Picture this

Sometimes the best ideas take their own sweet time (not to mention very circuitous routes) in coming to fruition. Such is the case with The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner, the recently completed book by Warren Wilson College art professor Gwen Diehn.

It was just last year that Diehn was selected from a nationwide pool of applicants to create an artist’s book for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Only one artist is selected each year for the honor, which is made even more prestigious by the museum’s 20-year history and catalog of some 18,000 female artists. But Diehn, who will present her finished work to the Washington, D.C., museum last September, had actually begun work on her project two years prior to winning the grant that would fund the effort.

Detail from Gwen Diehn’s Memoirs of Helene Kottanner

Diehn had long planned her wood-cut illustrations for Memoirs, but was without the accompanying text. The prose she wanted to use was housed in the archives of the National Museum of Austria, so the artist journeyed to Vienna, delving into ancient history (the 15th century, to be exact) as well as a more recent past. Austria was also the home of Diehn’s friend (and former neighbor) Hildegard Stalzer, who, back in 1990, received a grant to translate a medieval manuscript from the Middle High German dialect.

That narrative, it turned out, contained the spirited correspondence between Queen Elisabeth of Hungary and Helene Kottanner, her lady-in-waiting. Elisabeth and Kottanner described friendship and adventures daring enough to capture Diehn’s imagination some 600 years later. Most notably, Kottanner stole the Holy Crown of St. Stephen for the questionably legitimate coronation of Elisabeth’s infant son, King Ladislaus the Posthumous.

So, when Stalzer (a scholar, but not an artist) decided that the story was too interesting for a scholarly paper, Diehn was happy to translate her friend’s literary passion into a visual masterpiece.

Memoirs is Kottanner’s story, but it’s no paperback novel. Intricately detailed, even the announcement for the book features the simple red line with a dot above, the only decoration embellishing the original manuscript. Then there are the illustrations in the form of prints. When Diehn began to carve wood blocks to create those prints, she worked obsessively, carving three or four each day. From the first 60 copies of the book, a friend helped Diehn select the perfect copy to submit to the museum, and it was that print which won her the grant.

Drawing on Eastern-European tradition (and broadening the scope of the book), Diehn added Hungarian proverbs gleaned from János Baranyai Decsi Csimor’s Adagia, as translated by Gyula Paczolay. Sensitive to the history of the story and to her commitment to women in the arts, Diehn used paper from a mill in Italy that has been in operation since 1404; paper for the book covers comes from a woman-owned mill in Brookstone, Ind. The text was printed locally at Blue Barnhouse letterpress, and the illustrations were done at Asheville BookWorks, where Diehn rented time for the hand-printing process. Editions, bound with the help of friends, family and students, are the final step in a process that began centuries ago.

The Memiors of Helene Kottanner can be viewed by appointment. Info: 771-3034.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville painter and writer.]

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