Ely believes this tinkering is necessary with everything in life. Geometry, particle physics, moon landings — all things Ely loves discussing — become exercises in careful approximation when taken from the drawing board into nature. To get the science right, there’s always a bit of alchemy involved.
The way Ely interacts with flour and water and yeast is fundamentally the same way he interacts with watercolor and charcoal and gouache.
It’s an idea that resonates with the bookish.
“To me, what’s happening is a sort of meditation on these basic concepts and ideas about the way we think and the way we perceive,” says Breon Mitchell, a scholar of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, and the director of the Lilly Library, one of the most important rare book collections in America.
Mitchell first ran across Ely’s work in 2003 or 2004, in the California home of rare book collectors Jud and Renee Hubert. The couple had a book of Ely’s called Saturnia, which had been in a show at the Smithsonian Institution of book artists re-imagining famous works of science. “I see a lot of books — and a lot of artist books. Tim Ely’s looked like nothing else I’d seen before,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell undertook a campaign to get Ely’s work in the Lilly’s permanent collection. The library has since bought three books and, four years ago, decided to commission an annual manuscript from Ely, “to keep alive the notion that this work needs to continue.”
There has been local interest in Ely’s work in the past year, too, with exhibitions at the Jundt Art Museum and at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, where Ely showed works done in collaboration with artist Ian Boyden.
When “Line of Sight” opens at the MAC on Saturday, though, it will be the largest collection of Ely’s work ever assembled.
As much as Ely’s inspiration is the frontiers of science, Breon Mitchell says the painstaking craft of making and binding and covering a single copy of a book is something nearly lost to history. The world hasn’t seen it much since Gutenberg invented the printing press 550 years ago.
It’s time-intensive, and Ely makes only about five to eight manuscript books a year. The more complex the books, the fewer he finishes. Mitchell can’t help but wonder about the cost-benefit ratio of such a practice.
“The impulse in the Middle Ages was religious,” Mitchell says. “I’ll have to ask Tim Ely what his impulse is.”
Ely recalls a favorite book from childhood, about a group of men who fly to Mars.
“The expectation is they’re going to get to Mars and it’s going to be red and a desert with little atmosphere and no water. It’s not going to be very supportive [of life],” he says. “But they get there and it looks like Kansas, and the ship lands in a farmer’s field and it is a small town in Kansas. Suddenly the first guy out of the ship walks to the house and realizes this is the house where [he] grew up. And the person who comes out the door is his mother.”
As you get to know Ely, this becomes particularly telling. No matter how abstract and far out into the emotionless forms of atlas-making and scientific writing that Ely’s work seems to press, he never gets far away from the intensely personal memories at the center of it.
“I like the idea of Bradbury’s guys going to Mars and finding a book of mine, and they can’t make it out,” he says. “‘We don’t know what this is, and it’s beautiful.’”
Artist Ian Boyden — who collaborated with Ely on a series of paintings that explored Zen and particle physics last year — thinks Ely’s idea of memory encompasses our individual connection to human history and other culture-wide acts of remembering.
Consider that, in ancient cultures, monumental public art structures like obelisks were almost always wrapped in words. “I love the [old] idea that to complete an object that stands in the world, it needs to be cloaked in text,” Boyden says. “There’s a real desire to leave a record, to have encountered the world and to leave a record that you existed somehow.”
But then, of course, time begins to play. “Weather will erode it, [but] it might last longer than the culture that made it — and at that moment, the piece begins to move from something that was very clear to something that becomes a mystery in its own right,” he says. “It becomes an object that speaks to the fundamental movement toward forgetting.“
He feels Ely’s books do the same thing. “Tim has … has devoted himself to creating pieces that contain the mystery that usually takes thousands of years to dissolve into.”
Boyden believes that, whether staring upward at an ancient pillar covered in an unreadable text or down at an Ely manuscript, the mind will — and should — wander wherever it wants, “from voice and intellect to things that are more strangely beautiful and visceral.”
As a child, along with his dream about the magnificent book that included instructions for every invention that could be invented, the young Ely had a second “big, archetypal dream.”
In it, he was alone in a room full of paper. In this room, he had the time and the resources to freely follow his mind wherever it went, drawing and drawing and discarding and drawing until the ideas he had in his head were realized perfectly on the page in front of him. He never saw the end point of the dream, the way a falling person wakes before hitting the ground, but the freedom of the act was exhilarating.
Looking around his enormous loft studio — at the binding materials and the massive book presses, the century-old Russian linen and the Californian meteorite dust — Ely pauses and smiles.
“And, of course,” he says, “all that came true.”
Timothy C. Ely “Line of Sight” • Dec. 4-April 16 • The MAC • 2316 W. First Ave • Opening-day festivities, including a conversation with Ely and Breon Mitchell, will take place on Saturday, Dec. 4, beginning at 3 pm • northwestmuseum.org • 456-3931