In  recognition ofSmithsonian’s Earth Optimism Digital Summit  (April 22 – 26, 2020), this week’s post features a work from the  Design Library, focused on environmental issues.

The artist’s  book,  House of Cods, published by  Linda Smith and Picnic Press  in 1996, presents an engaging use of the book as a  form  of artistic expression, here addressing the environmental impact of  overfishing.  Smith, a book artist, designed, printed, and assembled the publication,  featuring  the poem House of Cods, by Carol Schatt.  The  tongue-in-cheek title offers  an amusing  play on  words and  pronunciation  with  a Massachusetts accent (“cods” instead of “cards”)while  the serious-minded text  speaks of the delicate  marine  ecosystem  and the  consequences of  fishing  on an unsustainable commercial scale.  

Smith reinforces the message through her use of both naturalistic and fanciful imagery and imaginative paper construction. She embellished the  book’s  cover  with two naturalistic printed images of fish in rainbow colors. Smith created the images using the traditional  Japanese printing technique called gyotaku, in which an actual fish or other sea creature is used as a “printing plate to  make  a detailed impression of the animal directly from nature. This form of printing creates a unique image that would be challenging to make with conventional techniques such as wood block printing or etching. Smith printed her gyotaku fish  impressions on  various Mexican, Philippine, and Thai handmade papers.

Image features a square white book cover printed with one multicolored naturalistic fish, in partial view, in the upper left hand and one, in full view, at the bottom center.

Book Cover: House of Cods, Linda Smith, published 1996, printed paper, gyotako technique. Smithsonian Libraries, N7433.4.S658 H68 19

The book opens to reveal an intricate paper pop-up structure that takes the form of a commercial fishing trawler perched on a house of cards. The boat, named The Joker’s Wild, is constructed of black and white paper, its net cascading down its sides onto the colorful, boxy card structure below. Smith continues the joker theme in the motif on the cards, where the joker is represented by the image of a fish wearing a jester’s cap. The house of cards is delicately balanced on a short, rectangular paper support printed with images that recall the lifelike fish impressions on the book’s cover. This threedimensional paper art sits on pages printed with the image of netting overlapping the text of Schatt’s poem lamenting the destructive consequences of overfishing, from the point of view of a cod. 

Smith produced fifty copies of House of Cods. Many are housed in library collections across the country, raising awareness and documenting environmental concerns through art. The copy in the Design Library  at Cooper Hewitt is part of the Smithsonian Libraries’ large collection of pop-up and artists’ books.  To find out more about these works, please visit  http://library.si.edu/collection/artists-books .

Erica M. Schaumberg is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by Cooper Hewitt and Parsons School of Design. She is also a fellow at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library.

2 thoughts on “House of Cods

Very thoughtful and wistful commentary on the ravages upon the cod and other marine life by our industrial fishing practices.

By taking the cod’s perspective, the artist uses the human gift of empathy as a portal to the unwelt of the cod.

This is such a cool piece of art! thanks to my art teacher for showing me this!

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