Open books

Open books

Englewood artist talks about the books she redesigns

Books are physical objects.

They’re not only that, of course. They hold ideas, they tell stories, they allow us, their readers, to make intellectual and emotional connections to people and places we never could and never will meet in real life. They are repositories of knowledge and memory. They are essential to our civilization.

But they also are physical objects. They contain words and illustrations and photographs and maps and footnotes and cartoons, ink on paper, fonts and type sizes and endpapers and covers and jackets, shapes and colors, texture and heft.

Irmari Nacht of Englewood is an artist who has chosen to work with books as physical objects, cutting them, exploding them, presenting them as works of beauty and meaning, sometimes in relation to the words they hold, and sometimes independent of those words.

Ms. Nacht, whose work has been exhibited in galleries around the country, in every major museum in New Jersey, and soon will be on display — not for the first time — at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, does not work only with books; she started as a painter, is a sculptor, and is actively engaged in other media. But it is the exploding, unfurling, twisting books that occupy most of her imagination and her wall space right now.

Artist Irmari Nacht took a physically appealing copy of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” — a book that she discovered to be appallingly anti-Semitic — distressed, distended, and defanged it.
Artist Irmari Nacht took a physically appealing copy of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” — a book that she discovered to be appallingly anti-Semitic — distressed, distended, and defanged it.

Irmari Weinstein (who will not explain her unusual first name — “everyone asks, but I never tell,” she joked. “The explanation’s really boring, but if I tell you I’d have to kill you.”) was born in Brooklyn in 1940 and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens.

Her mother, Yetta Tobias, was born in Vilna; she got out of Europe in 1914 with a brother and her mother. “She had another brother here,” in the United States, “who was sick, and left in 1912, to go to back to Russia, for his health.

“He was supposed to be very bright, and he spoke 13 languages, but he went back to Russia in 1912 for his health,” Ms. Nacht repeated, making the point that for a smart person, her uncle made a not-so-smart decision. “We knew that he was in the Russian army in 1919 — we never heard anything about him again after that.”

Yetta Tobias married Ms. Nacht’s American-born father, Jerome, who went into his father’s business right after high school. His father had just started a company that designed ribbons, braids, and other millinery trimmings and needed someone trustworthy to run it. “He was 18 years old; he had to grow a mustache to look older, because he was the boss,” Ms. Nacht said. Her mother, who had begun Hunter College, had to drop out to work. She got a job working for Mr. Weinstein; soon they married.

Mr. Weinstein was born in 1898, so he was too old to be drafted into World War II. Instead, he was an air-raid warden, his daughter recalled. When she was born, her father was 40 years old.

His business, which had morphed to shoe trimmings when the hat trade died, was in Manhattan’s garment district, in the notions subsection. That business gave Irmari a lifelong love of those kinds of stores; shops with long thin cardboard boxes filled with things, some utilitarian, some miraculous, and with shopkeepers who know where everything is, even though the boxes all look alike.

Shredded towns, villages, streams, and oceans spring from a slivered atlas.
Shredded towns, villages, streams, and oceans spring from a slivered atlas.

When Irmari was a baby, the family moved to Forest Hills. “We were in one of the first apartment buildings there,” she said. The area was just beginning to be built up. “I was told that before we lived there, the Indians did, and I thought they meant they lived in apartment buildings.”

Irmari graduated from Forest Hills High School — she was a year or so ahead of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle there, but the school was huge and she didn’t know them. She went to SUNY Cortland, majored in history, graduated, started work on a master’s degree in art history at NYU, but dropped out to get married.

Irmari had always been an artist; she’d known she was one, in that way that so many artists report always having known. All her work experience, in that Mad Men era, was in art, specifically the intersection of art, technology, and commerce. She worked, among other places, at American Artist magazine, in the art departments at the ad agencies Ogilvy & Mather and Doyle Dane Bernbach, and in the art department of Macmillan, the publisher. After that, she started her own advertising design and PR firm, which still is ongoing today, although now she works mainly with longtime clients.

Ms. Nacht drew and painted — “when I started to do art professionally, I started wrapping,” she said — that was, she took large physical objects and swathed them in material. “The idea of wrapping turned me on,” she said. “I got these tubes, six feet high, and wrapped them and entered it into a contest.” The director of the Whitney, one of the contest jurors, accepted it and called it a sculpture. “I thought that if someone from the Whitney said it was sculpture, then it was sculpture,” Ms. Nacht said. Sculpture, she added, “usually is the thing that you walk around in an art gallery, or put your drink on. People look at the walls, but they don’t notice sculpture. They walk around it or bump into it, but they don’t actually see it.

“But then I realized that sculpture could stand up and become sculpture, or it could go on the walls and be something else.”

Soon, she moved on to books.

In a way, working with books connected her life with her work. In 1963, Irmari Weinstein married Robert Nacht, then a financial planner, whom she met at DDB. In 1967, the couple moved to Englewood, where their two sons and their daughter grew up, and where Irmari and Bob still live. “The house was big when we first moved in, and then it got small, and now it’s big again,” Ms. Nacht said. Their children all are married now, and they all live in New Jersey.

Irmari and Robert Nacht of Englewood.
Irmari and Robert Nacht of Englewood.

The Nachts joined all sorts of local institutions, including Temple Emanu-El when it still was in Englewood. Ms. Nacht now is co-president of the Englewood Historical Society and has been on the board of the Bergen Family Center, and she is on the board of the Friends of the Englewood Library.

