In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and a young man who might be his lover stroll through the Athenian countryside and engage in a discussion about, among other things, writing and art. Socrates describes written words as the unfortunate analogue of paintings, confinements of meaning and truth unable to answer, explain, or defend themselves. He suggests that, like pictures, books only invite misinterpretation. Text, he tells Phaedrus, is inherently inadequate.
What, then, would Socrates think of Molly Springfield? The 29-year-old Adams Morgan resident makes pictures of books, adding a layer of misinterpretation that Socrates didn’t know about: Each of her graphite-on-paper drawings is a depiction of a photocopy. There’s a passage from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and a page from the table of contents to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s an image of the opening page of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and another of the cover of Dorothy M. Norris’ A Primer of Cataloguing.
Perhaps the cheekiest piece, They Go On Telling You Just the Same Thing Forever, is a drawing of a photocopy of a translation of Plato’s transcription of the very section of Phaedrus in which Socrates’ discourse on writing and painting appears. That’s at least four levels of obfuscation—enough, surely, to give even the most nimble-minded Sophist pause.
“I’m glad that there are different ways to approach the work,” Springfield says. “If there was just one answer, it would be much harder for me to make sure that everyone got that one answer, and it would be probably less interesting for me to make that work.”
Making the work is both intricate and painstaking. Each drawing takes Springfield about two weeks to complete. She reproduces each page by hand, precisely rendering every smudge, scratch, and photocopier-introduced distortion. She’s developed a repetitive stress injury in her right hand, and when she works, she usually wears a brace. “It’s what drives me to do these crazy, labor-intensive drawings,” she says. “That somehow through the labor I’m going to arrive at something.”
Springfield hasn’t always worked as a human photocopier. In fact, her first creative urge was to write the original text. Growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., she worked on her high school’s literary journal and penned the usual angst-ridden teenage poems. She soon realized, however, that she got not only more enjoyment out of making visual art but was also better at it. “I have this vague idea that maybe I’m working with text because deep inside I’m a frustrated writer and wish that I could write a novel or poetry or something,” she says. “But I know if I did, it would just be really bad.”
The only child of a government administrator and a teacher, Springfield says she probably gets her artistic ability from her mother, who still buys a sketchbook every now and then and fills it with drawings. As a little girl, Springfield was always asking her mom to draw paper dolls, which she would cut out and play with, walking them across a miniature high wire. Eventually, Springfield became quite skilled at drawing people herself, and at North Carolina’s Queens University of Charlotte, she concentrated mostly on figures. One of her first projects involved creating dozens of 4-inch-by-5-inch figure studies. “I’m trying to put a poetic edge on it here, but she does have an almost obsessive nature about detail,” laughs Jayne Johnson, Springfield’s painting professor at Queens.
During Springfield’s sophomore year, Johnson tasked her with drawing a piece of her mail. A few years later, when Springfield was attending Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art for a year of portfolio-polishing before applying to graduate programs, she turned again to personal correspondence as a subject, painting the letters and postcards that her friends had sent her. By 2002, her renderings of her personal correspondence had sufficiently impressed the admissions committee at the University of California, Berkeley’s MFA program for her to gain a spot in the incoming class.
Springfield’s first semester was a rude awakening. What’s the point of reproducing something in a painting when you can take a photograph of it or put the actual object on display? her classmates and teachers asked. Shouldn’t you have moved on from realism already?
Salvation came in the form of notes passed in high school. It had never occurred to Springfield not to save them, no matter how prosaic (“Apparently, the other night Erika was all over the guys, right in front of Jeff (no surprise there) and he got sick of it. So the next day he was going to tell Erika he wanted to be friends”) or potentially embarrassing (“Anyway, thank you so much for listening to my ramblings, you are a great friend. Please don’t show this note to anyone cause it could probably be taken the wrong way”). One day, Springfield decided to draw them.
When she finished, a year and a half later, she’d drawn every note in her collection, about 40 in all. Some of the pieces have the text reversed, as if the notes had been viewed through the back of the page. Others feature the same fragment written over and over on top of itself. Together, they’re a visual catalog of her high-school days. “I think of the notes project as three approaches to memory and how it can be represented visually,” says Springfield. “You can have it kind of as this landscape or something that gets wiped over and rewritten or something that’s very clinical.”
“I think it all goes back to those ideas of loss and nostalgia,” she suggests. “I want to keep those kinds of out-of-date things current, even though they’re not being used so much anymore. Like handwritten notes—nobody really does that much anymore, which is kind of sad to me.”
