The Library as Incubator Project is thrilled to celebrate National Poetry Month with this project from poet Beth Feldman Brandt. It combines art, poetry, botany, and, of course, libraries in a unique and captivating way. – Laura

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Beth Feldman Brandt. Photo by Amanda Brandt.

As a poet, my poems have investigated such diverse topics as herbal remedies, atomic clocks, ocean habitats and The Origin of Species. I conduct left-brain research that floods me  with new lenses and new language. I discover hidden connections, put disparate things in proximity,  collide everyday moments with Big Ideas. I look for the layers and juxtapositions that take words from description to insight. I enter other disciplines – botany, physics – as an amateur, a tourist of thought. I poke around, learn the idiom and report back.

What better place for me to be a poet than in a library?

What is/has been your relationship to libraries throughout your life and work?

My hometown library was in a tiny old train station. The tracks had been replaced by a highway but it still had this promise of being a place that you could transport you. As an artist, much of my work starts in libraries. I love librarians with their encyclopedic minds. You go with one idea and they make a link to another topic, another image, another book that turns out to be what you were looking for all along.

Tell us the story of a specific project that was incubated by a library.

Rare Seeds, Creative Harvest: Artist Books Inspired by the Rare Book Collection of the Chicago Botanic Garden

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library is a key element serving the Garden’s mission to promote the enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of plants and the natural world. The Library endeavors to provide plant science resources and accurate information to users by collecting, organizing, preserving, and sharing subject specific materials for current and future use. In recent years, the Library has focused on developing a collection of national prominence that strengthens its service to researchers, scholars, and graduate students, while always keeping in view the visiting public. The collections of the Lenhardt  Library hold approximately 110,000 volumes including books, periodicals, rare books, special collections, videos, DVDs, slides
nursery catalogs, and the archives of the Chicago Horticultural Society.

The upcoming exhibition, “Rare Seeds, Creative Harvest: Artist Books Inspired by the Rare Book Collection of the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden”, (May 18-August 12, 2012) had its origin in 2009 when I came from Philadelphia to the Lenhardt Library looking for inspiration. I asked Rare Book Curator, Ed Valauskas, to share ‘herbals’ as research for a cycle of poems I was considering.

Valauskas had plenty to share. Some were beautifully illustrated but had little text. Some were in Latin. Some were more contemporary– in their scientific language and approach. Then I saw John Gerard’s “The herbal, or, general history of plants” (1633) including its “Index of Virtues.” I was hooked.

This ‘rare seed’ would grown into Sage, a book of poetry and images from my collaboration with book artist Claire Owen, that will be on display from May – August 2012. It also represents an effort on behalf of the Garden to open its collection to new interpretations and creative opportunities. I was fortunate to be an artist in residence at The Ragdale Foundation (right down the road from CBG) while I was working on this project so was able to have a continuing relationship with the library and librarians.

Cover of “Sage,” the artist book collaboration by Beth Feldman Brandt and Claire Owen.

The Herbal is an exemplar of 17th century investigation when physical science depended on the keen observation of nature and the body. Discoveries were captured in detailed drawings and described in language that was both precise and evocative. It compiled everything known about plants at the time, acting as both a horticultural manual and a physician’s desk reference. The herbal includes growing season and habitat, as well as each plant’s ability to balance a body’s humours and the virtues of its healing powers.

In Sage, I excavated the Herbal and extracts selected words, verbatim and in order, to create ‘found poems.’ Gerard’s language and imagery then sparked another poem, written in conversation with the found piece. I then connected with book artist Claire Owen, who created paintings inspired by the poems and an edition of three hand bound books, one of which is now held in the Library’s Special Collections.

To read Beth’s poems, please click on the titles:


“We were all energized by Brandt and Owen’s curiosity about the collection,” explains Leora Siegel, Director of the Lenhardt Library. “We see our mission as not only preserving rare books, but making them accessible in ways that invite new understanding and invites creative partnerships like this one.”

Brandt and Owen will travel to Chicago in July 2012 to present a day of workshops: one that will introduce book binding techniques and another that will take patrons into the Garden to write poetry.

What can libraries do to serve artists like you?

I most appreciate their willingness to open their collections, expertise and resources to creative interpretation.

I know that sometimes research librarians may have been frustrated by the vagueness of my requests (e.g. show me cool old maps) and feel like they need to give me an exact answer. But I have found that once they see that I want them to help me invent something – to show me things that are rare or strange or quirky – they can become great partners in a creative process.

As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?

I know I can’t really just browse around through rare book collections but it would be great to be able to choose a topic and then just pick up books, leaf through them, see what else is on the shelf!

What resources and services do you use at your library?

I am a pure fiction junkie at my local library where they do a great job at keeping up with contemporary fiction even though I know their budgets make it hard.

What do you like about showing your work in libraries? How is it different than showing in other venues? What would make this experience better?

SAGE is my first collaboration with a visual artist and the upcoming exhibition at the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden will be my first exhibition. I like the idea that it will be seen by ‘book people’ who are already inclined to be interested in what a botanical library has to offer but I hope it will also expand their vision of what rare book libraries can be and how rare books can ‘seed’ contemporary artmaking.

What does “library as incubator” mean to you?

…to make connections to words, images, books and ideas in ways that invite new words, new images, new books, and new ideas.

The exhibition by Beth Feldman Brandt and Claire Owen will be available to travel to other botanical libraries beginning in the fall of 2012. You can see more images and information and to buy copies of Sage in paperback, go to

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