Small packages: Ragland artist proves little books take big talent
by Erin Williams
Special to The Star
May 12, 2013 | 3640 views |  0 comments | 163 163 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mary Ann Sampson, a book artist from Ragland, was the juror at the 34th Annual MiniWorks Exhibition at JSU. Submitted photo
Mary Ann Sampson, a book artist from Ragland, was the juror at the 34th Annual MiniWorks Exhibition at JSU. Submitted photo
Consider the dollar bill — palm-sized, rectangular, thin, limited color scheme. When you put it in those terms, it sounds rather primitive, but in it lies the groundwork for greatness and a palate for creativity.

At least that’s how the artists who participated in JSU’s 34th Annual MiniWorks Exhibition saw it. Each artist was charged with creating a work of art in any medium, but no bigger than 2.6 x 3.5 inches — the size of a dollar bill.

“It’s a wonderful way to express yourself and not have to be so big,” says exhibit juror and regional artist Mary Ann Sampson.

Encaustic drawing, laser-cut papers and more are included in the show, which features artists from across the country.

“Everybody has their own style,” Sampson said, explaining that writers each have their own unique way of expressing themselves. “Visual people are that way also.”

As an artist who has created works out of books as small as 1 or 2 inches, Sampson, 71, knows a thing or two about designing within dimensions. She describes her process somewhat plainly — “gather pages together and you learn how to manipulate the pages as flatwork,” she says — but it goes deeper than that.

Though she didn’t arrive as an artist until the late ’80s, her talent can be traced back to a finger-painting cousin, Ruth Faison Shaw. Shaw is credited with bringing the child-friendly medium to North America from Italy in the ’30s, and Sampson, who credits it as the “stimulus” of her art, embraced the format as a child while growing up in North Carolina.

“My mother allowed us to put pictures up all over the walls — anything we did in school,” she said.

Her first career was as a nurse, and she worked in her home state before moving with her husband to Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed as a doctor during the Vietnam War. During that time, she took art instruction from an Austrian woman and “was serious about it,” but “we were so far away from any kind of formal education [that] I couldn’t go anywhere.”

The couple arrived in Birmingham in 1966, and Sampson began taking a class once a week at UAB with artist and university instructor Howard Goodson.

Sampson worked as a printmaker after receiving her Bachelor of Arts from Samford in 1982. She was first inspired by books in the late ’80s after viewing a bookmaking exhibition at a college art conference. Some years later she was enthralled with a similar exhibit at the University of Alabama, and she later took a workshop on book artistry in Rochester, N.Y., that was led by artist Keith Smith.

“I really just like the intimacy of a book — the smallness of the way it comes together,” she says. “And you get to use every medium in the world that you can possibly conceive of to go in to the book.”

Sampson folds, cuts, stitches and presses various forms, weights and colors of paper to produce books that celebrate Southern life and culture but somehow exude a wordly feel. She operates her business, One Eyed Opera Company, out of a small bank building that she renovated in the mid-’80s in Ragland.

Sampson has exhibited in Chicago, Syracuse, Germany and at her alma mater of Samford, where she was honored as a visiting artist in 2011. Her work was briefly derailed after the April 2011 tornadoes that came through the region, flooding her home and studio.

“You can’t imagine how disruptive a tornado makes your life,” she said in reflection.

Her roof was badly damaged, and the flooding that followed forced her to throw out some 200 art books from her collection with mold and mildew damage. As a result, she is now working with the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s “Creating A Living Legacy” program, which helps older artists catalog and preserve their bodies of work.

Though she has no immediate exhibition plans, she’s always in the middle of creating a new work.

“I work constantly on ideas ... and there’s always a use for it somewhere down the line,” she said.

At the age of 71, Sampson says she is nowhere near finished creating new work.

“My mind is good, and I have lots of things that I want to do,” she says. “I don’t see how anyone could quit anything. I enjoy investigating lots of things in life.”

The 34th Annual MiniWorks exhibition will be on view through May 30. Visit for more information.
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