Her professors were impressed. “Her painting[s] got more sensitive and nuanced and probably conceptually richer because they got more mysterious and enigmatic,” recalls Berkeley’s Squeak Carnwath. “They didn’t seem like just high-school notes. They got to be more universal.”
After completing the notes project, Springfield made drawings of card-catalog cards for different editions of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. She obtained the cards from her boyfriend, a Fordham University graduate who’d picked up a pile when the school’s library converted to an electronic catalog system. Springfield held on to them for three years before she finally figured out what to do with them.
“They’re such beautiful little objects,” she says, “especially the ones where some Jesuit priest has gone in and written in the Greek lettering or crossed things out that were wrong. I might go back and do something with them again, because I never throw anything away.”
* * * *
Last year, Springfield began her photocopy drawings. She started with some of her old art-theory books and looked for passages that related to language or text-based work, allowing one text to lead her to another. The list of terms in the index of a logic book resembled a poem, she thought, which reminded her of Donald Hall’s work, which reminded her of a section of Ivan Ilych.
Once Springfield chose her texts, she had to get the right copies. She used specific copiers, mostly on the George Washington University campus, where she’s an adjunct art instructor, spending entire afternoons playing with book placements and machine settings. She would leave the machine open or stack the books or make a transparency and place it over another page to get a layering effect. “I’m interested in these kinds of analog methods,” Springfield says. “This clunky, dorky tool that was once high-tech and is becoming less and less needed—it appeals to me in its sort of patheticness.”
The same, of course, could be said about Springfield’s other primary tool: the graphite pencil. John McNamara, a lecturer at Berkeley, likes to hold one up in class and ask his students, “If someone told you you could only have this pencil for the rest of your life, would you be happy or sad?” Most students say that the lack of other options would make them sad. “I think if Molly were asked that, she wouldn’t mind having the pencil,” he says. “She’d look into it and see what it could do. She would extrapolate from that point on and find the universe.”
“I have to do something that’s repetitive and almost…monkish,” Springfield says. “It’s like a religious activity, almost, to make the drawings.”
Still, she finds it amusing when critics describe her and her work as solemn or stern. In a review of her most recent show, at Steven Wolf Fine Arts in San Francisco, Glen Helfand of the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote that “[Springfield’s] is a committed practice that’s dour and daft.” But how seriously can you take a trompe l’oeil drawing of a notecard covered with notes on trompe l’oeil? the artist wonders. “I think most people would think you have to be a little crazy to sit there all day and make these drawings,” she says. “You have to have a bit of a sense of humor.”
Beyond that—or the decidedly unfunny themes of loss, mourning, and nostalgia that are also in Springfield’s work—Springfield’s gallerist finds a political dimension. “It’s not necessarily an original attack, but a reiteration of an attack on the author and their work,” Steven Wolf says. “By the time you get to Molly’s document, you wonder who’s in control of the interpretation of the document.…The viewer has to take responsibility for determining where the origins are, what the meaning is, what’s the interpretation.” In a time characterized by spin control and governmental distrust, Wolf suggests, Springfield’s art is especially resonant.
If sales are any indication, he’s right: So far, Springfield has sold more than half of the pieces in the San Francisco show, which closes this week. “That’s good for me,” she says. “My work is not necessarily the easiest thing for people to like—I require some work on the viewer’s part—so I’m really happy…it’s done so well.”
This summer, Springfield hopes to get started on two new projects. The first, tentatively titled Marginalia, is working with photocopies of books that the artist’s friends and family members have annotated. The second is drawing the first chapter of Proust’s Swann’s Way. Springfield plans to piece together her own version using all of the existing English translations. There will be gaps and overlaps in the narrative, she says; in some cases, a sentence might repeat itself in a slightly different way or not appear at all.
“I’m interested in this idea of what happens when something gets translated,” says Springfield. “I like the conceit that I’m playing the translator—even though I’m not really doing the actual translation, I’m cobbling together this version from all the work that everyone else has done.”
“If what I wanted to do could be reduced to language, I would be a writer and not a visual artist,” she says. “There’s something that’s ineffable in visual work, even if it is text-based or conceptually based—something about the visual properties of text that retains a certain poetry beyond definitions and syntax. There are things that can’t necessarily be expressed.”
Text Messaging: With a photocopier and a pencil, Molly Springfield draws meaning from the printed page by Huan Hsu.