All the books she works with are books no one else wants, she said. The library de-acquisitions books, and offers them for sale; it also holds sales of books people have donated that are duplicates of others already in its collection, or that do not fit into it. Later, the books no one wants to buy are offered for free. Ms. Nacht waits until the sales are over. “I only want books that no one else wants,” she said. “I want to give them a new life.”

She is also passionate about recycling — “the idea that something at the end of its life as one thing can live again in a new form,” she said. “And it’s important for our planet, and for the future.”

When she works with books, she cuts strips with an Xacto knife; each strip is exactly the same, but because she is a human being, not a machine, there is no such thing as one strip exactly like another. “The work is mindless, but as the strips come out they have a life of their own,” she said. “I’m very interested in repetitiveness; in similarities that are different.”

She picks books because of some physical attributes that appeal to her. Often it’s the color of the endpapers. Normally it’s not the content, but there are some exceptions, mostly having to do with Jewish identity. She reads the books before she cuts them, so often the pieces, perhaps even despite themselves, end up saying something.

One of the main pieces at the JCC show is “Books110Terezin,” made of eight copies of a book called “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.” Terezin was the Nazi show camp, a concentration camp whose overseers often pretended that everything was fine before they shipped inmates off to their deaths at Auschwitz. The book was a collection of recipes the women at the camp had managed to put together; the recipes, copies of the original, were handwritten “in a Germanic kind of hand,” Ms. Nacht said. “It was a very emotional thing, to realize that the women writing the recipes down maybe because they were remembering them, maybe because they had some hope that somehow someday they could use them again.”

The women wrote a lot about paring potatoes; some of them worked in the kitchen in Terezin, and their jobs included paring. “The pieces of the book curl like potato arings,” she said. “They swirl; like potato parings each one comes out different. But when the women in Terezin were paring potatoes, they weren’t thinking about art. They were thinking about survival.

“It was a very emotional experience,” she said.

Moved by the beauty of the Hebrew script, Ms. Nacht also made art out of a copy of the Book of Isaiah. She was careful to showcase the lettering, she said.

Much of her work comes back to issues of Jewish identity. She used Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” to cut triangles that look like stars, and she painted them yellow; she found the sentence “I have never seen a Jew before, but I can feel his horns,” and it both horrified her and remained with her.

Art made from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” about a young man’s search for his grandfather’s Nazi-haunted past, includes yellow triangles that form stars.
Art made from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” about a young man’s search for
his grandfather’s Nazi-haunted past, includes yellow triangles that form stars.

She found a small, physically appealing copy of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” and began to reread it, for the first time since childhood, and what she found surprised and appalled her. “This book was so horrible to read, with ‘the Jew, the Jew, the Jew,’ that I couldn’t finish it,” she said. That Jew, of course, is Fagin, the villain. “I know it was of its time, but it was so anti-Semitic that I just couldn’t read it. But now it is a pretty little object.” She cut it into little slivers, and defanged it. (You can see Ms. Nacht’s version of “Oliver Twist” on our cover this week.)

How does she cut them? “Carefully,” she said. She can work for only so long, because the cutting requires a certain kind of mindless concentration that could lead to carelessness and injury. Xacto knives are very sharp.

She also distresses books, and “when I squenched it” — that’s a word that seems to mean squeezing and squashing and generally smushing — “I might have squenched it harder than I would have, because I was so incensed and shocked by reading it.”

An artwork born of the September 11 attacks, made of books cut to show the numbers 911, show the terrorists and “the 72 virgins they didn’t get.” “Peace” shows the word peace, cut out of five similarly shaped, differently colored little books. “Water and Tao” shows water — cut books, painted blue — tumbling in perpetual frozen beauty.

“911” shows the Twin Towers, along with the terrorists and their imaginary virgin rewards.
“911” shows the Twin Towers, along with the terrorists and their imaginary virgin rewards.

A few years ago, Ms. Nacht decided to see what would happen to books if they were left to decompose naturally. “I wanted them to be part of nature,” she said. She took 100 books — again, discards that no one else wanted — arranged them in neat piles in her backyard, and waited, photographing them monthly. At first, not much happened. Then it snowed, and soon a fawn decided that some of them looked like lunch. More animals nibbled at them — Ms. Nacht has photos of the fawn, but never caught any of the others in the act. Eventually, the books began to look ancient, each in a different way; some ended up looking like garbage, others like art. Similarities and differences at work again.

Ms. Nacht’s passion for books and reading has led her to be active in another local project, this one with international roots. The Tiny Free Library builds waterproof containers and encourages people to leave books in them and take home books they find there. There are two such book exchanges in Englewood, she said; one is in front of the senior center and the other by the bus stop on Dean Street and Demarest Avenue. “It’s a great way to create community,” she said.

So if you want to see a map exploding out of its borders, or spirals of letters representing hope, loss, despair, and potatoes, or if you want to step back from books as ideas to look at books as fascinating, changing, glorious physical objects, go to the JCC and take a look at Irmari Nacht’s art. The information’s in the box below.

Who: Irmari Nacht of Englewood

What: Will be at a reception for her art show

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades,
411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly

When: On Wednesday, January 18,
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Why: To celebrate her show, which will be at the JCC’s Waltuch Gallery until January 30

For more information: Call (201) 408-1456 or email