Today we are thrilled to present an interview with Lauren Redniss, artist, author, educator, and creator of the book Radioactive Marie and Pierre Curie: a Tale of Love and Fallout (It Books, 2010). I had the distinct pleasure of serving on the committee that selected Lauren’s book for the Go Big Read common book program at UW-Madison for 2012-2013. I would have been smitten by this beautiful and thought-provoking work anyway, but the fact that Lauren did much of her research for the book at the New York Public Library really sealed the deal. Enjoy. ~ Laura

Page from Radioactive by Lauren Redniss (It Books, 2010).

You were a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers 2008-2009, working on “Radioactive.” Can you tell us a bit about the impetus for the project, and some ways in which the library helped to facilitate the research and creation process?

I started with the idea of creating a visual book about invisible things – radioactivity and love.

Marie and Pierre Curie’s story is full of drama – passion, discovery, tragedy, scandal. But I also thought their story was an interesting way to look at challenges – nuclear weapons proliferation, the role of radiation in medical treatment, the possibilities and risks of nuclear power as an alternative energy source – that affect our world today.

I did the research in a few ways. I traveled to the Nevada Test Site to talk to weapons specialists. I went to Hiroshima to interview atomic bomb survivors. In Warsaw I visited the house where Marie Curie was born.  I interviewed Marie and Pierre Curie’s granddaughter at the Institut Curie in Paris.

Page from Radioactive by Lauren Redniss (It Books, 2010).

 

The New York Public Library was, of course, an invaluable resource.

I spent time looking at rare books and artist books, medieval illuminated manuscripts and hand-painted 19th century travelogues. I studied some of the gorgeous old maps from the Map Collection, with their strange geography and allegorical figures. The Library has also digitized a ton of material. When I was designing the typeface for Radioactive, I looked at the frontispieces of 18th and 19th century texts scanned into the Library’s digital gallery.

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

My dream library would be – like the New York Public Library and so many of the great libraries around the world – extremely grand. It’s so exciting to walk into and work in a palace of books. I love hearing the echo of footsteps on marble. The NYPL has a collection of “friendship albums,” spectacular hand-lettered and compiled books, sort of visual diaries by Victorian women.

This is the type of collection that thrills me – work that is intensely personal, perhaps not intended to be published or even seen, by people who would otherwise be lost to history.

Based on your experience at the NYPL, what advice do you have for creative artists who are interested in doing library research for a work?

Don’t limit yourself to your ostensible subject matter. Something seemingly unrelated could provide an interesting angle on your work.

There is an online exhibition that surrounds “Radioactive,” of works by your students at the Parsons the New School for Design. Can you tell us about the exhibition – how that project came to be, how the NYPL and your class collaborated, and perhaps, from an educator’s perspective, any potential you see for design student-and-library partnerships?

I worked with fourteen Parsons students, graduate and undergraduate, to create a virtual exhibition that would function a companion to – and extension of – the physical exhibition of the artwork from Radioactive that was on display at the NYPL in 2011. (The site is still live: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/radioactive/ )

The students just knocked my socks off. They took the themes of the book and created interactive games and videos and animations and even a digital way to make your own cyanotype using images from the NYPL’s online collections – your (virtual) print’s color develops based on current weather conditions in your area. (You enter your zip code.)

Another student made a game that is a series of rooms where you collect crystals as you explore a dream landscape based on the life and imagined afterlife of Marie Curie. I worked with each student or group of students closely as the projects developed. I wanted to support them in understanding the material and to give them great latitude to freely interpret or reinterpret my artwork or writing. As a group, we worked with the NYPL to make sure the site would be interesting and approachable for the Library’s range of users – from technologically averse to the web savvy.

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