"Renewed Wisdom."

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord used lilac and blackberry roots from her garden to make the base of “Renewed Wisdom,” then she adorned paper from Mexico and Bhutan with glass, copper, and myrrh beads.

Photos courtesy of Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord

Arts & Culture

Material interests

Newburyport artist makes ‘spirit books’ of bark, seed pods, and roots

3 min read

Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord wants her “spirit books” to look so natural, “If I placed one on the ground in the woods, you’d walk right by it.”

People are stopping and taking notice, though, at the Arnold Arboretum, where 14 of the books are on view through July 22 — not in the woods, but in display cases in the visitor center.

Sheryl White, the Arboretum’s coordinator of visitor engagement, first saw the Newburyport artist’s sculptures last year and thought they would be a good fit for the nature reserve. Gaylord had even gathered the sweetgum seed pods that form the spiky base for one of her books, “Chambered Congruity,” at the Arboretum.

Gaylord says she never sketches a plan in advance, but usually starts with the “cradle,” then determines paper, size, and beaded patterns, all while trying “not to be too conscious.” Each book takes her at least 20 hours.

While color and texture primarily drive Gaylord’s paper choices — amate from Mexico, lokta from Nepal — there are other considerations. “A lot of Western art papers are made from rags and linens, but most papers I use are made from inner bark of trees,” giving the books a close connection to their wooden bases, she says.

Gaylord made her first spirit book, “Sewn Prayer,” in 1992 and just recently finished her 100th, “Returning Embrace.”

Materials include handmade paper from Ukraine, elephant hide paper from the U.S., amate, glass seed beads, and sweetgum seed pods from the Arnold Arboretum — “a place,” Gaylord says, “of peace and congruity.”

No. 99: “Chambered Congruity,” 2018

"Chambered Congruity."
"Enduring Benevolence."

Gaylord beaded amate and shawa paper with acorns, and the wood in the base came from a friend’s lakeside home in Maine.

No. 79: “Enduring Benevolence,” 2018

“Oaks are symbols of longevity and endurance.”

Gaylord radiated pinpricked and punched holes on mashamba and set the book on driftwood picked up on a beach in Quebec.

No. 96: “Harmonious Rebirth,” 2018

"Harmonious Rebirth."
"Lunar Meditation."

The book made of hu’un sits on wood from the yard waste facility in Newburyport. “The circles at the center of each page were inspired by a series about the full moon by Australian artist Mo Orkiszewski.”

No. 98: “Lunar Meditation,” 2018

“The emptiness within the circles provides a space for meditation.”

"Winding Sanctuary."
"Winding Sanctuary," closeup of page.

Gaylord stitched beads in a spiral pattern on handmade cannabis paper from the Ukraine and rested the book on a corkscrew hazel base. “The winding branches and the stitched spirals offer peace and sanctuary.”

No. 93: “Winding Sanctuary,” 2018

"Rising Certainty."

Pages of amate, mashamba, and persimmon-dyed kozo paper from Japan nest in birch bark collected at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport.

No. 91: “Rising Certainty,” 2018

Gaylord combined bittersweet vine and wood gathered along a road in Newburyport with lokta paper from Nepal and mashamba from Africa that she dotted with glass seed beads.

No. 57: “Twined Salutation,” 2014

"Twined Salutation."
"Returning Embrace."

Materials include hu’un paper from Mexico, glass seed beads, and driftwood from Plum Island Wildlife Refuge in Newbury. “The name derives from the returning embrace of beach to the wood that went from land to sea and back again.”

No. 100: “Returning Embrace,” 2018

“The circle is a symbol of timelessness.”

The base comprises vines from a yard waste facility in Newburyport. The pages are made of Bhutanese resho and Mexican amate paper.

No. 94: “Timeless Union,” 2018

"Timeless Union."