Paper Collage Artist Sara Caswell-Pearce is Making Magic at Downtown's Mercantile Library with Deaccessioned Books

Sara Caswell-Pearce turns unwanted titles into collages and other treasures as the library's first artist-in-residence.

click to enlarge Sara Caswell-Pearce at her work station. - Devin Luginbill
Devin Luginbill
Sara Caswell-Pearce at her work station.

Sara Caswell-Pearce’s official role at The Mercantile Library is artist-in-residence, but she easily could promote herself to patron saint with some paper wings. She’s earned them after spending nearly a year sorting through several thousand discarded books to collect ephemera for a solo exhibit celebrating The Merc’s majesty.

Uncovered: Art Out of the Stacks, which opened Nov. 13 at the library, features four haloed “santos” that Caswell-Pearce created by dressing doll forms with a rainbow of old book spines, due-date cards, marbled endpapers and typewriter ribbon. She calls them the patron saints of fiction, nonfiction, libraries and writers. Dictionary pages ring one doll’s holy head. Pencils, calligraphy tools, ballpoint pens and a crayon form another’s radiant crown.

Whenever Caswell-Pearce is around books and vintage papers, she is in heaven. She holds a master’s degree in library science. During 22 years at The Cincinnati Enquirer, her positions included books editor, arts writer and features editor. (Full disclosure: I was part of her staff.)

After leaving The Enquirer 10 years ago, she established a new career as a collage artist, naming her practice “Paper with a Past.” Her space at Essex Studios in Walnut Hills is filled with boxes of antique maps, fashion ads, anatomical drawings and other illustrations waiting to be cut up and assembled in pieces that combine a writer’s wit and an editor’s attention to detail. Her works have been shown at Manifest, The Carnegie and the Art Academy, as well as in the current Elevate exhibition at downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel.

When Caswell-Pearce learned in late 2017 that the 183-year-old Mercantile was in the midst of the first significant deaccession, or thinning, of its 90,000-volume collection in at least 14 years, she asked executive director John Faherty about acquiring materials for her art. That informal discussion quickly led to The Merc creating its first artist-in-residence position, which Caswell-Pearce and the library just extended through 2019.

“Everything she does is really interesting and smart,” Faherty says. “And one of our goals as a library is to be interesting and smart, so this relationship just makes great sense.”

The deaccessioning process follows rigorous guidelines that consider a book’s cultural and literary value as well as its condition and popularity. Librarian/collector Cedric Rose, with The Merc since 2005, says the library is constantly building its collection in response to its 2,500 members.

“There are two tensions at work: to have a century-old book someone is looking for, as well as great contemporary titles,” he says.

To maintain a historical record, The Mercantile is leaving its nonfiction untouched. Nearly all the works being removed are fiction — “fiction that hadn’t left the shelf for 40, 50, 60 years,” Faherty says. (What Caswell-Pearce doesn’t take goes to the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County book sale.)

“What she’s finding is going to tell us a little bit more about ourselves as a library,” says Amy Hunter, The Mercantile’s programs and marketing manager. “Even though books are leaving the collection, there’s magic being made out of some of them.”

During the first months of her residency, Caswell-Pearce bounced around like a kid in a candy store — albeit one with some dirty and scruffy wrappers. As she wiped away the dust, she delighted over gorgeous endpapers and 19th-century copies of Harper’s magazine, as well as surprises like Harlequin romances.

“I heard squeals of glee periodically,” Faherty says.

click to enlarge Pearce posing with one of her doll forms wearing a patchwork outfit of book spines, old due-date cards and more. - Devin Luginbill
Devin Luginbill
Pearce posing with one of her doll forms wearing a patchwork outfit of book spines, old due-date cards and more.

Caswell-Pearce says her vision for the exhibit — Abstracts? Narratives? 3-D works? — kept evolving, “until finally I thought, ‘I’m going to do a whole mix of things.’ It’s going to be kind of like a library.”

Some collages reflect the early history of the Mercantile, including its surviving a couple of fires. A colorful phoenix holds a charred bookplate in its beak as flames shoot out of a building’s windows.

Caswell-Pearce noticed works by early-20th-century novelist Margaret Deland in the discard pile and dreamed up a protest collage featuring women that she cut out of Harper’s fashion ads. In it, “Deland” lets out a curse while her more demure friends don red armbands against a background of title pages from the writer’s bestsellers.

The artist also drew inspiration from The Mercantile’s collection of plaster busts, but noted that all but two are of men. To address that imbalance, she made cut-paper portraits of “Eminent Women.” The series’ title refers to a book in Caswell-Pearce’s own collection from 1859, the same year that the library accepted its first female member.

During the spring and summer, Caswell-Pearce hosted Meet Me at the Merc open houses, where she led guests across the library’s glass floors and deep into the stacks, pointed out notable names in handwritten visitor logs, and brought down huge books that had rested high atop The Mercantile’s impressive safe for who knows how long.

Well, Rose might. Hunter calls the librarian “the heart and soul of everything that happens here,” and Caswell-Pearce recognizes his institutional knowledge with a phrenology collage titled “The Real Mercantile Vault: Cedric’s Brain.” The cranium holds stickers from long-gone Cincinnati booksellers, publishers’ logos, due-date slips and a modern barcode, all set against a page scanned from an 1880 registry of what was then called the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association.

Inside Caswell-Pearce’s brain, ideas keep coming for how to remember The Mercantile. She’s been assembling little books out of old library card pockets and thinking about what she can tuck inside. She might turn some spines into bookmarks. Images from book covers could make for attractive greeting cards.

Caswell-Pearce created the exhibit’s vibrant saints as a response to “Silencia,” the library’s iconic white marble statue of a woman holding her index finger to her lips, because keeping quiet about books and The Merc is not her style. As the artist looks toward the second year of her residency, there’s much more she still wants to say.

Uncovered: Art Out of the Stacks continues through Dec. 29 at The Mercantile Library, 414 Walnut St., 11th floor, Downtown. Free. More info:

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